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On reading “The Heir of Redclyffe”

I have wanted to read The Heir of Redclyffe for ages, but I was unable to do so because until recently the only copies of it I could find were in the minute print favoured by late Victorian publishers. And this is hardly surprising since the literary career of its author Charlotte M. ( for Mary) Yonge ( 1823- 1901) , of which The Heir of Redclyffe was the most perfect product, coincided with the reign of the great queen. She survived Victoria only by a few weeks, and died in March 1901.

In her day she was as popular as she was productive. The Heir – as her masterpiece is often called – earned her the equivalent of £75,000 a year in royalties, and she had other successes- most notably The Daisy Chain– which I have not read, and The Little Duke (which I have.) Almost incredibly Yonge wrote two books a year from 1845 until October 1900! Although Yonge has always had a devoted band of supporters and has been the subject of at least four books the very richness of Victorian culture and the extraordinary quality of the other novelists writing in her time has meant that her work has been to some extent ignored. One reason for this relative neglect may be that her idiom is sometimes obscure. One might also suggest that her work stood on the “wrong” side of secularisation, and at least in its trappings looked backward rather than to the more optimistic atmosphere typical of the nineteenth century.

Some years ago I embarked on Walter Scot’s Ivanhoe but I was unable to make much progress. The book purported to be set in the middle ages, yet obviously wasn’t. I suddenly realised that it was not about the middle ages but about the eighteenth century, and then everything started to make sense. I had something of the same sensation when reading The Heir. Published in 1853 it is unquestionably a product of early Victorian England. And yet Yonge’s England is a different one from that which really existed. No one reading “The Heir” would suspect how turbulent the preceding five years had been. The world of business and technological innovation exemplified by the Great Exhibition of 1851 is absent; likewise the radical movements of the time. Despite references to Irish “dilapidations,” and the fact that one scene is set near Cork, the famine seems not to have impinged on Miss Yonge’s consciousness. This is not then a “condition of England” ( or anywhere else ) novel.

Why the isolation? The answer may be found in the unusual environment in which the novel was written. On retiring from the army in which he had fought at Waterloo Yonge’s father had taken over a small estate in a village called Otterbourne near Winchester. It was to this village that John Keble ( b. 1792) came as rector in 1835, and Charlotte Yonge became his pupil, and he her mentor, and she remained his devoted disciple until his death in 1866. We should never forget that Yonge’s fiction is therefore grounded in the settled communities of the South of England, presided over by squire and parson, ( and sometimes “squarson”) in which the traditional institutions worked at their best.

Keble is important because he, in association with John Henry Newman ( 1801-1890), and E. B. Pusey (1800- 1882), forged the so called Oxford Movement whose aim was to introduce elements of the old Catholic faith and practice into The Church of England.

Newman the superstar of the movement was hyper intelligent, subtle, charming, persuasive, even telegenic, and close to the intellectual market. He seems though to have been personally unknown to Yonge. Pusey, ( who Yonge met only once) was ponderous, saintly, and vastly learned.

And Keble? Here is what Christopher Dawson says. “Of the…leaders, John Keble was the least original and the least creative. He represents the static element in the combination.” It is indicative that his biographer Georgina Battiscombe has subtitled her work- “Study in limitations.”

And in reading “The Heir of Redclyffe” we always have be conscious of these limitations. Her vision was to change more than perhaps she realised. But in her early years she reflected Keble’s views unquestioningly. Just as when we read Scot we need to remember that his work is grounded in his time so too when reading The Heir we must register the influences that closely surrounded Charlotte Yonge as she wrote- indeed the manuscript ( which unfortunately does not survive ) was “work shopped” by both her father and others around her.  More particularly we should not be surprised if her insights are bound up in social forms puzzling that are to us.

Take for example the extraordinary way in which the plot of the novel revolves around a private agreement to get married. Yonge considered such a secret engagement as a grave evil, even if the parties concerned remained utterly chaste, as was the case here. The modern reader of The Heir finds it difficult to understand what is so terrible about Laura- the heroine’s sister- and Philip- the hero’s rival- planning to marry married after Philip gets promotion in the army. For Yonge the evil resides in the fact that the lovers (although of course they are not “lovers”) do not inform Laura’s parents about their “understanding”.

To some extent Yonge is concerned about the way that this sin of omission represents an attack on the highly patriarchal view of society that Yonge had inherited from her father- a major figure in her life. She had probably also acquired such notions more formally from John Keble when he prepared her for confirmation. But this is not the whole story. Had it been so I doubt that she would have depicted Laura’s father Mr. Edmonstone as the slightly ridiculous ( if sympathetic) figure he is.

The point here though is wider and more important than just a defence of “family values” narrowly imagined. For Yonge the family was an intricate network of personal filaments which could only in her view be sustained by the practice of the Christian virtues. Moreover for Yonge the family was a microcosm of society at large which could only prosper if these links were nurtured and maintained. For Yonge the secrecy practiced by Philip and Laura is a kind of selfishness which militates against all of this.

I am not going to give away Yonge’s plot ( which Yonge borrowed from a friend’s idea.) Those who wish to cheat can turn to Wikipedia. The mainspring of the book however, is the clash between personalities of the Guy the hero and the Philip his rival. Yonge had an extraordinary gift for depicting minor characters- for example Lady Evaleen De Courcy for one is a splendid creation, and Guy’s dog Bustle is one of the best canines in literature. Less successful are her attempts to delineate the major actors which drive the plot. The heroine Amy is one dimensional. Guy is too good to be true; while Philip is too nasty and priggish to be convincing. Despite these reservations Guy clearly articulates the authors vision of the ideal Christian gentleman, pious, charitable and modest; conversely Philip neatly expresses the failings of purely conventional values. After Guy lays down his life for Philip in an Italian Inn, the latter inherits the great property that was Guy’s. Philip achieves worldly success at a deadly price: he will never achieve happiness as the last page of the novel makes clear.

In Yonge’s world then individuals are not isolated actors following their own inclinations and interests. Her view of society is organic without being totalitarian. There is no glorification of the state here. There is no preaching of the virtues of the closed society. Parliamentary institutions are applauded. Philip becomes an M.P. and Charles- the heroines handicapped brother- finds fulfilment in becoming his speech writer immersed in blue books. ( Little can Yonge have known about speech writing!)

Although she appears to ignore some of the more obvious trends in the society around her Yonge raises many questions about Victorian England. There was a sense of unease in her work, a mindset that was opposed to much of what was happening in Victorian England. For Yonge a society is not measured by its wealth but by its virtue. Crucially she believed that purely secular interpretations of reality and of human nature would lead to error and absurdity. It is a point of view that drives some fine satirical passages in The Heir, in which Philip’s dreadful sister is misled by her religious scepticism. Irreligion is seen as the prelude to numerous other errors.

Yonge can never quite escape the charge of being an Anglican propagandist. There was always something of the Sunday school teacher about her. Yet at her best she raises important and abiding questions: Can our society, or any society survive in the absence of morality? More disturbingly what are sources of this morality? The Heir of Redclyffe may be an imperfect book- it has a slow start, and Yonge’s somewhat cramped style is occasionally difficult to follow. Nevertheless the novel the is well worth reading and more importantly worth pondering.

When Yonge died in the first months of the new century ( two days before my father was born!) it was muted that she should be buried next to Jane Austin in Winchester Cathedral. The idea was abandoned, and it was probably more fitting that she was in fact buried next to John Keble; but it is a happy coincidence that she lies not far from where Miss Austin rests


The edition of The Heir which I have used is that by Barbara Dennis from whose introduction I have benefited from. The quote from Christopher Dawson comes from, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement.( London 1934) p. 13. For my first paragraph I have raided Margaret Mare and Alicia C. Percival’s Victorian Best-Seller, The World of Charlotte M. Yonge ( London, 1947). The snippet about the plans to bury Miss Yonge next to Miss Austen comes from the final page Georgina Battiscombe’s book Charlotte Mary Yonge, the Story of an Uneventful Life,( London, 1943). The full details of Battiscombe’s excellent book about Keble are as follows: John Keble, a Study in Limitations ( London, 1963). Battiscombe ( 1905- 2006!)  was an underestimated biographer of Victorian figures. She also wrote, for example, about Lord Shaftesbury. The standard even official life of Yonge is Charlotte Mary Yonge by Christabel Coleridge ( Yes, of that family) ( London 1903).  The quickest way of getting a feel for the Oxford Movement is probably to get hold of a copy of  Sir Shane Leslie’s The Oxford Movement, 1833- 1933, ( London, 1934) although readers should be aware that Leslie joined the Catholic church, and that this has obviously influenced his account. His book contains a very full annotated bibliography, and an interesting appendix about the Ireland and the Oxford Movement.