In 1853 a novel written by a thirty-year-old woman living in a Hampshire village became an unexpected bestseller. Its fame spread, and edition followed edition: politicians and poets read it, so did clergymen and young ladies, soldiers and students. This was The Heir of Redclyffe; its author was Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823–1901). The book’s hero showed that notions of chivalry and romance could be applied to the dull workaday world of Victorian Britain. Young Sir Guy Morville, ardent, impulsive and courageous, as well as deeply devout, combined the mediaeval and the modern in a way that appealed to contemporary sensibilities.
The book caused a stir in Oxford, where Edward Burne Jones and William Morris (both at Exeter College) found that it chimed in exactly with their ideals: like many others, they adopted it as a pattern for life. It remained Yonge’s trademark, and the words ‘by the author of The Heir of Redclyffe’ appeared on the title pages of her numerous later works of fiction and non-fiction. In 1870, undergraduate admirers of the novel cheered her when she visited Oxford. Another visit was in 1866: on that occasion, the Revd Charles Dodgson – always looking out for celebrities for his camera – persuaded her and her mother to be photographed. The results were fairly successful, though Yonge’s lack of ease is apparent. She did not enjoy fame or the attention of fans, and was shy and awkward unless she knew people well. With family and friends she was lively and amusing, eagerly discussing characters in history and fiction, her own and others. Elizabeth Wordsworth, first Principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh's, became a congenial friend, and recalled their shared enjoyment
of Jane Austen and Walter Scott as well as ‘a great deal of laughing and nonsense’. Yonge also remained on good terms with Dodgson; she was an early admirer of the ‘Alice’ books, and he contributed mathematico-logical puzzles to the Monthly Packet, the magazine for teenage girls which she edited for over 40 years.
Not long before Yonge’s 1866 visit to Oxford, the Revd John Keble had died – the person who did more to shape her thinking than anyone except her father. He had arrived as incumbent of Hursley and Otterbourne (the village outside Winchester where Yonge lived throughout her life, the house of her birth shown right, Otterbourne House) when she was twelve. Keble was famous for his Christian Year (1827), the bestselling poetry book of the century. Though he had left his Oriel fellowship for a rural parish, he remained at the centre of a network (John Henry Newman and Richard Hurrell Froude its best-known members) for Anglican revival, known as the ‘Oxford Movement’ or ‘Tractarianism’.
Yonge and her family (High Church by inclination) were the very people to be caught up in its early stages, eager to reinvigorate the Church through improvements to buildings and liturgy, by mission work overseas and in the slums at home, and by increased understanding of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Yonge’s characters are imbued with similar principles, but – given the Tractarian emphasis upon ‘Reserve’ about overtly religious talk – the reader is left to derive for herself or himself the spring of their actions. Yonge presents narratives that are the reverse of moralising or preachy: lively, event-filled, and replete with entertaining conversations and illuminating insights, they remain immensely readable.
Oxford was familiar ground to Yonge: her first visit was in 1834, for the installation of the Duke of Wellington as the University’s Chancellor. John Collier Jones, Yonge’s uncle by marriage, was Rector of Exeter and currently Vice-Chancellor, so her family stayed there for the festivities. The ten-year-old girl described in a letter how ‘the Duke of Wellington sat on a most beautiful velvet cushion on a carved chair ... [he] wore robes of black and gold. One day when he came to Exeter C. he kissed Julian [her brother, aged four] and shook hands with me.’ Later she recalled the ‘thunders of applause’ for the nation’s hero.
On Yonge’s subsequent visits, she usually stayed at New College as guest of the Warden. She attended various events connected with Keble College and Chapel, because of family ties with the Gibbses of Tyntesfield, major donors to the new college. H. O. Coxe, Bodley’s Librarian, allowed her to borrow books for her research; and she and her mother supplied readings for F. J. Furnivall, originator of the New English Dictionary (precursor to the OED). Late in life she commented that ‘people often think I must be very dull here [in Otterbourne], and want me to go and live in Oxford’. But she was never really tempted.
In a long and successful writing career (her first novel appeared in 1844, her last in 1900) Yonge gives her readers glimpses of a changing Oxford. When depicting the 1830s, it is the epoch of church revival and a new understanding of Anglicanism’s heritage. In The Heir, Guy Morville grapples so hard with his classical texts that it is deemed ‘a great pity that he had not gone up for honours, as he would certainly have distinguished himself’. By contrast, brilliant Norman May, in The Daisy Chain (1856), wins every possible distinction, including the Newdigate Prize (Yonge vividly evokes a crowded Encaenia). Norman, however, has been engaging in debates with a ‘Rationalistic’ opponent; this leads to a close shave with Doubt, and to his renouncing a career of religious controversy for one as a missionary. No longer is ‘old Oxford ... the great guardian nurse of truth’. In the novels of the 1880s and 1890s, radical ideas still lurk in Oxford – but several of Yonge’s women characters attend the fictional St Robert’s College.
That demonstrates one of Yonge’s chief characteristics: she changes her mind about social, cultural and educational issues. In later life, she accepts and even welcomes activities and developments – especially for women – that she had earlier regarded as unthinkable. She creates many memorable individuals and attractive portrayals of family life, but importantly, her books reflect the enormous changes in society, culture and the environment that characterise the Victorian age.
(Final picture, R, is a bronze of Charlotte Mary Yonge that is in Eastleigh, Hampshire, between Southampton and Winchester, in close proximity to Otterbourne)