Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Lee Behlman

Committee Member

Johnny Lorenz

Committee Member

Laura Nicosia


This study endeavors to explore how the novelist Charlotte Brontë preferred inner religious experience to institutional religious conformity in her own life and how she promoted her own unique spiritual style in her novel Shirley (1849). Bronte was brought up in a religious home in an era obsessed with religion. Christianity seemed to have a stranglehold over small and large societal matters in Yorkshire, England where Shirley is set, but yet something within the spiritual community was lacking. The Luddite revolutions occurring in Yorkshire are a backdrop to the interior revolutions taking place in the minds of the characters Caroline and Shirley. Throughout Shirley, clergymen are satirized. Rectors are nostalgically condescended to. Women are excluded from attending university or holding positions within the Anglican Church. Two women characters stand up to this exclusion, albeit in strikingly different ways. Caroline with her quiet, but critical gaze, reveals the author's simmering disdain for unworthy men-of-the-cloth while Shirley becomes the equivalent of a modern day 501(c)3 founder and CEO. Brontë explicitly calls for reform within the Church. The messages of Shirley as to women are too important to overlook or forget. I conclude, as Brontë does in the text, with a "winding-up" of the characters' enduring impressions and legacies. The text of Shirley leaves many issues open and unresolved, particularly as to women and their influence within religious institutions. The denouement lacks emotion and Victorian earnestness. Nonetheless, the dialogue within Shirley is exceedingly relevant to contemporary readers who are still eager to explore the rights and roles women are afforded or denied in Christian religious organizations and society as a whole.

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