Project Canterbury

Charlotte Mary Yonge: An Appreciation

By Ethel Romanes

London: Mowbray, 1908.


Chapter IV. 'The Heir of Redclyffe'

IT was the publication of this book which made the fame of Charlotte Mary Yonge. Miss Yonge herself tells us, in the reminiscences of Mr. Keble, how the book arose:

'In the May of 1850 a friend (Miss Dyson) told me there were two characters she wanted to see brought out in a story--namely, the essentially contrite and the self-satisfied. Good men, we agreed, were in most of the books of the day, subdued by the memory of some involuntary disaster--generally the killing someone out shooting--whereas the "penitence of the saints" was un-attempted. The self-satisfied hero was to rate the humble one at still lower than his own estimate, to persecute him, and never be undeceived till he had caused his death. This was the germ of the tale, of which mine was the playwright work of devising action and narrative. It is less really my own than the later ones, and therefore rises much higher.

'We were all very happy over it, and Mr. and Mrs. Keble showed their usual patient goodness in listening to romancings of the yet unwritten story and throwing their interest into it; then in reading and correcting the MS. As an instance or two, in the description of the sunset the sun had been called a circle, but the poet-hand made it an orb. And when Mr. Edmondstone had called Philip a coxcomb, Mrs. Keble made the substitute of a jackanapes. Also, at first, Philip, in his solitude at Redclyffe, had been haunted by dread of insanity; but this was altered, because both the kind critics believed it to be absolutely cruel to bring forward that topic to enhance a mere fiction, and they mentioned instances in which the suggestion of the idea had done serious harm to excitable persons already in dread of that visitation. . . . Again, he advised the alteration of the end of an argument which concluded in a sarcastic and overbearing manner, saying: "I wish you would deprive the passage of its triumphant air." In general, the purport of the marks was to guard to the utmost both delicacy and reverence. The very least approach to a careless reference to Holy Scripture or that could connect with it a ludicrous idea was always expunged. I wish my words could do justice to the kindness and good judgment of both these dear friends with regard to that book.'

Mr. Yonge conducted the arrangements for the publication, and as he evidently had no idea how to manage the affair, a good deal of delay ensued. For instance, the book, by Sir John Coleridge's advice, was first offered to Mr. Murray, which seems extraordinarily stupid, as at that time that eminent publisher did not issue works of fiction.

However, it was handed over to Mr. Parker, and when it appeared it had an undoubted success.

We all know how such people as Burne-Jones and William Morris loved it, and that young men and young women adored it. It is funny to find from Miss Coleridge that there was evidently fear on the author's side that the family circle might consider it 'too daring.' It is a delightful book, and many of us are fain to confess to having read it at least a score of times.

'It embodied,' says Miss Coleridge, 'the spirit of the Oxford Movement in its purest and sweetest form. It is a delightful picture of the best kind of English upper middle class society of the time, and the talk, the ideas are fresh and bright and amusing. Miss Yonge had a sense of humour and some power of irony. It is almost a pity these gifts were not more encouraged, for Mr. Edmon-stone, the good-humoured, well-bred, rather stupid and lovable father so easily overborne by the righteous Philip, is the most ably drawn, and is one of the most living of the people, who are, however, all alive and creatures of flesh and blood.'

But would Miss Yonge and Mr. Keble and Miss Dyson have considered this heresy? Guy does not seem to us to belong to the category of those who are penitents first and then saints, but rather to be a modern Sir Galahad, to be one of those who keep 'the princely heart of innocence.'

For did he yield to any temptation? Does the author not make Guy confuse temptation with sin? Was his anger not the anger of a pure and noble mind when confronted by malicious spite? It is possible that if he had met Philip the very moment that he had opened the letter he might have sinned; but the fact remains that before the sun went down Guy had forgiven his enemy. We are not saying this is unreal or impossible--not at all; only that Guy ought not to have thought of himself as unworthy of Amabel, or have sat down so quietly under his injuries. Why he did not seek an interview with his guardian instead of writing, and how Mr. Edmonstone could be satisfied to let him go so easily, we cannot see; and beautiful as the story is, we cannot but feel that all the fuss about Guy and his supposed misdemeanours was a real storm in a teacup, nor does it seem to us probable that a man of the world, as Mr. Edmonstone must have been, could think a boy of twenty likely to have become a very deep-dyed villain, or have thought a lapse into extravagance--nay, even into betting--an indication of hopeless depravity.

But putting this aside, the story is most delightful; Charles, Amy, the old doctor, Mr. Edmonstone, Lady Evelyn, are all charming people. Philip is admirable--his self - deceit, his priggishness, his Philistinism, all brought out with a delightful simplicity and irony. Amy is the type of character that her creator dearly loved: gentle, sweet, apparently weak, and rising on occasion to heights of heroism, of which no one would have supposed her capable.

It is a great blessing that no continuation of the Heir ever saw the light. Amy and Charles grown old would have been too sad, and we could not have borne the Nemesis which undoubtedly would have overtaken Philip and Laura.

Miss Yonge was capable at times of real beauty in her writing, and the story of the death of Guy, so simply told, is beautiful.

And Guy himself is a veritable boy of flesh and blood, and is not at all unreal or impossible. He is so alive that we feel his death is heart-rending, he is so delicious in his young enthusiasm and so untouched by the world. Perhaps it is this unworldli-ness which gives the Heir and one or two more of Miss Yonge's books their especial charm.

She resembles Scott in one respect, that her heroes are good men. Sir Walter's heroes are often supposed to be uninteresting, but some of them, at any rate, do not deserve this reproach. Henry Morton, Frank Osbaldistone, Edmund Tressilian, to take only three, are excellent and delightful young men, all virtuous (one of them, certainly, had fought a duel) and brave and accomplished. Guy is a fitting companion to them, with the additional grace of an Oxford training upon him. It is a delightful trait in Miss Yonge that, unmusical as she was, she much appreciated a gift for music in others. Guy loved music, which love was a deadly offence in the eyes of Philip, who, as we have said, is a perfect type of Philistine before Mr. Matthew Arnold had made Philistinism known to us.

Miss Yonge's letters to Miss Dyson, who was known as Guy's mother, about the Heir and other topics are perfectly delightful. We only wish there were more of them. Here are some to Miss Barnett:

'June 20, 1851.

[The writer is working on The Heir of Redclyffe.] 'No. III. is in clover. I have had something of some sort almost every day lately, and am not at all afraid of the 60 pages.

'. . Sir Guy Morville considers himself much honoured by your invitation, and as much as there is or will be by that time of him shall attend you. It will be a real kindness to take him out of my reach, for he is such pleasant work as to spoil me for more regular business, but there is such a quantity of him all uncondensed and untrimmed that I am afraid you will repent. I hope you have not told Mrs. Butler the story beforehand, for I want much to know the sort of impression the story makes on a new person, and whether Philip is hated as much as by those who know how he is to end.'

'As for Guy, he is seeking his fortune in London, and I expect every day to hear of his fate, so I hope it may not be long before he comes forth to all the world. He thanks you and Mrs. Butler for kindly inviting him. I don't think it will be quite as much of a "Bustle" book as erst, for the last critical reading decided that there was rather too much Bustle, and he has been a little curtailed.'

'I am glad Mrs. Butler does not feel like one of our neighbours, who complained that she never would have read the book if she had known what it was coming to. I have had a great deal of pleasure out of it, I must say, and it has been very amusing to hear the different views that people have taken of Philip.

'Now about Violet [Heartsease], She is much obliged and honoured by your invitation, but I wanted to tell you the state of the case. . . . She is in a very unfit state for being seen. . . . My opinion is that she is in great danger of being long and stupid, and I am trying to condense her.'

Another letter says:

'Thank you, I have seen the Times. Sir William Heathcote told me there was such an article [a review of The Heir of Redclyffe], but he had not had time to read it, so I had to wait till morning in doubt whether it would be a knock-down one, and it was rather a relief that it was not all abuse. It is very amusing to see how Miss Wellwood comes in for exactly the same abuse us if she was alive, and with the same discrimination as to facts. [Miss Wellwood was the lady whom Guy wanted to aid in founding a Sisterhood.] It seems to me exactly the world's judgment of Guy and Philip--loving Guy and not understanding him, and sympathizing with Philip as more comprehensible. However, Marianne's son cannot be disliked, in spite of his principles--a great triumph for her.' [Miss Dyson was always known as 'Guy's mother," as the first idea of the story came from her.]

It is very helpful to all who have had any literary success to read of the calm, uplifting advice given by Mr. Keble. He was her spiritual guide. We do not know if she had yet begun what she did in time practise under his direction--Sacramental Confession. To her he spoke of what a successful book might be--'the trial of one's life.' She writes herself:

'It was in the course of the summer of 1854 that the book, of which I have already said too much, attained its chief popularity, and showed me how little Mr. Keble cared for worldly estimation. Not that one word of depreciation or want of sympathy was said. Far from it. He enjoyed--nay, took a kind pride in--its success; but when I came to him alarmed at my own sense of vainglory, he told me "a successful book might be the trial of one's life"; showed me how work (even of this sort) might be dedicated; how, whenever it was possible, I could explain how the real pith of the work came from another mind; and dismissed me with the concluding words of the 90th Psalm (the which has most thankfully, I own, so far been realized).

'And when, in spite of all this, he saw me eager to see some "opinion of the press," he smiled, and said: "Oh, you care for such things." Though I know he perfectly entered into the value of a sound criticism examining into a matter, a mere puff was nothing at all to him; and as to works of his own, I verily believe he much preferred hearing nothing about them. Forcing praise upon a person he considered as unkind, in the truest sense of the word, since where it was not painful it must be hurtful. By praise, however, I do not mean approbation, which his soul never stinted; in fact, he was often quite enthusiastically carried away by admiration of anything he thought excellent or containing the merest germ of excellence.'

About this time were begun the Landmarks in History, and those who have been made in their youth to read them will know something of the salient points of European history.

The weak point of all her histories is a certain confusion of style and an enormous number of proper names; but for all that they are good books, and are adapted to lay a foundation of historical knowledge which seems so often strangely neglected.

Another book was begun in these early fifties, one not less, probably even more, a power for good than The Heir of Redclyffe--The Daisy Chain.

In some ways this is the very best of all Miss Yonge's books. Dr. May, the father of the May family, is a real creation. He is, of all her many most living characters, the most alive; he is so human, so thorough an Englishman of the best kind, of honourable family of the upper middle class, of good education, possessing cultivated tastes; a man most .loving, tender-hearted, chivalrous, and quick-tempered, who, stricken to the ground by a terrible sorrow, rises through it, and by it, to real self-conquest, to heights of goodness and of self-denial. There is no one in all the long series of Miss Yonge's characters whom some of us long more to meet than dear Dr. Richard May. All the May family are delightful. And Ethel--so much has been said of her that it seems almost needless to write anything of the girl who has inspired so many of us to work for the Church.

In this most delightful book occur some of Miss Yonge's best bits of schoolboy life. Norman, Harry, Tom, are all typical boys. Norman is, we suppose, hardly less a favourite than Ethel. Perhaps many lovers of The Daisy Chain hardly do justice to Margaret, who, Miss Coleridge tells us, was at first the author's chief interest. Margaret is a most beautiful character; she is called to bear a veritable martyrdom, and she does not fail. Everyone is interesting in this book: the sailor lover (the pathetic story of Alan Ernescliffe and of Margaret is simply and beautifully told), the delightful sailor brother, the masters at the school, the rather slow and unin-tellectual Richard May, so good and unselfish. Flora, the second daughter, is a study of the character which Miss Yonge most cordially disliked, the person who is worldly in a perfectly unobtrusive and estimable way. Flora is dreadfully punished for sins which were indeed sins, and very soon cured; but if she had been as thoroughly given over to the world as Miss Yonge believed she was, poor Flora's sorrows would not have cured her. She was pathetically young--only about twenty-four--when she repented, and we really think Miss Yonge was inclined to think too hardly of her.

We have said something of one love-story in this book; all the love-making is so charmingly described--the perfect marriage of Dr. and Mrs. May, broken so suddenly, so tragically, the romantic little love-story of Norman May and Meta Rivers, that dainty little fairylike person.

One great enthusiasm of Miss Yonge's appears now--Foreign Mission work. A connection of hers whose biography twenty years later she was called to write, John Coleridge Patteson--known to her and to all his family as 'Coley'--had gone out with Bishop Selwyn to New Zealand and the Islands of the Sea, and it was to those regions Miss Yonge sent Norman May and his Meta, to that mission for which she herself cared and worked and gave her best.

There are some Oxford scenes, and some hints are given of the stress and strain which so many of the best of Oxford felt in those years after the disappearance of Newman.

The Daisy Chain, in our opinion, is as fresh and delicious as when it delighted people in the fifties. There are not many old-fashioned episodes. The horror of Miss Winter, the very prim governess, at the thought of a 'gentleman' walking with the girls of the May family, is perhaps the only episode which reminds us that ''tis sixty years' since the Mays gathered in the schoolroom for their last reading with their mother, in the opening chapter, except, indeed, that the family never needed any change of air, never seemed to go away simply for health's sake, and very rarely for any other reason. And they dined in the middle of the day!

The Daisy Chain was begun in the Monthly Packet in 1851, but only Part I. appeared there, and it was not published in book form until 1856.

Heartsease; or, The Brother's Wife, came out in 1854. Probably most of Miss Yonge's lovers would say that these three books--The Heir of Redclyffe, The Daisy Chain, and Heartsease--are the best of the tales of contemporary life. Charles Kingsley, indeed, preferred Heartsease to the Heir, Miss Yonge writes in 1855. It is a very clever story, and the heroine, Violet, is one of those developing characters who out of weakness wax strong, whom Miss Yonge so much loved. Again, in this book the characters are very much alive, and we meet with some extremely disagreeable people. The old aunt, Mrs. Nesbit, is quite a wicked old woman. Miss Yonge herself records that Mr. Keble restrained her once or twice.

'The chief alteration I remember was that a sentence was erased as "coarse," in which Theodora said she really had a heart, though some people thought it was only a machine for pumping blood. Meeting the same expression in another book recalled to me the scrupulous refinement of Hursley.'

Heartsease is still very fresh and charming, and has a good deal of knowledge of the world, as the world appears to a lady who met it in cultivated and well-born circles. There is just a slight and very distant knowledge of evil, and the declension of Arthur is quite natural. Not quite so probable is his rapid reformation. The book is in some respects an advance on The Heir of Redclyffe, and deserves to be read even in this century.

Miss Yonge writes in 1855:

'Mamma told you of the wonderful d├ębut of Violet. I only wonder whether she will thrive as well when the critics have set their claws on her; the home critics are very amusing in their variety and "characteristicalness "(there's a word!).

'My Colonel correspondent complains of the babies. . . . Sir W. Heathcote says the will [Mrs. Nesbit's, the wicked aunt's, we suppose] would not stand; Judge Coleridge falls foul of the geography of the Lakes; and so on.

'Most people say they think others will like it as well as Guy, though they don't themselves, and some few prefer it. It does want papa very much; but, then, he did set it going, and there is mamma to gloat over it.'

Mr. Yonge died suddenly early in 1854, just as his only boy was starting for the Crimea; and in the recollections so often quoted in this book Miss Yonge writes:

'It would be vain to tell what Mr. and Mrs. Keble were to us in those hours of affliction--how they came to us in the cold of a February Sunday evening (no trifle for her), shared, soothed, elevated our grief; were all that the dearest could be, and never left us till our relations were with us; then, with tender sympathy, helped to bear us up through the long months of anxiety that ensued.'

After Mr. Yonge's death Miss Yonge writes to Miss Barnett:

DEAR, GOOD OLD SLAVE,

'How nice and kind and understanding your letter was, and how thankful one should be for such friends! . . .

'The worst will be over when we hear from Julian, poor boy! Till then it seems like bearing the first stroke. But I am sure it fell mercifully as far as we were concerned, and the flow of feelings that meet us from all is very gratifying.

'I believe my uncle, always living in his own town far off, had no notion of the estimation in which his brother was held.

'. . . I know I shall miss him more when he has been away longer.'

We think an extract from one of Mrs. Yonge's letters may well come in here. She was always full of interest and enthusiasm about Charlotte. Writing to Miss Barnett a few months after Mr. Yonge's death, she says:

'I think she [Charlotte] is the one person who has more pleasure from her books than I have. We never tire of talking of them before they are written, and correcting the MS. and the proofs. I have just read the first volume of Guy again, but cannot venture upon the second. My thankfulness increases, I think, that Charlotte's guide was spared to her till the dangers from a first success were over. I do not see that she loses her unself-consciousness, and if there is danger we have Mr. Keble. . . .'

The little glimpses we get from Mrs. Yonge's letters show us the sweet, loyal natures of both mother and daughter, and the absolute sympathy which had grown up between them.

The delight in Charlotte's doings never grew less as long as health and life were spared to the mother.


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