CHARLOTTE MARY YONGE (1823-1901) was immensely well-known in Victorian England. The young Virginia Woolf was a fan, and, indeed, took a copy of The Heir of Redclyffe with her on her honeymoon to Italy — rather a pessimistic choice, given that its hero dies of fever on his honeymoon, in a spa in the Valtellina.
Yonge’s writings — more than 80 works of fiction and countless textbooks, histories, and devotional works — were staples of the literary experience of adolescents between the 1840s and the First World War. In the heyday of her reputation, in the 1850s and ’60s, Yonge’s novels for adults were widely admired; but, by the end of her life, she had outlived many of her readers, and was remembered only as a writer of children’s books. In the 20th century, Victorian culture went, on the whole, out of fashion, and, along with others, Yonge’s works almost disappeared from view.
I CONTRIBUTED an essay on Yonge recently to an anthology, Anglican Women Novelists: Charlotte Brontë to P. D. James (ed. Judith Maltby and Alison Shell; Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2019). The book covers a mixed bag of writers, not all of whom were as important to the Church as the Church was to them.
Of Yonge, though, we can emphatically say that she was a well-known and influential figure within the Tractarian movement, and played a significant part in the dissemination of its ethos. A tireless worker within her own parish, active in raising money for church work both at home and abroad, she was close to John Keble, William Butler of Wantage, and the (subsequently) martyred Bishop Patteson of Melanesia.
What makes her novels alive today is Yonge’s vivid sense of characterisation, and her infectious belief that service to God by working for others is the source of satisfaction in life. Given that many of her readers were young women of the upper middle class, who were offered no clearly defined goal except marriage, the message of her books was tremendously inspiring.
In Yonge’s novel The Daisy Chain, Ethel May, a doctor’s bookish, awkward, bespectacled daughter, conceives a plan to help some poor neighbours by starting a Sunday school, which leads ultimately to the building of a church and the regeneration of a whole community. Many readers find it painful that Ethel — so clever, so original — has no other outlet for her energies than this thankless do-gooding. (At one moment, there is a possibility that she might make a brilliant marriage, but she steps back.)
The point of the book, though, is self-sacrifice. There are one or two tiny moments in which Ethel is rewarded — it is characteristic of the novel’s procedures that it is possible to miss these moments, because Yonge designed her books to test the reactions of her readers. A letter is received from an unknown clergyman, describing the holy death of a child whom Ethel has taught. The vicar takes Ethel aside at the dedication of the church, and offers her a blessing. That is all. But we are meant to feel it is enough, and deeply moving.
This picture of a highly intellectual young woman finding a fulfilling part for herself outside marriage was, of all Yonge’s many books, the bestseller: an inspiration to many church workers and bookish girls for several generations.
YONGE’s literary imagination was a singularly concrete one: one of the charms of her novels is that they detail the physical objects and the occasions with which, and within which, the work of the Victorian Church of England took place. In The Daisy Chain, Ethel is sent “a large parcel of books to choose from” for her Sunday school, and puzzles over which to select: “Being brought to these practical details made her sensible that, though her schemes were very grand and full for future doings, they passed very lightly over the intermediate ground.” In Yonge’s fiction, you never ever pass over the real world within which lofty ideals have to operate.
Her novels evoke the atmosphere in Victorian parish rooms and the practical business of furnishing Victorian churches. In The Six Cushions, six girls are set by the Rector to embroider four-foot-long cushions with lilies, in Berlin woolwork, for the chancel steps of a new church. They are followed as they do it — badly or well, lazy or conscientious, and so on. You can never look at another kneeler without wondering about the personality of its maker, and the spirit in which it was made.
The Pillars of the House describes the descent of the local archaeological society on an unrestored, ancient priory church, and conjures up the whole atmosphere of the Victorian church-restoration craze — although Yonge herself was rather quizzical about the fanatical members of the Cambridge Camden Society, and one character remarks unkindly of another: “I’m afraid he minds his ecclesiology more than his ecclesia.”
While these details clutter the texture of her novels like a crowded Victorian sitting-room, they are more than mere decoration of the surface: all of these things, and institutions, are brimming with meaning that is apparent to the attentive reader.
ANOTHER thing that contributes to the peculiar flavour of Yonge’s fiction is the fact that she loved to write about enormous families; as Louisa May Alcott put it, Yonge could not get on with fewer than 12 or 14 children in her novels. To read her is to become intimate with generations of different families.
Modern Broods (1900), one of her very last books, features characters who first appeared in Scenes and Characters (1847), and whose adventures were followed by fans in novels in each of the five decades in between. Because Yonge used the same characters, she also recorded the evolution of manners and opinions. In Modern Broods, one character observes “how the young folk mount upon all our little achievements in Church matters, and think them nearly as old-fashioned and despicable as we did pews and black gowns!”
When Yonge was a teenager, in the 1840s, the elimination of box pews was the goal of every reforming clergyman, just as today’s trendy vicar substitutes stacking chairs for Victorian benches. This endearing awareness of the younger generation’s irreverence about what she holds dear is typical of Yonge.
Her later novels grapple with the problem of inspiring the bicycling, exam-taking girl of the period with the ideals of her youth. In The Long Vacation (1895), she makes Lilias Merrifield — who had been the heroine of her early novel Scenes and Characters (1847) — complain that her daughters’ generation were not really engaged by Sunday-school teaching: “Now, those that teach do so simply as a duty and not a romance . . . all the excitement of the matter has gone off.”
ALTHOUGH Yonge found much to regret in the increased secularism and materialism of Victorian society, she was, fundamentally, an optimist. One of her best-loved characters, Dr May, Ethel’s father, gave voice in the early 1870s to what must have been the author’s own belief: that the young have to be allowed to change the world in their own way. “Why, as I saw it well put the other day — Ethel was delighted with the notion — King Arthur tried to work up the Round Table, and because Christian chivalry had raised that generation, comes the Quest of the Sancgreal to lead them higher. . . Tying them down to our Round Table does no good at all.”
Dr Charlotte Mitchell is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the English Department of University College London. For more information about Yonge, and links to e-books, visit the website of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship: www.cmyf.org.