Charlotte Yonge – Victorian Bestseller
On Saturday 16th, I attended the Spring Meeting of the Charlotte M Yonge Fellowship in Eastleigh, Hampshire. It was my privilege to give the opening talk, introducing the works of this author to those attending who might not be familiar with her. This is an abridged version of that talk.
In 1853 Charlotte Yonge published “The Heir of Redclyffe”. This has been described as “the most popular novel of the whole age”, and was the favourite reading of British soldiers in the Crimea.
At the beginning of this book, Guy Morville is seventeen, and has had a sheltered childhood on the remote and wild northern estate of Redclyffe. Then his grandfather dies, and he inherits the title (Sir Guy), and the land and the money. He also inherits the family curse, and the ancient feud with his cousin.
But of course there is no feud, because, as his cousin says, “I am a Christian, and we live in the nineteenth century.” Guy goes to live with his terribly nice middle-class cousins. They teach him about modern life – how to waltz, and to appreciate Dickens… and he teaches them other things. But all the time the curse and the feud are waiting for him.
In a society that loved the poetry of Byron and Shelley, but disapproved of their behaviour and beliefs, “The Heir of Redclyffe” presented a hero who, in the words of her biographer Georgina Battiscombe, was at the same time “very good, very respectable, and very romantic. The public, who were all for sober virtue, whilst cherishing at the same time a passion for romance, leapt at this reconciliation of apparent opposites.”
This is a book that can still make you cry. But it will also make you laugh, not because it’s a comic book, but because it’s full of intelligent people making lively conversation, and that conversation includes jokes.
Charlotte Yonge lived from 1823 to 1901. She did not marry or go out to work, she lived all her life in Hampshire, in the small town of Otterbourne. Through her fifty years of novel-writing, life in rural England can be seen changing with better communications, education and opportunities for the ordinary person. Although a Tory and not in favour of women’s emancipation, she was aware of the developments in society, and largely sympathetic to the change she recorded.
All her long life she was a generous benefactor and a passionate supporter of the church, in particular the Church of England, and in particular that High-Church aspect which we call the Oxford Movement. She was a close friend and supporter of its leading figure, John Keble, vicar of the neighbouring parish.
Most of her best-loved books are contemporary. Victorian novels. This means that they are long, but full of incident. Nobody sits around whining about the state of the world. They are set in a place that is weird to us, where railways and telegrams are new technology, where the country squire rules everything, and almost no one has the vote (although as I’ve said, things do change over time). So if you like stories of alien environments, if you’re into fantasy and science fiction, try the Victorians.
They also had less time than we do for the concept of genres. So in one book you can have ghosts, murder investigations, romance and comedy – all with eccentric characters and lively dialogue. Charlotte Yonge’s dialogue is particularly good.
One distinctive feature of Yonge’s books is her use of the novel sequence – a set of books that are not strictly sequels to each other, but contain some of the same places and people.
And the fundamental book for her sequence is “The Daisy Chain”, a family saga published in 1856, after having been first serialised in her magazine, “The Monthly Packet”.
At the start of “The Daisy Chain”, a country doctor called Dick May goes for a drive in his carriage with his wife and two of their children. He drives carelessly, and the carriage crashes, killing his wife, and seriously and permanently injuring his eldest daughter. If this had happened today, there would have been legal ramifications and the children might have been taken into care. But not in the 1850s. Dr May does indeed feel appropriate guilt, but the main interest is in how he and the family are going to cope without his wife. Can he bring up eleven children himself? Yes, eleven, ranging from Richard the university student, down to Gertrude, only a few weeks old, and sometimes called “Daisy”.
The story covers the next seven years, with all the events of the family – bullying and cheating at school; good works and confirmation; marriage; career choices; and of course shipwreck and being presumed dead.
This book also contains Dr May’s daughter Ethel, a most unusual Victorian heroine, not just because she is not pretty. Perhaps because of her Christian beliefs, Yonge did not think, as many Victorians did, that the purpose of a woman is to get married. In Ethel she created a woman who sees no need for marriage, and who juggles family life, intellectual development and community service instead. And what I think is particularly interesting about Ethel is that she does not just react to dramatic circumstances, like most heroines, and indeed most heroes, then and now, do. She is proactive, she disturbs the status quo, without waiting for her author to disturb it for her. This is very rare.
Hamlet, for example, is a bereaved prince. This is his status quo when the playwright steps in. He suddenly meets a ghost and is told that his father was murdered. He reacts. Luke Skywalker is a bored teenager who picks up a message from a beautiful princess, and then has his family slaughtered, and he reacts. Elizabeth Bennet meets some young men who are interested in her, one who seems haughty but is in fact quite nice, one who seems likeable but is in fact villainous, and one who seems pompous and obnoxious and is indeed pompous and obnoxious, and she reacts.
Ethel of course reacts to her mother’s death, but she is also proactive. She looks at her ordinary town and sees part of it that is poor, ignorant and lacking in Christian teaching. At the age of fifteen she decides to change this, and she does.
This leads on to my final point about the novels. Although they do contain a few villains – murderers, bullies and fraudsters – these people usually commit their crimes off-stage. Charlotte Yonge obviously did not want to spend much time thinking about horrible people. She wrote about good people, or people who are trying to be good, or at least think they are.
This does not mean that her characters are boring. Or that they don’t change. Or that they are all the same. Or even that they all like each other. Sir Guy Morville, and his cousins, Ethel and her father and her brothers and sisters, are all different, talking and thinking differently, but all basically decent and well-meaning.
That, together with a lot of incident, and fantastic dialogue, is what you get when you read Charlotte Yonge.
(PS There is a website, cmyf.org.uk.)
After all, I did say I would blog about books… This is probably the last Tuesday post, as for the time being I am cutting down to Fridays only. Thank you for the suggestion that I could continue bi-weekly, but shorten the entries… but brevity is difficult!
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