Reading and Reacting: The Heir of Redclyffe

Image of Charlotte Yonge circa 1845
Charlotte M Yonge: Engraving of a painting by George Richmond (1809-1896 - Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Serena Trowbridge (Birmingham City University)


 Recently I re-read The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), Charlotte M. Yonge’s most famous novel. This is the romantic novel over which Jo March cried in Little Women, a book described as ‘genius’ by Henry James, and which provided an ideal of chivalry to the young William Morris and Burne-Jones. It enjoyed enormous popularity in the nineteenth century, though this has faded over the years, but recent work on Yonge examines her as a professional writer and editor, particularly looking at the significance of her religion and her gendered, anti-feminist approach. Yet she rarely appears on undergraduate modules, and one wonders how often she is read outside academe (though there is strong support for her work, both academic and from enthusiastic readers, in the Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship).

As a singularly literary religious movement, the High Church Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism, inspired enormous amounts of literature, not only Tracts for the Times but also the poems of Isaac Williams, the works of John Henry Newman, John Keble’s very popular Christian Year and the poetry of Christina Rossetti and G.M. Hopkins.  In her book Womankind (1888), Yonge wrote that a woman should always be ‘writing as a Christian, with the glory of God in view’, rather than as amateurs simply in need of money.[1] Yet unlike Christina Rossetti, for example, also a Tractarian, Yonge is hardly self-effacing about her literary work; she wrote books and edited magazines professionally and supported many charitable causes in this way. But, like Rossetti, for Yonge the concept that influence, for good or evil, could be spread through what one read was strong in Tractarian thought, and there is no doubt that her novels provided an edifying Christian experience. She wrote in Womankind that:

Surely if for every idle word we speak we shall have to give account, it must be more serious still to write what will go forth to hundreds. Have we any right to write what people are to read, and which will, in a measure, leave a mark on their minds, merely for our own pleasure or gain, without pains or consideration whether we do good or mischief?[2]

She then goes on to elucidate, suggesting areas that the writing woman might wish to treat with caution, adding, ‘Something of wit and pathos may have to be sacrificed, but better so by far than leave a mischievous impression.’

With this background in mind, I (re)embarked on The Heir of Redclyffe, and found myself experiencing Tractarian literature at first hand. The novel offers a romantic plot in which Sir Guy Morville, the eponymous heir, stays with his distant family, the Edmonstones, and falls in love with the young Amy. Meanwhile, Philip Morville, a cousin, becomes secretly engaged to Amy’s sister Laura, and causes conflict in the family with his suspicion and jealousy of Guy. Without wishing to spoil the plot, there is young love, early death, and much self-examination in the book, and the ways in which Yonge manipulates the plot to fit Tractarian ideals has been examined by June Sturrock, for example.[3] As Gavin Budge has pointed out, the treatment of Laura in the novel may cause some problems for modern readers:[4] her deception in hiding her engagement from her family results in life-long suffering, only slightly alleviated by her marriage. And Yonge’s supposed anti-feminism (which Budge suggests is largely due to her approach in instructing young women in Womankind) manifests itself here as the depiction of young women as entirely dependent upon men for moral guidance; Laura’s reason for hiding her engagement is because Philip thinks they should. However, the plot shows the fallacy of this. Tractarian thought indicates that each individual should take responsibility for their own actions, and be guided by Christian precepts, regardless of gender. While this does not negate the requirement for women to submit to their husbands, and children to their parents, the novel makes it clear that everyone is responsible for their own soul and eventual salvation (or otherwise), and it is this spiritual responsibility and self-examination which marks out Yonge’s novel as Tractarian.

The question I asked myself as I read the book was; how might we, as modern readers, react to a novel which presents such scrupulous moral precedents, in which a character who has tried to do the right thing suffers for being misguided, for example? When reading Yonge and Rossetti, I am conscious that in providing literary critical responses concerning technique and style, or considering influences, we as readers are in some way failing these authors who intended a very different response to their works. While this may seem naïve, to dispassionately analyse their motives without permitting our emotions to be involved is to ignore their stated intentions: that of doing good (in a Christian, evangelizing sense) among their readers. The ways in which Tractarian authors intended readers to engage actively with their work, to lead them to reflection and deeper understanding, is not something we can, or should, ignore.

Yonge’s techniques of characterization, her descriptions, her plot structures, and most of all her use of reserve, make it difficult not to get drawn in to working out how she creates the effects she does. Most of all, she draws on the idea of reserve, which Keble describes in his Lectures:

Let us test whether a writer overshoots the mark, whether his imagination runs riot without any reserve, whether he unworthily intermingles sacred with secular themes…. He cannot bring himself to confess all to all men, but like a harp lightly touched, he needs but very few notes to convey his real meaning to sympathetic hearts.[5]

The Christian restraint to which Keble refers is where Yonge (and indeed Rossetti) excels. In The Heir of Redclyffe, emotion is often reined in (for example, by Amy after her bereavement, for a while at least), and Yonge’s reserve even extends to (mostly) an absence of obviously didactic material. There is sentiment, certainly, but Yonge cleverly uses the emotion she invokes in her readers to bring them to a new understanding of love, death and marriage. In many ways, then, this is a very Victorian novel; its ideas and plots are all of its time, from its culturally specific faith to the issues of inheritance. But somehow, it is also timeless, as all the best novels are. Modern readers may have fewer scruples concerning their behaviour, and are less likely to scrutinize their behaviour for signs of pride or lack of faith, but Yonge’s conversational tone and appealing characters offer a kind of realism which draws the reader in and recreates the mindset of the Tractarians. It is the kind of novel in which you are able to inhabit the world of the characters, and therefore appreciate their motivation, despite the reserve of Yonge’s writing. Consequently, the perhaps rather harsh judgments that fall on some characters do not seem excessive, and the framework of faith in which the characters act begins to seem natural. By the end of the book, one feels like a better person: Yonge’s influence, combined with her novelistic skills, have done their work, and it is difficult not to feel somehow slightly exalted by one’s association with the Edmonstone family.

Related JVC Articles

‘Charlotte M. Yonge and the ‘historic harem’ of Edward Augustus Freeman’, JVC 11.2, 2006

Serena Trowbridge is Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Research interests include Victorian poetry and novels; nineteenth century cultures of faith; Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothic. She blogs at Culture and Anarchy and tweets @serena_t.

[1]Charlotte Mary Yonge, Womankind (London: Richard Clay, 1876; repr. 1889), p. 228.

[2] Ibid., p. 227.

[3] June Sturrock,  ‘Heaven and Home’: Charlotte M. Yonge’s Domestic Fiction and the Victorian Debate over Women (Victoria: University of Victoria, 1995).

[4] Gavin Budge, Charlotte M. Yonge: Religion, Feminism and Realism in the Victorian Novel (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 169-170.

[5] John Keble, Lectures on Poetry 1832-1841, trans. by E. Francis and ed. by Gavin Budge, 2 vols (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2003), I, p. 73.

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