Yonge, Charlotte Mary (1823–1901)
Yonge, Charlotte Mary (1823–1901)
Popular and prolific English writer who promoted and defended the quintessential values of the Victorian upper class. Born in Otterbourne, Hampshire,England, on August 11, 1823; died of pneumonia in Otterbourne on March 24, 1901; buried in Otterbourne churchyard, March 29, 1901; daughter of William Yonge (a retired Army officer) and Frances Mary (Fanny) Bargus Yonge; sister of Julian Yonge (b. January 13, 1830); educated at home by parents and tutors; never married.
Published first book (1838); edited The Monthly Packet (1851–93); published The Heir of Redclyffe (1853); visited Ireland (1857); moved to Elderfield (1862); visited Normandy and Paris (1869); brother Julian Yonge died (1892); Charlotte Yonge Scholarship established (1899).
Charlotte Mary Yonge, the stereotypical Victorian "lady," lived an "uneventful life," notes G. Battiscombe; her repressive up-bringing severely limited her experiences and her horizons. Filial obedience and submission to the principles of the Anglican Church formed her character and guided her thoughts and actions. Pious and reserved, unpretentious and socially awkward, she dedicated herself to family, the Church of England, and to writing Pro Ecclesia Dei (for the glory of God). Charlotte was a pretty, intelligent child who "remained a brilliant and precocious child to the end." Strait-laced and opinionated, she reflected the attitudes and values of the upper-middle-class in Victorian England; the upper classes were superior to the uneducated, unwashed lower classes and women were "naturally" inferior to men. In her social circle, adherence to the conservative Tory party and to the Church of England were matters of faith. Never seriously questioning these beliefs which she learned as a child, writes E.M. Delafield (Elizabeth Monica Dashwood ), "Charlotte Yonge, who lived to be seventy-seven years old, remained emotionally fixed in adolescence."
Born in 1823 in the village of Otterbourne in Hampshire, Yonge lived and died there. An only child for six years, she was subjected to rigorous discipline and Spartan conditions in her diet and in her nursery. Her father, a retired Army officer, supervised her education, forcing the left-handed child to use her right hand. William Yonge was strong-willed and arrogant, his wife Fanny Yonge was intelligent, shy, and timid, and Charlotte adored her parents. But William was her hero. A veteran of the wars in Spain and the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon, he had resigned his commission in order to marry Fanny whose mother Mary Bargus refused to allow her daughter to marry a military man. Consequently, William Yonge became an idle country squire, living with his family in his mother-in-law's Hampshire residence (Otterbourne House). The narrow, repressive environment in which Yonge was molded produced a child-like individual who never quite crossed the "gulf" into adulthood. Even after her parents died, her attitudes and values never changed.
Yonge was an eager, responsive student. Her father taught her math, ancient history, Greek, Latin, German, and religious instruction, but his stern manner stifled his daughter's youthful questioning, and he discouraged her from freely expressing herself. Charlotte "venerated" her father, however, for she accepted the idea that "all women derive their thoughts and opinions from the man nearest to them." Tutors provided instruction in French, Spanish, and Italian, and a dancing master tried to get the awkward girl to learn a few rudimentary steps; not surprisingly, the sensuous waltz was banned by her mother. However, Yonge was never to accomplish the social graces or an appreciation of the arts. She had no interest in travel or in fashionable dress, and she was not allowed to associate with the children of the village whose language and deportment were not those found in the Yonges' social class. Indeed, Charlotte was repressed (her word) in many ways, but she had a happy, healthy childhood in a stable, well-to-do family.
The birth of her brother Julian in 1830 had little effect on Charlotte's life. Her daily lessons, weekly Sunday school class, reading, and occasional visits with relatives in Devonshire set the routine she followed almost to age 30. Yonge lived in the country but never took part in outdoor activities; she never learned to ride or drive a carriage, and she did not like gardening, although she had an interest in botany. She took daily walks, accompanied by a maid who allowed no contact with the villagers. The Yonges and most of their social class believed that caste was ordained by God. Their disdain for their social inferiors even prevented the family from reading books from the public library which was used by the lower classes. A private book club served the upper strata of society in the Hampshire countryside. Thus, Yonge's personality was shaped by the insular elite class into which she was born.
By age 12, Charlotte "retired behind the wall of reserve" which was to "hide her from friends and from posterity." At the same time she became more interested in religion when, in 1835, John Keble became the vicar in the neighboring parish of Hursley. Keble was a leader in the Oxford Movement which proposed a return to "traditional Catholic teaching" within the Church of England; its principles were set forth in the Tracts for the Times. Followers (the Tractarians, including the Yonges) emphasized ceremony, established Anglican religious communities, and supported social work, scholarship, and foreign missions. Through Keble's religious instruction and influence, Yonge became the "leading novelist of the Anglo-Catholic revival." And Keble was her "pope," the greatest influence in her life after her father. The vicar prepared Charlotte for confirmation, and for the remainder of her life she adhered to the Tractarian principles. Although religious doubt gained momentum in 19th-century England due to Charles Darwin and other scientists, Yonge's beliefs never wavered. To her, religious doubt was a sin. When she was 15, she was confirmed and "got religion"; this was "the turning point in her life, and from then to the day of her death she remained the same character."
I have no hesitation in declaring my full belief in the inferiority of woman, nor that she brought it upon herself.
—Charlotte Mary Yonge
The year 1838 was important in Yonge's life; she had formally committed herself to the Church of England, and she published her first book, a collection of French short stories from which she excised all the "nonsense" that might offend young English readers. The book was sold to benefit the local girls' school (a Church school). In addition to religion and writing, Charlotte was interested in teaching. From an early age, she taught Sunday school classes in her parish; here, her shyness vanished for she related well to children as is evident in her numerous "domestic novels." Yonge and her family became friends with Keble and his family and also with George Moberly, the new headmaster of Winchester College (Winchester was about four miles from Otterbourne). The large boisterous Moberly family served as models for Yonge's fictional households. Almost all of her writing "is taken from life in her own circle, the seriousminded, intelligent people who made up her world." This educated, religiously oriented clique lacked variety and was devoid of gaiety. Exposure to people Yonge's own age was extremely limited; she was "a poor dancer and also a poor conversationalist," was "clumsy socially," and had a raucous laugh that was deemed "uncouth." Formal dinners with local country squire families were also solemn affairs.
When Yonge was about 20 years old, she became friends with Marianne Dyson , an unmarried woman who lived with her mother and her brother, who was a parson. Dyson was 20 years older than Yonge, but they shared an interest in writing and teaching and held similar views on class status and religious principles. On a visit with Dyson, Yonge was given the idea for a novel. The result, The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), was an immediate success. Yonge's parents and John Keble read and commented on the manuscript to ensure that "delicacy and reverence" were maintained. Her formidable Grandmother Bargus had objected to Charlotte becoming a writer—it was "unladylike." But Yonge assured her that royalties would be given to church charities. The novel had wide appeal in the Victorian age, and the main character, Sir Guy Morville, became a hero for the times. Yonge acquired substantial earnings from her books, but she had no interest in money since her family was well off, and she never had any financial worries.
The Heir of Redclyffe is a novel "with a moral basis" where plot is of secondary importance. Writes Battiscombe: "Morality, for Charlotte, was a fine-drawn, high-falutin' and chivalrous affair far removed from questions of sex." There is no illicit sex in her novels—no licit sex either—and there is no adultery. Filial obedience and duty were more important than love or common sense; to the day she died, Yonge never entered a villager's cottage in Otterbourne, because her mother had forbidden it when Charlotte was a child. This first novel was popular all over Europe, and Yonge received accolades from her British and foreign readers. Keble reminded her that it was "unseemly" to court public acclaim. Yonge was extremely shy and guarded her privacy. She was uncomfortable appearing in public before "the vulgar masses." She rejected personal fame, for she claimed she wrote only "to add to the honour of the Church." It was her duty.
In 1851, Yonge began publishing The Monthly Packet. As editor, she had no staff and no office for the nearly 1,500 copies printed each month. Her intention was to reach young members of the Church of England, to mold character, and to help readers "to perceive how to bring your religious principles to bear upon your daily life." Yonge published some of her own stories in the magazine which finally went out of print in 1895. She also contributed stories for school-age children to The Magazine for the Young, later collected and published as Langley School (1852), which was widely read.
During the Crimean War (1853–56) against Russia, Julian Yonge joined the British army. Charlotte hoped he would distinguish himself
and "win military glory" as her father had done in the Napoleonic Wars. She was fond of her brother but never close to him. Shortly after Julian's departure, William Yonge suffered a stroke and died in February 1854. Charlotte and her mother were unprepared to handle daily household and business affairs. William had never allowed Charlotte to travel alone, even as a grown woman, perhaps because he "was more afraid that she would lose her ticket than her virtue." After all, Yonge was "notoriously untidy."
Despite her grief, Charlotte continued to write. The Little Duke (1854), written for children about the 10th-century Richard of Normandy, is one of her best books. Heartsease (1854) contains a cast of aristocratic characters with whom Yonge appears to be uncomfortable, which can be explained by the fact that she was ignorant of "the fashionably wicked world" of her aristocrats. She gives no details concerning the vices in which they indulged "simply because she knew nothing at all, and wished to know nothing at all, about that horrid thing called dissipation." Yonge also reveals that she is ignorant about sex in general, and especially "the connection between birth and sex." Yet her books are peopled with large families of 11 to 13 children. In "real life," Yonge blamed girls for having sex before marriage; they obviously behaved immodestly and allowed men to take "liberties" with them. Her third book of this period, The Daisy Chain (1856), is a "family chronicle" of the widowed Dr. May and his 11 children, in which duty to family is stressed and "worldliness" is to be avoided. Lack of plot in Charlotte Yonge's novels is compensated for by an adroit use of dialogue through which she defined character.
In the summer of 1854, Julian returned home after suffering a sunstroke in the Crimea. According to Barbara J. Dunlap , he was "a shadowy figure" who had "something unsatisfactory about him." Partially invalided for some time, he married Frances Walter , age 19, in 1858 and brought her to Otterbourne House. Julian's growing family finally necessitated a change of residence for Charlotte and her mother. They moved to Elderfield House in 1862, about one hundred yards from the family home, where Yonge would live the rest of her life.
Charlotte Yonge was a prolific writer. She produced two or three books a year for the next 40 years and became "a British institution." Unmarried, living with her mother, Yonge's female friends were also unmarried. It was generally thought that Yonge remained single because her mother did not want her to leave home. And while her father was alive, Yonge did not want or need any other man, Battiscombe claims. Moreover, she was happy in her surroundings and occupied with her church and writing. Socially inept and unattractively attired, she most likely did not appeal to young men her age. She had great affection for her cousin John Yonge, but her father had "a horror of marriage between near relations" that had been common among past generations of Yonges. Charlotte's lack of experience in this area can be seen in her clumsy handling of lovers in her novels. What is striking, however, is her depiction of the intense love between brothers and sisters in some of her fiction, especially in view of her own emotional distance from Julian. Love was simply not that important in her life. She was contented and optimistic, living quietly in her provincial world.
Travel was also not important to her. In 1857, she went to Ireland to serve as a bridesmaid in a cousin's wedding, and in 1869, the year after her mother died, she went to France. In her life and writings, Yonge was "quintessentially English" and had no need for foreign ventures. Her interest in the formation of good Christian character in young women found expression among a group of young female admirers. From 1859 to 1874, she served as "Mother Goose" to her brood of "goslings" and produced a magazine, The Barnacle, for them. Christabel Coleridge , one of the goslings, wrote the first biography of Charlotte Yonge; she had access to all letters, papers, and manuscripts. On completing the biography, which Delafield calls "superlatively dull," she destroyed all the materials she had used.
Yonge's writing technique was unusual; she worked on three manuscripts simultaneously, writing a page or two on each in succession. She wrote in a variety of genres, including fiction, stories for children, histories, religion, and biography. Her novel Hopes and Fears (1860) marks a shift in interest in her fiction from characters to issues. For the first time she looks at "the twin problems of progress and the eternal friction between young and old." The novel also "marks the beginning of a decline in her writing workmanship." She saw young people as "undutiful" and modern girls as "hard." Yonge believed in progress, but there must be continuity with the past. The changing role and status of women was also a subject to be explored. Increased educational opportunities and careers exposed women to the lure of the secular world; instead, girls should be educated at home by their fathers, not in boarding schools where "the curricula was trivial and superficial," Yonge argued.
Three novels written in the 1860s examine a "gentlewomen's place in society." In The Young Stepmother (1861), Yonge concludes that stepparents could not be successful parents because "they lack that natural authority which [Yonge] seems to have regarded as an earthly manifestation of the divine authority of the Church." Again, obedience to one's "natural" parents and to the Church were, for Charlotte, the laws that govern the moral universe. And the upholders of this moral universe, those who "fight against evil," were the aristocracy and squire class. She disliked the selfmade man, the newly rich parvenu; she "honestly believed that aristocrats fought on the Lord's side whilst democrats fought for the devil." The latter were also enemies of the Church. This attitude is seen in her Magnum Bonum (1879) when one of the characters goes to the United States which Yonge regarded as "a land of fever-ridden swamps inhabited by a race of uncivilized hoboes." Yonge, like others of her class and time, was elitist and staunchly conservative. There was no need to reform the present class structure or to interfere with economic inequality, but it was one's Christian duty to help the poor who will always exist. As in families where men dominated and women were docile and submissive, so in society a similar "natural inequality" divided and imposed its order on the world.
Yonge lead an insular existence but she had wide-ranging interests. For years, she worked on her impressive study, A History of Christian Names (1863), in which she records "the derivation and meaning of all European names," with an emphasis on those of Teutonic or Celtic origin. This pioneer effort was called "the standard work on the subject" by the Oxford philologist E.G. Withycombe. Her more than 30 historical novels, however, are not historically accurate and ignore economic and social developments. Yonge lacked historical understanding and projected "Victorian and Church of England philosophy of life into medieval Germany and Renaissance France." Writes Battiscombe, "she cannot comprehend any way of life that is fundamentally different from her own." In spite of the decline in the quality of Yonge's later work, she wrote an excellent biography of her distant cousin John Coleridge Patteson, bishop of Melanesia, which appeared in 1873. Foreign missions was one of Charlotte's interests, and one to which she gave most of the money earned from her writing. Patteson, a brilliant linguist and graduate of Eton and Oxford, was murdered by the islanders who mistakenly associated him with European slave traders. To Yonge, he was a martyr.
John Keble died in 1865, and Yonge's mother was ailing. These were difficult times for Charlotte who "hated sick-nursing and shrank in horror from the sight of illness." When her mother died in 1868, Yonge wrote to a friend that she had lost her "last surviving parent and the sense of being still a child at home." She was 45 years old. Family and friends discouraged her from becoming an Anglican nun with the Sisterhood of Wantage, but she joined as an "Associate" with the order. Despite her aversion to illness and suffering, Yonge consented to providing a home for Gertrude Walter , the invalid sister of Julian's wife Frances. The added responsibility further isolated Yonge from her friends.
From 1874 to 1877, she wrote a series of articles "designed to guide the Church of England gentlewoman from the cradle to the grave." These were collected and published under the title Womankind (1877). Yonge insisted that parental discipline was essential for all women and was sanctioned by the Church of England. Further, she disapproved of "overly-independent, self-sufficient" women. A woman should be capable, and even intellectual, but must avoid the danger of losing "the delicate home bloom of maidenliness." Moreover, Charlotte was convinced that women were inferior to men, the result of Eve's transgression of tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. As punishment, Eve was cursed with "physical weakness and inferior mental capacity," a conclusion reached from Yonge's literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. The Oxford Movement stressed submission, and Charlotte enlarged on this principle by advocating the subjugation of women who were inferior to men "in mind, body, and will-power." However, she rejected the double standard; men and women should be equally chaste.
These were not simply the musings of a sexually frustrated, middle-aged "spinster." In 1850, Yonge had published Henrietta's Wish: Domineering, based on the premise that "it is better for womankind to have leadable spirits than leading" and to learn "how much better and deeper were one's husband's ideas." In fact, Yonge's closest male relationships were with older, intelligent men, her father, Keble, and Moberly, whom she respected. Men may be superior, but it is doubtful that Yonge felt inferior to her ineffectual brother Julian. Before he sold Otterbourne House in 1884 and moved to London, he was threatened with financial ruin, and Charlotte gave him the money she had intended for her parish church.
Yonge's writing in her later years noticeably diminished in quality, but not in quantity. She continued to write on more than one project at a time, and worked for various causes and organizations. She served on the board of governors of the new Girls' High School in Winchester and, in 1899, endowed a scholarship, named for her, that would be awarded each year to a young woman going on to Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Contributors from Britain, Europe, and the United States created a substantial fund. Yonge had come to accept secular, public education for women. She belonged to other religiously oriented groups, and from 1890, acted as editor for the Mothers' Union publication Mothers in Council. The routine of her daily life changed little, however. She attended church services every day, taught scripture classes, lectured on church topics, and pursued her interest in botany. In March 1901, Yonge contracted bronchitis and pneumonia; she died on March 24, and was buried in Otterbourne cemetery near the memorial to John Keble.
Charlotte Yonge's doctrinaire approach to good and evil, right and wrong, and the proper role of women went out of fashion with the end of the Age of Victoria. British writer C.S. Lewis wrote that Yonge's depiction of women and family, however archaic now, "makes it abundantly clear that domesticity is no passport to heaven on earth but an arduous vocation." But the "Churchy" tone of her writings has relegated her to a time that no longer exists. Charlotte Yonge, the Victorian, outlived Queen Victoria , who reigned from 1837 to 1901, by only two months. Their deaths also saw the demise of the Victorian way of life.
Battiscombe, Georgina. Charlotte Mary Yonge: The Story of an Uneventful Life. London: Constable, 1943.
Dunlap, Barbara J. "Charlotte Mary Yonge," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol. 18. Victorian Novelists After 1865. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983.
Hayter, Alethea. Charlotte Yonge. Plymouth, Eng.: Northcote House, 1996.
Mare, Margaret and Alicia C. Percival. Victorian Bestseller: The World of Charlotte M. Yonge. London: George G. Harrap, 1948.
Coleridge, Christabel. Charlotte Mary Yonge: Her Life and Letters. NY: Macmillan, 1903.
Dennis, Barbara. Charlotte Yonge (1823–1901): Novelist of the Oxford Movement. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Romanes, Ethel. Charlotte Mary Yonge: An Appreciation. London: A.R. Mowbray, 1908.
Sandbach-Dahlstrom, Catherine. Be Good Sweet Maid: Charlotte Yonge's Domestic Fiction. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiskell, 1984.
Letters and archival materials are found in The Bodleian Library, Oxford; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford; Girton College, Cambridge; Keble College, Oxford; The British Library, London; Lambeth Palace, London; Pusey House, Oxford; Senate House, London; John Rylands Library, Manchester; Cambridge University Library; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah