The Daisy Chain by Charlotte M Yonge
Anglican Women Novelists, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell
I sometimes say about books on here ‘I read this so you don’t have to.’ When I consider the question of Charlotte M Yonge’s The Daisy Chain I realize that I was hoping that, exactly, one day someone else would read it for me. I approached it a number of times: I am always fascinated by the forgotten bestsellers of an earlier time, & it is hard to over-estimate her mass appeal and importance back in the day (2nd half of 19th C). She lived her whole life quite close to where I live now. She wrote about families and relationships, always a favourite thing. Once you start digging there are inexplicable quotes like this one: ‘C.S.Lewis thought very highly of Yonge, at one point bracketing her evocations of domestic life with those of Homer and Leo Tolstoy.’
But somehow it never happened: descriptions of the book were too off-putting. And then – I came across a book called Anglican Women Novelists, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell: a collection of essays on writers from Charlotte Bronte to PD James, taking in Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Noel Streatfeild along the way. Could it BE more up my street? And there is a chapter on Charlotte M Yonge, by Charlotte Mitchell.
DIVERSION: A most weird thing happened along the way – I ordered the book, and somehow the order labels got swapped and I was sent a blue lacy nightie instead (actually described as ‘sexy nightgown’ on the delivery note). I have to assume that sexy nightie lady got to sit up in bed reading about the Anglican novelists instead. A great plot device for my writer friends, by the way, you are welcome to it. The start of a novel/film in which sexy-nightie-lady gets an OU degree, while I spice up my bluestocking life with blue lace. A good extra twist could be that in both cases it was a gift: so someone writes ‘this seemed perfect for you!’ on the accompanying note. ‘So THAT’S how they see me!’ both women would think. (Honestly, this bestseller is half-written already.)
ANYWAY, back to Yonge. As I lay, provocatively dressed, (OK, no I didn’t, I sent it back, though book and nightie were both in the house at the same time at one point) reading the chapter on Yonge I realized I absolutely had to finally read The Daisy Chain. It is something of an undertaking, it is long and very much of its time. But I am very glad I have read it, though not necessarily saying that everyone should: it’s possible I have taken the bullet this time. But it is fascinating because you can actually see how important and influential it was, you can literally tell that all over the world other writers were reading it full blast. It was so interesting that I am going to need two blogposts to cover it, one on the book itself and one on her influence on popular culture, and the connection with Little Women.
In the ABOUT tab of my blog, and in this post, I speak of my great fondness for a category of books that you might call high-grade tosh, and I am actually not sure if The Daisy Chain falls into this category or not. It is one of the strangest books I have ever read. It is at times unreadably dull, the religious content is hard to cope with, and sometimes incomprehensible. The heroine, Ethel, is surprisingly endearing, though you want to smack those around her as they are so mean to her – your blood runs cold at some of the carryon in this lovely and loving family, with full apparent author approval. Mind you, you also want to smack Ethel, who is self-sacrificing beyond all bearing.
Very much of its time, there are references to foreigners which would be unacceptable now, and attitudes: the colonialism is fairly unabashed, along with references to the importance of bringing Christianity to the heathens. Avoid if you can’t face that: otherwise, skim those bits.
The plot has longueurs, and tedious chapters, but then will have a sudden startling plot turn which this reader certainly wasn’t expecting. There are many and very varied deaths - one of which is presaged by a character calling ‘X! – X! – It is enough! I am ready!', where X is a previously deceased character.
The death of a baby late on is one of the strangest things I have ever read, both in its cause, and in the role it plays in a character’s development. And I am at all times fond of weird Victorian illnesses, and there was an absolute banger here:
"What kind of attack?"
"Faintness-sinking. It is suspended action of the heart. The injury to the spine deranged the system, and then the long suspense, and the shock—It is not one thing more than another, but it must go on."
In the middle of all the religion and pomposity, and the Victorian melodrama, there are some really memorable moments. Unexpectedly relevant today is a discussion of people's motives for charitable activities:
Let people be honest—alms, or pleasure, or vanity! let them say which they mean; but don't make charity the excuse for the others.You know exactly what Ethel means. (She is named after Queen Ethedldreda, Queen of Beauty, and this picture is a representation of the Queen from a suffragette pageant of 1913, via the Library of Congress.)
And I'm not sure if Yonge meant this to be funny, but it made me laugh:
He had seen, in his Oxford life, so many ill-effects of the knowledge that puffeth up, he had come to have a certain respect for dullness, per se, of which George Rivers easily reaped the benefitThere is an excruciating scene in which one of the girls of the family reveals that she has had a proposal, and everyone is amused and outraged and says, in effect, ‘how embarrassing for you! What on earth did you say to him?’ and she is mortified but says ‘well I told him to ask you father’, because actually she was pleased, and wants to marry him.
And then her sisters who were so opposed to the idea:
no sooner heard a whisper about bride's-maids than all their opposition faded away, in a manner that quite scandalised Ethel.
More, much more, to follow on this fascinating book...
Pictures are from an edition of the book from some years later than publication, held by the British Library.
Hmm....I can see how you'd read this for its historical significance, Moira, rather than because there's something innately absorbing and engaging about it. And sometimes, that's reason enough to read a book. And I'm very glad you found it fascinating - it certainly sounds like there's a lot to see in it. I'm looking forward to what else you have to say about the book. I have to admit, though, your story of the crossed packages really intrigued me. I may have to write that into a story...ReplyDelete
You're welcome to the plot device Margot! It could go in all kinds of directions.Delete
Chrissie says below that Yonge is an acquired taste, and she is right, but could be worth acquiring, I will definitely read more.
Iris Murdoch in a book on Anglican Women Novelists? The CofE is eclectic, but even if it didn't draw the line at Murdoch, how would she feel about it?ReplyDelete
I wrote you a reply and it has disappeared! I now have even more sympathy with those who find they can't post on here...Delete
So after I read your comment I got the book down again and re-read the chapter on IM, and am now going to get it again...
The chapter is called 'Anglican Atheist' and the quote I underlined for you (I'm glad to say or I might not have been able to find it again) is: 'Although technically an atheist - her personal religion had no use for 'God' - she was in another sense of composite self-identifications.She called herself 'Buddhist in style', a 'neo-Christian or Buddhist Christian or Christian fellow traveller'.' She said 'I feel I am still in a way inside the Anglican church.'
I think the CofE won't complain. One of my all-time favourite quotes on religion came in a humour piece in The New York Times: 'The Church of England is all that stands between us and Christianity.' Makes me laugh every time.
*** in the quotation, that should read ' she was in another sense a composite of religious self-identifications'.Delete
There are a lot of Anglostics about too!Delete
A fellow-atheist friend objecys to the way they drag religion into the CofE and thinks it should take over the Arts Council and social services. Rowan Williams. when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, lamented that the CoE doesn't make saints any more (King Charles I is still officially a saint and martyr, I think, but he is the only uniquely Anglican saint) as he would like to sanctify the atheist Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In fact, Murdoch might have liked Reginald's composite self-identifiucations: "The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.”Delete
Reginald always had the right words, that's a great quote.Delete
The role of the CofE is definitely somewhat tricksy. I had a friend who, questioned why she wanted a church wedding when she had no faith, said 'I had to put up with the CofE all my life - church school, church with parents, sunday school - I am entitled to something back in return for all that, and that's a nice setting for my wedding'. I was quite charmed and convinced.
St Ralph Vaughan Williams - that'll be worth waiting for.
Well, anyone who gain the unqualified admiration of Elias Canetti - as RVW did - is a Good Chap, if mnot a formal saint!Delete
Just was listening to Nicola Benedetti playing Lark Ascending at Last Night of the Proms. I know it is looked down on by those with higher tastes ('Classic Fm music') but it has the truly authentic magic for me.Delete
"Honestly, this bestseller is half-written already"ReplyDelete
One of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books features an elderly woman who leaves several cherished family heirlooms to the heirs who did NOT want them instead of the heirs who did. Because it is Lucy Maud Montgomery, the old lady knew what each of them needed as opposed to what they wanted, so everything worked out for the best.
Ooh that sounds like a goody, what was it called? I have a soft spot for that kind of structure - predictable but enjoyable, and the fun of wondering how she is going to make it work.Delete
Reading The Daisy Chain converted me to Charlotte M Yonge and I now have dozens of her books. Yes, poor Ethel but you have to see her life as a willing sacrifice. Even more sacrificial is The Pillars of the House (two volumes), which nevertheless fascinates. As I wrote somewhere on my blog, if her books could keep Tennyson up all night, they must have something. The fictional Mrs Malory in Hazel Holt's books is a great fan, which is one of the many things I like about her.ReplyDelete
It is so nice to discover some fans! Which would you recommend next? I am tempted by Stepmother as in Chrissie's comment below. Any others, perhaps not too self-sacrificing?Delete
I'd say The Young Stepmother or The Clever Woman of the Family. Or Countess Kate, which is more fun.Delete
Re The Wide, Wide World, I first heard of it as a child reading What Katy Did. I think Cecy gives it to Katy for Christmas. It is very long and very moral but I have read a shorter version, abridged and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, which is more accessible.
Yes! What Katy Did, that's exactly where I came across it. A shorter version sounds like a wise choice - and isn't that the Milly Molly Mandy lady-writer?Delete
JLB: yes indeed!Delete
Moira, you should have asked me about Charlotte M Yonge! In an earlier life I read The Heir of Redclyffe for my research into Arthurian legend in fine and applied in the nineteenth century. Later I did some research on stepfamilies in Victorian and Edwardian literature and that was when I read Yonge's The Stepmother, which kept me occupied during wet days on a holiday in Cornwall. It is one of her best. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read lots of the others. Have to admit, she might be an acquired taste!ReplyDelete
Have we ever discussed her? As I say above, I think Stepmother is next (in my 2nd post, it pops up in an Agatha Christie too) on your reco, what else? There's certainly a lot to choose from them.Delete
Something I read on Yonge was suggesting Victorian paintings that could have been used as her illos, I think you would have enjoyed that discussion, combining your interests. I will photograph the page and send it to you if you like. It sent me looking for an image called For Sale by James Collinson (it is extremely difficult to Google something with that name, because it just gives you art auction results!) - which is startling. Described as 'woman at a church bazaar with an ambiguous glance'. Am saving that one up for some future Victorian novel...
I don't think we have discussed her. I will have a think about what else. The Clever Woman of the Family, maybe?Delete
I know the Collinson picture well, and can visualise it, but not sure if I have a reproduction anywhere. I will have a look. (Long ago I did an MA thesis on the Pre-Raphaelites). Actually looking again at what you wrote, maybe you did find it?
Would love to be able to discuss all this in real life.
Love the plot device (watch this space . . .), It made me think of the Sylvia Townsend Warner story about the hat. I am rather disappointed that the nightie didn't send you off in a new direction.
One day we will be able to talk about her properly!Delete
Yes I did find the picture, but you need to know the exact name of the painter - I had been poking around on Google with my inexact memories and that was hopeless! (Yes at one point I thought it was Collier again...)
It is quite surprising I think, in being simultaneously very overt and not overt! You wouldn't get the point except for the title, you might just think she was a bit flirty?
Yes, very interesting. There's also a copy called 'The Empty Purse,' and I think the alert Victorian viewer would have spotted the symbolism of that, too.Delete
Fascinating! They weren't quite as prim as we hear, were they? I do love those paintings...Delete
I am enthalled by your Diversion. Almost Pymish. And thank you. I'll happily take the incident. I've popped it into my ever-expanding file of ideas, under: Lost and Found Objects (quite often spurious newly discovered paintings and MSS.)ReplyDelete
Thanks for taking that bullet, Moira. It reminds me of two very very old books that fell into my hands when I was perhaps, oh 15? and that I read with the interest of looking into a long past: The Lamplighter and The Wide, Wide World.
On the other hand, I'm intrigued by the Anglican Women Novelists. My library doesn't have it (!) so I may have to order it online. Hmmm... what might I get instead?
Thanks - yes all intriguing.Delete
Some time I must tell the story of the Weeping Bride and her Baggage, a weird incident at Kings Cross left luggage last year. I related it to a table-full of crime writers and they were all anxious to claim it.
I came across a couple of references to Wide Wide World when looking into this, and thought 'I must find out more'. Would you recommend? and yes have come across references to the Lamplighter. I think in Antonia Forest it makes Mrs Bertie cry?
When I was young and reading a lot, I was always fascinated by 'books mentioned in other books', but it was always really hard to find out anything about them. I love that it's so easy to track them down these days.
Moira, I think you've done your duty with The Daisy Chain. No need, I think, to take on either of those other sentimental improving blockbusters (or do I mean doorstops?).Delete
The thing is, I do quite enjoy them... we'll see. So many books...Delete
Somebody really ought to write that book. I see it as a mixture of Barbara Pym and (insert name of favourite, rather racy, feelgood writer here) with lots of detailed clothes descriptions which fill important functions as plot devices as well as character descriptions (or, in fact, both showing and propelling character development) and not just containing a makeover but actually built on the very idea of a (double) makeover. I mean - what's not to like here?ReplyDelete
Yes! I meant to say to Susan D above, Barbara Pym is exactly right, you can just imagine it can't you. And you could do a lot with it.Delete
I would definitely read that book. Come on, someone...
I had a compilation of extracts - poems and prose - and there was a chunk of Charlotte M Yonge. I simply adored it - there was a large family of children, and a girl who was trying to address a letter to "Grosvenor Square" but it kept coming out "Grovensor". Horrible teasing brothers. English governess is in the background trying to converse with a German governess and trying out her German.ReplyDelete
I've never read a whole book by her! I so wanted to be a Victorian child. Their lives seemed so structured and occupied and undemanding. The complete opposite of the kind of book where children are shipwrecked and have to be proactive and use their initiative - aaargh!
Have I recommended The Binks Family by John Strange Winter?
Will be off to look up the Binks Family, no haven't heard of it...Delete
I spent a lot of time imagining the lives of children I read about in a similar way, I think, I was always wondering which aspects of their daily round would be all right and which not. Did everybody do this or just us two 😉? I remember being shocked by the idea of Victorian children having to wear heavy black mourning on a summer's day, just because your mother had died. and I wasn't sure about the boots they all wore, which sounded unlike modern boots.
And there were many books where I wanted the Big Incident (whatever it was) not too happen because I was so enjoying normal life in the book.
It was a Chapter of The Stokesley Secret, free online. I couldn't read it now! But it contains this paragraph:ReplyDelete
"...what Elizabeth wanted her to look at was a little girl of nine years old, who was walking beside the lady. Her hat was black chip, edged and tied with rose-coloured ribbon, and adorned with a real bird, with glass eyes, black plumage, except the red crest and wings. She wore a neatly-fitting little fringed black polka, beneath which spread out in fan-like folds her flounced pink muslin, coming a little below her knees, and showing her worked drawers, which soon gave place to her neat stockings and dainty little boots. She held a small white parasol, bordered with pink, and deeply fringed, over her head, and held a gold-clasped Prayer-Book in her hand..."
Oh lovely! She was very good on clothes I think. I have some very good pictures of those hats with birds on them. Didn't George Bernard Shaw write to the Times complaining - not on animal-lover grounds but because it was a nuisance to sit behind them in the theatre.Delete