Tales from the Hidden Grove

Tales from the Hidden Grove
"Amongst the finest short story writers in the UK right now" ~ Black Pear Press

Friday, 5 July 2013

Captain Keeldar and Gentleman Jack


I've just finished reading Shirley by Charlotte Bronte.  Actually, I've read it a couple of times before, but barely remembered it (apart from the curates and the Luddites).  The main reason I read it this time was to try and decide if there was any connection between the title character, Shirley Keeldar, and Anne Lister of Shibden Hall.  I thought it was possible.  West Yorkshire (the West Riding in Anne Lister and the Brontes' day) isn't that big, and the lifetimes of the two women overlapped.  As Anne Lister was a landowner, she would have been a well-known character to people living in the West Riding in the early 19th century.  Did Charlotte Bronte know her, and did she have any influence on the creation of Shirley?  The question interests me because Shibden Hall has been a favourite place for me since early childhood.  The Bronte sisters are also local characters (born in the village just across the fields from mine), and I feel I have a lot in common with them.

For readers who may not know, Anne Lister was landowner at Shibden Hall, Halifax (pictured above, in mirrored form) from 1826-1840. She made many improvements to Shibden Hall and Park, owned a colliery, climbed the Pyrenees, and was known to some locals as "Gentleman Jack", due to her masculine appearance and activities.

Shirley Keeldar is also a landowner, an heiress to her family home of Fieldhead.  According to Brian Wilks (The Illustrated Brontes of Haworth), Fieldhead is based on Oakwell Hall in Birstall, but it could just as easily be Shibden Hall, with its Great Hall, oak staircase, and panelled  rooms.  Shirley also engages in masculine activities, such as her involvement in Hollows Mill.  She is bold and straight-talking.  She keeps a scary dog (as did Charlotte's sister, Emily.)  She speaks out for her right to be equal with men. And she sometimes refers to herself as "Captain Keeldar", especially when with male friends.

Of course, there are differences.  Shirley dresses in bright colours; Anne dressed in black.  Shirley is pretty and has a childlike air, despite her business brain and tigerish aspect; Anne (in the picture always displayed in Shibden Park) looks masculine and a bit scary.  And Anne is best-known (outside West Yorkshire) for being a lesbian.  Her famous diaries contain details of her love affairs with women.  And she was married (in their eyes) to Ann Walker from 1834.  Shirley, although she develops a very close, sisterly relationship with Caroline Helstone, loves and marries a man - the only man she will allow to tame her - Louis Moore.

Did Charlotte Bronte know about Anne Lister?  Anne was dead by the time Shirley came out in 1849, but the story actually looks back on a previous era in the history of the West Riding, and draws on some of Charlotte's father's experiences.  According to Calderdale Museums, "There are similarities between Shirley and Anne but no known connection.  It's likely the Brontes knew of Anne, though."  Lots of people are interested in Anne today because of her lesbianism, but Charlotte Bronte would not have written about that side of her life, even if she knew about it.  (Charlotte was well-known in her community as the Vicar's daughter - you can imagine the scandal! - and it wouldn't have passed censorship anyway).  I'm not even sure she would want to know about it.  However, I think she would be very interested in a woman who was able to hold her own in a man's world.  This, in many ways, is what Shirley is all about, and Charlotte uses the novel to talk at length about her views on women's education and occupations.  I wonder if she (or her parents) ever met Anne Lister?   A meeting between a young Charlotte in her school days and the eccentric heiress of Shibden Hall would be the stuff of legend.  Anyone feel a short story coming on...?