This paper situates Charlotte Brontë's Shirley (1849) within an extensive 1840s debate, arising from the Chartist agitations and European revolutions; a debate on political leadership and the qualities required for national heroism. In particular, it argues that Brontë is responding directly to Thomas Carlyle's influential lecture series published as On Heroes and Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). But while Brontë is attracted to Carlyle's association of the hero with a fearless love of truth and a hatred of cant, she distances herself from his persistent linkage of heroism with the power to subdue and vanquish. Brontë's class, gender, and regional affiliations produce a deeply ambivalent figuring of the hero in Shirley. While the narrative fully recognizes the charismatic fascination of heroes, it also explores the cost of hero-worship for women, suggesting that the desire for great men is anti-democratic and part of a regressive narcissism at both national and individual levels. Yet, although heroism is regarded skeptically in the novel, Shirley can be read as expressing Brontë's claim to leadership as a woman of letters; a type of hero that Carlyle associates with modern democratic nations.
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