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Shirley is an 1849 social novel by the English novelist Charlotte Brontë. It was Brontë's second published novel after Jane Eyre (originally published under Brontë's pseudonym Currer Bell). The novel is set in Yorkshire in the period 1811–12, during the industrial depression resulting from the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. The novel is set against a backdrop of the Luddite uprisings in the Yorkshire textile industry.
The novel's popularity led to Shirley's becoming a woman's name. The title character was given the name that her father had intended to give a son. Before the publication of the novel, Shirley was an uncommon - but distinctly male - name and would have been an unusual name for a woman. Today it is regarded as a distinctly female name and an uncommon male name.
Robert Moore is a mill owner noted for apparent ruthlessness toward his employees - more than any other mill owner in town. He has laid off many of them, apparently indifferent to their resulting poverty. But in fact he has no choice, since the mill is deep in debt. The mill was inefficiently run by his late father and is already mortgaged. His elder brother became a private tutor, leaving Robert to restore the mill to profitability. He is determined to restore his family's honour and fortune.
As the novel opens, Robert awaits delivery of new labor-saving machinery to the mill. The new machinery will let him lay off additional employees. Robert, with some friends, watches all night, but the machinery is destroyed on the way by angry millworkers. Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to the continuing labor unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets.
Robert is very close to Caroline Helstone, who comes to his house to learn French from his sister, Hortense. Caroline worships Robert and he likes her too. Caroline’s father is dead and her mother had abandoned her, leaving her to be brought up by her uncle, the local parson, Rev. Helstone. Caroline is penniless, and to keep himself from falling in love with her, Robert keeps his distance from her, since he cannot afford to marry for pleasure or love. He has to marry for money if he is to get his mill going again.
Caroline realizes that Robert is growing increasingly distant and withdraws into herself. Her uncle does not sympathise with her ‘fancies’, and she has no money of her own, so she cannot leave the place, which is what she longs to do. She suggests taking up the job of a governess but her uncle dismisses it and assures her that she need not work.
Caroline cheers up a great deal, however, when she meets Shirley...