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Charlotte Mary Yonge: An Appreciation

By Ethel Romanes

London: Mowbray, 1908.

Chapter VIII. 'The Pillars of the House,' and other Family Chronicles--Changes

WHILE Miss Yonge was writing Bishop Patteson's Life, she was also busy with another long family chronicle, in some ways resembling The Daisy Chain.

The Pillars of the House began in the Monthly Packet in 1869, and ended in 1872. It was published in 1873. The Pillars of the House is linked in the present writer's mind with Bishop Patteson's Life, for a story was told to her by Miss Annie Moberly of Miss Yonge coming in to a meal after a morning's writing, and saying: 'I have had a dreadful day; I have killed the Bishop and Felix'--Felix being the hero of the Pillars.

By those of us who read it as it came out month after month, it is regarded with an affection which is, perhaps, inexplicable to those who only know it in two fat volumes with unpleasing illustrations--inexplicable, at least, to all who do not possess that peculiar cast of mind which enables them to join the circle of Miss Yonge's lovers. A lover of Miss Yonge is born, not made.

The dear Pillars! Even now one loves it best in the pages of the Packet. It is the story of a disinherited family, the father of which is a priest. He is very soon worn out by hard work and trouble, and leaves his wife, in failing health, and thirteen children, the two youngest of them, twins, born on the day the father dies. And, by the way, to nurse that father came our old friend of the Castle-Builders, Lady Herbert Somerville, transformed into Sister Constance, of S. Faith's, Dearport. Lord Herbert is dead, but before his death he founded the community. The chronology is rather difficult.

The pillars of the house are Felix, the eldest boy, and Wilmet, the elder of twin sisters. The struggles of the pillars are narrated in a life-like manner. The family are as individual as possible, and before long we used to feel they were as real friends as any of the people we met day by day. Lance, the chorister, was our favourite, next to Felix, of the boys, and Geraldine, the lame girl who became an artist, of the girls. The schoolboys are as delicious as any Miss Yonge ever described. Can we ever forget Lance's famous run to fetch the verses which his scatter-brained friend, Bill Harewood, had left in the hollow of a tree, and which he only remembered a few minutes before they were to be shown up in an examination for a scholarship? Or the musical festival at the cathedral town where Lance is being educated, or the famous skating-party, at which Clement, the good boy of the family (who is being brought up in that S. Matthew's Choir School so well known to us who read Hopes and Fears), Clement the exemplary young Catholic, who thinks his family hopelessly old-fashioned and 'cathedrals very slack,' is overcome by very mild potations, and comes home in a state ascribed by his innocent elder sister to mince-pies. His misery and shame and Felix's mild lecture are very good.

Wilmet's love-story and her betrothal to John Harewood, a Major in the Engineers, his accident in Egypt, and her marriage to him on what seemed likely to be his death-bed, but was not--how we delighted in all this and in seeing Wilmet subjugated, she who had ruled her subjects so firmly!

Miss Yonge fairly entangles her readers in this book with a network of old acquaintances: characters from the Castle-Builders, our friends of The Daisy Chain, Robert Fulmort from Hopes and Fears, Countess Kate herself, and the boy with whom she played at being Hermione descending to soft music, Lord Ernest de la Poer--all these appear. The inheritance, the lovely Vale Leston Priory, comes back to the Underwoods. How well we know the house! Miss Yonge drew a plan herself for us, and we saw it exactly. There was an exquisite church, and a river, the Ewe, to which an Underwood was supposed to pay due in every generation.

Vale Leston was delightful, and Felix turns into a model squire, restores Church property, and all his family are very happy; but we wish Miss Yonge had let us just see Felix restored, and had then dropped the curtain. Was it necessary to kill Felix? Could we not have pictured him living an honourable and happy life, perhaps with wife and children? The loves of Lance and Gertrude May--who, by the way, is the least attractive of all the May family whenever and wherever she appears--are not very interesting, and we do wish Angela had not been made so very, very 'common' and disagreeable a young woman. Angela as a little girl was naughty, but she could never have become so horrid as Miss Yonge makes her out to have been.

However, Miss Yonge did kill Felix, and dispose of everybody more or less, and so made the Pillars inordinately lengthy. All the portion which deals with the family at Bexley, the nasty little town of potteries, is excellent and interesting; and the description of Felix, who, when his father was manifestly dying, insisted on becoming an assistant to a friendly bookseller, and his rise from this to the position of chief bookseller and Town Councillor and editor of a newspaper, is really admirable. For Miss Yonge had a deeply rooted sense of the value of gentle birth and breeding, of a public school education, of belonging to a county family. She makes Felix do everything which she herself would most thoroughly have disliked. And she shows what the sacrifice entailed. Yet how different was the lot of Felix in his town from that which would have befallen him, say, in some little French provincial town! Without in the least intending to preach, Miss Yonge shows us what the Church of England has done and does for England. Even in Bexley, Felix and his brothers were able to create interests for themselves through the choir and all the multifarious business which grows up around a parish church. Life was dull enough in Bexley, and the cravings of the artistic Geraldine for something beautiful are not ignored; but how much duller, how much more circumscribed, how much less intellectual, would it have been without the parish church.

Felix, we believe, was Miss Yonge's favourite character. He is entirely good, yet perfectly natural; and he may not have been brilliant, but he was, as his biographer brings out, a very able and an excellent man of business, and yet, capable of a wide outlook, he could rise beyond the Bexley Town Council: he was a man of affairs.

Here again, we have a great deal about music. Felix, the scapegrace Edgar, Lance, Clement, were all musicians, and Lance was a bit of a genius. The family are more artistic, less intellectual, than the Mays; their chief interests are music and art, about which there is a great deal. The Underwoods are most of them good, and Felix becomes a veritable saint, but only one of the six brothers takes Orders. The book is a romance of very matter-of-fact drudgery, and Miss Yonge's feat is that she casts around Felix and Wilmet's heroic struggles an atmosphere of romance; she glorifies these sordid troubles. And although Felix does become a squire, yet he never becomes rich; the whole family continue, after their restoration, to live simple, hardworking lives.

Now, this was doing a real bit of work towards the establishment of the kingdom of God. Miss Yonge was probably a little bit afraid of what she heard of Christian Socialism in her later years, and if Felix had taken the bit in his teeth, and had become an ardent disciple of Kingsley and Maurice, his biographer would have sorely grieved. For what Miss Coleridge says is surely true, that 'her characters often walked away from her.'

But in this book she tells of a boy of sixteen gallantly taking on himself the care of twelve brothers and sisters, abandoning any hopes of a University career, taking a post which was regarded in those days--1854--as a social descent, and living a pure and hard-working life; doing his very best, and winning for himself respect and a place as an honoured citizen.

There is no preaching at all; only the book is a glorification of honourable poverty. There is a writer of modern novels--a lady who has sneered more than once at Miss Yonge--who in one of her books holds up exactly the opposite ideal. Her hero was also a child of gentle birth, who was stricken by misfortune of a physical nature. The whole book is a glorification not only of gentle birth, but of the most material side of wealth and all that wealth brings--gorgeous houses, clothes, horses, even details as to the personal attendance of the hero's valets. The hero naturally became extraordinarily selfish, and has a terrific moral collapse, from which he recovers.

Which is the nobler ideal? Miss Yonge may be very circumscribed and limited, but she has a passion for goodness which ought to be remembered. Her ideal was that the people she cared for should use their circumstances, not allow those circumstances to be their ruin.

To us who read in our early teens of Felix's self-denial and of his brothers and sisters there came a sense of the dignity of poverty, of the glory of work, of the impossibility that a gentleman could cease to be a gentleman, no matter what his work might be. And there grew on us also a sense that the Church was a great reality; that Felix's action when he came to his kingdom, in refusing to be a lay rector, was absolutely natural. Perhaps we were not the worse for this idealism.

Miss Yonge has been blamed for her love of old families and the value she set on birth and breeding, but she certainly can never be blamed for Mammon-worship.

This is the second of what we might call Miss Yonge's family chronicles, unless we count the little Scenes and Characters as one. The Mays are the first and the most generally known, and then come the Underwoods.

She wrote a few years later another long family chronicle, which never seems to have become very popular--Magnum Bonum. In it again she has a delightful doctor, who, however, dies almost at the beginning of the story, which recounts the fortunes of his widow and children. The said widow, Mother Carey, is one of Miss Yonge's most delightful and natural people; but the story as a whole is not so convincing, nor the characters always, excepting Mother Carey, quite so individual and alive as our old friends, and the episode of the lost will is wildly improbable. The book reflects the time in which it was written. She hints at the discomfort and discouragement which upset so many minds in the sixties and seventies; the modern spirit was not ignored at Otterbourne, and Miss Yonge had travelled a long way since she wrote The Heir of Redclyffe.

There was another family chronicle, The Three grides, which came out in the Packet soon after the pillars were finished, but Ave do not think many people would greatly care for it. The only funny episode is the extreme horror that the ordinary man of thirty years ago felt for any woman who spoke in public.

But we are anticipating a little.

In 1869 Miss Yonge paid a visit to France, and stayed with M. Guizot and his daughter, Mme. de Witt. Her letters, which are given in Miss Coleridge's Life, describing this visit, are most charming--the most delightful fresh descriptions of this glimpse into French life and of the Guizot family.

M. Guizot was rather an odd friend for Miss Yonge, but she seems to have enjoyed herself, and it is most sad that she never went abroad again; in fact, it is not only sad, but absolutely ridiculous. One cannot but feel angry that some friend or another did not compel her to spend a winter at Florence or at Rome. How good it would have been for her!

In 1869 her dearest cousin, Miss Anne Yonge, died very suddenly--a terrible and irreparable loss.

Then Mr. Bigg-Wither, who had been at Otterbourne for thirty-seven years, retired, and Miss Yonge had a new clergyman and a clergyman's wife to face, and it was impossible but that changes should come.

Miss Yonge supported her parish priest with unwavering loyalty, even under the trial of Government inspection of the schools, in which she had taught so long, and of which she was not unnaturally proud; and the little note of reminiscences contributed by Mrs. Elgee, widow of Mr. Bigg-Wither's successor, is very touching. Miss Yonge wrote to Mr. Bigg-Wither every Sunday until his life ended.

Another change came into her life in 1873.

Miss Gertrude Walter, the sister of Mrs. Julian Yonge, came to live with her at Elderfield. Miss Walter seems to have been full of intellectual interests, and to have given Miss Yonge intense affection and much help. At the same time, her presence in the little house kept other people away, as there was absolutely no room for a guest; and as she became a complete invalid, much anxiety and fatigue ensued for Miss Yonge. But probably the gain of a sympathetic companion was more than compensation for the disadvantages--and they were quite real ones--of this arrangement. Certainly, no one can restrain the wish that, as time went on, Miss Yonge had had more intercourse with her superiors in intellect; that she had seen more of the world of Oxford and of London; that she had had more natural links with people of light and leading. Miss Coleridge and others could not do as much for her as they might have done owing to this isolation at Otterbourne. Miss Coleridge was really the only author of any distinction whom she frequently saw, and to be surrounded by a circle of admirers, all decidedly inferior to oneself, is good for no one. If only she had had someone sufficiently near her own age, and of superior mental power, to criticize her and tell her when she was writing too much, the gain would have been great.

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