Shirley is the first Charlotte Bronte novel to grace "Literature by Women" at BNBC (we read Emily's Wuthering Heights in 2007 and Anne's Agnes Grey in 2008, but no Charlotte until now). I'm a huge Jane Eyre fan (it's a "desert island" book) and I am interested in reading some of Charlotte's other novels so Shirley was an excellent choice (although I can't remember who nominated it for the group); I'm halfway through Villette, too.
Shirley is set during the Napoleonic wars, where an embargo on trade with the continent has hurt the textile manufacturers of England. Mill owners are already unable to pay workers and some, like Robert Moore, have decided to mechanize mill operations bringing them into conflict with poor laborers (and Luddites). The focus of the novel is on the relationship between Moore, his (unmarried) cousin Caroline Helstone, and Moore's wealthy (unmarried) landlord Shirley Keeldar.
You can see where this is going. The narrator/Charlotte does come right out at the beginning of Shirley and states that this book is not a romance novel (understandable, given the runaway success of Jane Eyre). The narration even starts by following three curates as they greedily partake of supper and then are herded out onto the moors to Moore's mill where there is trouble brewing over the delivery of new machinery. The next day we are introduced to Caroline as she comes for her French lesson with Moore's sister, Hortense. Then Caroline is forbidden to visit the Moore's when her uncle/guardian disagrees with Moore's politics. Moore pursues prosecution of those who damaged his equipment and Caroline sinks into a depression.
All that action takes the first ten chapters, so where is Shirley Keeldar? Well, Shirley appears at that point as the wealthy, young, unmarried, female owner of Fieldhead and Moore's landlord. Caroline and Shirley become friends and even, at one point, learn of a plot to attack Moore's mill and attempt to warn him (they instead wind up hiding in the bushes because they are too late, but Moore defeats the attackers anyway). So the love triangle is set - the community assumes Moore and Shirley will marry (he needs an heiress to sustain his business and they seem to get along) but we're not sure if Shirley really loves him while Caroline is pretty much dying because she loves Moore.
So much for the "this is not a romance novel" thing. The marriage plot is very central to Shirley - without it we would be treated to long descriptions of curates and their bad habits and descriptions of the hardships endured by those in the textile industry, both employers and employees. However, this novel has a very different feel from Jane Eyre. The omniscient narrator of Shirley distances us from the characters whereas the first person narration of Jane Eyre gets us up-close to Jane's thoughts and feelings without any sort of filter between her and the reader. I feel more for Jane than I do for Shirley or Caroline. I can empathise with Shirley - a rich, independent woman who is tired of all the speculation about her accepting an "appropriate" marriage proposal - and Caroline - rather poor and completely beholden to her uncle for her daily sustenance - but I don't really feel invested in their characters they way I do for Jane.
The narration in Shirley isn't quite as tight as Jane Eyre, either. The narrator in Shirley wanders off down odd paths that interrupt the main action - I didn't need to know all about young Martin Yorke's thoughts on women, etc. interesting as those were. Charlotte Bronte does not ascribe to the authors' maxim "Murder your darlings" and the novel does bog down in places because of all the narrator's wanderings. I was surprised at the wandering narration - I expect it more in a serialized novel because of the need to "fill" pages for each installment.
On the whole, though, Shirley is an excellent novel to read because it captures the unrest felt during the transition into mechanised labor during the nineteenth-century. Charlotte Bronte also has a very shrewd eye, far more than shown in Jane Eyre, and she applies it ruthlessly to the characters who populate her novel. Shirley was an interesting book to read and I recommend it for those reading widely in Victorian literature.