THERE are comparatively few women now surviving who can speak from personal experience of the influence exercised over their young days by Charlotte Yonge's books. Nor can I entirely come myself under that category, inasmuch as, having been cradled, so to speak, in the arms of the Oxford Movement, I can hardly specify which one out of the many influences surrounding my childhood spoke to me most powerfully.
Not much in the way of 'High Church' doctrine was ever definitely taught to us as children by word of mouth, but the utmost care was taken as to the choice of our books and hymns. The quaint doggerel to which Watts thought it necessary to stoop when writing for children, the dismal Calvinism of The Fairchild Family, the irreverent familiarity of the Peep of Day and Line upon Line, were unknown in our nursery and schoolroom. Our earliest 'Bible book' was one containing the history of the Fall and the Gospel story in the words of Scripture, compiled by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce; and we were brought up upon his allegories and those of Adams and Monro; upon Mrs. Alexander's hymns--as devout, spiritual, and tender as they are dogmatic; upon the Christian Year, Neale's stories of saints and martyrs, Paget's Tales of the Village Children; and, among other beloved books, Ivo and Verena and The Birthday. I am glad to say, however, that Pilgrims Progress, unabridged and delightfully illustrated, was among our great favourites.
But while conscious that all these had their marked effect, I should certainly place in the first rank of books that influenced my girlhood Miss Sewell's and Miss Yonge's. I place them in this order, not as their order of merit, but because we began with Laneton Parsonage and Amy Herbert, which, I think, appeared before Miss Yonge's stories for children. We first made acquaintance with Miss Yonge in the pages of the Monthly Packet, which set out upon its long and useful career in 1851.
This periodical, edited by Miss Yonge, and especially intended for girls of schoolroom age 'and after,' supplied a great need, and must have played a great part in awakening and fostering Church feeling and principles among young people. In our large family it was fairly read to pieces.
Old-fashioned Sunday habits reigned in our home, relieved, however, from the gloom of earlier times by special joys and little indulgences which made Sunday the happiest day of the week. In the matter of reading, our rules were strict. Pleasant and interesting 'Sunday books' we always had, but they were different from our week-day ones. Novels and fairy tales, and even Dickens's Christmas stories, were forbidden. But whatever was contained in the Monthly Packet was always permitted, and it was a happy hunting-ground indeed, for girls and boys alike, on Sundays.
Miss Yonge's stories were its crowning attraction. The Little Duke, The Lances of Lynwood, The Caged Lion, gave us vivid pictures of early Norman and British history, both civil and ecclesiastical. The Pigeon Pie awoke fervent cavalier sentiment, and, indeed, but for counteracting influences, would have made us firm believers in the Divine right of kings.
Then began the series of longer stories which took our whole generation by storm, and which I would fain believe will never die. Certain it is that they are still read and beloved, even in these degenerate days of unwholesome literature.
The Daisy Chain was the first that came out in the Monthly Packet, but The Heir of Redclyffe and Heartsease occupy special thrones in my memory, inasmuch as they were the first modern novels that I was allowed to read.
It has often been said that these novels inculcated Church principles. But it is to be noted that they do not do this anything like as directly as do Miss Sewell's stories. Miss Yonge's novels awake and commend Church principles far more by what they assume and imply than by what they preach. No doubt they make us acquainted with perhaps a Utopian number of excellent clergy and of 'High Church' laymen. But these characters win our hearts, not by or what they 'inculcate,' but by their livingness. Miss Yong'e surely has few rivals in this particular gift. Her people are never puppets. The eleven Mays, the thirteen Underwoods--each and all stand out as distinct and most living individuals. We know their family likenesses and diversities; their several faults, idiosyncrasies, and merits; their charm, their provokingness, their humour or their want of it--in short, they become as living people to us. We find even the disagreeable ones interesting, while the lovable ones become lifelong friends. Thus, as with real people, we take them with their atmosphere, and Miss Yonge's atmosphere being saturated with Church convictions, her readers, half unconsciously, imbibe them.
Except for certain allusions to parish work and other religious undertakings, and to the Holy Communion, it would be difficult to find in The Heir of Redclyffe any distinctively 'High Church' teaching. In Heartsease there is still less, and yet this same atmosphere is unmistakably present.
The episode of Cocksmoor in The Daisy Chain brings before us with great skilfulness and power the splendid work done for schools in the villages, when separating religion from education was so far from being dreamt of that religion was the inspiring force of all that was undertaken, and the chief thing taught, while the Church was the acknowledged foster-mother of all the children.
I cannot but believe that many a real Cocksmoor has been taken in hand under the influence of The Daisy Chain.
There is a more distinct Church note struck in The Young Stepmother and several of the later novels; but, at the same time, the author has sufficient gifts of humour and discernment to bring out with admirable point--notably in The Pillars of the House--the weak side of 'High' Churchmanship when tainted with externalism or with spiritual pride and narrowness.
Indeed, while Miss Yonge is deliberately blind of one eye as to King Charles I., politics, Women's Rights, fashions in dress, old-fashioned proprieties, and other Early Victorian opinions, it is striking to observe in her later books a broader toleration in matters of religion than we meet with in her first stories, although her own convictions remain unchanged.
During some consecutive years Miss Yonge published in the Monthly Packet a really valuable series of Conversations on the Catechism, which ought not to have been allowed to go out of print. It forms an excellent handbook of Anglican theology, and shows wide reading and much knowledge. Taking it up again in my old age, I have been struck by the degree to which it forms the basis of my own religious thought.
In the novel which I unhesitatingly place highest among Miss Yonge's works, The Chaplet of Pearls, we find, among many other merits (it is the only one that has a good plot), an admirable grasp of the Catholic and Huguenot positions, and scrupulous justice, nay--more, sympathetic appreciation--accorded to each side. The via media of the English Church is drawn out in vivid and favourable contrast to the violent extremes of religious factions in France during the terrible times of Catherine de Medici.
There can be no doubt that the writings of Charlotte Yonge have inspired more than two generations of readers with enthusiastic belief in the truth and office of the Church of England, and in its historic continuity with the Church of Augustine and Anselm.
LUCY C. F. CAVENDISH.