The novel Shirley by Charlotte Bronte is at its heart a tale of two women, Shirley and Caroline. Poor Caroline! Abandoned by her mother and trapped by life's circumstances, she seems destined for spinsterhood. In the chapter titled "Old Maids," Caroline laments her fate.
"Till lately I had reckoned securely on the duties and affections of wife and mother to occupy my existence. I considered, somehow, as a matter of course, that I was growing up to the ordinary destiny, and never troubled myself to seek any other; but now, I perceive plainly, I may have been mistaken. Probably I shall be an old maid."
Caroline's need for a husband and children as a reason to exist was a common one. Shirley, on the other hand, is a single, wealthy landowner, something few women could claim. Shirley doesn't need to question her purpose in the world, as Caroline does. Caroline answers her own question with the idea that an old maid's "place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted."
In calling the novel Shirley, Bronte strikes back against the "ordinary destiny" of women of her time. Shirley represents independence. Yet we see Caroline, happily secured to Robert and her "ordinary destiny" fulfilled, at the end of the novel. Some may see this as defeating the idea of the "new woman" but I think Bronte leaves smart commentary here.
As Caroline and Robert are dreaming of their future, Robert declares "I will do good; you shall tell me how." He continues with "I have seen the necessity of doing good: I have learned the downright folly of being selfish." Bronte is offering the reader hope that not only can women change and be seen in a new light, but so can men. No longer do they have to meet society's expectations of men laid out in the "Old Maids chapter - "All men, taken singly, are more or less selfish; and taken in bodies they are intensely so." Caroline is just as much a new woman as a more equal partner whose guidance is sought and respected.