Project Canterbury

Charlotte Mary Yonge

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

MARY YONGE was born at Otterbourne, in Hampshire, on August 11, 1823; seventy years later she died in the same village. Hers was a family of pious tradition: several priestly ancestors had been Nonjurors; and of her grandfather she writes: 'He was a deeply religious man in a very slack time, he never spent the income of his livings on himself, but provided for the needs of his parishioners; ... he was absolutely the first to provide a manual of prayers to be used with prisoners. He was sole medical attendant to his parishioners, and was called up at all hours to attend to them, and he actually made an endowment to provide medical attendance for them after his time.' The living members of the family were fruitful soil for the seeds sown by the Oxford Movement.

The family was a large one, and the different branches were very affectionately disposed towards each other, so it happened that little Charlotte, who was for years an only child, spent many a happy holiday with families of romping cousins. Thus the solitary child learned the joys of companionship, and learned, too, to people the many hours of loneliness with children of her imagination. 'My great world was indoors with my dolls, who were my children and my sisters; out of doors with an imaginary family of ten boys and eleven girls, who lived in an arbour. There were about sixteen dolls, large wooden, small wax, and tiny dutch, who used to be set in chairs along the nursery, and do their lessons when I had done mine. I was happy at home, but it was with a calm, solitary happiness; there no one but myself was a native of the land of childhood. The dear home people gave me all they could, but they could not be children themselves, and oh, the bliss of that cousin-land to me!'

Charlotte's parents, who lived at Otterbourne House, were among the earliest to interest themselves in the education of the poor. Mr. Yonge built a little school in the grounds, and there his young bride started her first Sunday School. Little Charlotte was taken hither when she was six years old, and at seven she became a teacher. This work she carried on for seventy-one years, and her interest and joy in it were unfailing; her first literary work was for Sunday School children.

Charlotte's own comment, apparently quite serious, on her early promotion to the teacher's rank was, 'It was a mistake, for I had not moral balance enough to be impartial, and I must have been terribly ignorant.'


The small church of Charlotte's early youth stood on the banks of the Otter; it must have been a lovely little church, but in her time it was in a deplorable condition. The Yonges' pew was in a gallery, and they reached it by climbing a step-ladder outside the church. The parish had no resident clergyman, being joined to Hursley. The bells used to be rung when the clergyman was seen at the turn of the lane. When Mr. Yonge first came to the village he inquired as to the time of the service. 'At half-past ten or eleven, sir, or else no time at all,' was the answer. Later this seems to have been altered, for Charlotte remembered the clerk announcing: 'I hereby give notice that service in this church will be at half-past two as long as the winter days are short.' She also remembered that the clerk used to carry a long switch with which to chastize ill-behaviour.

This state of affairs was not likely to satisfy a young couple of pious inclinations, and Mr. Yonge seems to have worked hard for improvement. A permanent curate, a Mr. Bigg-Wither, came to take charge of the parish, and there was a general infusion of vigour. From his first coming, Holy Week and Ascension Day began to be observed, and the number of celebrations of Holy Communion was increased from three to four a year, and later this number was largely added to.

Mr. Bigg-Wither and Mr. Yonge set on foot a scheme for church restoration, but the church was condemned as too small, too old, and too far away, and it was decided to build a new church instead. No one knew anything about church building, and an architect who had studied the subject did not exist. Mr. Yonge knew that he liked York Minster, and finding that the reredos was of Caen stone, despatched a stonemason thither; he also traced out a cross on the ground with a stick!

Before any plans were carried out, the Yonges heard that the vicar of Hursley had resigned, and they waited until the new vicar came, so that he might be consulted. 'The new vicar was Mr. Keble,' says Charlotte, 'and thus came the chief spiritual influence of my life.' The church building plan was taken in hand at once, and in spite of their difficulties and ignorance, a church was built which was in advance of many in reverence and beauty.


From the time of Keble's arrival at Hursley a new life opened for Charlotte; she seems always to have realized the presence of a saint, and it was through his guidance that her life was so dedicated to Christ.

She counted it the especial blessing of her life that John Keble prepared her for Confirmation. 'It was a great happiness and opened my mind to Church doctrines, but well I remember the warning at the end against taking these things up in a merely poetical tone for their beauty. He did not call it "aesthetically," for he did not love long words. My Master he was in every way.'

This happy and blessed association lasted for thirty years, and her letters give delightful little pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Keble at all sorts of homely times; they were of the very warp and woof of her life. A thing that Charlotte always detested was what she and her friends called Bild-worship, or Bild-making; by this she meant the sort of hysterical admiration often accorded by girls to men in certain positions. Actors and clergy and, in these days, film stars come into the aura of Bild-worship. She took care that her attitude to Keble never came near this low thing, so she grew from girlhood to womanhood daily enriched by his wonderful influence.

A beautiful example of their intercourse, which preserves Keble's very words, happens to have come down to us in a private postscript written to a very close friend. The Heir of Redclyffe had just been published, and Charlotte had leapt to fame. Every post brought some new 'peacock,' as she called the notices. Her brother found that nearly every officer in his regiment had a copy; Morris and Rossetti, the young Pre-Raphaelites, took Guy as a sort of hero-model; at Oxford the undergraduates loved it, and in short, this book, which embodied the spirit of the Oxford Movement, took the country by storm.

Many happy hours were spent at home and at Hursley discussing the characters, and the book was of great interest to Keble, as may be gathered from these extracts: 'We went to the vicarage, and stayed to tea, and most uncommonly delightful it was. Mr. Keble hardly did anything but talk the whole evening ... he and Harriet take the same view that Philip blamed himself overmuch. . . . They think Charles like Mr. H. Froude; I suppose in veiling feeling in fun he may be. ... A. did what I should not have dared, brought on a talk about Dr. Newman; the vicar talked of him as if the connection were a thing so past, that he could speak of him without pain. . . . I had a happy drive home in the moonlight, wrapped up in Mrs. Keble's fur cloak. . . .'

Then comes the postscript, which seems to bring Keble right into the sight and hearing.

'Private.--I should like you to know the comfort and peace I had in the little study at H.V. (Hursley Vicarage). It is too precious to have him to bring all one's fears of vainglory, etc., to, and to hear him say, "Yes, my dear, I have been thinking a great deal about you now," and then he said that a successful book might be the trial of one's life--it was so exactly what was nice, not telling me not to enjoy the praise . . . but that way of at once soothing and guarding, and his telling me to think of the pleasure it was to my Mother and Father; and then besides the safeguard of prayer and the offering of talents. I wish I could give you the effect of the peacefulness and subduing happiness of it, especially when I asked for his blessing, and he said, "You shall have it, such as it is," and then he took the words he never used with me before, "Prosper thou her handiwork," which seemed to seal a daily prayer and make all bearable and not vain. I could not help telling you, but keep it to yourself. "If you keep watch, and go on in your own natural way, it need do you no harm," he said.'

Many years after, when the parting was at hand, Charlotte wrote, 'Our hearts are full of Mr. Keble's state,' and a little later, 'The holy and blessed spirit went to its rest at one o'clock on Maundy Thursday morning; the other gentle spirit is placidly waiting her call to be with him.' 'It was the one bright and beautiful day of a cold wet spring, and the celandines opened and glistened like stars round the grave where we laid him, and bade him one last "God be with you," and with the twenty-third psalm, and went home hoping that he would not blame us for irreverence for thinking of him in words applied to the first saint who bore his name. "He was a burning and a shining light, and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in that light."

Thirty-five years later, on the anniversary of Keble's death, a mourning village was surrounding the open grave of Charlotte Yonge; the choir, white-robed, were grouped on and around the steps of the Keble memorial cross, for the faithful pupil was allowed to lie near to her master; at the foot of the memorial someone had placed a laurel wreath, which bore these words:

Master and Inspirer of
Whom God called home on March 29, 1866.

Voice of the Fearless Saint,
Ring like a trump where gentle hearts
Beat high for truth.
Tell them the hour is come, and
They must take their parts.


The words printed above were Charlotte Yonge's favourite motto, and though it is not possible to tell of all she did to put it into practice, some idea may be given here. The Oxford Movement was the mainspring of all her enthusiasm, but three of its manifestations were especially dear. These were the teaching of the young, both religious and secular, church building, and foreign missions.

For seventy-one years she taught in the Sunday School, and for a great many she gave a lesson daily in the week, taking boys one day and girls the next. She always said that breaking off her occupations for this and to attend the daily services kept up the freshness of her interest and prevented her energies from flagging. 'She was the most skilful and brilliant teacher I ever knew,' wrote Miss Coleridge after her death. 'She taught in school like the most sympathetic and cultivated of day-school teachers, while only two years ago to hear her read Shakespeare with a young scullery maid, or teach French to a National School mistress was delightful.'

To give the earnings from her books to the Church seemed to Charlotte the simple and obvious thing to do; probably no other way of spending the money ever occurred to her. She did not expect any fuss to be made over such a simple thing, and she was sweetly surprised when gratitude was shown. Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand was at Winchester, preaching and holding meetings. Charlotte and the Kebles went to stay at the college with their great friend, Dr. Moberley. After lunch the tiniest Moberley baby toddled up to the Bishop, who was talking in the garden with Mr. Keble and the Warden, and pushed an envelope into his hands. The envelope held the first monies received from The Heir of Redclyffe, £147 10 s., and on it was written, 'Towards the new vessel for the Island Mission.' Dr. Moberley told the bishop about Charlotte, and she was called up and introduced. She tells of these doings in a letter which begins: 'All this time you have not heard how I had three walks between college and St. John's arm-in-arm with the Bishop! Don't you call that preferment? After the afternoon meeting the Bishop asked me if I was going back to college, and I said "Yes," and off we walked again, and met Mr. Keble in a narrow alley with Mrs. K.'s shawl on his arm, and his eyes dancing, partly to congratulate me, I think. Then, in walking on, the Bishop spoke about the money, all in the kindest way, and it ended with his saying, "I suppose I am joint heir with the Heir of Redclyffe!" which delights Mamma particularly.'

The proceeds of The Daisy Chain were also given to the same mission. In 1867, eleven years after it was published, Mrs. Yonge wrote to a friend: 'The good Daisy Chain has paid £114 this year to the Melanesian Mission.'

Another instance of her use of money is taken from the end of her life. A number of friends and admirers had produced a book of signatures of people who loved her work. While a complete collection was impossible, a great many were obtained, some of them of very notable people; a contribution of 1 s. was allowed, if the signatory so wished. The names were bound in a handsome volume with daisies on the cover, and the money amounted to £200.

This was given to Charlotte on her seventieth birthday. Charlotte spent the money in building a lych-gate for the church that her father and her beloved master had contrived together so many years ago; as her friends specially desired that she should also have something for herself, she bought a little tea-table and tea-set which she used daily for the rest of her life.

Money was not all that she gave; devout prayer and her tremendous influence were gifts of incalculable value.


Charlotte Yonge had three loves that all drew her to write. One was the love of history which seemed to run like a second strand through her life. Another was the little village folk who had early made for themselves such a large place in her heart, and who must have some good stories to read; and lastly, her own deep need of companions and love of fellowship. The people in the books were alive to her; she would write of them in her letters in such a way that it is sometimes impossible to tell who is fact and who is fiction. 'I do wish Guy could have seen Mr. Keble to-day; how he would have enjoyed it!' she writes on one occasion. Or, 'I have found out what the offence was that made Guy bang the door.' In a letter she writes: 'I have been reading Mr. Hurrell Froude again; I am sure he is wrong when, in that essay on fiction, he says the author has no pleasure in it, and feels the events and people are under his own control. I am sure I don't, and what Guy and Philip may choose to turn out I cannot tell, and they seem just like real acquaintances.'

Most of the books deal with contemporary life, and they give a far more living picture of the England in which the Oxford Movement was born than it is possible to get from reading history. Like Jane Austen, Charlotte knew the life of the great house, but, unlike her, she also knew the life of the poor. She watched the great revival of religious feeling and of social conscience which were the fruits of the Movement, and these she shows us in her works. She always regarded The Pillars of the House as her fullest form of self-expression. The Catholic teaching in this book is simple, natural, and fearless. The characters are real people; they go to confession, but it does not make them perfect, any more than it makes us perfect to-day; they make mistakes and lose their tempers, and try again in the normal human way. Angela, a lapsed penitent, is brought back to penitence by bereavement; she goes to her room to prepare her confession. 'Behold, as she tried herself by the questions so long laid aside they assumed a new force and meaning! The once blunted probes had acquired a sharpness they had never had before, and she found that her extreme dislike of returning to her old director was that instead of an interesting penitent with a tragic crime on her hands, she should only come as a naughty girl he had known all her life; and not because of his mismanagement, but because he understood her too well, and had warned her of the very errors that had eaten into her life. . . .' Every character is an individual; the priests are not perfect, but they are striving after an ideal; the Catholics are not all good and the Protestants all bad; in short, the books are filled with people, and, allowing for the different circumstances, just such people as we meet to-day.

The influence of the books on the public opinion of the time was incalculable. Their circulation was very large, and numerous editions were printed; they were read by princesses and professors, by poets, such as Kingsley and Tennyson, and by the very humble. When we remember the condition of Church life and the unpopularity of the Movement, we can realize to some extent what Charlotte Yonge did 'pro Ecclesia et Deo' when she wrote books that got themselves read all over the country, and which contained all the sacramental teaching for which the Church had been called upon to fight.

It is inevitable to compare Charlotte Yonge with Anthony Trollope; the characters are drawn largely from the same field, the Hall and the Vicarage, and both authors have the happy knack of bringing old friends from one book into others, so that the reader meets them from a different angle. Their people, too, have the pleasant habit of seeming real, but here the resemblance ends. Trollope was satirical and interested in politics, while Charlotte was neither, and to Trollope the Church was a convenient institution which enabled a number of gentlemen to earn a comfortable living, without having to put themselves about; but to Charlotte it was the living Body of Christ, the home of his saints and worthy of nothing less than the work and devotion of a lifetime. In addition to her many novels, Charlotte Yonge was privileged to write the life of Bishop Coleridge Patteson, the martyred Bishop of Melanesia, who was a connection of hers. She also wrote children's stories, Sunday School books, and history books.

Her journalistic work was extensive: for forty years she edited and wrote for the Monthly Packet, the first and the best of magazines for young people; for fifteen years she edited a paper of Sunday Teaching; and as late as 1890 she started to edit Mothers in Council, which still prospers to-day.

She was a pretty child, and grew to be a beautiful woman; she had very brilliant hazel eyes, and chestnut curls in youth, and in late middle life her hair turned to a very lovely shade, so that people would exclaim at her beauty. The most noticeable thing about her was a wonderful aliveness and vividness, which made the little things of life into delightful things, and life itself a most exciting pilgrimage. Mrs. Sumner, the founder of the Mothers' Union, said: ' In all my intercourse with her, the thought impressed on my mind was that she was devoid of womanly failings to a remarkable degree. She had no vanity, no love of criticizing other people, for I never heard her say a severe thing of any human being; no nervous excitability, no impatience or hurry in her work or manner, no contempt for dull, stupid people. She had a quiet, cheerful, healthy, well-balanced mind; she was wonderfully well-read and well-informed, and her memory was extraordinary. Her merry laugh was very infectious. Such was the Charlotte Yonge I was privileged to know. I heard a great deal about the pressure put upon her to come up to town and allow herself to be feted as a celebrity, but this she steadily refused, and it seemed to me that personal admiration and adulation were particularly distasteful to her at all times. . . .' 'Fame,' says Ethel, in The Daisy Chain, 'does those that admire it good, not those that win it.'

Another friend wrote: 'A walk and a talk with her was like a tonic. I have never known any one humbler or readier to listen to others.'

In spite of her fame and her friendship with many brilliant people, and her own high connections, Charlotte was dogged through life by shyness; she felt herself unready with strangers, and often used to grieve that she might have hurt someone's feelings. Her friends considered that this was due to an upbringing that, even for those days, was unusually repressive. In their love for their daughter, her parents seem to have tried to quell her high spirits and to bottle up her glorious joy in living; this they did not do, but she was to carry through life a social timidity which she found to be a great drawback.

Charlotte's humility was her crowning virtue, and like other humble people she made life much easier for others. One form this virtue took which must be specially mentioned, because it has been sadly lacking all too often in the Catholic laity. Mr. Wither, who had been curate in Keble's time, had been in Otterbourne for thirty years, and the time came for him to go. Charlotte Yonge loved him dearly, and was used to his ways; also, leading a deeply sacramental life herself, she did not realize how necessary outward things are for most people, and so the very old-fashioned services did not fret her. 'It was hard for her then,' wrote the wife of the new vicar, 'when an unknown clergyman came, to acknowledge that his ways were right, and that it was not disloyal to her old friend to acquiesce in them, nay, even to forward them. She saw that times were changed, and that it was impossible to go on for ever in the same groove, and with a great and noble effort she determined to support her new clergyman. How grateful he felt towards her, words fail to tell, and she learned to know and trust him, and was never in word or deed disloyal to him.

'Those were days of great strain and anxiety; without Miss Yonge's firmness and the people's confidence in her, it would have taken years to subdue the suspicion aroused.'

How much misery and nerve strain would have been saved if other lay-folk had been willing to greet new incumbents in this beautiful spirit!

This series of booklets is called The Heroes of the Catholic Revival, it may seem that this country gentlewoman, living her quiet consecrated life, has little claim to be included among the heroes. She would have been the last to have expected such a thing herself, and would have been genuinely puzzled as to how she came to be there. We can understand her bewilderment; to give all that she had was to her a matter of course; all her time, all her love, and all her money, here was no sacrifice because it was what she loved best to do, the natural expression of her devotion, and the greatest joy of her life. But if there is heroism in self-denial, when that for which we deny ourselves is dearer to us than life itself, so that it is so much part of us that sacrifice for it ceases to be sacrifice, then Charlotte Yonge must take her place with the heroes, because that which she loved was the highest love known to men or the angels, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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