The story involves the lives of various people in Briarfield parish. Caroline Helstone is the 18-year-old niece of the Rev. Mr Helstone. She is unhappy because she is in love with her cousin Robert Moore, a manufacturer and he doesn't declare any feelings for her. She is also lonely because she feels ill at ease with most people in the neighbourhood. Her father is dead and her mother left her years ago. She tries to become happier by doing good works but it doesn't work. Her visits to her cousins Hortense and Robert are eventually forbidden by her Tory uncle, who disagrees with Robert Moore's Whig politics.
In the meantime, Robert Moore's trade is affected by The Napoleonic Wars. He can't afford to marry as he pleases and he is near bankruptcy. Some former workers demand the removal of machines but he can't afford it. He is counselled by Mr Yorke a fellow manufacturer to marry a rich woman. Fortunately, he is helped by loans from his landlord, Shirley Keeldar.
While Caroline is languishing away with grief, her uncle introduces her to Shirley Keeldar, an heiress who has recently returned to her family home in Briarfield. Both girls become friends as they have many things in common such as a love for poetry. However, rumours say that Shirley is in love with her tenant, Robert Moore, which upsets Caroline. Both girls decide to become involved in the parish charity projects under the management of Miss Ainley, an old maid. Caroline also becomes friends with Shirley's ex-governess and companion, Mrs Pryor, an intelligent woman.
One day when Mr Helstone is away, the Luddites attack the factories in the district and plan to attack the Rectory. They are deterred by the sound of the dog barking. Several workers die by the hand of the military who have been employed by Robert Moore to guard his mill. As the Tory Mr Helstone approves of Moore's cool actions, he is now reconciled to him. Mr Yorke, a Radical supporter, on the other hand if angry with Moore for going against the workers.
Shirley's relatives, the Sympsons, come to visit her for some time, causing her to put off her plan to have a holiday with Caroline. When Caroline is visiting Hortense, she meets her cousin Louis Moore for the first time, to discover that he is the tutor of Henry Sympson, Shirley's young cousin.
Caroline falls ill and nearly dies. She recovers when Mrs Pryor tells her that she is her long-lost mother. Mrs Pryor left her because she wanted to run away from her abusive husband, who held custody of their child. After her husband's death, she did not claim Caroline because she was too pretty and she thought prettiness meant evil.
The focus of the plot turns to Shirley. She meets Sir Philip Nunnely who wishes to marry her. We learn of Louis Moore's attraction to her. Robert Moore is still struggling with his debts so he proposes marriage to Shirley. She rejects him and refuses Sir Philip's proposal.
Louis confesses his feelings to Shirley, after an interval of teacher-student flirting, he proposes to her. The Sympsons are outraged and leave Shirley's house.
Another attack on Robert has left him badly wounded. He is nursed at the Yorkes' house, and Mrs Yorke refuses to let Caroline or Mrs Pryor, his relatives, visit him. This worries Caroline. She conspires with the help of Martin Yorke to let her in to see Robert. He eventually recovers.
With the victory of the Duke of Wellington and the Repeal, Robert Moore's business is saved. He finally asks Caroline to marry him and they are engaged. She and Robert, and Louis and Shirley get married.
This work contains the following tropes:
- The Aloner: Caroline for the early part of the novel. She doesn't feel comfortable with the other girls in the neighbourhood. She only relaxes when she meets Shirley, who is confident and charismatic.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: Caroline makes one of these unconsciously while on the verge of death.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Averted with Shirley, who loans her tenant money to keep running his mill. Strictly speaking Shirley isn't an aristocrat; she's a member of the gentry.
- Author Tract: Charlotte Brontë states there is no moral in the book. However, she intended to put in feminist themes, which are echoed by Caroline, who says that single women should be allowed to work.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted with Miss Ainley, an ugly spinster who is kind to the cottagers. Though poor, she helps them out and runs charity projects.
- Inverted in the ideas of Mrs. Pryor: her husband was handsome, and initially charming, and abused her, so for a long time afterwards she felt that beautiful people must be evil, and only plain, simple people could be trusted.
- Better as Friends: It's explicitly stated that no one considered Mr Hall and Caroline to be a couple, even though he prefers her to other woman of his acquaintance. Mr Hall isn't interested in her,being much older and having known her as a child, and Caroline is in love with Robert Moore.
- Contrived Coincidence: When Shirley returns to Briarfield, her ex-governess happens to be Caroline's long-lost mother. When the Sympsons come as well, their son's tutor happens to be Caroline's cousin.
- Church Militant: Mr Helstone defends Briarfield from the violent rioters.
- Democracy Is Bad: Mr Helstone embodies this trope. He genuinely thinks that the working classes are too violent. In this historical context, possibly justified.
- The Duke of Wellington: Arguably the real hero of the novel. While he doesn't appear as a character in the plot, his victory in battle enables Robert Moore to continue his business and marry Caroline. Caroline and Shirley also idolise the Duke of Wellington, Charlotte Bronte's childhood hero.
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Charlotte Brontë lapses into numerous French conversations, not to say descriptions, because it doesn't sound so right in English.
- Averted, when Caroline finds French authors boring and says there isn't two lines of poetry in Corneille and Racine, respected French dramatists. She prefers the works of William Cowper, the Romantic poet.
- Evil Luddite: The factory workers murder a manufacturer and try to attack Robert Moore's factory. They nearly attack Helstone's house but are stopped when the dog barks.
- Food Porn: Arguably present in Hollow's Cottage, where Belgian food is served and described; in the Yorkshire tea served by Caroline, in the food stolen by Martin from the kitchen while he plays sick. Also the scene where Malone eats Robert's mutton-chop.
- Gentleman and a Scholar: Sir Philip Nunnely. He writes (very bad) poetry and is an intelligent, good-natured gentleman.
- Gold Digger: A male version in Malone. He tries to impress Caroline because he thinks she'll inherit £ 5,000 from her uncle. He stops paying attention to her when Shirley enters the neighbourhood as Shirley is richer.
- Gothic Horror: The Italian by Ann Radcliffe is read by one of the characters, Rose Yorke. A tribute to the literature of the Romantic era presumably.
- He-Man Woman Hater: Martin Yorke hates women at first, saying Caroline is ugly. Later on, he develops a schoolboy crush on her.
- To a lesser extent, Mr Helstone despises women's intelligence though he enjoys talking to lively women. He's against marriage, though.
- Henpecked Husband: Mrs Yorke keeps her husband aloof from his other friends, and shuns most of society except for Hortense Moore.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Louis Moore and Mr Hall. Mr Hall says Louis is the best man he's met since Cambridge.
- Louis and Henry Sympson who adores him.
- Shirley and Caroline
- Hot for Teacher: Shirley is in love with her ex-tutor, Louis Moore.
- Inter-Class Romance: The wealthy heiress Shirley and the poor tutor Louis
- Inter Generational Friendship: Caroline and William Farren, a married father. They talk about plants and flowers and joke together.
- To some extent with Hortense Moore and Caroline. Hortense is 35, Caroline 18.
- Mrs Pryor and Shirley. The women Shirley likes are only Caroline and Mrs Pryor.
- Caroline and Mr Hall, who is 45 and a father figure to her. She seems to love him more than her own uncle.
- Henry Sympson(15) and Louis Moore(30). Henry follows his tutor on visits to the poor in the neighbourhood.
- Mr Yorke, a married man of 55 and Robert Moore, a young 30-year-old bachelor. Mr Yorke likes Robert's foreignness having travelled on the Continent in his youth.
- Kissing Cousins: Caroline and Robert are cousins and in love with each other. They marry in the end.
- Henry Sympson appears to have a schoolboy crush on his cousin Shirley, who is 6 years older than him.
- Little Professor Dialog: Rose Yorke, who goes into feminist polemic at the age of 12. She even tells Caroline, who is 18, that she ought to wander the world! Matthew Yorke, a teenager, defines sentimental as being of refined notions, in order to argue that it would be praising Robert Moore to be called sentimental.
- Long-Lost Relative: Mrs Pryor is Caroline's long-lost mother whom she left as a young child.
- Love Triangle: Caroline is in love with Robert, who can't afford to marry her and plans to marry Shirley, who unknown to them, is in love with Louis.
- Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Arguably Shirley and Louis. Shirley is aloof to him, tries to speak reasonably and seems to be all right living without him. Louis on the other hand waxes lyrical in his diary about her and his imaginations regarding orphan girls (yes, she symbolises Shirley).
- Men Are Uncultured: the complaint of the early 19th century critics who read the book. They thought the men were too coarse.
- Misanthrope Supreme: Robert Moore at first. He doesn't like his workmen and has little sympathy for them as he is in debt.
- Miss Mann embodies this trope. She has malicious gossip over everyone, although it's all true. She dislikes pretty young women.
- Mrs Yorke dislikes lively pretty young women and opposes marriage.
- Mr Helstone disapproves of marriage.
- Nature Lover: Caroline and Shirley, who walk in the woods. Louis Moore, who sits in the rain to sketch scenery.
- No Guy Wants to Be Chased: Shirley and Caroline think this. This is why Caroline refuses to show her feelings too much to Robert, and why Shirley is cold and distant to Louis.
- Old Maid: Miss Ainley and Miss Mann.
- Oop North: Takes place in Yorkshire. Mr Yorke speaks in Yorkshire dialect.
- Playing Sick: Martin Yorke pretends to be sick so he doesn't have to go to school and can help Caroline meet Robert in secret. One of the funnier scenes in the novel.
- Properly Paranoid: Mr Sympson. He thinks the reason Shirley won't marry any of her rich suitors is she wants to marry an unsuitable poor man. Even though the unsuitable man he suspects isn't the right man. She actually wants to marry Louis, who is a poor tutor.
- Mrs Pryor to some extent. She is against marriage due to her abusive husband and doesn't approve of Robert Moore. She has a point, because at one point Robert Moore was planning on discarding his hopes to marry Caroline to marry Shirley for money.
- Proud Merchant Race: The Moores, who were a respectable mercantile family in Belgium and well-educated.
- Mr Yorke, who is proud of being one of the oldest families in the district. Dislikes the aristocrats and proud of his Yorkshire roots. He owns a successful mill.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Caroline and Shirley. Caroline is shy, quiet and introverted and middle-class; she doesn't stand out and isn't popular. Shirley is confident, more vocal and wealthy; her beauty stands out and she is well-liked by the neighbourhood.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: After the deaths of her sisters, Charlotte Brontë's writing became more emotional, less realistic and distraught. This can be seen in the chapter "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" and afterwards.
- Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Or rather rich suitors and poor suitor. Sir Philip Nunnely, Sam Wynne and other rich gentlemen wish to marry Shirley, as do the poor tutor Louis Moore.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Caroline and Shirley have one conversation on this. Caroline prefers poetry written with feelings and sincerity and not to show learning and attainment. The Enlightenment poetry tended to show learning, rhetoric and wit. The Romantics preferred strong emotion.
- Shown Their Work: Charlotte Bronte. She ordered old copies of the newspaper from the archives to get a feel of the historical events.
- Sibling Rivalry: The Yorke boys. Matthew Yorke likes to torment his younger brother Martin, who lashes out at Matthew. Martin plans to get a larger slice of apple pie than his older brother.
- Robert and Louis plan to marry the same woman, unknown to each other. However Robert is not in love with Shirley whereas Louis is.
- Sinister Minister: Moses Barraclough. He's a lay-preacher, but he acts like a clergyman, and threatens Mr Helstone.
- Single-Target Sexuality: Caroline loves only Robert Moore and wants to marry only him and no one else. She fades into a decline because she thinks he wants to marry Shirley.
- Averted with Robert. He loves Caroline but proposes to Shirley because he is poor and needs her money.
- Shirley loves only Louis Moore.
- Averted with Mr Helstone and Mr Yorke. Mr Helstone, years after his wife's death, contemplates marrying Hannah Sykes. Mr Yorke, though upset he lost Mary Cave to Mr Helstone, eventually marries another woman.
- Spirited Young Lady: Shirley. She expresses her opinions on Mr Yorke's bigotry to him, and openly praises Robert Moore to the skies. Speaks to men on equal terms.
- Spotof Tea: When visiting neighbours, during church events ...
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Robert and Caroline. He's in debt, she's suffering from the pangs of love, her uncle doesn't like him, he gets wounded by a gunshot ... and there's the possibility he has to marry Shirley.
- Tomboyish Name: Shirley used to be a boy's name in 1812. Shirley was given that name because her parents wanted a son.
- The Vicar: Mr Helstone, Mr Hall and Dr Boultby. Mr Hall especially is the epitome of this trope. He's good-natured and liked by everybody, and helps to organise charities.
- Mr Helstone is one of those honourable but inflexible Rectors. He dislikes Jacobins and Radicals and is a High Tory.
- Victorian Novel Disease: Caroline fades into a decline and nearly dies.
- Write Who You Know: Definitely appears in this book. Many Yorkshire people recognised the characters' originals. Mr Hall was based on the Rev. W.M. Heald. The Yorke family is based on the Taylors, her friends. Mr Helstone is based on Rev. Roberson.