Pioneering the Past
CMY as Historical Novelist
by Hilary Clare
Published in "The Review of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship"
Edition Number 2 Winter 1996
Pioneering the Past - Charlotte Yonge as Historical Novelist
IF TODAY we think of Charlotte Yonge primarily as a family chronicler, to her contemporaries she was equally a historical novelist. Indeed there is some evidence that to the generations immediately after her death it was the historical novels that meant most. History was to her a lifelong passion and she pursued it scrupulously and painstakingly, reading the best authorities for the period in hand and rarely falsifying a single detail except by accident. We should not forget that alongside her fiction she was also writing historical text-books and readers: small wonder that she rapidly became recommended reading in the school-room to put flesh on the dry bones of dates and constitutional developments - she could be relied on not only for accuracy but for delicacy.
We are so used to reading her books in the uniform editions that we forget that in fact her historical tales were not originally designed for the same readers. Some are children's books, some aimed at teenagers, some are full-blown (well, relatively full-blown) adult novels. If we sort the 22 or so historical stories into these categories we get a better idea of her range than by lumping them all together, and see how her historical writing falls into three distinct periods.
I imagine I am not the only person who first met Charlotte Yonge as the author of The Little Duke, and I am glad to say that my nine-year-old daughter has just become another. The Little Duke was CMY's first real historical narrative (excluding Kenneth, which was so near her own time as to be practically contemporary), and it is also very nearly the first historical novel for children. Marryat's The Children of the New Forest was published in 1847, four years before The Little Duke was serialised in The Monthly Packet, and one could argue that it is barely more than Robinson Crusoe in 17th century costume. Marryat was no historian, and it is the survival aspect of the Beverley family story which interests him most. The Little Duke, on the other hand, brims over with 10th century detail and background and absolutely fulfils the prime requirement of a historical novel, that it could not be transposed to any other period. Moreover, Richard of Normandy is a delightful small boy in whose fortunes we can take a passionate interest - who will ever forget the famous escape from Laon? Moreover, it seems that Charlotte felt the same, for the edition in volume form (1854) is much longer than that in The Monthly Packet: evidently she couldn't tear herself away from Richard of Normandy.
After the success of The Little Duke came The Pigeon Pie, a dire Civil War tale (MP 1851-2, 1860), and then the Froissart-inspired Lances of Lynwood (MP 1853-4, 1855), which may hold the record for the most often found and least bought CMY on second-hand bookshop shelves. A ten-year gap followed, the decade of the great contemporary novels like The Daisy Chain, Heartsease, The Young Stepmother, Dynevor Terrace, Hopes and Fears, The Trial and Tfie Clever Woman of the Family, but it was succeeded by a four-year period which gave us not only the relatively unpopular The Prince and The Page (MP 1865, 1866) and The Caged Lion (MP 1868-9,1870) but also her two greatest and best-loved historical novels, The Dove in the Eagle's Nest (1866) and The Chaplet of Pearls (1868). Both deserve, and I hope will get, articles of their own; suffice us here to notice how close together they were written, when Charlotte was in her early forties, and that neither of them was serialised in Tlie Monthly Packet, indicating that both were intended for adult readers - after all, both books include clandestine marriages and the arrival of very rapidly conceived babies!
Another long gap followed, but after this the works come in fairly regular sequence, usually alternating a historical with a contemporary story. By this time, the 1880s onwards, the distinction between Charlotte's adult and her 'teenage' fiction was blurring, and Stray Pearls, for instance, the sequel to The Chaplet of Pearls, did first appear in The Monthly Packet; on the other hand its own sequel, A Reputed Changeling, did not. These, with Unknown to History (1882), The Armourer's 'Prentices (1884) and Two Penniless Princesses (MP 1890,1891), were Charlotte's last full-length historical stories; nearly all the remaining ten titles of her last fifteen years are 'reward' stories published by the National Society. We may read them with interest but we cannot love them as we love The Little Duke, The Dove in the Eagle's Nest or The Chaplet of Pearls.
Charlotte's innovation as a historical novelist lay simply in her choosing to write for children, a logical enough development of the genre but one which she was almost the first to make. Otherwise she was largely content to follow her beloved Scott, though she had not his grasp of seeing how fictionally productive could be the clash of the old and the new. She can pilot us earnestly through any period, but only at the level of her heroes and heroines: hers is not the eagle eye that sees the broad sweep of events. But even if she could not see the wood for the trees she could still carefully delineate the different species, and, moreover, could make them appealing to the young. It is not the least of her attributes that she was the first good historical novelist for children.
THE HISTORICAL FICTION OF CHARLOTTE MARY YONGE
IN chronological order, with date of volume publication following if the work was originally serialised in The Monthly Packet.
1850 Kenneth (semi-contemporary)