Charlotte M Yonge, also featuring Anthony Trollope
Happy New Year!
So… I promised a blog post on Charlotte M Yonge (1823 – 1901) in the year of her bicentenary, and I’ve missed the deadline by three days. Alas.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that she was an extremely prolific Victorian novelist, most famous for her 1853 “The Heir of Redclyffe” – but this is second only to “The Daisy Chain”, which was published in 1856. Girls (notably the novelist Ethel M[ay] Dell) were still being named after its heroine 25 years later.
Looking back, I see that I gave an introductory talk about Yonge in 2016 citing the above two books, and then reproduced the talk here: https://www.penelopewallace.com/charlotte-yonge-victorian-bestseller/
There I mentioned her preference for writing about interesting but virtuous characters in preference to villains; her contribution to the concept of the novel sequence; and the unusualness of Ethel May as a successful proactive protagonist, as opposed to most fictional protagonists, whom (I snootily said, citing Elizabeth Bennet, Hamlet and Harry Potter) merely react to the situations the author puts them in.
That was a while back, and I stand by it. Meanwhile…
Just before the bicentenary began, the publishers Palgrave Macmillan brought out “Charlotte Mary Yonge: Writing the Victorian Age,” edited by three members of the CMY Fellowship, two of them mates of mine. This is an enormously learned book – ideally suited, and possibly even designed, for someone who loves Victorian literature and is looking for a subject for a Ph D thesis. The final chapter, incidentally (“Reading the Reception History of Charlotte Yonge” by Talia Schaffer) is a challenging polemic on why Yonge hasn’t been given the critical attention Schaffer thinks her due. She suggests for instance that if critics airily dismiss a single woman writing about brother-sister or same-sex friendship relationships, and disabled characters, rather than traditional energetic heterosexual romances, it’s possibly not the author whose views are limited.
I myself gave two more talks on Yonge last year, leading me to ponder again what I find interesting about her, and coming up with the following additional points:
This is an author with an astonishing range. In addition to the fiction for which she was most celebrated, she wrote and published in all the following genres: church doctrine, history retold for girls, devotional poetry, serious biography, natural history, plays, and translations of French memoirs. And her fiction can be subdivided into: novels for adults, novels for teenagers, stories for children, historical novels for adults or children, simpler stories intended as Sunday School prizes or similar, and an odd couple of ancient myths (The Labours of Hercules and Cupid and Psyche) retold in modern or near-modern guise.
She is one of the first authors seriously to write for teenage girls, but in any case, what a range. One is almost amazed that she didn’t also write epic poetry (some of her characters do) or recipe books. I can’t think of an author with a similar range except CS Lewis.
I conceded in my talks that she was an old-fashioned pious Tory who believed that women should obey husbands, and children their parents – while pointing out that her views became more progressive over the half century she was writing. And I felt more and more inclined to compare her to the much more famous Anthony Trollope (1815 – 82.)
He of course was the creator of not one but two novel sequences (the Barchester series and the Palliser series) which coexist in the same world, one dealing with church politics and the other the Parliamentary kind. Both Yonge and Trollope wrote realistic down-to-earth fictions (compared to the more melodramatic Dickens or Charlotte Bronte), some but not all of which connect with each other, with a particular awareness of the passage of time; both wrote lively dialogue; both published in instalments. Trollope’s admirers, of whom I’m one, delight in his narrative voice, which has been described as “third-person omniscient and chatty.” Yonge, although her prose is evocative and often surprisingly witty, doesn’t chat. Unlike Trollope, she rarely discusses her characters, simply showing what they say and do.
And talking of writing in instalments – I remember in another post https://www.penelopewallace.com/books-in-instalments-and-literary-structure/complaining about Trollope’s repetitiveness and attributing this to the need to keep new readers abreast. Yonge, by comparison, rarely repeats herself. She expects her (often teenage) readers to keep up, and they evidently did.
What also occurred to me this year for the first time was that she writes surprisingly good lovers (compared again to other 19th century writers, especially the men.) This is counter-intuitive, because her actual love scenes are often awful. But the preludes are not: the very fact that she’s not writing romance means her men and women get to know each other during the course of the plot – teaching in Sunday school, covering up a cousin’s crime, discussing contemporary literature, or whatever. By the time Guy Morville proposes to Amy Edmonstone, or Norman May to Meta Rivers, or Louis Fitzjocelyn to Mary Ponsonby (the second time), the reader knows they know each other, and is confident that they’re well-matched. Whereas Trollope’s love stories can often be summed up as : chap 1 boy meets girl; chap 2 boy proposes; chap 3 they realise the course of true love isn’t going to run smooth, usually because of money; chaps 4-61 they and their relatives separately agonise about the problem, while other plots go on around them; chap 62 all is sorted out.
The books I particularly used for my talks, apart from the ones already mentioned, were “The Stokesley Secret”, the tale of the governess trying to tame a riotous family, while they raise money to buy a pig for a poor woman (and solve the crime when the money saved is stolen); “The Clever Woman of the Family”, a story that begins almost identically to George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and which annoys some readers by the relentless way it cuts its ambitious heroine down to size; and one of my favourites, “The Young Stepmother.” This story is name-checked in Agatha Christie’s “Evil Under the Sun,” and rather surprisingly seems to have been known to Robert Louis Stevenson, who disagreed with the heroine as to whether “The Three Musketeers” is suitable reading for boys.
In contrast to what I’ve said above, “The Young Stepmother” begins with the marriage: lively intelligent Albinia falls in love with and marries a dour older widower (to the horror of her family), and over the next few years sorts out husband, unhealthy garden, stepchildren and all, not without some errors. It is in this book, published in 1861, that we meet a girl (eleven years old at the start) called Sophy.
Sophy is moody and grumpy and intense and secretive. She gets passionately upset. She is judgmental. She has strong moral views which she imposes on herself and those around her, and she doesn’t understand shades of grey. She is intelligent but has low self-esteem, and regards herself as ugly. The poor girl also has a hoarse voice and a bad back. And, like most Yonge characters, she is capable of growth.
1861, and the teenager has arrived.
If you’re tempted to try Yonge, the modern world means quite a lot of her work is available via the usual internet suspects, and even more via Project Gutenberg. However, do be warned that she did write an awful lot (100+ books) and not all of it is good. I would be happy to recommend any of the above mentioned, and a lot more.
Love from the PPI Blogger
PS When I started this blog, towards the end of 2015, I was posting twice a week. By contrast, I only managed six posts in 2023. I do apologise; it’s been an odd year, and not just because of the bicentenary. To post monthly is now an official New Year’s Resolution… and it’s sufficiently specific to have a chance of success.
PPS In other news… the latest draft of the fourth Tale from Ragaris, “Tell Me Your Name,” did get finished in 2023, and is about to be sent to the publisher!