Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A May family (but not mine)

The Daisy Chain, Charlotte M. Yonge

I first learned about Charlotte M. Yonge from the diaries of George Templeton Strong in the 1860s.  In one entry, he wrote of 
"that admirable Miss Charlotte Yonge . . . She can hardly touch any type of character not absolutely reprobate from the decorous Anglican proprieties which her books shew to be her atmosphere, without making it beautiful. I am ashamed of being so much gratified by this little kind voice from sordid old England."  (October 6, 1864)
I've been interested in Victorian women writers since discovering Margaret Oliphant and realizing how little I know about about 19th century women writing after Jane Austen.  When I looked on-line to see which of Yonge's books were available, I was surprised to see how many she had written, most of which are long out of print.  I found a used copy of The Daisy Chain, a title I at least recognized, but by the time it arrived it went straight to the TBR pile.

I picked it up again over the weekend and read it straight through.  When I finished it late last night, I had very mixed feelings about it.  Published in 1856, it is the story of the May family, living in the town of Market Stoneborough in Gloucestershire.  In the first chapter we are introduced to Dr. Richard May and his wife Margaret, and ten of their eleven children.  Mrs. May has recently given birth to the eleventh child and sixth daughter.  Only the oldest son, Richard, is absent, having failed an exam at Oxford that he is preparing to re-take.  On the same day that the story opens, tragedy strikes in the form of a carriage accident, which kills Mrs. May and leaves the oldest daughter, Margaret, with spinal injuries.

The first part of the book relates how the family deals with the devastating loss of their mother and copes with Margaret's care.  The story focuses on Richard and Margaret, as well as Flora, the second daughter, who takes over her sister's care; Norman, the second son, a brilliant student overset by the tragedy; and Ethel, the third daughter, who is plain, bookish, clumsy, impulsive but deeply loving and loyal.  Ethel is a very attractive character, despite her faults, which she struggles valiantly to overcome.  She reminded me of Jo March in Little Women, as the writing style in general reminded me of Louisa May Alcott.  Like Alcott and Anthony Trollope, Yonge makes her characters real people.  In fact, Alcott must have read Yonge, since Jo is crying over The Heir of Redclyffe when Meg brings the invitation to Mrs. Gardiner's dance. (Thanks to an improper review, I already know why Jo was crying, but I plan to read The Heir anyway.)  The bereaved father, Dr. May, also plays a major role, and he is a fascinating character.  Impulsive like his daughter Ethel, and equally warm-hearted, he had left the daily care and guidance of his growing family to his wife, while still of course maintaining his patriarchal authority.  Suddenly he has the charge of eleven children, ranging in age from six weeks to twenty-one years.  He makes many mistakes along the way, often acting hastily and out of temper, but he is always ready to admit his faults, and his children are confident in his love for them.

Again like Little Women, the second half of the book opens after several years have passed.  Margaret, who recovered enough to be able to walk almost unaided, has faded into an invalid.  Ethel, caring for her father and the children, devotes her extra time to her pet project, a school and church for a nearby village, Cocksmoor, which is a poverty-stricken waste. Others in the family have moved away from home, and their stories become much more eventful, and it's these stories that I found problematical (if anyone reading this is  worried about spoilers, you might want to skip the rest of the paragraph).  Against her father's wishes, Flora marries a dull but wealthy neighbor, pushes him into politics, and becomes a notable hostess.  She seems to be punished with the death of her first child and a complete breakdown, both mental and physical.  Norman, after a brilliant career at Oxford, suddenly decides he is called to be a missionary in New Zealand (which introduces an unfortunate note of racism in the discussion of the natives).  Silently in love for years with a neighboring heiress, he suddenly suggests that she join him in this work, in one of the most unconvincing proposals I have ever read.  And I was unreasonably aggravated by Margaret's fading away.  I know that medicine was not well advanced in the 1850s, but it seemed to me that something could have been done, or at least tried.  I kept thinking of Clara Sesemann in Heidi, and wondering what a course of mountain air and fresh goat's milk would do for her, but instead the family seems resigned to watching her die.

I will re-read the first part of this book with pleasure, especially in Ethel.  It will be interesting, if I do re-read the second part, to see if I feel as strongly about it.  I suppose I should remember it's just a story.

Just a final note that the book I have is a 1902 reprint.  Like my copy of The Shuttle, it has an inscription: "Norah Winifred Ryan with love from Mother  Oct 4 1905."  I hope Norah treasured it as a gift from her mother.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!