Chronicler of Victorian values

08 April 2008

Michael Wheeler reads essays on a prolific novelist who was rooted in Keble’s faith

Characters and Scenes: Studies in Charlotte M. Yonge
Julia Courtney and Clemence Schultze, editors

Beechcroft Books, £16 (978-0-9557096-0-9)

THOSE of us who live in Winchester diocese think of Charlotte M. Yonge as the local celebrity whose devotion to John Keble is inscribed in her numerous Tractarian novels, some of which he vetted, and in her beloved St Matthew’s, Otterbourne. Soon after her death, in 1901, Canon Moberly of Christ Church, Oxford, preached a memorial sermon at Otterbourne, which is printed at the end of Characters and Scenes. In 2001, the 150 members of the Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship agreed that the anniversary should be marked by the production of this book, edited by two of their num-ber, both academics.

Some of the contributors seem to be writing for each other, on sub-jects that are more appropriate to the fanzine than a book aimed at the general reader. Fellowship mem-bers will be grateful for a series of genealogical tables of the characters who figure in more than one of the novels, many of them now out of print, and for Julia Courtney’s account of Yonge’s followers, or “Goslings” — minor novelists who were themselves members of the literati of Torquay, or of the Winchester circle.

The same cannot be said for those outside the inner circle, who may have heard of The Heir of Redclyffe but not read it, and who know nothing about her other works, more than 100 of them.

Clemence Schultze’s chapter on the classics is, however, of more general interest, and tells us as much about Victorian education, for both girls and boys, as it does about Charlotte Yonge. Cecilia Bass has interesting things to say about the critics who were suspicious of the novelist’s Tractarianism, but seems startled by the phrase “the beauty of holiness” as applied to a work of literature. Her rather convoluted analysis of realism in the novels is followed by a chapter by June Sturrock, who neatly points out that the books are about Keble’s “the trivial round, the common task”.

Maria Poggi Johnson’s chapter on “The case for Anglicanism in Charlotte Yonge’s historical fiction” is in a class of its own. Unlike some other contributors, Professor Johnson knows how to take the reader into specific incidents in particular novels, and how to drive her argument forward, as she shares insights into the use of history in Victorian fiction as a vehicle for reflection on modern controversies in the Church. Perhaps the Church of England of our day needs to find its own tame novelist who can write about sexual politics in the Church, but in the code that is history.

Professor Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at Southampton and Lancaster Universities.

Available from Dr Susan Walton, 103 Park Avenue, Hull HU5 3EP, for £16 incl. p.& p.; cheques payable to Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship.

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