The edition I chose to read was not my falling apart Penguin copy acquired a millennium ago while an undergrad, but a newer Penguin edition with an introductory essay (2006) by the excellent Bronte scholar, Lucasta Miller.
The other primary reason I chose Shirley is that as well as being classified as Bronte's only social novel, it is considered an historical novel. The novel's chronological location is specifically told the reader on page 1 as, "eighteen-hundred-eleven-twelve." I.e., we're in my favorite war (speaking historically), the War of 1812. Britain, like Napoleon, had levied an embargo upon trade with "America" (which included grabbing every U.S. ship they encountered -- if they could) thus the Yorkshire textile manufacturers, like so many other industrial employers, had closed their mills or greatly reduced activity and workforces.
The narrator so informs us, in a one-sided explanation, on page 25, second
chapter, as spoken by the half French-Antwerpian, Robert Moore, owner of the Hollow's mill:
"I am very rich in cloth, I cannot sell; you should step into my warehouse yonder, and observe how it is piled to the roof with pieces. Roakes and Perason are in the same condition: America used to be their market, but the Orders in Council have cut that off."
This is the period of the Luddite uprisings, as the manufacturers like Roger Moore, with the capital to do so, are installing more efficient machines that require fewer workers.
Bronte expands on the Orders in Council and unemployment on page 29-30:
"The 'Orders in Council,' provoked by Napoleon's Milan and Berlin decrees,* and the forbidding neutral powers to trade with France, had, by offending the Americans, cut off the principal market of the Yorkshire woollen trade, and brought it consequently to the verge of ruin. Minor foreign markets were glutted, and would receive no more: the Brazils, Portugal, Sicily,**were all overstocked by nearly two years' consumption. At this crisis, certain inventions of the north, which, greatly reducing the number of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life. A bad harvest supervened. Distress reached its climax....This is the first time I've undertaken a Shirley re-read since having lived in New Orleans and on the Chesapeake, major grounds and objectives for the Brits in the War of 1812.
As for the plan that was to be a reading transition from one season to another -- well, Climate Change evidently made another plan. When I left for the libary before 10 AM the temperature was 64 degrees. Big brown leaves were being blown off the plane trees in droves. This is like no August I've experience here ever. The long term weather forecasts are saying we're going to continue with temperatures generally lower than usual, November is going to be wet, and winter will began early and be close to the brutal thing is was last go-round. I'm going to be extra-careful not to catch a sinus infection in November or break my elbow in January as I did last time.
* Napoleon's monstrous egomania and British arrogance were equally responsible for the embargo. All nations' trade was caught between the hammer and tongs of the British and French navies. Indeed, when Denmark insisted on her right to continue trading as she wished, and an ally with Britain against the French, the British navy shelled Copenhagen, burning much of it to the ground, in 1807.
** Not to mention being under siege in one way or another, as with Sicily to where the King of Naples had fled, and Portugal, as part of the very long and brutal Peninsular campaign -- Bronte is frequently hazy, to put it generously, with her information about many aspects that she mentions regarding trade, the military and politics, despite her passion when younger for heroes such as Wellingon and Napoleon. Her forte is the personal, always.
Additionally she was writing this some decades after it took place; she was born when it was all over, in 1816. Thus Shirley gets classified by some as an historical novel. I'm not sure I agree, however, any more than I can think of Middlemarch as an historical novel. Though set in the 1830's of the Reform Movement bills, Eliot, born in 1819, was more than old enough, particularly with her father profession and their common interest in public issues and politics, to remember the time well. As well, the Reformist movement returned to the public stage in 1860.