Shirley is an 1849 social novel by the English novelist Charlotte Brontë. It was Brontë's second published novel after Jane Eyre. 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 towards his employees - more than any other mill owner in town. He has laid off many of them, apparently indifferent to their consequent impoverishment. In fact he had no choice, since the mill is deeply 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 return the mill to profitability. He is determined to restore his family's honour and fortune.
As the novel opens, Robert awaits delivery of new labour-saving machinery for the mill which will enable him to lay off additional employees. Together with some friends he watches all night, but the machinery is destroyed on the way to the mill by angry millworkers. Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to continuing labour 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 be taught French by his sister, Hortense. Caroline worships Robert and he likes her. 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 so to keep himself from falling in love with her, Robert keeps his distance since he cannot afford to marry for pleasure or for love. He has to marry for money if he is to restore his mill to profitability.