General Introduction

Charlotte Yonge lived all her life in a small village outside Winchester, taught in the Sunday School from the age of seven, was devoutly High Church and held strict ideas on filial duty, female submission and class distinction. These facts may in part account for the way in which Yonge, though one of the most prominent and influential of Victorian writers, has been treated by history.  To some twentieth-century critics she apparently embodied, as a pious spinster, some of the least attractive features of Victorian England. Although it is widely acknowledged that pious spinsters were characteristic of the period, their contribution to its achievements has often been underrated, but it is increasingly the subject of enquiry.1 One could never make a case for Yonge’s importance by underplaying either her conservatism or her devoutness, which were essential features both of her personal identity and her literary reputation. The fascination of her story lies in the tension between her conformism and her extraordinary achievement: as a bestselling novelist, as an innovative children’s writer, as a writer of religious works (including fiction), as a successful woman journalist, as scholar, biographer and critic, even as a proponent of women’s rights.  It is only recently that historians and literary critics have started to explore the way conservative women, as opposed to radical campaigners, reacted to and participated in the emancipation process. Far from showing someone of narrow views, Yonge’s letters reveal the breadth of her sympathies, as well as having much to tell us about the working life of a Victorian writer.  Her biographers have tended to complain gently of a certain want of drama in her life; and they have failed to convey how truly remarkable it in fact was.2 The dullness of the first biography has been widely condemned but it has never been superseded.3

Like many of the unmarried daughters of the country gentry Yonge lived with her parents until their deaths and afterwards occupied herself with her family and charitable works in the village.  Yet in other ways her career was extremely unusual.  Firmly believing that a lady should be modest and inconspicuous, and suffering from crippling shyness with strangers, she was by the time of her death one of the best-known writers in the world.  None of the other women novelists of her generation played so important a part in journalism.  No other woman of her generation had more impact on the Church of England.  It is not too much to say that she invented the novel for teenage girls. She has often been called anti-feminist yet there is ample evidence that both her example and her writing were stimulating to intelligent young women; and her personal efforts towards raising educational standards for girls were many and various. Her friends felt, with reason, that she wrote too much and too quickly; her novels might not be so neglected if literary critics found it easier to identify which of the 95 available are most worth reading.  Yonge’s work consistently engages with feminist issues, and registers the enormous changes in attitude between the 1840s and the 1890s; her story is also compelling in that it typifies the Victorian woman’s enhanced opportunities of participation in public life.  Her work helped to shape the ways in which the pious spinster became such a powerful force in Victorian society.  She was intensely conscious of her own public image as a writer whose works were deemed ‘safe’ for the young and the High Church, and consequently her works were seldom in the vanguard of public opinion, but nonetheless they were constantly preoccupied with change and reform and constantly evolved to reflect women’s improved opportunities for education and employment. Her correspondence with three of her main publishers sheds light on the process whereby a shy amateur became a bestselling novelist, journalist and historian, and on her complex attitudes towards earning money by writing. Although her contemporaries recognised her importance as a propagandist for the Oxford Movement, its historians have long underplayed the part played by its female adherents. The many letters to other women, including contributors to the three journals she edited, show her encouraging and supporting a large number of other aspirant female writers, mainly encountered via the Tractarian connection, well outside the networks of literary London, who have been barely glimpsed in other accounts of Victorian professional authorship.   Her life-long interest in education took manifold forms including the composition of numerous textbooks on theology, history and literature, the supervision of two essay societies for young women, agitation for church schools, the support of the village school both financially and as a teacher, and even in old age the tutoring of her kitchenmaid for public examinations. She is also representative of women’s contribution to Victorian scholarship, having a deep interest in philology, contributing to the OED and writing a pioneering history of European first names.  Her enthusiasm for church-building and missions meant that her interests, and her influence, extended to all corners of the empire.

Her 100 odd works of fiction, published between 1838 and 1900, engage widely with Victorian debates on education, Darwinism, religious doubt, social and sanitary reform, empire and medicine; she also wrote more than 50 other books including biographies and textbooks on history, theology and science.  Her novels include several different family sagas; one might describe them to the uninitiated as combining the appeal of Trollope’s and Jane Austen’s; strong on characterization, vivid in dialogue, rich in details of Victorian middle-class life, they still have fanatical admirers among the general public (see; other fans have included Barbara Pym, Alfred Tennyson, H. G. Wells and Virginia Woolf.

1 John Shelton Reed, Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press 1996), 192, discusses the spinsterhood statistics in relation to Tractarianism.
2 Christabel Coleridge, Charlotte Mary Yonge: Her Life and Letters (London: Macmillan 1903), v, states that she is not attempting ‘to chronicle the small events of her very quiet life in regular order’; Georgina Battiscombe subtitled her (1943) biography ‘The Story of an Uneventful Life’.
3 See, for example,  E. M. Delafield in Georgina Battiscombe, Charlotte Mary Yonge: The Story of an Uneventful Life (London: Constable 1943), 14: ‘superlatively dull’; and Barbara Dennis, Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901) Novelist of the Oxford Movement (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen 1992), 4: ‘bland, concessive, selective, hagiographical’.