Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Worthy Ambition": Religion and Domesticity in the Daisy Chain

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Worthy Ambition": Religion and Domesticity in the Daisy Chain

Article excerpt

Charlotte Yonge's two-novel sequence The Daisy Chain and The Trial, which chronicles the fortunes of the large family of May siblings, is one of the most typical and fully realized examples of nineteenth-century domestic realism. Yonge is as famous for her detailed and minute depictions of family dynamics as she is for her conservative religion and politics, and her chronicles always lend their realism to advancing the ideas of the Oxford Movement and domestic ideology. Yonge's very commitment to realism, however, with its reportorial detail and fine discriminations of emotional states, frequently leads her to depict situations that do not accord completely with her narrator's overt ideological agendas. As Talia Schaffer neatly summarizes this phenomenon, "her commitment to realism made her chronicle materials that undermine her politics" (245). (1) The undermining is most apparent in the realm of gender politics, and The Daisy Chain, one of her most popular novels, embodies that dual movement in charting the spiritual ambitions of its protagonist, Etheldred May. Ethel is both intellectually accomplished, keeping up with the classical studies of her brother Norman purely for the fun of it, and also deeply spiritual, perhaps the most religious of her fervently religious family. Her mental proclivities put her at odds with her destined role as a woman, and much of the plot of The Daisy Chain is concerned with her development from a headstrong and impetuous girl into a self-effacing and disciplined woman who sacrifices uncomplainingly for home and family. Yonge cannot, however, bring herself to destroy Ethel's ambitions completely, and in allowing her to achieve her greatest vision (the building of a church in an underserved rural district near her home), Yonge provides a dramatic example of "materials that undermine her politics." In this particular case, Yonge's commitment to delineating a fully realized and textured character leads her to depict a situation in which her own political commitments contradict each other; religious piety and gender conformity are not mutually compatible in Ethel's life, and the path the heroine chooses only imperfectly reconciles the two ideologies. A girl who can build a church is admirable, but she is not a pattern-card of "ladylike" behavior.

The unstable ideological valence of the church-building project is symbolized through the associated trope of vision that runs throughout the novel. Ethel May's quest to build a church at Cocksmoor is a sublimation of her inability to control her own domestic space. She is restricted in two ways: her physical circumscription to the family home and to her native town, which she leaves only twice during the course of two novels; and her myopia, which makes her unable to see and adequately control her physical surroundings. The latter of these is a particularly poignant restriction, because her mother and brother Harry object to her wearing glasses in order to correct her vision, and yet her mother also forbids her to carry the baby because she is "so blind" (16). Ethel's father and brother wear spectacles throughout both novels, and by the time of The Trial, old maid Ethel has begun to do so as well. In youth, she occasionally borrows her father's glasses for a quick, snatched chance at the pleasures of being able to see what is far away. But for most of The Daisy Chain, Ethel's myopia is a direct bodily manifestation of a woman's restricted role. Ethel's frustration over this role makes her all the more fervent in her desire to "see" transcendent space, and eventually to control it. After her first visit to the Cocksmoor quarry district, she conceives of her lifelong project--her "worthy ambition" (25)--specifically as a vision, in which she casts herself as the sole benefactor: "She would compose, publish, earn money--some day call papa, show him her hoard, beg him to take it, and, never owning whence it came, raise the building. Spire and chancel--pinnacle and buttress, rose before her eyes" (25). …

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