"Charlotte Yonge" by Alethea Hayter
A review by Alison Shell
Department of English, University of Durham
Published in "The Review of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship"
Edition Number 4 Winter 1996 / 1997
ON THE back of this new study of Charlotte Yonge, the blurb-writer declares that the book's aim "is to appraise her as a writer, not simply as a symptom of her times". It is a symptom of these times that a study of this nature should be published at all. Specialist interest in Yonge is gathering momentum, and enthusiasts have never stopped trying to get hold of copies; but this little book - 91 pages of text in all - is testimony to a new interest among those who determine what the common reader is allowed to buy.
The book's purpose is that of an introduction: to inform readers without talking down to them. Beginning with a chronological outline of Charlotte Yonge's life, its general arrangement is thematic, and given bearings by an opening chapter on Yonge as conscious literary artist. Given how many of the anecdotes about Yonge suggest a kind of untamed creativity - one thinks of her famous comment in a letter, "I have taken a sheet of paper and turned my dramatis personae loose upon it to see how they will behave" - this is a wise stratagem of Alethea Hayter's; it is still all too common for the woman writer, in particular, to be portrayed as a kind of medium, more intuitive than intelligent.
But the chapter also includes an account of the contemporary reception of Yonge's novels, stressing the eagerness with which her public devoured the books, and how they entered into the parlance of educated Victorian England. This illustrates, very appropriately, the current critical interest in reader-response. It could even have been pushed a little further. Like the cast of a soap opera, Yonge's characters made their way into gossip, blurring where the actual texts began and ended. Though Yonge was besieged by requests for sequels, and succumbed to some of them, perhaps the most significant continuations were those which enacted themselves within the individual and shared fantasy-worlds of her thousands of readers. The nature of her success says something about the character-driven nature of Victorian popular novels, more about Yonge's mimetic gifts.
What makes a character memorable? To a great extent, it is dialogue. Yonge's powers of character-differentiation within conversation have been highly praised - though Hayter quotes, with distaste, Raymond Chapman's comment that "sometimes the dialogue runs on until the reader feels almost physically deafened by such a flow of feminine chatter". In another age, she would have made a remarkable playwright: probably the only creative trait that Yonge has in common with Harold Pinter is that both could be said to carry tape-recorders in their heads.
Yet because a novelist is not restricted to dialogue, it is easier for her to convey moral messages through the interaction of character. As one sees in a tale like The Young Stepmother, Yonge's protagonists are obliged to interpret the day-to-day conversational interaction of a family, and use their interpretations to guide the improvement of character. If the actions of Albinia, of Ethel May and the rest were subjected to the kinds of analysis developed by management studies in the last few decades, the results could be revelatory - and would dispel the myth still current about middle-class women of Victorian England, that they had nothing real to do.
As the characters analyse each other, the reader too is implicated in the continuous process of religious scrutiny; to read a Yonge novel properly is no less painful a process than going to confession. The duties of Yonge's moral managers were, of course, shaped by the Tractarian principles of their creator; there is a satisfactory amount of space devoted to Yonge's churchmanship and general moral agenda. Only one note of warning needs to be sounded about Hayter's analysis. Recent scholarship has done a good deal to problematise the idea that the eighteenth-century Church of England was moribund, more concerned with fox-hunting than faith; and despite what Charlotte Yonge herself would have thought, infrequent Communion services and ecclesiastical laxity did not necessarily go together.
Hayter's scholarship is fully manifest in her power of picking the telling detail; it is only real experts who can write short books. For instance, she manages to convey a vivid impression of how Yonge's characters were perceived visually, despite the lack of illustrations within the text. As far as book-illustrations went, Yonge seems anyhow to have been unlucky: one of Kate Greenaway's for The Heir of Redclyffe shows Amy Edmonstone in an anachronistic hobble-skirt, "apparently just about to throw up", and Guy Morville beside her wearing a bowler-hat for a love scene in a rose garden. As Hayter points out, Victorian narrative paintings give a better clue as to how contemporary audiences would have responded to visual description; and Yonge used both visual and verbal commonplaces to evoke reactions in her audience, sometimes straight-facedly. More often with subversive intent. One example given is of Johnny Martindale in Heartsease, as saintly as James Sant's picture of the Infant Samuel, and as nauseating as Paul Dombey; but to confound the stereotype, he is a physical coward and lives to grow up.
In one of the liveliest chapters, Hayter discusses Yonge's posthumous reputation. Yonge's detractors often base their condemnations on criteria which are not aesthetic at all: her Anglicanism within the recent past, and more recently still, her fervent anti-feminism. How far a writer's political beliefs should influence their standing is, of course, a modish area of debate at the moment: one thinks of the literary-critical quarrels surrounding T.S. Eliot's anti-semitism. But it seems unlikely that Eliot will stop being read, and unfair to impede Yonge's recovery because not everyone shares her beliefs. Hayter is optimistic that her popularity is returning steadily, and members of the CMYF will be pleased to see the beginnings of their organisation referred to on p. 65. This unpretentious, accessible and elegantly written introduction will help the process, and its very existence indicates that Yonge is now part of the literary canon.