In this paper I propose the transvestite actress Madame Vestris as an interpretive doppelgänger for the title character in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley. Vestris crossed gender lines not only in her cross-dressed performances on the Victorian stage but also in her incursion into the male-dominated realm of theater ownership. In this way she is like Shirley Keeldar, the fiercely independent female factory owner whom Brontë consistently depicts in masculine terms. Most critics read Shirley as a narrative and thematic fiasco because the protofeminist momentum that the novel accumulates from Brontë's portrayal of an independent, headstrong female character is brought to a halt when Shirley subjugates herself to a meek and weasly man. The ending of the novel has been almost unanimously dismissed as Brontë's submission to the very patriarchal culture that she set out to critique when she created the character of Shirley Keeldar. However, far from being the low point of Brontë's writing, the ending of the novel elevates the writing into a high satirical mode that only serves to intensify Brontë's criticism of society's treatment of women. Through reading Shirley by means of the narrative and gender disruptions that Vestris's performances staged, we can understand this curious narrative reversal at the end of the novel as a motivated strategy on the part of Brontë, not a lapse of craft.
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