Controversial Opinion Time: Jane Eyre vs. Shirley

1849 was a good year, wasn’t it?

I wish I knew.

I’ll never be able to accept the fact that we haven’t invented time machines yet and I can’t go back to the 19th century and live out my Victorian heroine dreams. But fine, whatever. *sigh*

Controversial Opinion Time

When I first read Jane Eyre in grade 12, I knew Charlotte Brontë was going to be a powerful influence in my life. I clutched onto that worn copy of the novel from my school’s library like it was my own personal lifeline. I re-read the novel that Christmas break, then that summer, and I started to sew its threads into every facet of my identity. Third year university Victorian Literature class? On my syllabus. Trip to Haworth to kneel on the hallowed ground where Miss Charlotte walked? Booked. Tattoo of Charlotte’s pen-name Currer Bell on my forearm? *ouch* Yup.

I, of course, in this time devoured every single piece of literature written by Charlotte Brontë. This includes her plucky and adorable juvenilia. 

But, when I read Shirley, Charlotte’s second published novel, something in my heart stirred.

Who was this feisty female character and where had she been all my life?

Fast forward many years (I won’t admit how many!), and I decided to re-read Shirley this past Christmas. And that was when it dawned on me: Holy ****, Shirley is in fact my favourite Charlotte Brontë novel. *gasp* With all do respect to the legend that is Jane Eyre, there is so much more feeling in Shirley, and the titular character is so much more confident, poised and self-assured than innocent and inexperienced Jane. I read about Shirley Keeldar and feel like I am looking into a mirror. But I also recognize all the ways she is stronger and braver than me and I realize I want to be her when I “grow up”.

It feels like a bit of a betrayal to abandon Jane in this way, but she will always be my first best friend. Maybe as we grow and mature, different texts speak to us for whatever reason, and that sort of growth should certainly be celebrated.

If anyone asks me if they should pick up a book by Charlotte Brontë, I always ALWAYS say Yes. Now, though, I think I might just have to say, “Grab a copy of Shirley first!”


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