In May Sinclair’s introduction to Shirley, she likens reading the novel to “going through a country from which the light has gone” (Sinclair, vii). In an introduction written forty-five years later, Phyllis Bentley describes the novel as “a robust, racy, daylight story” (Bentley, 11). How can one author see the light of day in a novel in which another claims to see only night? This question is best addressed by examining the introduction by Sinclair and by occasionally referring to that of Bentley.
Sinclair attempts to portray Shirley as a novel which reflects a time of intense emotional anguish for its author. Throughout her discussion of the text, Sinclair refers to the suffering and struggle that must have been involved in the creation of a work written during the demise of much of Charlotte Brontë’s family. The argument the introduction presents rests solely on the emotional state of Brontë when she composed the novel. In addition to family tragedy, Sinclair contends that the negative criticism Brontë received after the publication of Jane Eyre strongly affected the course and style of the following novel—Shirley.
It seems that Sinclair does not allow for any distance between a work and its artist. Perhaps this sort of criticism and analysis was common to the time period, but it seems that a text deserves some autonomy from its author. Clearly, no author can totally divorce him or herself from the work at hand, but the tone of Sinclair’s introduction nearly implies that Shirley serves as a chronicle of Charlotte Brontë’s struggles, and a reflection of her successes and failures in overcoming them.
Despite her narrow view of the relationship between author and text, Sinclair’s assessment of the novel seems accurate. The robust and daylight story Bentley claims to see reflects an interpretation that strays too far from accurate criticism. She offers nothing but praise for a lovely Victorian novel. A “superb gallery of minor characters” (Bentley, 14) and the “heroic self-abnegation” (Bentley, 13) of Caroline moves Bentley’s introduction into the realm of advertising: she seems to want only to whet the readers’ appetite so they will not be discouraged from devouring the daunting meal that lays before them.
Sinclair offers a more reliable introduction to the text—one more accurate in its depiction of what awaits the reader. Until the entrance of Shirley, the novel’s tone seems dark, and even then, the tone remains overcast, at its brightest. This tone, however, enhances the deep subject matter that Brontë attempts to explore in the work: life was dark for workers who were replaced by machinery, and most of all, life was dark for single women who tried to move beyond their prescribed boundaries. It may have been that the subject matter was too vast to be successfully explored in one text, but not because Charlotte Brontë’s genius was “essentially feminine” (Sinclair, x), but rather because the whole of these problems would be impossible to convey by any author in any one text—even a history book. Shirley affords glimpses into the strife of a time in history; the work “remains a collection of glorious, palpitating fragments” (Sinclair, xii).