“His eyes filled with tears, [and] the most subduing and healing of all thoughts – that of the great Example – became present to him; the foe was driven back.” – The Heir of Redclyffe
Although you may have never heard of it before, The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) was one of the most popular novels of the Victorian Era. It was Charlotte M. Yonge’s first novel and proved immediately successful. The Heir of Redclyffe, though perhaps a little difficult to get into in the beginning because of its somewhat obscure conversational banter, rewards perseverance with its plot surprises, original characters, and, as with a multitude of Victorian novels, profoundly intelligent narration of human experiences.
The Edmonstones, a devout Christian family, take under their wing a young, recently orphaned distant relative, Sir Guy Morville. Reared only by a reclusive grandfather with an unscrupulous past, Guy looks to the loving guidance of the Edmonstones, and Mrs. Edmonstone in particular, as they seek to gently direct his spiritual maturation by teaching him self-discipline, particularly of his passionate temper. Romances ensue, drawing lines of loyalty between certain family members, and when suspicious evidence concerning Guy appears and accusations arise against him, the family becomes divided about his innocence and trustworthiness.
The Heir of Redclyffe is a study in sanctification, which is the striving after Christ-likeness this side of heaven. Of course, there are two sides to Christ-likeness: aiming to follow Christ’s example (good deeds), and recognizing where we fail to do so (repentance), and we see both of these elements of Christian sanctification in the novel. The true Christian must reach a state of repentance for his or her sins. With such a theme completely dominating novel, it is not hard to see why the book has fallen out of print and has never been adapted to film, unlike many popular Victorian dramas. Additionally, in the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition, the editor herself states that The Heir, with its affirmation of the patriarchal family and the submissive role of women, is definitely not a feminist work. The Heir of Redclyffe probably holds little value for today’s secular reader.
Charlotte M. Yonge was an Anglican, and viewed herself as ‘a sort of instrument for popularising church views.’ She never married, wrote over a hundred works and edited a women’s church magazine for forty years.
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This kind of review shows exactly why we need a website like this one.
Some authors seem to appeal to believers and unbelievers alike (Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, for instance). But many authors appeal to one group more than the other. No doubt unbelievers find more to enjoy in Samuel Butler and Thomas Hardy than we do. On the other hand, we certainly enjoy Charlotte M. Yonge and George MacDonald more than they do.
Unbelievers can guide us a certain way—but there comes a point where only a fellow believer can help us. (In the Divine Comedy, Virgil can lead Dante a long distance forward—but only a believer can take him into Paradise.)
I feel sorry for the unbelievers. They don’t know what they’re missing. Charlotte M. Yonge had every talent of a great novelist. She wrote abundantly for half a century, and, I’m told, never repeated herself; almost every new book reveals new facets of her talent. Her characters are vivid, varied, entertaining, and always lit from within. Her stories are gripping, real, and grounded securely in the real world. She does comedy and tragedy with equal assurance. She’s equally at home with adult family stories, historical novels set in times of great crisis, quiet country-village sketches, and updated fairytales. She loves writing about people who are trying to do good (and often making a mess of it!); hardly any of her characters are out-and-out villains—nearly all of them are fun to be with—but on the very rare occasions when she does let rip with a full-blooded melodramatic villain (Lady Belamour in Love and Life, for instance), she makes every hair on your head stand on end and leaves you grinning from ear to ear at the same time. She writes with great serenity, as if from a position of secure wisdom; you never feel that she’s trying to prove a point or work off a personal feeling. She isn’t even “preachy” (she didn’t like preachiness). She doesn’t lecture you and tell you what to do; she simply shows you the thrill and excitement of people trying to do it (whether or not they succeed at the task).
Some personal favourites among her books: Heartsease (a new arrival permanently changes a close-knit family). Dynevor Terrace (an impoverished genteel family pins their hopes on the fortunes of an uncle mining in South America). The Three Brides (the very different wives of three sons meet for the first time at their mother-in-law’s home). Countess Kate (a 12-year-old orphan is suddenly told that she’s the heir to a peerage and must be brought up differently). The Heir of Redclyffe was the book that first drew attention to her, and understandably so, but I believe most of her readers would say that she was still finding her feet in it, and that she did even greater things later on.
When I started to read her books, about 35 years ago, it was almost impossible to find them. I rejoice that I’ve lived long enough to see almost all of them back in print. (Not that we’re likely to find them on the shelves of the nearest bookseller!)
I don’t even mind the fact that they’re not being filmed. What performers today could do justice to them?
Evan, you raise a good point. Hollywood (and even the BBC, probbaly) would try to dismantle religion from the story, thereby maiming the plot, characters and themes. It’s probably best that there’s never been an attempt to adapt her novels to film.
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Interesting! I have never heard of this novel. Thanks for the review! I’ll add it to my list.