The Victory of the Feminine in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

Charlotte Brontë’s second novel, Shirley, has not had the lasting fame of her first, yet at the time of its publishing and for years to follow, it was so popular that it changed the common meaning of the title character’s name. Chosen by Brontë specifically for its masculine connotations, “Shirley” became the name of choice for many daughters, transforming the cultural perception of the name itself. It’s a fitting legacy for the novel, as one of its major themes is the ultimate victory of feminine peace and domesticity over masculine war and violence. Understanding the celestial archetypes of Mars, Venus, and the moon will illuminate how Brontë wove this theme throughout the imagery and motifs of Shirley.

For centuries, men have believed that the movement of the heavens has influenced people and events on Earth. Each planet has its own associated qualities. In Shirley, those planetary qualities are given life in the characters of Shirley Keeldar and Robert Gérard Moore. Neither is the main character, however. The narrative of the novel centers around the travails of Caroline Helstone, who loves Robert and becomes best friends with Shirley. For Caroline and Robert to come together at the end, the influence of Venus in the novel must overcome that of Mars and the moon to bring about a happy ending.

Introduced as surrounded by flowers, Shirley is a Venereal archetype. Although she represents the ultimate feminine power, she has a masculine name and often playfully refers to herself as a man. This too embodies Venus, who represents the union of male and female. Venus is a laughing goddess, and Shirley is also playful and joyful at almost all times. Shirley’s role as Venus makes her essential to resolving the tensions in the novel between men and women, war and domesticity.

The Martial influence of the story centers around Robert Moore. As a representative of Mars, he is described as tall and straight, “like Saul in a war-council,” bringing to mind the warlike imagery of a spear. Robert is the most affected by the Napoleonic wars in the background, as they are ruining his business and creating hostility between him and his workers. His ally is Helstone, the warlike parson. Robert even summons soldiers to the village to defend his mill; they are first spotted by Shirley and Caroline as a “red speck” and “a line of red,” the color of Martial influence. Mars brings unfortunate events, and bad luck dogs Robert in his business affairs and personal relations.

The other opposing celestial influence in the book is that of the moon. The moon’s influence is often at work in the turning points of Shirley. It is by moonlight that Caroline sees Robert and Shirley together and loses her hopes for Robert. Like Mars, the Moon operates in opposition to the influence of Venus, as when a dog named “Phoebe” bites Shirley. Phoebe, whose name is associated with the moon goddesses Artemis and Selene, is thought to have rabies or mad dog disease, another aspect of lunar or “lunatic” influence. The threat posed to Shirley encapsulates the opposition of the moon to the powers of Venus. The madness of the moon also works in tandem with the violence of Mars, as in the case of Robert Moore’s attacker. Michael Hartley is described as “half-crazed” and “mad,” and he shoots Robert under a full moon, red with foreboding rather than its natural silver.

The opposition between Venus and Mars is further emphasized in that the two characters representing these opposing influences don’t end up together. The characters achieve a happy ending by Robert and Shirley marrying different people, not each other, despite everyone in town expecting it. At one point, Shirley complains that she is not “iron-souled” enough to be included in Robert’s plans for the defense of the mill. Iron is the metal of Mars; thus Shirley, as an avatar of Venus, cannot possibly be iron-souled, even if she plays at being Captain Keeldar. Earlier in the same chapter, she is animated by “music [that] played martial tunes,” and Helstone teases her for behaving as if she were marching into battle. Shirley, however, returns that “bloodshed is not [her] desire.” She only wishes for something to defend, “a faith, a land, or at least a lover.”

Ultimately Shirley rejects the masculine role, taking great offense at the implication that she courted Robert Moore instead of the other way around. She chooses the feminine position, that of a lady with her lord when she marries Louis Moore because he is the only man who can rule her. Louis, unlike his brother, is a scholar and not at all involved in the violence. All Shirley’s warlike tendencies are ultimately feminine, which is hinted at in the color of her eyes. These are gray like Athena’s, the goddess of war and wisdom. Mars has no real influence over Shirley.

Venus is traditionally connected with motherhood, which Brontë draws on in Shirley’s visions of an Eve who is “heaven-born” just as Venus was born from Uranus, the sky. Shirley’s fanciful musings about a Venereal Eve, the mother of all, inspires Caroline to dream of her birth-mother who will give her a home. In fact, it is Shirley through her connection with Mrs. Pryor who facilitates Caroline’s reunion with her mother. There are no Venereal influences present when Mrs. Pryor reveals herself. Instead, moonlight bathes the scene, and Mrs. Pryor speaks of Caroline’s similarity to her father in looks as “the sign of qualities that had entered my heart like iron, and pierced through my soul like a sword.” The presence of martial symbolism and moonlight returns to Mrs. Pryor’s past, when her loveless marriage was devoid of Venereal influence. Thanks to Shirley’s friendship with Caroline, Mrs. Pryor realizes that her daughter is free from the influence of Mars that overshadowed her marriage and comes forward to claim Caroline at last.

It is only when England is likewise free of the Martial grip of war that Robert and Caroline can be together. This victory is heralded by Caroline looking at the planet Venus, alone in her garden, moments before Robert approaches her to ask her to marry him. Just as in Shirley’s introduction, the entrance of Venus is graced by the presence of flowers.

The significance of Venus explains why Brontë chose the title “Shirley.” Caroline would seem a more likely title character than Shirley, as her conflict bookends the narrative. Brontë’s choice points to the indispensability of Shirley, as the avatar of Venus, to achieving her happy ending. In the novel’s final lines, Brontë invites the reader to discover the moral for himself. The tension between Mars and Venus offers one possible answer: “Make love, not war.”

Author: Stephanie Helmick

Stephanie Helmick studied Economics, History, and Mathematics at George Mason University. She began her academic career investigating libertarianism, proceeded to church history, dallied in Shakespearean literature, and currently revels in graphic novels and all things Disney.

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