Loving Charlotte M Yonge is like belonging to a secret society. “Oh! Do you read her?” forms an instant bond. There is a real society, the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship. I’ve come late to CMY, which I don’t regret at all as it’s nice to have a whole new lot of books to look out for at affordable prices. I think I’ve read the most important ones, for which you can also read ‘most popular’, but that leaves dozens to go. I’m not interested in the historical stories, only the wonderful family sagas.
I started with The Daisy Chain, when I picked up a copy of the Virago edition, read the first page and fell in love. It’s a good one to start with. Not only is it probably her most popular book among modern readers but The Trial (less good) is a sequel and some of its characters reappear in other books. Who could blame CMY if, having created Dr May and Ethel, she couldn’t resist bringing them into other stories? I’ve also read Heartsease, Dynevor Terrace, The Pillars of the House, The Clever Woman of the Family and, just finished, The Young Step-Mother. I’m glad I read them before reading the biography, Charlotte M Yonge The Story of an Uneventful Life by Georgina Battiscombe, or I wouldn’t have understood the frequent references to the books.
The modern reader needn’t be afraid of the religion which is taken for granted in all the books. Those without any religious background, or with no knowledge of nineteenth century religious history will be missing a subtext but the characters are so real and the dialogue so lively that the books can still be enjoyed. More of a stumbling block is CMY’s firm belief in the inferiority of women to men. Although very learned herself she disapproved of university education for women, thinking that the home influence was best for young women and that education was best guided by family. She was tutored by her own father who, with John Keble, was the greatest influence on her life. The world outside Home was full of pitfalls and temptations, and not just for girls. Poor Gilbert, in The Young Stepmother, meets temptation just about every time he walks out of the front door and lacks the early training to help him resist it. There is a curious reference in the book to The Three Musketeers, which is described as one of the ‘worst’ of Dumas’s novels. Apparently there is something very dreadful in it because when Albinia finds Gilbert reading it, he is ashamed, too. They agree that she will read aloud the enjoyable, amusing parts and he will not look at the rest.
CMY created many strong, lively, witty female characters but they are all in need of male support. Albinia, for instance, in The Young Stepmother, is aristocratic, beautiful, full of energy and good intentions but inclined to be impetuous and needs to be restrained by her husband and, especially, her wise brother. The ‘Clever Woman of the Family’, who is not really so clever after all, has to be tamed by marriage and motherhood. There are humbling experiences for many of her other heroines. I find it very hard that Ethel, in The Daisy Chain, who is even more brilliant at classics than her brother Norman, is untidy, has ‘two left hands’ and is really fit for an academic life rather than a domestic one, willingly gives up her studies in order to keep house for her father and siblings.
It is very important to remember that though we may see this as a sacrifice it is a willing one and one that Ethel thinks worthwhile. If you are the sort of reader who doesn’t suffer agonies with Jane and Lizzie over Lydia’s behaviour in Pride and Prejudice and thinks Jane Austen too tough on the characters in Mansfield Park, you may find CMY difficult, if endlessly discussable, and will never understand why it was so important to build a church at Cocksmoor. CMY obviously knew Jane Austen’s books very well and expected her readers to know them. In The Pillars of the House Geraldine remarks, after a visit from Alda, “It was just like Fanny Price at Portsmouth.” Of the books I have read so far my favourites are The Daisy Chain and Heartsease. For those who can see sexiness in Jane Austen, Heartsease is rather a sexy book.