by Amy de Gruchy

Published in "The Review of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship"
Edition Number 3 – Summer 1996


The Young Stepmother - The Serial and the Book

THERE ARE two versions of The young Stepmother, for the serial which ran from 1856-1860 was considerably altered before book publication in 1861. This article will suggest that the serial is superior to the book, which itself deserves its respectable place in the Charlotte Yonge canon.

The book is interesting to modern readers, having a noticeably feminist angle and dealing realistically with the problems of a second marriage and family, while the discussion of urban poverty seems topical. There is considerable humour, and an awareness of the complexity of moral and social issues.

Serial and book share the same action and themes. Outgoing, energetic Albinia Ferrars leaves her happy home with her Tractarian clergyman brother to marry Edmund Kendal, a melancholy indolent scholar fifteen years older than herself, who has lost his first wife and favourite son in a slum-engendered fever. (It later transpires that he is in part to blame for the unwholesome state of the slums.) Albinia faces many problems. Her new home is unhealthy, her husband is remote, her stepchildren badly brought up, difficult and sickly, while their maternal relations are hostile. The neighbours are uncongenial, and her efforts to help the slum dwellers seem unavailing. She makes many mistakes. However, problems are overcome and halfway through the novel all seems to be going well. It is the calm before the storm. The stepchildren's unfortunate propensities return in adult form as they fall in love with disastrous results. Albinia and her husband disagree about the upbringing of their naughty little son, and Mr Kendal's solution for the slums meets with a violent response from the inhabitants. At the end Albinia blames herself. Her brother reassures her, but the last words are hers, and they are ambiguous.

Charlotte Yonge often used a subtitle to suggest the principal theme or moral that she wished to convey. In this case the subtitle is "A Chronicle of Mistakes", but although Albinia's failures of judgement are indeed noted and censured the word 'illusions' better describes the basic theme. The plot is concerned with the effects of various mistakes, blunders, misapprehensions and illusions on the lives of the characters. Thus Mr Kendal's happiness in his first marriage is an illusion (Charlotte Yonge's word). He assumes that he can enjoy peace by neglecting his family and social responsibilities. He expects Albinia to restore his lost tranquility, but she effectively banishes it, and so reforms him that he alters his view of what constitutes peace and happiness in line with hers. Under the illusion that the young Irishman Ulick loves her stepdaughter Sophy, Albinia encourages the girl's passion. The whole family become disillusioned with the cowardly stepson Gilbert, but he redeems himself as a hero of the Charge of the Light Brigade, fittingly, for there too "someone had blundered".

The tone of the novel is often ironic. Some of the mistakes are intellectual in character and there is a greater sense of the absurd than is usually found in Charlotte Yonge's fiction. The method used to inculcate the teaching is also ironic. In earlier works events and authorial comment display a fault in a leading character. Here all the characters make mistakes and like them the readers have to weigh the available evidence and reflect on its shifting uncertain nature. Then when the truth seems to be revealed they must criticise their own judgement as well as that of the fictitious personages.

The differences between the serial and the book are considerable. Many incidents and details are removed from the latter, weakening both the structure and the characterisation. In the serial issues are more complex and the narrator's attitude less clear than in the later version.

The characters in the book seem less richly imagined than those in the serial. This lays more stress on personal appearance, with characters revealing themselves as they comment on that of others. Thus Albinia's taste in dress, at once puritanical and exotic, meets with criticism from the conventional townsfolk of Bayford. Characters are shown in relation to their total environment, time, place and other people. The serial reveals the stifling nature of a small provincial town, an environment with which the leading characters must come to terms. (Much of the humour of the novel derives from Charlotte Yonge's depiction of this social scene.) The physical environment is also emphasised, with its effects on minds and bodies. In different ways the characters are affected by time and memory. Minor characters have a memory of the past which gives them added reality. In the book these minor characters become mere names or are lost altogether in the larger group of anonymous inhabitants, whose choric function, reminiscent of that of the townsfolk in Middlemarch, is also reduced.

In both versions Sophy Kendal appears as a girl of great integrity, intelligence and learning, but morbidly self-conscious, moody and sickly. In the serial she is also a boisterous excitable child, a highly imaginative young girl, a gifted writer and comic actress. These aspects of her character give it added depth and help to explain the strength of her passion for Ulick. The removal of so many incidents concerning her affects the structure of the novel. In the serial she follows her father and stepmother in importance, but in the book her brother becomes the more prominent character, so that after his death there is a hiatus and the switch to her affairs seems somewhat contrived.

From the early part of the serial many incidents are removed that reveal Mr Ken-dal's flaws. Albinia's development is more noticeable than in the book, from which examples of her youthful arrogance and emotional nature are excised. The marriage difficulties are not smoothed over in the 1861 version, but figure more prominently in the serial. Charlotte Yonge seems to have made a deliberate decision to give a more hopeful picture of the relationship. Thus while both serial and book state that Mr Kendal had wished to prolong his second honeymoon, "where there had been such pleasant reading, walking and musing", the serial continues, "and a great deal more silence than Albinia had ever endured in her previous life", but the book has "and a great deal of happy silence".

In theory Charlotte Yonge held that women were inferior to men, with husbands and fathers as authority figures. However, in most of her novels young couples form equal relationships, and mature sensible women rule their families. In both versions of The Young Stepmother Albinia respectfully kick-starts her husband into his role, after unintentionally taking it on herself. Near the end she sits back to admire his activity in slum clearance but is exasperated by his obtuseness in family matters. The only difference between serial and book is that in the former there is a stronger undercurrent of feminist feeling, and more attention paid to relationships between men and women.

The treatment of the issue of the slums is complex in both versions, with the author apparently willing to set up questions in the readers' minds without supplying the answers. However, much conflicting evidence is removed, so that in the book there is more sympathy for Mr Kendal, though he is not entirely exonerated, and less for the slum dwellers. This process began within the serial. In Chapter Ten the good vicar tells Albinia that the unknown slum landlord whom she is denouncing is her own husband. In the book it is her young stepson and in Chapter Eighteen of the serial this explanation is also adopted, thus relieving Mr Kendal of part of his responsibility.

This chapter also sees the last of the favourable references to the slum dwellers. Earlier they are shown as faithful church-folk, victims of poverty and bad housing and Albinia's humble friends. Later they are shown as violent, drunken and riotous, and she calls them "a horrid set". Moreover many references to the wealth of the Ken-dais are not found in the book so that the contrast between them and their tenants is less marked. The questions raised are interesting. Is there here a conflict between youthful idealism and mature realism? Is there a suggestion that close involvement with the immediate family blinds good people to the needs of the wider community? What is the connection between poverty and crime? None of these questions are answered. However, what Charlotte Yonge has done, whether intentionally or not, is to give a subtle and honest account of the pressures on well-intentioned Christians when faced with the problems of urban deprivation. She shows the inability of the Church to deal with vested interests and the tendency to notice the poor only when they threaten the health and safety of the rest of the population. She reveals the problems of dialogue between indignant reformers and those who see the difficulties of finding solutions. Charlotte Yonge seems to answer these questions in other books. Thus Ethel May and her family devote both time and money to the rough quarry workers and she combines her home duties with this work. In Dynevor Terrace the hero and his father live with strict economy so as to benefit the deserving poor. But are these answers somewhat simplistic, designed to teach a moral lesson, not reflect real life?

Charlotte Yonge devised the subtitle "A Chronicle of Mistakes" for the book, which may thus be seen as a warning against rashness of judgement. It seems to represent an attempt to bring The Young Stepmother into line with her other didactic tales. Why is the serial so different from these works? During its course she also wrote Dynevor Terrace, Friars-wood Post Office, Hopes and Fears, and many other pieces of fiction and non-fiction, besides her editorial work. Clearly she did not give The Young Stepmother her full attention. The many stylistic faults and slips reveal this. She seemed content to give her imagination free play without the constraints she usually placed on it, and let the tale develop as it would. It is a monument to what she could do when she was not really trying.


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