Shallow Reading and Shirley

*the title of this post is a tribute to Vassiliki Veros’ Shallowreader’s Blog. Much as I love deep/close reading, I also admire her insistence that people should read whatever they want, however they want. This week I didn’t want to think much about my reading.

I blasted through Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, in a few days. I loved Wolf Hall, but the only contemporary Mantel novel I’ve read, Beyond Black, was too freaking weird for me. This has everything to do with my inveterate taste for literary realism, nothing to do with the novel’s quality. Even when I choose speculative fiction, I prefer a world built through the literary techniques and narrative strategies of realism.

But every once in a while I like to stretch myself, and I found that in short form, Mantel’s weirdness worked for me–or I was up to its challenge. Take the title story. The premise is far-fetched but nothing that couldn’t happen: a woman opens her door for the plumber, and finds instead that she’s admitted a would-be assassin who plans to take aim at the Prime Minister from her bedroom window. While they wait for Thatcher to present herself as a target, they chat and the narrator makes the killer cups of tea. And then suddenly there’s a passage where the story takes off (literally? figuratively? it’s not clear) into another dimension. The narrator shows her guest a door he might use to escape once his task is done (though he’s resigned to being killed by police) and then she imagines him stepping through it into somewhere else–preventing his crime.

There are all kinds of interesting ways to interpret this passage, but I . . . didn’t bother! I just let myself enjoy the stories for the atmosphere they created (this review rightly calls it “menacing”), the unsparing character sketches, and the wonderful turns of phrase (I’d quote some, but I had to return it to the library). If you summarized the plot of these stories, they’d sound like what I see people condemning as “boring, pointless literary fiction.” But I was never bored. Sometimes I think of books with lots of plot as “fun” books and books that emphasize characterization and/or the pleasures of language as “serious” books. But reading Mantel’s stories reminded me that that’s a false dichotomy. I’m sure you can have deep thoughts about Mantel’s fiction (just as you can about genre fiction), but you can also read it just for fun. After this week I’ll be more likely to pick up a “literary” book even when I don’t feel up for a challenge, because they don’t always have to be (read as) challenging. Plus I’m pretty sure there were vampires in one story, if you read just deep enough.

I did start A Bollywood Affair, but I’m finding it slow to get into. I think it’s because Samir is pretty trope-y so far, and I’m not really in the mood for that kind of characterization. But I like Mili, and I think the book will hook me soon. I’m also reading Lesley Thomson’s The Detective’s Daughter. The low-star reviews on Goodreads complain this mystery is too slow and meandering, but I’m enjoying that, and Stella, the title character, is really interesting: in her mid-40s, rather isolated, likes her life orderly (she runs a cleaning service). I can see why she can’t leave a loose end from her dad’s life hanging–her father dies and she solves one of his cold cases. I’m also finding it really creepy.

Some Thoughts on Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley So Far

For those who are listening along (Miss Bates has some comments here), or have read it before, or are just curious.

  • Anna Bentinck is a very good narrator. I don’t love her quite as much as Juliet Stephenson, whose voice is richer, with more depth, but Bentinck gives each character his/her own tone, accent, and style of speaking. Shirley usually sounds a bit as if she’s about to laugh.
  • I forgot Bronte could be funny. There’s a lot of satire in Shirley.
  • I forgot how long it takes for Shirley to show up! Almost a third of the way through the novel. Why is she the title character, then? I think it’s because she challenges conventions. A lot of characters in the novel are at a low point and stuck there when Shirley arrives; she makes things happen (one of the few things I remember from my long-ago read is how much agency she has). Her status as an heiress gives her power, and she’s interested in using it.
  • The friendship between Caroline and Shirley is the most interesting element to me (so far–I’m about halfway). They are very different characters, but with “minds in harmony.” Their friendship includes some envy and rivalry (maybe) over Robert Moore. It seems like a very real female friendship in its closeness and tensions. Sisterhood is powerful but also a pain in the ass sometimes.
  • A lot of the time the dialogue makes me think Come on, CB, no one ever talked like this! Here Shirley imagines seeing a mermaid:

I see a preternatural lure in its wily glance: it beckons. Were we men, we should spring at the sign, the cold billow would be dared for the sake of the colder enchantress; being women, we stand safe, though not dreadless. She comprehends our unmoved gaze; she feels herself powerless; anger crosses her front; she cannot charm, but she will appal us: she rises high, and glides all revealed, on the dark wave-ridge. Temptress-terror! Monstrous likeness of ourselves!

  • Riiiiight. That sounds like the way I talked to my friends in my college years (the age Shirley and Caroline are). And yet, unnatural and high-flown as the dialogue can be, it does remind me of dorm-room conversations. Here are two young women who want to learn, to understand the world, to do good, to make a place for themselves. There’s something very real behind all the bombast. Even in the mermaid passage, there’s the question of what kind of power women have over men, and whether it’s a good kind. Shirley and Caroline talk about poetry and ethics and the guys in the neighborhood. They discuss whether you could actually love the poet Cowper, or Rousseau; they discuss whether men are their superiors (not, Shirley thinks, any man she’s actually met, but she’d like to love a man she can look up to); they long for careers, for something real to do (especially Caroline, who is poor, powerless, unhappy in love, and certain she’ll be an old maid).
  • The way the novel examines gender and power is so interesting. Caroline is explicitly dismissive of the importance of sexual power/desirability, at least for old maids: why scorn them for being unlovely, when loveliness in them would serve no purpose? I remembered that Shirley’s name was, at the time, masculine, but I’d forgotten the way she’s described as “like a little cavalier,” and how she calls herself Captain Keeldar sometimes.
  • I can’t help comparing this novel to Gaskell’s North and South, both because of some similarities in subject matter (the relationship between rich and poor, the changes wrought by industrialization) and because of the connection between the two novelists. This is a much messier novel. Gaskell neatly runs the theme of “North and South meeting and making a kind of friends” through every plot thread in her novel, including the romance. Her characters are fully realized, but she also deploys them in almost allegorical ways. Shirley seems far less purposeful. Sometimes it’s as if Bronte is just following her characters wherever they decide to take her, and Shirley is pretty whimsical about where the novel is going. I think that might be deliberate and artful, though, the messiness of the form. I haven’t decided yet–it needs getting to the end. It’s certainly less obviously patterned than North and South, perhaps less conventional (that’s not a knock on Gaskell’s novel, which I love and know much better than this one).
  • I am so glad I decided to listen to some Victorian novels. I’ve missed them. I have a few more in my Audible stash, but I might–gasp–actually make time to read some dead tree versions soon too. I have a hankering to revisit Our Mutual Friend. . . .
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8 Responses to Shallow Reading and Shirley

  1. sonomalass says:

    I started reading Shirley, but at the same time I was reading Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish. Church Dude Overload. And now I’m stuck in TL&TC, because it feels like it’s about to get really awkward, and I pulled back out of self-preservation.

    I’m going to check out the Thomson. I’m finding mystery easier to read than romance right now.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I can see how those two would be too much together! (although it’s the third in Gaffney’s trilogy that’s thematically most like Bronte). I know people love Christy, but I mostly did not.

      The Thomson is good but it’s almost too creepy for me, so it depends on your tolerance for that kind of thing. It’s not gory, but there’s maybe someone stalking Stella (is there someone in the empty house with her or was she imagining things? and is it a threatening killer or someone else? and gah! I wouldn’t want to be reading it alone in the house late at night. Actually, in the uncertainty about whether weird happenings are all in the imagination or real, whether we’re being told the truth or what the character perceives, it’s kind of like Mantel).

  2. Sunita says:

    I started listening to Shirley and I agree the narration is very good, but I became impatient because I wanted to move through the words more quickly. I am not proud of this. I downloaded a Gutenberg version from and I picked up a hard copy from the library, though, so I hope to catch up soon. And maybe once I’m used to the rhythm and flow I’ll go back to the narration for a while. Even the couple of chapters I read, though, show a dry humor I was not expecting.

    I’ve been reading William Gibson’s Spook Country, the second in his Bigend trilogy, to catch up so that I can read his new release. Spook Country was published in 2007 but feels as if it’s talking about today, and it doesn’t feel like SFF but regular all-too-realistic fiction. It makes me think that the dystopia is now, not in the future. Which on the one hand is really depressing, but on the other having it said by someone so insightful makes me feel less alone.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve learned to appreciate the slower pace that listening imposes. But it also means there are certain types of books I generally do not try in audio–thrillers, for instance. The kind of book where you have to stay up late because you can’t sleep until those last 50 or 100 pages are read and the suspense is killing you . . . those are painful in audio because you can’t go faster! (I know people listen speeded up but I cannot do that).

      19th century novels have worked quite well for me because their pace is often rather stately by modern standards (it really makes me wonder how much film has influenced fiction) and their language is so often worth savoring.

      Also–finally got to the riot (I KNEW there was one!) and I can’t wait to discuss it with you. It’s a really interesting one to compare with the North and South riot scene, for all kinds of reasons. (I think Gaskell read Shirley before she wrote N&S but I’m not sure–I wonder if I have a book I can check that in….).

  3. merriank says:

    Your description of Shirley’s messiness and the story following the characters and even the oddness of the language immediately reminded me of the chapter by chapter by thousands of words fanfic mega-novels. They share a style it seems to me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s interesting–I think there are similarities in some ways, including the fact that many Victorian novels were serially published (and even those that weren’t might show the effects of that form). A lot of them were plotted out ahead, but not always all the way, or the writers could change their minds, and sometimes even be influenced by audiences.

      I think for sure fanfiction often shows that people’s taste for big, meandering stories never entirely went away (soap opera shows it too).

      I am not sure that Shirley won’t feel more purposeful, in terms of its structure, when I get to the end. But I don’t mind if it doesn’t!

  4. Oh thank you! I’m pleased that I have inspired at least one person 😀 Your shallowreading of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher makes the book sound so appealing. To date, I have not been tempted to read any of her books. This one is now on my TBR.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The great thing about short stories is that you can just sample one or two and not read the whole book, and it can still be a satisfying reading experience. I did read the whole thing, but I thought about skipping some.

      I liked the first one, the last (title one) and “The Heart Fails Without Warning” the best, I think. But none were duds.

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