Charlotte M. Yonge really puts her characters - and her readers - to the test. The last book of hers I read, The Pillars of the House, began with a poverty-stricken family of eleven children (one crippled with a "diseased ancle-joint"), a tubercular father, and a frail mother (pregnant, as it turns out, with twins, her second set). I knew from the first page I was in for serious drama (if not melodrama), but also for a good story. Her strong characters and easy narration make her books so very readable.
This book, published in 1876, opens at the home of Julia Charnock Poynsett, a widowed mother of five sons (and two more lost in infancy). She is confined to her room after a riding accident some years ago. Her three eldest sons have recently married, one after the other, and the brides of the title are coming to meet their new family for the first time. Raymond, the eldest and heir to his mother's property, has married his second cousin Cecil Charnock, the only child of the head of the senior branch of the family. Julius, recently named rector of the parish, has married Lady Rosamond, the daughter of a impoverished Irish earl, an army officer whose family has traveled the globe with him. The third son, Miles, is a sailor who has sent Anne, the wife he met and married in the South African bush, home while he completes his tour of duty. Two unmarried sons are at home, preparing for careers, Frank in business and Charlie in the army. Though they will soon be gone, the other sons and their wives will be living together with their mother, who is "lady of Compton Poynsett in her own right," holding the property and the purse strings. Now, isn't that a perfect recipe for family drama? Add in a missing cousin accused of embezzlement, a young curate who'd rather be playing cricket, a thwarted young romance, and an epidemic, and you've got a real page-turner.
Julius, the third son, and the rector, is introduced matter-of-factly as an albino. It is mentioned in passing, as a family trait, with a cousin sharing his white hair but not his "coral" eyes. I have noted before that Charlotte Yonge is the first Victorian novelist I have read to include characters with disabilities so fully in her stories. In The Pillars of the House, the young woman with the diseased ankle decides to have her foot amputated and gets fitted with a cork foot, giving her much more freedom of movement. That really surprised me - I always think of surgery as a last resort for the Victorians, and I hope to heaven she had chloroform - though it made sense to and for the character. Here Julius is a strong, virtuous, spiritual character, as one would expect a parson to be in Yonge's novels. He has married a woman of rank, who is also beautiful and kind - and it's clearly a love match on both sides. She doesn't seem to have boggled at his appearance, and neither does anyone else, except his new sister-in-law Anne - but she has the excuse of being ill after a long voyage. I find this simple acceptance and integration of people with disabilities into families and communities really interesting.
If Charlotte Yonge seems progressive in that area, she is certainly of her time when it comes to women's roles. The story of the three brides isn't just of their adjustment to marriage or their new family. Each also has to change, to grow in her proper womanly role. Cecil is spoiled and too caught up in family pride. She also resents her mother-in-law's control of the household (however lightly exercised), and the close relationship she has with her sons. Rosamond is too frivolous and lazy for a rector's wife, though her warm heart makes up for almost everything. Poor Anne comes off the worst initially. Sickly, terrified of everything new, she is also rigid in her church doctrine and very judgmental of the family. She even asks if Julius the model rector is really a Christian. I started to wonder if Miles just married her because she was the first woman he'd seen after a long voyage! But eventually she relaxes a bit and becomes much more human.
The question of the proper role and place of women plays a big part in the book. Cecil, bored with playing second fiddle to her mother-in-law, takes up with the local black sheep of the neighborhood (without knowing the lady was previously engaged to her husband, a fact the reader learns in the first few pages). Lady Tyrrell has gathered some very dubious people around her, including an American woman who lectures on The Equality of the Sexes and Women's Rights. Charlotte Yonge has no time for either. Like the saintly Mrs. Poynsett, she would probably say that she had all the rights she needed. Several characters, women as well as men, argue for role of women as Angel in the House, secluded away lest any corruption of the world touch them to make them unfit for the sacred duties of wives and mothers. There is a lot of talk of women's "pure" spirits. The American Mrs. Tallboys, from "the other Cambridge," with her complacent and largely silent husband, is clearly set up as a straw-woman here.
A second major plot element involves the evils of horse-racing. An annual race-meeting is held in the neighborhood. As the local Member of Parliament, Raymond is a subscriber. Julius sets himself against it from the first, though Rosamond loves the excitement of a meet. The right-minded characters discuss the problems, not so much with racing itself, but with the betting, and with the low-life characters that are drawn to it. Several characters are addicted to gambling, and family fortunes have been lost. Despite these examples, and all the well-reasoned arguments Yonge's characters present, it takes a large-scale tragedy to finally convince at least the upper classes to give up the races.
Actions have consequences, in Charlotte Yonge's stories, and people pay for their mistakes and bad choices. Sometimes they pay with their lives. Sometimes it is innocent bystanders who pay. I never start one of her books without wondering which character - or how many - will be dead by the book's end. Someone always will - and she usually presents that as a "happy" ending, a reward. Here at least she spares one attractive young man, though she takes him to the very brink of death. I peeked ahead to the end of that chapter, because I was so sure he wasn't going to make it.
Despite my occasional frustrations with Yonge's books, I enjoy them very much. (Heartsease was my least favorite, of those I have read so far.) She is more earnest, less fun, less satirical, than Anthony Trollope or Margaret Oliphant, but I do find her books addictive. I've been lucky finding reprints on-line, particularly in "three-and-sixpenny" Macmillan editions from the 1880s and 1890s, which are surprisingly affordable. My copy of The Pillars of the House came in two volumes, a genuine "double-decker"! Somehow these escaped the general purge of Victorian literature in World War II that seems to have struck the women authors particularly hard. It's a joy to hold and read these old books.
Edited to add: I had almost forgotten about my Century of Books! Now I can fill in another year.