Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was once one of England's most famous authors, internationally as well as domestically, yet in the last century she has gone from being incredibly popular to almost unheard of. Perhaps this is because her strict, social-structured moral tales, with their focus on absolute dedication to parents with a strong Anglo-Catholic focus, no longer seem relevant to modern society.
Charlotte Yonge's paternal side of the family had been descended from Devon squires since the reign of James I. Her father, William Crawley Yonge, a distant relation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge1, served in the Peninsula War as an engineer in the 52nd Regiment from the age of 16 and fought at Waterloo. His commanding officer, Colonel Sir John Colbourne, had a younger half-sister, Fanny Bargus, to whom William proposed. Fanny's indomitable mother, Maria Bargus, refused to allow her daughter to marry a mere army officer, and would only consent if William resigned his commission and promising army career to purchase land near her home in Otterbourne.
Finally after five years, in 1822 William and Fanny were allowed to marry and they moved to Otterbourne House, a late Georgian cottage originally owned by an old woman with the charming name of Science Dear that had been substantially enlarged into a reasonable seat2. On 13 August, 1823, their first child, Charlotte, was born.
Otterbourne is a hilly village stretching along the old Roman road between Winchester and Southampton in Hampshire. Otterbourne declined in importance rapidly from 1839 when railway engineers bypassed the hilly village completely, with the railway following a flatter route between the two.
This small village was not only where Charlotte was born, but is where she lived her entire life, where she died and where she is buried.
Charlotte had a regimented, repressed childhood in the era of children being seen and not heard. As her parents felt she should not be left to the inferior society of domestics, her entire life revolved around her mother, father and formidable grandmother and, from the time she was six and half, her younger brother. Her mother, though often fragile and almost the epitome of the stereotypical Victorian invalid, was incredibly intelligent.
In her brief autobiography she described that she could read novels, such as Robinson Crusoe, unaided at the age of four. She was not allowed to eat eggs, ham, jam or buttered bread on the grounds that such were too good to give to a mere child. As there were no children of her social class in the village, she had no friends. Her strict Tory parents taught her that 'God made them [people] high or lowly and ordered their estate' and she was discouraged from mixing outside her class, which in a small village like Otterbourne was a very small social circle.
Every summer until she was 13 she would visit Devon, where she was surrounded by her cousins, although she was not allowed to express any affection for them. Tragically, most of them died young. Her companions were dolls and her imagination, which was often inspired by Sir Walter Scott and William Shakespeare. After turning 13 she was told she would no longer be allowed to write letters to her male cousins on the grounds that any correspondence would be 'unmaidenly' and against propriety.
On 13 January, 1830, Charlotte's younger brother, Julian Bargus Yonge, was born. The first Charlotte learnt of this was when she was sent on a long walk over the downs to Twyford with her father and returned to find her mother holding a baby. Due to the age gap, she often described her brother and herself as 'two only children', as Julian was too young for her to consider a childhood companion. While Charlotte's mother was constantly with her baby brother, father William spent more time with Charlotte, teaching her history, religion and Latin. Though described as a stern and severe teacher who often shouted when she made mistakes, Charlotte was taught how to write and worshipped the time she spent with him. William was certainly fond of Charlotte, reportedly never leaving her side when she was suffering with measles.
Charlotte was left-handed, but her family forced her to use her right hand and continuously called her clumsy. Yet despite all, Charlotte always insisted that her childhood was a happy one. Her daily routine through childhood was to get up at 6am, do arithmetic, mathematics and Latin then breakfast and feeding the animals, followed by French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek, dinner then drawing and water-colours. In the afternoon she would perform errands for her grandmamma, while accompanied by a maid sent to ensure she did not speak to the unrefined villagers, whose society was beneath her. Her parents' actions in separating her from the company of others ensured she would live a largely isolated life.
Despite living in the countryside, Charlotte had no interest in country life, hating horse riding, climbing stiles and crossing plank bridges. After her walk she would be allowed to read until half past five, followed by reading aloud and tea at 8pm. There were attempts to also teach her dancing, music and needlework, none of which were particularly successful. She did, however, have a shell collection, which was later bequeathed to Winchester College.
Her father had strong religious beliefs, unsurprising considering his father was the Reverend Duke Yonge. As soon as they arrived in the village the Yonges set up a Sunday School on a strip of waste land, with Mrs Yonge teaching the girls lessons. At the age of seven Charlotte began teaching classes in this Sunday school to 'superior village girls', which she would continue to do all her life. By the mid-1830s William Yonge was determined to finance the building of a new church in Otterbourne, which was then part of the parish of Hursley and only rarely received church services. To pay for this, William gave up snuff and stopped the family trips to Devon, teaching Charlotte that the church comes even before family.
In 1835, when Charlotte was 12, a new vicar of Hursley was appointed. This was John Keble, once the curate of Hursley but who had sprung to fame two years earlier in July 1833 when he was one of the founders of the 'Oxford Movement' which marked the creation of Anglo-Catholicism, the religious faith that Charlotte would adhere to all her life. He had also published the poetry anthology The Christian Year. As both his newly-wed wife and sister were ill, Keble retired from the spotlight to live a quieter life in the Hampshire countryside accompanied by his family. He aided William Yonge in his plans for a new church at Otterbourne, which opened in 1838.
When she was 15 Charlotte was Confirmed after receiving teaching from John Keble. She considered this the most important moment of her life, and in her novels Confirmation is viewed as important a step in life as an engagement or marriage. From that point onwards she was a determined Anglo-Catholic, convinced that the Church of England should be a separate branch of the Catholic church from the Roman Catholic Church, not a Protestant church.
For much of her formative years the same, small social circle surrounded Charlotte:
- Sir William Heathcote of Hursley Park3 was a Member of Parliament.
- In 1834 Reverend William Bigg-Wither settled in Otterbourne.
- In 1835 Doctor Moberly became Headmaster of Winchester College, and he had a baby daughter, Alice, who when old enough, become a close friend.
- The Vicar of Dogmersfield, near Winchester, was Mr Dyson and his sister, Miss Marianne Dyson, despite being 20 years older, became Charlotte's closest friend. When not bed-ridden, she ran a boarding school and encouraged Charlotte both to teach and to write.
Charlotte's first works that were read outside her family and limited friend circle were when she began writing tales for the church publication The Magazine for the Young in 1842. These included a series of short stories for children based on her school teaching experiences that were later published as Langley School (1850).
In 1844, when Charlotte began taking her writing more seriously, her formidable grandmother insisted that it was not becoming of someone of Charlotte's class to profit from the fruit of her labours, and that authorship was an unladylike pursuit. She was determined to prevent Charlotte from publishing her work until a compromise was agreed; Charlotte could be an author, but would never receive a penny for her work. All money she earned in her lifetime would be donated to church charities and worthy causes.
In 1850 the publishers of The Magazine for the Young wanted to create a magazine for upper class women and approached Charlotte, requesting her to be the editor. In January 1851 she published the first issue of this new magazine, the dull-named The Monthly Packet, which she would edit for almost 40 years. This was a Church of England magazine for, in her words, 'young girls, or maidens and damsels, or young ladies... who are above the age of childhood'. With a target market of 15-25 year old Upper Class girls, it was intended to help form their character and enrol them in the Anglo-Catholic church. The magazine often saw the first publication of many of Charlotte's stories and articles. Despite her writing talents, when others contributed she often found paying for contributions confusing and frequently paid the wrong amounts. Only in 1890 was a new editor, Christabel Coleridge, appointed; lacking the influence of Yonge's personality, the magazine ceased publication in 1895.
In 1850 Charlotte visited Marianne Dyson, who had published a novel, Ivo and Verena (1844), but was struck with writer's block about her latest idea. Dyson asked Yonge if she would be able to take the central theme of a self-satisfied man and an essentially contrite one, with a tragic ending, and develop it into a novel. The result was Charlotte's most famous work, The Heir of Redclyffe. Between May 1850 and August 1851 she wrote the novel, before finally finding a publisher who released it in New Year 1853. Her biographer, Georgina Battiscombe, described the novel's plot with the words:
The question is not whether Guy and Amy will marry but whether they will commit any moral faux-pas in the process of doing so. Of course no-one expects to find Guy and Amy indulging in illicit love.
In 1852 Charlotte began writing The Daisy Chain, another of her more popular novels, which was published in 1856 when she was 33. She often used her father, the Kebles and neighbour Sir William Heathcote as sounding boards and critics when writing her work. She described most of her novels as 'family chronicles' in which the characters in a large, central family grow.
Charlotte's method of writing would be to write three manuscripts at the same time. She would write a page of a novel, then while waiting for the ink to dry would write a page of a book on religious teaching followed by a page of a letter or a history, before being able to return to work on the novel. Charlotte disliked writing during Lent, but demands for her work meant that she was forced to do so. She would also ensure that all her stories would have a second draft, saying:
It is nearly impossible to get language, character and keeping all right at first, and rewriting is the only way to be free of useless words and excrescences, which makes a thing lengthy. Here they tell me that reading aloud a first and second copy of mine is like going over a stony or smooth road.
Fame and Fortune
Charlotte never enjoyed the fame that came with her success. She hated large public gatherings such as balls and disliked being asked to talk about her work. She believed fame was undesirable; it was disgraceful to find your name mentioned in newspapers. After all, shunning the public's gaze was a sign of good breeding. Naturally shy and having grown up within a small social circle, she was easily unnerved among unfamiliar faces. She considered fame to be the 'trial of her life' and did all she could to avoid public functions. Charlotte felt her work was written for the Church as a duty, not for personal praise, and was unnerved when fans tried to meet her.
The Social Circle's Shrinking
Charlotte's brother Julian took a commission in the Rifles and in February 1854 his regiment was sent to fight in the Crimean War. William Yonge, who had experienced Waterloo first-hand, travelled with him to Portsmouth to see him embark. The stress of seeing his son head off to fight caused William to have a stroke on the return journey to Otterbourne and, three days later, he died. Charlotte's beloved father had been her closest companion; without him, she turned ever-closer to her faith for comfort. Brought up to never make a journey without her father, she now felt completely alone.
In summer 1854 Julian was discharged from the army on medical grounds and returned to Otterbourne. Four years later, in 1858, he married 19-year-old Frances Walter and the newlyweds soon began raising a family together. Sadly their first child William died as a baby, but numerous other children survived. In 1862 both Charlotte and her mother moved out of Otterbourne House to a neighbouring cottage, Elderfield. There, Charlotte lived out the rest of her life.
In 1856 Elisabeth, John Keble's sister, died, and in 1865 both John Keble and his wife died. Dr George Moberly moved to become rector of Brighstone on the Isle of Wight4, leaving Charlotte with Sir William Heathcote as her only friend in Otterbourne outside her family. She still lacked the confidence and social skills to make new friends, and was hampered by her mother's increasing illness. By 1868 her mother was suffering severe memory loss and demanded Charlotte's constant presence until her death later that year. After her mother's death it is reported that Charlotte seriously considered joining a convent and dipped her toes in the water by becoming an Associate of the Sisterhood, or Exterior Sister, at a convent in Wantage5. Instead in 1869 she was persuaded to take a holiday and went on her only trip abroad, to France, to relax. Sadly on her return, she learned that her favourite cousin Anne Yonge had died.
Following these bereavements Charlotte began writing more historically-set novels. Her biographer Georgina Battiscombe has described these with the words, 'Charlotte can paint the accidents of the historical scene vividly enough, but the substance forever eludes her because she cannot comprehend any way of life that is fundamentally different from her own.' Charlotte also tended to dislike any historical character that was either a 'Papist' or Protestant (ie not Anglo-Catholic).
Perhaps filling the void formed by her lost friends, between 1859-1874 an essay-writing fan club dedicated to improving the minds of its young, female members was set up. Charlotte was known as 'Mother Goose' and her biggest fans, called 'Goslings', set her questions to which she would write essays in answer.
Although she never spoke of it herself, in Otterbourne there was a widespread belief that the reason she never married was that she felt it would upset her mother too much to be left alone. When she entered her 30s she was considered an 'old maid' and too old to marry.
While Otterbourne decreased in importance following the railway route built east of the village, the area near the railway junction there, between the hamlets and farmsteads of Barton, Boyatt, and Eastley, quickly grew into a town. Charlotte Yonge donated £500 towards building the town's first church. In December 1868 the Church of the Resurrection had been built there and she was asked to decide whether the new town that had grown up to engulf the hamlets of Barton and Eastley should be named Barton or Eastley. She decided on 'Eastleigh', which she felt was a more modern spelling of Eastley.
By the 1970s the church was structurally unsound and abandoned, and sadly on 21 July, 1985, a fire devastated the building, destroying the interior. The church has now been converted into flats. These flats are accessed via a cul-de-sac named 'Yonge Close' in her honour.
In the 1860s her output of writing increased dramatically, but the increase in quantity of novels was marked with a decrease of quality, as she had no-one left in her social circle to stimulate or challenge her ideas, or encourage her to work harder to better weaker sections. Yet 1873 saw the publication of what many consider her best work, The Pillars of the House, in which the eldest orphan of a family of 13 children makes the ultimate sacrifice and goes into trade to raise enough money to look after his family. She also wrote a biography of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, a distant relation. He had been martyred in 1871 by the inhabitants of Nukapu in Melanesia, New Zealand.
As she grew older and older, she found it increasingly difficult to relate to those younger than her, which did not assist her profession of being a writer for young women. Although she continued writing until 1901, none of her works after 1871 achieved great success.
Her already limited social life was sadly curtailed in 1873 when her sister-in-law's sister, Miss Gertrude Walter, came to stay. Gertrude had severe rheumatism and was considered an invalid, and as the most closely-related spinster to Gertrude it was considered Charlotte's duty to nurse her, even though the two did not really get on. Gertrude stayed in Charlotte's house until she died in 1897.
In 1875 a company that her brother, Julian Yonge, had invested a large sum of both his and her money in suffered a financial disaster. Charlotte was forced to live a much more frugal lifestyle and gave up having her own carriage, which effectively kept her in Otterbourne, although she occasionally would use the train from Eastleigh. In 1884 Julian sold Otterbourne House and moved to London, something which saddened her deeply almost as much as the death of Bishop Moberly that year. Julian died in 1892.
In 1890 she became the editor of the Mothers' Union publication Mothers in Council. The Mothers' Union was a Christian organisation that had been founded in nearby Alresford, Hampshire. Inexplicably, though intended to train young women on how to be mothers, it seemed to attract the most attention from widows and spinsters. As Charlotte had recently lost control over her own magazine The Monthly Packet, she was determined to edit a magazine again, even one with a circulation limited to Mothers' Union members.
In 1890 her nephew Henry Bowles became vicar of Otterbourne. In her last decade one of Charlotte's greatest pleasures was interrupting and correcting his sermons whenever he said something she disagreed with.
For her 70th birthday on 13 August, 1893, she was given a book containing the signatures of ten thousand of her fans, including the Queen of Spain and Queen of Italy, and £200, which she spent on providing Otterbourne churchyard with a lychgate.
On her death in March 1901 – only two months after Queen Victoria's death at Osborne House - there was a proposal that she should be buried next to Jane Austen in Winchester Cathedral. Despite this, Charlotte Yonge was buried next to John Keble's memorial in Otterbourne, 35 years to the day after Keble had died. Her tomb is Grade II Listed.
Pro Ecclesia Dei
- For God's Church, Personal Motto
Charlotte Yonge had many strongly-held beliefs as her faith was central to her life. She firmly believed in the Anglo-Catholic cause and felt it needed to be spread in churches (with more needing to be built) and Sunday Schools at home and through foreign missions abroad. Charlotte viewed missionaries as romantics exploring the unknown edges of the world and was proud of her martyred missionary cousin John Coleridge Patteson. Much of the money raised by the sale of her writings went to these causes.
Her strong views meant that she reacted with horror in the 1870s when the Irish Church was disestablished following the 1869 Irish Church Act. She felt that any separation of Church and State was being godless, and not only was she a firm supporter of antidisestablishmentarianism, she felt betrayed when University education was open to men who were not Anglican following the 1871 Universities Test Act. Her last published work was Reasons Why I Am a Catholic and Not a Roman Catholic.
Dutiful to her father's precepts, she viewed allegiance to the Tory party as second in importance to membership of the Church of England.
- Victorian Best-Seller by Margaret Mare and Alicia Percival.
Many of Charlotte's beliefs seem somewhat odd to modern eyes. She had a rather strange conviction that the wishes of a child should be utterly subservient to the wishes of their parents, without exception and regardless of any change in circumstance. Convinced that everything must be sacrificed to filial duty, she lived by the rules that her parents set her as a child even to the very end of her life. For instance as a young child her mother had forbidden her from entering any of Otterbourne's cottages, in order to prevent her from befriending the common village children. She kept this rule until her death, even though it was meant to apply to her as a child, not when she was an adult. Though obeying it meant she could not stay in as close contact with the parish and the schoolchildren she taught in Sunday School as much as she wished, she never dreamed of disobeying, even though the rule had completely lost its original meaning.
As well as faith and complete obedience to the wishes of one's parents, Charlotte Yonge had two guiding principles of life. Anything she did, or required her readers to do:
- Must not be unsuitable for a woman
- Must not be too pleasant
She felt that proper propriety behaviour must be observed at all times, coupled with self-sacrifice and discipline.
Before the 1870 Education Act, Charlotte Yonge campaigned for the lower classes to receive an education; after it she believed they needed rescuing from 'godless instruction'. She wrote numerous pamphlets on the topic of education and how it was inevitably linked to faith, such as Religious Education of the Wealthier Classes.
The Role of Women
I have no hesitation in declaring my full belief in the inferiority of woman, nor that she brought it on herself.
When contacted in 1868 by Emily Davies6 asking for her support in creating a College for Ladies, she replied:
I have decided objections to bringing large masses of girls together and think that home education under the inspection and encouragement of sensible fathers, or voluntarily continued by the girls themselves, is far more valuable both intellectually and morally than any external education.
In her early novel Henrietta's Wish (1853) she stated It is better for womankind to have leadable spirits than leading. A much later novel again states the same belief that a woman's tone of thought is commonly moulded by the masculine intellect which, under one form or another, becomes the master of her soul.
Common Themes & Characters
Charlotte used the same set of character types again and again. Most of her characters were country squires, who may occasionally visit London society, but prefer their home estates. In every one of her novels, one member of the large family is a clergyman. Other male characters join either the Army or the Navy, which are repeatedly stressed as being the only manly occupations. Other male characters are lawyers or doctors, with surgeons considered inferior to doctors as befitting their barber-surgeon origins. Schoolmasters also often appear, although schoolmasters with religious views are always good, schoolmasters without religious convictions are always bad.
Most of her female characters in her novels, naturally, only require a home education in order to learn just enough to be able to attract a husband. Many of them are described as invalids, although by the end of Charlotte's life she did actually introduce some female doctor characters. Of course, being women, her female characters were not expected to have careers, but many occupy their time with being Sunday school teachers, although naturally in this position they must not socialise with daughters of tradesmen or below. Fortunately convents conveniently allow daughters to be trained as nurses, or just allow characters quiet, retreat breaks from the unbearable pressures of London society.
Charlotte Yonge does realise in her novels that living in slums is not a good thing, especially as serious sickness is often a result. Domestic servants remain unimportant background characters while the rural poor are seen to be unpredictable and ungrateful, such as when they revolt against their betters in scenes set during the Industrial Revolution, or when wealthier characters take part in very minor acts of charity.
Common themes revolved around the failures of her characters to properly honour their fathers and mothers and the subsequent consequences. So in The Heir of Radclyffe, because Laura's parents are not made aware that Laura and Philip find each other attractive (though they have not acted on this), both are punished for their lack of propriety for the rest of their lives.
Naturally, sex is never mentioned. Romance barely plays a part and once a couple come together they no longer have any individual identity and now exist for the sole purpose of creating the next generation of characters. Despite this, childbirth itself is very amusingly described. In her novel The Clever Woman of the Family (1865), Bessie Keith trips over a croquet hoop only for an unexpected baby to pop out.
The Church was also a central theme in her novels since the publication of Abbeychurch (1844), in which a new church is consecrated. Chantry House (1886) was about how the Anglo-Catholic Winslow family influenced and improved the village of Earlscombe. In The Daisy Chain (1856), a new church is built in Cocksmoor. Sunday schools also regularly appear, although on the whole church services take place daily, but then most of her characters are lower upper class and so unconcerned with the need to actually do any work. Whenever a weak character discovers the true Anglo-Catholic faith, suddenly they develop strength. The most important times in her characters' lives are their Confirmation and, when about to die, their deathbed Communion. This is often lengthy.
I have always viewed myself as a sort of instrument for popularising Church Views.
Sadly after Christabel Coleridge wrote a biography of her in 1903, all of Charlotte's personal letters, papers and manuscripts disappeared. They are now lost, presumed destroyed by Coleridge.
In the 1940s, in war-torn Britain, her novels of much simpler times once again found favour. Two biographies of her life were published, the first in 1943 by Georgina Battiscombe entitled The Story of an Uneventful Life, followed in 1947 by Victorian Best-Seller by Margaret Mare and Alicia C Percival.
In spite of the fact that Charlotte published over 40 novels as well as numerous other works, today few of her writings remain in print. At time of writing (2015) there are no shops that sell any of her works in Eastleigh, the town she named, but the local library does stock many of her works in its 'not for loan' section. Her home, Elderfield House, is now a Residential Training Centre for former offenders run by Christian organisation The Langley Trust.
I Say I Say I Say, My Statue Has No Nose
In June 2014 a life-size bronze resin statue of Charlotte Yonge was placed sitting on a bench at the junction of St Catherine's Road and Twyford Road in Eastleigh. Within hours, long before the statue was officially unveiled, her nose was smashed in by vandals and the rest of her face damaged.
The statue was repaired, relocated to a more secure and prominent position outside Eastleigh's railway station and finally officially unveiled in October 2015.
How to Propose in the words of Charlotte Yonge:
Have you ever wanted to propose, but do not know the words to say? If so, why not try the following, taken from Heartsease:
I must say it. Will you let me? Will you trust yourself and your happiness to me? It has been the vision and the hope of my solitude to see you what you might be! The flaws in your noble nature corrected, its grandeur and devotedness shining forth undimmed. Together we would crush the serpents, bring forth all that is excellent.
If the person you wish to marry decides to accept your proposal and marry you, chances are they may say:
I think there might be a chance for me with you... You appreciate me. Don't tell Papa tonight. I do not choose to look foolish.