Shirley Keeldar

“Mr. Sweeting was bantered about his stature – he was a little man, a mere boy in height and breadth compared with the athletic Malone; rallied on his musical accomplishments – he played the flute and sang hymns like a seraph, some young ladies of his parish thought; sneered at as ‘the ladies pet; teased about his mamma and sisters, for whom poor Mr. Sweeting had some lingering regard.”

‘SHIRLEY’ by Charlotte Bronte

Victorian novels are awash with clerics of all ranks and persuasions reflecting their prominent and important role in the society of the time. Charlotte Bronte’s second novel “Shirley”, published in 1849 has at least four of them - Mr. Helstone, the rector of Briarfield and his three curates, Mr. Donne, Mr. Malone, and Mr. Sweeting. Apparently they spent their time debating “minute points of ecclesiastical discipline, frivolities which seem as empty as bubbles to all save themselves”… which sounds like fun.

Bronte sisters

Of the three curates Mr. Sweeting is certainly the most likeable. Donne was troublesome, snobbish and exasperating, Malone, the athlete, was, according to Bronte, “besottedly arrogant” while Sweeting, the ‘boy curate of Nunnely’, was rather silly with a fondness for young women - who in return were impressed by his fine singing and flute playing. He was a mother’s boy and like many small men was attracted to large women. In the book he eventually marries “the most splendid and weightiest woman in Yorkshire” - the former Dora Sykes.

The character of short, silly and songful Sweeting was inspired by a man from Richmond, the Rev. James Chesterton Bradley who died almost exactly 100 years ago - on 27th November 1913 at the great age of 96…

JC Bradley

“A resident for the past ten years in Cardigan Road, Richmond, Charlotte Bronte found the prototype of one of the three curates who figure so extensively in this interesting tale… James Chesterton Bradley, at the age of 96, had long survived all the individuals from whom the Brontes constructed their characters. And now, in the ripeness of the years and after gently going down the hill to the setting sun, Mr Bradley has passed away, and with him the last link with the Brontes is snapped.”

– RICHMOND AND TWICKENHAM TIMES - Saturday, 6 December 1913

After his funeral his widow, Mrs Bradley, said, “Miss Bronte made my husband out to be a rather silly little man with his flute always in his pocket. Actually he was very musical and carried his flute about with him.” She also admitted, with a twinkle in her eye, that her husband “always had a hankering towards the fair sex.”, although she insisted that his literary marriage to the fulsome Dora Sykes from Yorkshire was pure fiction.

Haworth Parsonage

Rev. Bradley first met the Bronte family in1845 when he was Vicar of Oakworth in Yorkshire not far from Haworth where Charlotte’s father Patrick was the incumbent…

Charlotte Bronte

“Mr Bronte was a man who was very nice at times,” Rev. Bradley had once commented, “but at others his brusqueness was such that people were afraid to speak to him. Charlotte was always the most shy and unassuming of the three daughters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte ) but under that shyness she apparently hid a keenly observant character.”

After 40 years as the Rector of Sutton-under-Brailes in Warwickshire, in 1900 Rev. Bradley retired to Richmond where he was often seen exercising in Terrace Gardens, a short, silver haired gentlemen unrecognised by other visitors By one of those strange chronological coincidences that occasionally surprise us, the day after he was buried in Richmond Cemetery - in a coffin of hand polished elm - a lecture about Charlotte Bronte was given in Kew Road Schoolroom by Mrs Skelton with illustrative readings from Misses Newton and Smeeton. I wonder if they knew about the boy curate of Nunnely who lived and died just up the road?

There is little interest in “Shirley” today but in the early part of the 20th century it was a firm favourite with young aspiring women, including Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain and Barbara Pym. The book’s appeal lay in its independently minded heroine, Shirley Keeldar, described by Bronte as “the first blue stocking” and her determination to make her own way in the world.

Shirley Crabtree Jr.

The novel’s popularity resulted in ‘Shirley’ becoming a woman’s name. Before its publication Shirley was a man’s name. In the novel the title character, Shirley Keeldar, is given the name that her father had intended to give a son. There are very few male “Shirleys” around now. Probably the most famous was Shirley Crabtree Jnr - a.k.a Big Daddy, the wrestler. Today Shirley is regarded as a female name.

– from Martyn Day