Sunday, June 9, 2013

Clever women

The Clever Woman of the Family, Charlotte M. Yonge

Devoted myself to Miss Yonge's last novel, The Clever Woman of the Family; her best, I think, since Heartsease.  She has no great creative or constructive power; she can produce but two finished portraits of woman-kind (Amy and Laura in The Heir of Redclyffe, Lady Temple and Rachel Curtis in this last book, Violet and her sister-in-law in Heartsease), but all she writes is pure, refined, womanly, healthy, and wholesome beyond the work of any living novelist.  Anthony Trollope comes next . . .   - George Templeton Strong, diary entry, July 13, 1865.

Over the past week I have also devoted myself to this book.  I've now read three of Charlotte Yonge's novels, and I like each one better than the last.  I can't agree with Strong that she has "no great creative or constructive power."  This story is more complex than either The Daisy Chain or The Heir of Redclyffe, with a larger cast of characters and a mystery to be unraveled at its heart.  It is the story of two sets of sisters, one set of brothers, and a brother and sister.  The "clever woman" of the title is Rachel Curtis, who is introduced in the first chapter, living with her older sister Grace and their widowed mother in the seaside town of Avonmouth (standing in for Exmouth).  Their estate, The Homestead, of which Grace and Rachel are joint heiresses, includes much of the land around the town, which is becoming popular as a winter resort.  Rachel has just turned 25, and she longs to be doing something to improve the lives of the local people, particularly the girls who are apprenticed too young to lace-making.  She want a purpose, a mission.  She spends her spare time in study, but she has no one to discuss and debate with, no one to guide her reading, which has made her rather dogmatic and overbearing.  People agree with her to escape confrontation, or they just avoid her conversation all together.

A mission soon comes to hand with a letter announcing the impending arrival of her cousin Fanny and her family from India.  The daughter of a soldier, Fanny went out to join her parents in South Africa when she was 16.  At her father's death, which quickly followed her arrival, she married his old friend Sir Simon Temple, aged 60 to her 16.  Now, nine years later, Sir Simon has died, and Fanny is returning to England as Lady Temple, with seven children, including a new-born daughter, Stephana.  (There is also a son named Leoline, though the others have more usual names).  Rachel determines to take charge of the widow and her children, appointing herself tutor to the boys and chaperone to the mother.  The boys do not take kindly to her regime, and gentle Lady Temple is quick to defend and excuse them.  Rachel, finding her theories of education and child management falling short of the reality of six troublesome boys, agrees to give up  charge of them to a new governess.

Fortunately, there is a candidate close at hand in Alison Williams.  She and her sister Ermine live in a small cottage with their niece Rose.  Ermine, the elder, is in a wheelchair, having suffered terrible burns in an accidental fire that left her unable to walk.  She spends much of her time caring for Rose, a winsome child of seven, the daughter of their brother Edward.  In the second great tragedy of their family, Edward was accused of fraud, in connection with an industrial process that he was developing, and fled to the Continent.  Alison and Ermine have been ostracized by their family for insisting on his innocence.  In their poverty and isolation, the offer of a position with the Temples comes as a great relief.  Alison handles her new charges very easily, and she gets on well with Lady Temple.  Rachel, meanwhile, finds herself drawn to Ermine, recognzing in her a well-read, educated, thinking person, with a deeper understanding than Rachel herself.  Ermine listens patiently to Rachel's theories and dogmas, but she isn't afraid to challenge, and she will not be intimidated or overborne.  Rachel learns from one Williams sister as the Temple boys do from the other.

Though she gives up charge of the boys, Rachel still feels herself the guardian of their young mother (like Rachel, aged 25).  Lady Temple is good-hearted, simple and generous.  Though she is determined never to marry again, having loved Sir Stephen deeply and sincerely mourning him, Rachel keeps a suspicious eye on every man who comes near her.  She particularly resents Colonel the Hon. Colin Keith, whom Sir Stephen made the guardian of his family with Fanny's Aunt Curtis.  Fanny depends on him for everything, she refers all questions to him, especially those involving the boys.  Rachel also keeps a close eye on the Colonel's distant cousin Captain Alexander Keith.  Alick served under Fanny's father, and his sister Bessie, who also knew the family, comes to stay with Lady Temple.  Rachel, suspecting every man of designs on Lady Temple, never notices that both men have other reasons for staying in Avonmouth.

I did enjoy this book, for its twisty plot but also for its characters.  I felt for Rachel, who like Jo March in Little Women has great energy and talents, but no real outlet for them.  According to the introduction, this book addresses the problem of "surplus women" in British society in the mid-19th century, when "women outnumber men to such an extent that not all women can expect to marry."  Rachel does not plan to marry, but to work at some mission, once she discovers the proper one.  At age 25, she considers herself past the marrying age anyway, a point of view not shared by her older sister Grace.  Alison Williams is another young woman who has made a career as a governess instead of marrying.  But as much as I enjoyed this book, it also left me a little uneasy, because more than any other 19th-century novelist I've read, Yonge makes her characters pay for their mistakes, their sins, and retribution falls heavily on the women.  Perhaps that is why 19th-century readers like George Templeton Strong saw her books as so "pure, refined, womanly, healthy and wholesome."  In this book, one character's misbehavior leads to her death, and another's mistakes cost the life of a child.

I was also uncomfortable with Yonge's insistence that women's intellect, and even their souls, must be guided and shaped by the men in their lives.  Here is another parallel with Little Women: Rachel must find her Professor Bhaer, to tone down her stridency, to make her realize that she is not as educated and well-informed as she thinks she is.  In the end, it takes two mentors, one of whom helps her find again the faith that she thought lost to rationalism.  "And after all, unwilling as she would have been to own it, 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."  As a 21st-century woman with an unmastered soul, I am absolutely unwilling to own that.

And yet in other ways this book is surprisingly progressive.  Yonge also gives us Ermine Williams, a truly clever woman, who seems to have succeeded where Rachel failed in shaping herself without a master.  And Yonge gives us not one but two characters, physically maimed and handicapped, both of whom are loved and marry happily.  One character even has a home prepared and made handicap-accessible.  A third character, Alick and Bessie's uncle Mr. Clare, is blind but still continues as rector of a parish, with the help of a curate.  I can't think of another 19th-century novel that I have read where anything like this happens - where physically disabled characters can be central and heroic while also living normal lives.  In another unexpected twist for a novel of this time, Yonge makes one of the male characters - again, a central and heroic one - a tender and devoted nurse, much in demand.

Admist all the discussion of serious reading, I was tickled to find two of my favorite characters are fans of Anthony Trollope.  Alick Keith is visiting his uncle, to whom he often reads aloud.  Mr. Clare asks, "You have not by chance got Framley Parsonage?"   Alick tells him no, but that they will get a copy.  Mr. Clare goes on to say, "Bessie has it.  She read me a very clever scene about a weak young parson bent on pleasing himself; and offered to lend me the book, but I thought it would not edify Will Walker [his curate]."  Instead, they settle down to read Silas Marner.

I was so surprised and happy to find this book at Half Price Books.  I always look in the "Y" section at used-book stores but without much hope, since so few of Yonge's books have been reprinted and they are very hard to find.  The edition I found is from the Broadview Press, which has published many 19th-century novels in editions like this one, which has not just an introduction by a professor of English, Clare Simmons, but also appendicies with supplementary information on Yonge herself, on the "Surplus Women" question, and some background historical information (on the British army in the period of the novel, for example).  I have since discovered that my copy of Margaret Oliphant's autobiography is also a Broadview edition.  I can only hope that they will continue to reprint women writers, and I am hoping specifically for more of Yonge's novels (which are available as e-texts; I still prefer print).


  1. This sounds just my type of book (which is alarming - can one really be a fan of surplus women novels without being thought rather odd?!), apart from the whole shaping-women's-souls-by-men-thing. I have downloaded the Heir of Redclyffe, so really must go and try her out.

  2. As far as I'm concerned we can, though I may be a bit biased! I did like The Heir so much - it's a bit more serious than this one. Elizabeth has a brilliant post about it on The Bamboo Bookcase.

  3. I've had The Clever Woman in my to-read pile for a while, and now that I've read your review I think I'm going to read it next. It sounds wonderful, even with the mastered souls concept -- I knew that was going to be in there and was a little worried about it!

  4. elizabeth, I bet you'll enjoy this, mastered souls and all! I was thinking today that Rachel is in danger of becoming a female version of Philip Morville - at least her mentors preserve her from that.

  5. What a really interesting mix of characters here! Does it get too overwhelming (like Trollope does for me) or are you able to keep them all straight? I have The Daisy Chain on my iPad for someday.

  6. Anbolyn, I did find it hard to keep track of some of the minor characters (Fanny's children, the neighboring families), but the major characters are so well-drawn that they really stand out. I remember with The Daisy Chain I had to make a list of those 11 kids, to keep them straight at first.


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!