Heartsease, Charlotte M. Yonge
Reading this 1854 novel was a somewhat surreal experience, because I couldn't figure out the arc of the story, what it was really about. It took me much longer than it should have to recognize this as a story of repentance and redemption. The subtitle is "The Brother's Wife," and it begins with an unfortunate marriage. Arthur Martindale, the second son of Lord Martindale and an officer in the Coldstream Guards, has been maneuvered into marriage with the daughter of an unscrupulous country attorney, whom he met on holiday. He stands to inherit little from his father, a fact he conceals from his father-in-law. He marries his Violet on her sixteenth birthday, knowing that his family will disapprove of the match, but counting on his wife's sweetness and beauty to win them over.
There will be mild spoilers below.
At first I thought this was going to be a story of marriage and family life, particularly when Violet becomes pregnant almost immediately. On one level it is, but the story spends nearly as much time on her sister-in-law Theodora, an independent and arrogant young woman, who blames Violet for the marriage and for stealing her brother's affection. Violet has no idea what a strained family she has married into. It is ruled by Lady Martindale's Aunt Nesbit, who holds her fortune over their heads. She raised the orphaned Lady Martindale and and made her match with the cash-poor Lord Martindale. She demands all of her adopted daughter's time and attention, leaving the rest of the family to fend for themselves. She also vetoed the older son John's engagement to the curate's daughter Helen, forcing them into a long engagement. Though they had little hope of marriage, Helen's early death was a shock to John, whose own health is not strong, and he has been absorbed in his grief and weakness ever since.
John finds himself drawn (in a perfectly brotherly way) to his teenaged sister-in-law, who nearly dies in childbirth, her son with her. He even talks to her about Helen. As she recovers they have many conversations about spiritual as well as practical matters. Though Violet has good principles, she has no real religious feeling. John encourages her to read the Bible and to think about prayer as more than just a formula of words. Her maturing faith and confidence in God help her through the trials of life (including the births of three more children in quick succession). They also guide her in dealing with her husband's family, particularly Theodora. By her words and example, they are all eventually converted - not in the sense of accepting Christ - but in changing their lives, abandoning bad habits, loving and caring for one another. As one character says, late in the story, "The history of these years is this. Every one has acted, more or less, idiotically. She has gone about softening, healing, guarding, stirring up the saving part of each one's disposition."
Of course Violet does all this in the proper womanly way, patiently enduring, her soft voice never scolding, her eyes often overflowing, her prayers unceasing. She also raises a little saint in her oldest son Johnnie, who converts his wayward father by talking to him of the Good Shepherd. I really came to appreciate the tempestuous Theodora, who erupts through the story like Jo March, even when I realized that she too would have to be tamed down. But I also appreciated that everyone was in need of conversion, even the slightly saintly John. He had to be shaken out of his own self-absorption in grief and illness, so that he could help Violet in her difficulties, so that she in turn could save the rest of the family.
I admit, I found this book tough going at times. It was a relief to set it aside to read something more modern for a book group, though curiosity did draw me back to it afterwards. In part, I was waiting to see who was going to die in the course of the story. There were at least four candidates: the constantly pregnant Violet, the two brothers with bad hacking coughs, and the sickly but saintly Johnnie. But really, the important death came before the story even began: Helen's - yet she still plays a crucial role in it.
This is the fourth of Charlotte Yonge's novels that I have read, and it was not my favorite. I found The Clever Woman of the Family and The Heir of Redclyffe much more lively and interesting, though this story does have its dramatic moments (a house fire and two death-bed scenes, for a start). I thought perhaps it was because this is an early book, that she learned to balance her moralizing better in later books. But then I discovered that this was written the year after The Heir of Redclyffe, which seems to negate my theory. I will say though that Charlotte Yonge knew how to create interesting three-dimensional characters, and that's what really kept me turning the pages of this long book. I wanted to know what happened to these people, how their stories turned out.
The copy I read is an 1897 reprint, from Macmillan and Company. It has a small sticker inside the front cover from the D.B. Friend and Company bookstores, in Brighton and Hove. It also has an inscription: "Violet D. Reeves, from Mother, September 13, 1897." My copy of The Daisy Chain, in a similar Macmillan edition, also has an inscription from a mother to her daughter. I can just imagine generations of women passing these novels along, sure of their moral and spiritual worth.