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Charlotte Mary Yonge, edited by Clemence Schultze, Clare Walker Gore, and Julia Courtney

10 February 2023

Michael Wheeler finds that literary critics have changed their tune

THE EDITORS of this splendid collection of essays remind us in their introduction that Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was a household name in the 19th century, was largely ignored in the 20th, and is now undergoing extensive revaluation in her bicentenary year.

Burdened with a reputation as a spinster lady who wrote novels for the Oxford Movement, under the thumb of her father and John Keble, Yonge has long been regarded as the pious Sunday-school teacher who edited The Monthly Packet, built churches, funded missionaries, and wrote a long string of realist novels, which focus on family life and Christian duty, especially for girls. All this is true, but feminist critics and social historians are now excited by the writer whom Elaine Showalter slightingly described as “good grey Charlotte Yonge”.

Valerie Sanders opens part I (“Home and Family”) with an essay on Yonge’s life writing in which, as in so much other writing by women, childhood figures prominently. Julia Courtney then places Yonge of Otterbourne in relation to the “environmental writing” of Gilbert White of Selborne, among others, and a sense of place. Tamara S. Wagner maintains the book’s impressive range of reference in a fascinating essay on the “mother-sister” figure in Yonge’s fiction and that of her contemporaries.

Clare Walker Gore’s specialist interest in disability in the 19th century leads her to those familiar feminine spaces in Yonge, the schoolroom and the sickroom, and a close reading of selected novels. Susan Walton’s essay on money and class in the family novels includes rather touching testimony from Yonge herself, later in life: she had spent much of her adult life working for her “village neighbours”, but could never “converse with them with any freedom”.

Part II (“Societies and Ideologies”) explores less familiar territory, ranging from Clemence Schultze’s essay on science, inquiry, and progress, helpfully illustrated with quotations from the novels in question, to Terry Barringer’s piece on Yonge and the world beyond Europe, Anglicanism offering opportunities for making global links. (The author herself crossed the seas only twice, visiting Dublin and Normandy.)

Barbara Dennis’s essay on mission includes not only Yonge’s support for the murdered Bishop Patteson, but also her extensive writing on home missions. Her awareness of church buildings’ ability to communicate spiritual truths and to shape behaviour is discussed by William Whyte in a perceptive study of architecture, faith, and Yonge. And the late lamented Rosemary Mitchell considers the concept of conservative community in an essay on the various strands to Yonge’s Toryism.

Whereas the academic authors mentioned so far largely treat the fiction and non-fictional prose as source material for their reflections, the authors in part III (“Criticism and Reception”) offer critical and theoretical analysis of the writing itself. Hilary Clare chooses two examples of Yonge’s historical fiction for detailed analysis, Ellen Jordan looks at Yonge’s relationship with her mentors and publishers as she became an independent professional writer, and Gavin Budge offers a bravura account of parallels between Yonge and modernists such as Virginia Woolf. (Both novelists were interested in the authenticity of the uncouth or awkward character, for example.)

The collection ends with two highly original pieces: Maia McAleavey’s analysis of “the realism of lived time” in Yonge, and Talia Shaffer’s important account of Yonge’s reception history, which nicely rounds off the book with the suggestion that perhaps “We were the ones who needed to change,” rather than Charlotte Mary Yonge.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and the author of
The Year That Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845 (Cambridge University Press, 2023).


Charlotte Mary Yonge: Writing the Victorian age
Clemence Schultze, Clare Walker Gore and Julia Courtney, editors
Palgrave Macmillan £39.99

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