Charlotte M. Yonge: Religion, Feminism and Realism in the Victorian Novel

By Walton, Susan | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Charlotte M. Yonge: Religion, Feminism and Realism in the Victorian Novel


Walton, Susan, The Byron Journal


CHARLOTTE M. YONGE: RELIGION, FEMINISM AND REALISM IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL. By Gavin Budge. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007. Pp. 317. ISBN 978 3 03911 339 2. £37.00.

Gavin Budge states on the cover of this monograph devoted to the Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge that it is the first full-length critical study of her writings. This claim is strangely true: even though Yonge was a best-selling and prolific writer, held in high regard by many contemporaries, she has not attracted as much serious attention from modern academics as other previously overlooked women writers. Indeed, Barbara Dennis's excellent edition (1997) of Yonge's most famous novel, The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), has not been retained by Oxford University Press in its World Classics series. Although there have been a few short monographs (by Catherine Sandbach-Dahlström, June Sturrock and Alethea Hayter), in-depth analyses of Yonge's work have figured mainly as articles in academic journals and tend to be devoted to examinations of single novels (Talia Schaffer on Magnum Bonum for example). This paucity of attention is remarkable for a writer of note, who was closely acquainted with key Victorian thinkers in the Church and politics, the editor for over forty years of The Monthly Packet - a periodical she herself had founded - a significant novelist and the author of numerous textbooks. Yonge's writings deserve serious consideration, and Budge sets out both to examine the reasons for the curious disregard of her work and to demonstrate her right to be assimilated into the mainstream of literary criticism, particularly with regard to her domestic novels, which form the basis of this study.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first and most philosophical section, 'Realism, Domestic Ideology and the Tractarian Psychology of Religion', grapples with a common critical hypothesis that assumes that Yonge's strong religious beliefs and connections with the Oxford Movement rule out the possibility of her books belonging to any canon of the realist novel. Budge posits 'an alternative model for Victorian realist fiction based on nineteenth-century intellectual sources which would have been familiar points of reference in Yonge's Tractarian milieu'. Stressing the notion that criticism of the Victorian novel should take its Romantic and specifically Wordsworthian heritage much more seriously, Budge argues persuasively for an understanding of the realist novel not in materialist, representational terms but, similar to poetry, as a form that 'constitutes the real from the chaotic mass of the reader's associations, rather than reflecting a reality which is supposed to lie outside itself '. A glance at the titles of Budge's previous books provides a good indication of the nature of his academic concerns, particularly his editorship of the six-volume Aesthetics and Religion in Nineteenth- Century Britain (2003). His approach to criticism is founded on a profound understanding of contemporary philosophical and religious thought, which enables him to position Yonge in relation to the specific intellectual background of her mentor, John Keble, linking what Budge describes as the 'providentialist hermeneutic' expressed in Keble's Lectures on Poetry with Yonge's methods of character development in her stories. Budge's emphasis on intellectual history helps to explain what many first-time readers of Yonge's books are surprised to discover: in spite of her stated desire that her fiction should be an 'instrument for popularising Church views', her novels are neither didactic nor are her personae rigid stereotypes. Budge demonstrates how the psychological realism of Yonge's characters grew out of her Tractarian beliefs rather than being at odds with them.

Challenging those feminist critics who spurn Yonge on the grounds of her apparent acceptance of women's inferiority, Budge explores how analogies between the role of the domestic woman and that of the saint within Tractarian thought could empower rather than stultify women, providing them with opportunities to influence not merely their own men-folk but the wider environs of society.

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