Ailing Women in the Age of Cholera: Illness in Shirley

  • Beth Torgerson


Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Shirley, is a novel of displacements. Even the novel’s title is an indication of the novel’s penchant for displacement since the title character, Shirley Keeldar, does not appear until the end of Volume I, long after readers’ sympathies are attached to Caroline Helstone. Within the text, the displacements happen on three levels, two of which have already been explored by scholars. Terry Eagleton explores the first level of displacement in Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, showing how Brontë displaces the contemporary events of the 1848 Chartist Rebellion onto the earlier Luddite Rebellion of 1811–1812. Eagleton contends, “there can be no doubt that Chartism is the unspoken subject of Shirley” (45). In the second level of displacement, Shirley’s overt concern with class conflict hides Brontë’s primary concern with gender issues. Feminist critics, such as Susan Gubar and Juliet Barker, have explored how Shirley’s class issues cover for Brontë’s protest against conditions for women. Gubar notes, “this book about the ‘woman question’ uses the workers’ wrath to enact the women’s revenge against the lives of enforced emptiness, of starvation” (233). Barker agrees that “the whole story [Shirley] was an exploration of the ‘Woman Question’” in light of Brontë’s omission of the “question of the rights and sufferings of mill workers” (603).


Female Character Social Reform Class Conflict Class Issue Contemporary Reader 
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© Beth E. Torgerson 2005

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  • Beth Torgerson

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