by Sandra Laythorpe
CHARLOTTE MARY YONGE aged 21
his website was created to offer information about the life and works of Miss Yonge.
Among the features
on this page is a short biography of Miss Yonge, and a description
of the village of Otterbourne where she lived her whole life.
Otterbourne village is about half way between Southampton and Winchester, and in the days before motorways, was an important staging post on the road from the strategic port of Southampton to the capital city of London. The old anglo-saxon road traversed east of the present site of the village, but during the Napoleonic wars, French prisoners cut a new gap through Otterbourne Hill in the south to straighten and shorten it. The villagers then built dwellings along the new road and gradually abandoned the old village centre, near the Itchen river. This is what gives the village its present-day ‘ribbon development’ outline.
Otterbourne is much quieter now than previously; the new motorway takes most of the traffic, but when the Yonges lived there, the road was an important and busy artery - goods, waggons and travellers rumbling past her windows every day, and resting overnight at the White Horse Inn on the other side of the road. By a strange coincidence, that same road ran under the windows of the cottage at Chawton where Jane Austen had lived and written her novels at the turn of the century.
THE YONGES COME TO OTTERBOURNE
In the centre of the new village was a cottage which was enlarged and improved at the beginning of the 19th century, and renamed Otterbourne House.
Charlotte’s parents, William and Fanny, came to live in the house, and Charlotte was born there on 13th August 1823. Her brother Julian was born in January 1830. The house can still be seen in the centre of the village; it is now converted into flats, but is still pleasant, set back from the road, its gracious creamy facade shaded by tall trees.
All Miss Yonge’s biographers agree that she had a very happy childhood, although her parents were strict and they did not encourage vanity or idleness. Her father was her teacher. From him she learnt arithmetic, mathmatics, Latin, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek, drawing and water-colouring. She enjoyed art, but, surprisingly for a Victorian girl, had no education in music. She was a painfully shy person, and as she was not allowed to visit in the cottages of the villagers, she never learned to mix with people other than those of her own class. She could be joyful and boisterous, but was only really comfortable with her own extended family, and it was her deep knowledge of and love for her family that was to be one of the major influences in her writing.
THE KEBLES COME TO HURSLEY
When Charlotte was 12 years old, a new Vicar came to live in Hursley. At that time the Parish of Hursley extended to cover the villages of Hursley, Otterbourne, Eastleigh and Chandlers Ford: a large area of scattered farms and dwellings. The new Vicar was John Keble, and he brought with him his new wife and a sister. Revd Keble was already famous in England as one of the founder members of the Oxford Movement, and as the author of a volume of poetry, ‘The Christian Year’, which contained a poem for each Sunday of the Church of England’s calendar. Revd Keble believed that he was called to abandon his public life and fame at Oxford, to live quietly and usefully as a country parson. A deeply religious and humble man, his influence on Miss Yonge’s work was to be of great benefit to her.
OTTERBOURNE CHURCH IS BUILT
The old church at Otterbourne was situated near the Itchen river, a mile from the new village centre. It was a small stone building, inconvenient and insufficient for the size of the growing community, and it was demolished at some time in the second half of the 20th century. The graveyard can still be found, with some unusual and gruesome tombstones which are now fallen over and surrounded by long grass and wildflowers.
Charlotte’s father had been very impressed with the beauty of York Minister, and wanted to build a new church based on its architecture. The coming of John Keble was a delight to him, because Mr. Keble was an authority of church architecture. Together they designed and supervised the building of St. Matthew’s Church.
Personally I think
it is somewhat too big and ornate for a village church, but it has a lovely
setting, the churchyard is bordered with Lebanon Cedars and other tall trees,
and the whole scene is very pretty.
FIRST BOOK PUBLISHED
In 1838 Charlotte had her first book published - ‘Le Chateau de Melville’. It was written to raise funds for the Girl’s School, and Charlotte was fifteen when it was published. Written in French, there is a copy still in existence in the Bodleian Library. The book has now been re-issued by the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship - click here for details.
In 1844 she published her first serious work, ‘Abbeychurch’, and from then on wrote copiously, sometimes publishing four books a year. She maintained this prodigious output all her life, for she wrote not only novels, but history, school textbooks, short stories, memoirs and religious instruction. She edited a magazine, ‘The Monthly Packet’, from 1851 to 1899, and serialised many of her best stories in it.
During her early years as a writer, both her father and Revd. Keble were her main helpers. Charlotte wrote her stories (some of them were over a quarter of a million words!), her father and Revd Keble listened to them read, and offered constructive criticism, then they were written again for publication. In this way her best novels were written during the decade from 1853, when ‘The Heir of Redclyffe’ was first published. This book was a best-seller, and many believe it was the best book she ever wrote.
CHANGES AND DEATHS
Mr. Yonge died suddenly from a stroke in early 1854. His unexpected death brought added suffering to his widow and daughter, because their son was abroad in the Crimean War, unaware of what had happened. Charlotte had hero-worshipped her father, valued his guidance, and his loss affected her deeply.
Her brother Julian
became ill whilst in the Crimea, and was invalided out of the army. He married,
and soon there was a family of young children running around Otterbourne
House, and the Yonges needed more room - and peace and quiet for Charlotte’s
In 1862, Charlotte and her mother moved to Elderfield, a little house on the corner of Kiln Lane, nearer the church. Charlotte wrote in an upstairs room which had a window overlooking the road, and a window at the side, where she could see the church. She lived there for the rest of her life.
With John Keble’s death on 29 March 1865, Charlotte lost the other important guide in her life. Her many admirers believe that her work was never as good after his death. She continued to write prodigiously, but she never again achieved the brilliant success she had with her earlier novels.
Miss Yonge continued
to be active as a writer and in the village. She taught children in Sunday
and day schools, and was particularly fond of girls, so much so that the
boys were jealous. But Miss Yonge’s concern was to bring up these young
girls with a good education and high moral standards, so that they would
become good wives and mothers.
MISS YONGE’S DEATH
She died in 1901, the same year as Queen Victoria. She is buried in Otterbourne Churchyard, near the east door of the church, surrounded by the graves of her family. Her own grave is a simple slab with a marble surround and a cross lying above it. To the immediate south is a large memorial to John Keble, her friend and guide.
Shortly before her death, Miss Yonge donated a sum of money to be used to build a Lych Gate for St. Matthew’s Church.
This very pretty gate has a dedication tablet set into the north wall, which is inscribed,
“This Lych Gate was given by Miss Charlotte M Yonge August 11th 1893”.
Miss Yonge lived in Otterbourne all her life, but her mind was certainly not confined within it. The nearby town of Eastleigh was developing rapidly with the explosion in industrial development brought by the railways. From being a small village, Eastleigh had to accommodate hundreds of immigrant workers and their families, and Miss Yonge was at the forefront of charitable endeavours to develop good housing and facilities for them. In fact, local people remember her now as a great benefactress, much more than as a novelist. Miss Yonge gave away all the profits from her books.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND BEYOND
During her life Miss Yonge gained many ardent admirers and influenced many young women to live lives of goodness and usefulness. Her Christian and benevolent influence extended into the middle years of the twentieth century. But at that time, here in England, there was a strong backlash against anything 19th Century - so much so, that the epithet ‘Victorian’ became a word of censure for prudishness, bad taste in art, and hypocrisy. The generation of biographers and commentators who wrote about Miss Yonge were influenced by this strongly anti-Victorian culture and wrote in response to it.
However, now in the Twentyfirst Century, when we have lost not only the Victorians but the generations who lived after them, I believe it is time for a reassessment. I first read ‘The Heir of Redclyffe’ in 1999, and coming to it as a newcomer, I was thrilled to read this wonderful book. It is a good story, which tells us a great deal about the society Miss Yonge lived in. The habits, manners, dress, conversation, beliefs, interests, and family life of these people, who lived 150 years ago, come to life with clarity in her novels, and give us a glimpse of a world that will never exist again. Miss Yonge had great insight into human behaviour and spirituality, and had that amazing quality of being able to “make goodness exciting”, something rarely achieved in a novel. I hope that when Miss Yonge’s major works are published on the Internet on the Project Gutenberg site, a new generation of readers will come to know and love her books.
BOOKS, BIOGRAPHIES AND MORE INFORMATION
Further information about Miss Yonge, including a complete list of biographies, discussions of her life and times, and a complete lists of her works (alphabetical and by date of publication) can be found on the Her Works pages of the CMY Fellowship Website.
Page tranferred from
the Menorot website to CMYF Fellowship website on 9 August 2011
You can email Sandra Laythorpe by clicking here