I’ve been wanting to read Countess Kate by Charlotte M Yonge for ages. I first met her in The Pillars of the House (wonderful book!) where she makes a brief appearance, but I didn’t understand who she was. I have a long shelf filled with books by CMY but as they are all the same edition and I hadn’t found a matching Kate, I missed out. Now I’ve been able to download the book to my Kindle, which has the added advantage of making the print a more suitable size for reading in bed. As CMY readers know, the small print in most volumes can be a drawback to enjoyment.
The first thing that struck me about Kate was how much like Katy Carr she is. Kate is tall and thin, impetuous; loves to read but is unhandy with needlework and other ladylike accomplishments. She likes to romp and to invent games and can’t keep a dress on for five minutes without getting it dirty or ripping it. Countess Kate was published in 1862, What Katy Did in 1872, so it is possible that Susan Coolidge had read the earlier book.
Kate Umfraville is an orphan being brought up with her cousins under the kindly eye of her clergyman uncle, Mr Wardour, whom she calls ‘Papa’. This motherless family combines the high moral tone you’d expect with a great deal of freedom for the children to run about and have fun; Kate is very happy there. Then when she’s eleven a cousin dies and she finds that she is now the Countess of Caergwent. Immediately, relatives who have taken no previous interest in the child insist that she be removed from her ‘unsuitable’ home to be trained up for her future role. This means moving to London to live with stiff Aunt Barbara and kindly but ineffectual Aunt Jane. Poor Kate. Nothing she does can please Lady Barbara and she complains that living in Bruton Street has made her ‘more naughty’. I’m quoting this passage of Kate’s thoughts because it sounds so much like Alice talking to herself.
“It is like a rule-of-three sum. Let me see--if a common little girl has one hundred happinesses a day, and a countess only-- only five--how many has the Queen? No--but how much higher is a queen than a countess? If I were Queen, I would put an end to aunts and to calisthenic exercises; and I would send for all my orphan nobility, and let them choose their own governesses and playfellows, and always live with country clergymen! I am sure nobody ought to be oppressed as Aunt Barbara oppresses me: it is just like James V. of Scotland when the Douglases got hold of him! I wonder what is the use of being a countess, if one never is to do anything to please oneself, and one is to live with a cross old aunt!"
Alice in Wonderland was first published in 1865.
You have to feel sorry for the child, shut up without any congenial companion, lacking exercise and made to feel always in the wrong. At the same time it’s obvious that she is too prone to self-dramatisation and makes things worse for herself. This is how CMY puts it:
“And what was it that Kate did want? I believe nothing could have made her perfectly happy, or suited to her aunt; but that she would have been infinitely happier and better off had she had the spirit of obedience, of humility, or of unselfishness.”
Luckily, Kate doesn’t have to undergo a terrible Katy Carr-like accident in order to improve herself. What she needs is people who will understand and guide her better and by the end of the book, this is what she gets.
"Yes," said the lady, "you are a clever child; and if you made the most of yourself, you could be very sensible, and hinder yourself from being foolish and unguarded, and getting into scrapes."
I’m not sure whether or not this was written as a children’s book but I think any girl who can enjoy Little Women or The Secret Garden would like this, too. CMY’s skill, just like that of Catherine Sinclair in Holiday House or of Coolidge, is to give the reader all the fun of the scrapes before the consequences kick in. I simply loved the book and looked forward every day to getting back to it.