THE best Victorian novelist you’ve never heard of. This may be, for many, a fair description of Charlotte Mary Yonge, the bestselling author whose bicentenary falls this year. Born four years later than the Queen, and dying only a couple of months after her, Yonge (1823–1901) lived through an epoch of enormous change.
Science and technology, population growth and widespread education, as well as intellectual and religious developments, had, by 1901, transformed beyond recognition the world into which she was born. In some respects, Yonge moved with (or slightly behind) the times; in others, the values instilled by her upbringing and milieu were lifelong.
Her home was the village of Otterbourne, outside Winchester, where her father, William Crawley Yonge, had settled, giving up a promising army career to marry Fanny Bargus. William plainly did not have enough to do superintending his mother-in-law’s very small estate, acting as doctor to villagers, and educating Charlotte and her brother, Julian (born 1830). So, he turned attention, time, and money to providing the villagers with a larger and better-located church: an enterprise wholeheartedly encouraged by the incumbent.
The Revd John Keble arrived as Vicar of Hursley and Otterbourne at a crucial point in Charlotte’s life. She was awestruck by the fact that it was the famous poet of The Christian Year who would prepare her for confirmation. Keble’s “typical” (i.e. typological) mode of addressing scripture shaped her religious thinking, and informed the way in which her novels should be read.
As the Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism, gained headway in the 1830s, it was an exciting time for people traditionally on the High Church wing of Anglicanism who now found their principles imbued with new vigour. Keble, although removed from Oxford, was at the centre of a network of scholars, pamphleteers, and correspondents in those heady days, and Yonge encountered some of the Movement’s notables in the flesh, others through their writings.
As a character in her book Chantry House (1886) says: “People would hardly believe in our eagerness and enthusiasm over the revelations of church doctrine; how we debated, consulted our books, and corresponded . . . how we viewed the British Critic and Tracts for the Times as our oracles.”
Then came the reverses of the mid-1840s, and the “defections”, as she terms them, to the Roman Catholic Church of John Henry Newman and many others. Keble’s staunchness guided Yonge’s understanding of the issues, and she remained faithful to the “middle way” of Anglicanism.
In retrospect, she saw the period as one in which prospects for unity between the Churches became “the hope of faith, not of sight”. Indeed, the motto she adopted for herself, “Pro ecclesia Dei” (“For the Church of God”), expresses that hope.
AT ABOUT this time, the stories that Yonge had for years been “scribbling” (her word) reached a wider public. Abbeychurch (1844) was well received, and Yonge was praised for the insight into character which is the great strength of her writing. Four more novels followed, all of which were discussed during the writing process by Yonge’s family, by the Kebles, and by the Dysons of Dogmersfield.
Then, in 1853, came the literary breakthrough that made Yonge a household name: The Heir of Redclyffe. Her friend Marianne Dyson had suggested the concept: that a self-satisfied protagonist unjustly persecutes a humble and contrite man, in the end causing his death. Yonge took this idea and ran with it, creating a well-structured tale, which sets a romantic plot against a contemporary backdrop, with an attractive and (slightly) flawed hero.
Guy Morville embodies the possibility of everyday chivalry; contrasted with him is his cousin Philip. Motivated by self-righteousness combined with unacknowledged jealousy, Philip brings Guy under suspicion of gambling, and nearly ruins his chances of happiness. Only after Guy has died in nursing Philip through a fever does the latter acknowledge and repent of his own malice and injustice.
Enormously successful throughout Yonge’s lifetime, The Heir of Redclyffe remains a remarkably good read: the characters banter and chat, enjoying games and entertainments, and discussing books. Each has her or his individual voice; each develops in a convincing fashion over the course of the story.
This is especially true of Charles, the disabled son of the household, whose initial bitter resignation, manifested through a mixture of wit and self-pity, grows into a constructive recognition that he can apply his talents so as to play a useful part in the family.
In accordance with the Tractarian notions of religious Reserve that Keble inculcated in Yonge, these developments are revealed not by explicit self-analysis on the part of the characters, or overt preachiness from the author, but through subtle intimations that require attentive reading.
YONGE’s next success came with The Daisy Chain (1856), significantly subtitled Aspirations. The novel contrasts ambition (worldly, self-aggrandising, or intellectually combative) with sincere aspirations to benefit one’s society or locality. This theme is worked out in the motherless May family of 11 children.
Brilliant Norman, whose oratorical talent promises success as a politician or an inspiring preacher, finds that theological controversy first renders him overly proud of his powers, and then brings him close to losing his faith. He opts instead for missionary service: “I must . . . go to the simplest, hardest work, beginning from the rudiments, and forgetting subtle arguments.” Yonge was a major benefactor of the Melanesian Mission, and Norman’s choice reflects her enthusiasm.
Ethel, foremost among Yonge’s heroines, expresses Tractarian exertions for home mission and church-building. Short-sighted and ungainly, Ethel is as clever as Norman — but, being a girl, she does not have his educational opportunities. Her aspiration is to bring the Church to the neglected hamlet of Cocksmoor.
Small efforts (a Sunday school in a rented room where the sisters teach) lead gradually to larger ones (a daily school with an employed schoolmistress), and finally to the construction of a church, paid for by a legacy. These efforts entail self-denial for Ethel (as indeed in real life for the Yonges, who, when building Otterbourne Church, gave up for several years their annual holiday to William’s family in Devon). But it is even more difficult — and essential — for Ethel to learn to control her untidy, clumsy, impulsive habits.
Setbacks and frustrations occur; there are clashes over the right way of raising money and spending it; pupils — and teachers, too — fall short and disappoint; family members participate, or fail to do so. Yonge is entirely non-idealising as she portrays the slow progress towards Ethel’s realising her aspiration.
All this is intertwined with the home and school stories of the other siblings: mischievous exploits, teasing and bullying, hobbies and homework; a blinkered governess and a peevish one; and a father full of good intentions, but sometimes lacking in judgement.
THE culmination of Yonge’s achievement is The Pillars of the House (1873). Her friend and first biographer, Christabel Coleridge, held that “Charlotte always regarded it as her fullest form of self-expression.” Its hero, Felix Underwood, is an outstanding instance of Yonge’s “passion for goodness”, which takes the form of devoted hard work to make a home for his many brothers and sisters, orphaned when Felix is still only a teenager.
Yonge’s range was vast, covering biography, history, natural history, and Sunday school books, as well as dozens of novels with a contemporary setting and many historical ones. For more than 40 years, she edited a journal for “younger members of the English Church”, The Monthly Packet; this was arguably “the first teenage magazine”. It had some distinguished contributors, Lewis Carroll among them. She compiled the first etymological History of Christian Names.
Her concentration was extraordinary: Coleridge describes how “she frequently wrote her letters all at once, and often a story, a Cameo [a short historical essay], and a bit of Scripture teaching at the same time, writing a page of each, leaving it to dry, and going on with another. . . it was a process which could only be watched with awe.”
Yonge also negotiated astutely with her publishers — necessarily; for, from 1875 onwards, when her brother’s business investments failed, she supported him and his entire family.
Many of Yonge’s social attitudes were modified over time. She was delighted that poorer people were benefiting from better living conditions, greater educational opportunities, and, above all, more access to churches. She recognises a shift away from the rigid class boundaries of her youth; and characters in her later novels embark on careers inconceivable in the middle of the century.
She became much more accepting of wider opportunities for women, their access to higher education, and their ability to work outside the home and to travel. Yet, in other respects, her views remained very much as they had been during her formative years: conservative both in politics and theology.
If this is a limitation, it is a measure of her literary talent and imaginative powers that they transcend it, creating characters who are memorable, attractive, and good, although flawed — in fact, credible human beings who still appeal to current readers.
Clemence Schultze chaired the Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship from 2011 to 2021. With Clare Walker Gore and Julia Courtney, she is a co-editor of Charlotte Mary Yonge: Writing the Victorian age, (Palgrave Macmillan), reviewed here.
She will be speaking at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature on 25 February on “Charlotte Yonge: Why her novels are so readable today”.