Charlotte, Then and Now
by Alison Shell
Published in "The Review of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship"
Edition Number 1 Summer 1995
Charlotte, Then and Now
CHARLOTTE M YONGE is the Christina Rossetti of the novel. both were very devout Victorians, who devoted their lives to writing rather than marriage, both found much of their creative inspiration in an ideal of Christian self-denial, and neither can be read without close attention to the kind of high-churchmanship they favoured.
A friend of some of the major figures of the Oxford Movement, John Keble and the hymn-writer J M Neale, Yonge was also one of its best publicisers. Throughout her long life she wrote over ninety books for children and adults: tracts, anthologies, advice manuals, historical novels and the novels of domestic life for which she is best remembered. But Yonge is still only a footnote to the history of the Movement, partly because biographers have had very little to go on. it is said that the writer of the first full-length life, Christabel Coleridge, burnt all the papers she had used once she had finished her task; and though other archives have emerged, Yonge remains a shy and shadowy personality best approached through her novels.
Her first major success was The Heir of Redclyffe, a page-turner which few readers, Victorian or modem, manage to finish without crying. Its story of blighted love, forgiveness and noble forbearance gave inspiration to William Morris and many other famous contemporaries, especially through the character of Guy Morville, a hero who managed to be both genuinely Christian and an attractive role model. But more characteristic is the manner in which Yonge can construct a suspenseful plot out of the most initially tame of incidents. Her short novel The Six Cushions is a good example. Six girls, of widely varying personalities and social backgrounds, from the rich socialite to the poor and shamefaced daughter of a widow, are set the task of embroidering a cushion for the newly decorated parish church in time for the inaugural service; time-consuming work, meaning that many pleasures and social engagements have to be given up if the target is to be met. It would be a shame to give away the masterly ending, but Yonge indulges in some leg-pulling at the expense of the pious prize-books with which she and the Victorian child were so familiar: not simply for humour's sake, but to force the reader to distinguish between true and hypocritical piety.
The Daisy Chain is an excellent book to read on a long journey, or when recovering from flu, or to discover at the age of twelve and re-read every few years. But it is also an uncomfortable one. The May family is not simply a row of applecheeked children nicely graded in size, the daisy chain of the sentimental title, but a matrix in which ethical and religious problems are played out through the interaction of the family members. And Yonge is merciless in analysing failure: the greatest sin in her confessor's manual is not the spectacular prodigality condemned by the world, but moral mereness.
For such a prolific novelist, so much read in her time, it is sad to have to report that reprints are scarce [see note below]. Virago Books have republished a few, and editions of The Heir of Redclyffe are forthcoming from Oxford University Press and Wordsworth Classics, but the best source is still the jumble sale, the second-hand bookshop or one's grandmother's bookshelves. This is partly be-cause what happened to the present writer is still true: one can read English at university, and yet only know Yonge as a name. Women novelists in the past have often been stigmatised as minor or vaguely comic by people who have never actually read them. Though the pendulum has now swung the other way and many women writers have been reclaimed, Charlotte M Yonge has lost out again.
Feminist literary critics tend to look for proto-feminism in the writers they write about, and Yonge always a vigorous believer in the inferiority of women has been an embarrassment to them. Some have even made the mistake of asserting that her views .act as an invalidation of Anglicanism in particular and Christianity in general. But there are signs that Yonge can now be seen and read in her proper historical perspective, and this is welcome. For, at her best, there were few Victorian novelists male or female to whom Charlotte M Yonge was inferior.
This article first appeared in 'Home Words', and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.
Webmaster's note ...
"For such a prolific novelist, so much read in her time, it is sad to have to report that reprints are scarce ... "
Since Alison's article was first published in things have looked up dramatically for Yonge readers. Thanks to CMYF member Sandra Laythorpe and the Gutenberg team some 50 Charlotte Yonge works are now available free online, with more on the way. These free source texts have now spread across Internet and are also available in various e-book formats. Many are also available on paper from print-on-demand publishers.