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The novel is set in Yorkshire during the industrial depression. The major themes are the explicit historical theme of industrial unrest in early nineteenth century Britain; and the implicit theme of the role of women in society.
Shirley is a landowner, an independent heiress whose parents are dead and who lives with Mrs. Pryor, an old governess. Shirley is lively, cheerful and full of ideas about how to use her money, how to help people and very interested in business concerns.