Gender and Generic Mixing in Charlotte Bronte's Shirley

Article excerpt

In examinations of Charlotte Bronte's novels as a sequence, Shirley is commonly noted as a "detour," "the odd one out," to quote Inga-Stina Ewbank. (1) The reason for this status is, of course, Bronte's departure from the use of a protagonist-narrator in favor of a third-person narrator for Shirley and her subsequent "return" in Villette. The view tends to be of an error in artistic judgment and a consequent correction, which seems to have rendered further analysis of the detour itself, that is, of its actual achievement, uninteresting. In asking questions about the nature of Bronte's experiment in narrative strategy in Shirley, this essay follows precepts suggested by Hans Robert Jauss in his seminal essay, "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory." (2) According to Jauss, an aesthetics of reception demands that the reader insert the work under consideration into a "literary series," since the author herself is reading the work she is writing as part of a series: "the next work can solve formal and moral problems left behind by the last work, and present new problems in turn." Such a series implies a dialogical and processlike relationship between work, audience/author, and new work. (3) For the present inquiry I propose to include Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) as an additional text in the literary series constituted by Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), and Villette (1853). Our question initially, then, is as follows: can an examination of the third-person narrator in Shirley give us any clues to, firstly, what formal and moral problems in Jane Eyre "led to" (the word used here provisionally and with caution) the use of this technique and, secondly, what formal and moral problems in Shirley led to its rejection for Villette? (4)

In trying to answer these questions I follow Mikhail Bakhtin's analysis of the novel as typically not only exposing the conventionality of other, not yet "novelized" genres, but also parodying itself: "To a greater or lesser extent, every novel is a dialogized system made up of the images of 'languages,' styles and consciousnesses that are concrete and inseparable from language. Language in the novel not only represents, but itself serves as the object of representation. Novelistic discourse is always criticizing itself." (5) Judith Williams observes that after the focus on only one person in The Professor and Jane Eyre, Bronte turned in Shirley to the community and to experience in social and political terms, which are represented through a "disembodied" mystifying third-person narrator. (6) The following inquiry will further clarify the link between this subject matter and this narrative technique. In Shirley Bronte engages the following questions, left unasked by Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre journeys through the world, tests herself against it, and retires at Ferndean, a wise and happy wife; what would it mean for a woman to remain in the world? Jane as narrator defies public opinion--"Anybody may blame me who likes"; (7) what would it mean for a narrator to represent public opinion? Instead of a single, though changeable, even capricious omniscient narrator (as critics have maintained; for instance, Williams), (8) we have here in fact three distinct narrators, two of whom represent social and historical law respectively, whereas the third represents psychological law and is therefore closest to the narrative voice in Jane Eyre.

It has been a critical commonplace that Shirley suffers from disunity of narrative method: titles of critical works typically refer to disruption, disjunction, and fragmentation. Criticism since the 1970s has shifted the source of this failure from the author's person to her particular social milieu or the general patriarchal capitalist society. (9) This essay will suggest instead that we view the narrative perspective as a clear and effective composition of several novelistic subgenres which constitute shifts between different "horizons of expectations," (10) that is, prejudgments which Bronte's contemporary reader would have brought to the text. …