The Heir of Redclyffe, Charlotte M. Yonge
The Heir of Redclyffe was published in 1853. An immediate best-seller, it went through five editions that year and was reprinted year after year through the 19th century. Charlotte Yonge was 30 at the time, already an established author, and she would go on to write ninety other books, including another best-seller, The Daisy Chain. But it was The Heir of Redclyffe that made her one of the most popular and influential authors of the Victorian age. Now, however, her books are difficult to find, and she seems to be much less well known than Elizabeth Gaskell, or even Margaret Oliphant. I think that's a shame, because the two books of hers that I have read are such engaging, compulsively readable books. I posted about The Daisy Chain back in June of last year, though of the two, I much prefer The Heir of Redclyffe.
Just a warning, this review will contain spoilers. I knew something of the plot, from reading an introduction to another book, but it didn't spoil the story for me. However, you might prefer to discover this wonderful book on your own (in which case, you should avoid any back-cover summaries as well).
The heir of the title is Guy Morville. Orphaned at birth, he has been raised by his grandfather, another Sir Guy, on the remote family estate at Redclyffe. At his grandfather's death, he is brought to Hollywell House, the home of his new guardian Mr Edmonstone, whose wife is a distant Morville cousin. There the new Sir Guy meets his cousins Charles (crippled with a diseased hip), Laura and Amabel, and school-girl Charlotte. He also meets his cousin Philip Morville, a perfect pattern card of intelligence, education, and accomplishments. Due to straightened family circumstances he has had to make a career in the army, rather than follow the life of a gentleman and scholar, to which he is so well suited.
Guy finds a warm welcome at Hollywell House, and a family life that he has never had before. He is immediately drawn to make Mrs Edmonstone his confidant and surrogate mother. But his relations with Philip are much less smooth. There is a long-standing divide between their two branches of the family, dating back to a disputed inheritance. While Guy's line held the estate and the riches, it was also cursed with violence and vice, and he fears that he has inherited the family curse. Philip, on the other hand, confident in his superior mind and talents, and resenting his undeserved poverty, constantly instructs and corrects Guy, as he does his Edmonstone cousins. As the last male of the second Morville line, Philip is the next heir of Redclyffe, and it occasionally occurs to him what a better heir he would make, with all the advantages wealth and position would give him. For the first few chapters, I was in constant dread that Philip was going to be the hero of the book, and I found him completely insufferable, so annoying that I sometimes had to put the book down to remind myself that these were, after all, fictional characters. Guy, Charlie, Amabel, and even Charlotte find him equally exasperating at times, but he is generally impervious to their attempts to puncture his self-esteem, and there is no one Philip recognizes as an equal, who could teach him to judge himself with much-needed honesty and humility. I cannot think of a character who has irritated and exasperated me so much (for readers of Georgette Heyer, think of Venetia's Edward Yardley, but ten times more overbearing and interfering).
Philip is especially close to his cousin Laura, the eldest of the Edmonstone daughters. His fear that she will be ensnared by Guy's title and position makes him realize his own feelings for her, and leads him to a declaration, which results in an understanding between the two (not an engagement, but both consider this binding). Laura, completely under his spell, makes no objection when he insists they keep this secret from her parents. I sighed with relief at this point, which the narrator points out as Philip's first step off the paths of righteousness. Both he and Laura will pay heavily for this.
Guy, meanwhile, has gone up to Oxford, where he proves a diligent but not brilliant student. More importantly to Yonge, he is a man of faith and charity, constantly struggling against temptations, particularly his dislike of Philip and a violent temper (the besetting sin of the Redclyffe Morvilles). He spends his vacations with the Edmonstones, where he in turn falls in love with Amy, the second daughter. Philip, who on very flimsy evidence believes Guy to be leading a life of secret vice, interferes to drive a wedge between Guy and Mr Edmonstone. In the best Victorian style, Guy is forbidden to see Amy, until a chance encounter proves his innocence of at least some of Philip's charges. Guy and Amy are then married forthwith, to Philip and Laura's despair.
On an extended and marvelously happy honeymoon in Europe, Guy and Amy meet Philip, a fellow tourist on leave from his regiment. When they later learn that Philip has fallen victim to a fever and is lying ill and alone in a small Italian village, they do not hesitate to go to his assistance. Guy spends himself nursing Philip back to health, and then catches the fever himself, which proves fatal in his case. I don't mind admitting that Guy's death brought me to tears more than once, as it did Jo in Little Women (whom Meg finds crying over the book). Amy, who is pregnant, is left a widow after four months of marriage. If her child is a boy, he will be the new heir of Redclyffe. Philip, who has undergone a complete repentance and conversion, sealed by Guy's self-sacrificial death, realizes with horror that if the child is a girl, he himself will inherit - a prospect that once seemed no more than his due.
Yonge carries the reader through this convoluted plot on the strength of her characters and her narrative voice. In this she reminds me of Trollope. I particularly enjoyed Charlie, a young man struggling with pain and disability, whose sharp mind and sharper tongue add welcome notes of acid (his attacks on Philip and his championship of Guy won my heart). However, faith (not just religion) plays a much larger part in her story than in any other Victorian writer I have read. Yonge was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, under the guidance of John Keble, one of its leading figures and the vicar of a neighboring parish. Yonge quotes frequently from his popular and influential book of poems, The Christian Year. The strong and practical faith of Guy and Amy is contrasted with the more intellectual and in the end weaker beliefs of Philip and Laura.
I enjoyed this book so much, and the characters and the story are still vivid in my mind. I know this is one I will come back to again, and I will be looking for other books by Charlotte Yonge.