I have *finally* finished this very long book. I shall not be rushing to read anything else by Charlotte Yonge. Much of it involved our numerous heroines trying to “help” the impoverished working-classes of a local navvies’ settlement, which rejoiced in the name of Cocksmoor, by opening a Sunday school. What a great help that must have been. They did manage to find some clothes to give the navvies’ children, but on condition that they were only worn for church and Sunday school, not sullied by being worn in their lowly homes. Then the eldest sister’s fiancé obligingly drowned, and left them oodles of money, which they spent on building a church for the said navvies’ settlement. I bet the locals were ecstatic.
The most promising bit was when Ethel, the plain but intelligent sister, looked set to bag an aristocrat, who had a big estate and was a genuinely nice bloke to boot. Wa-hay! Plain but intelligent girls *never* get the desirable blokes, or indeed usually any blokes. But no. Ethel was “needed” at home, her beau married some society bimbo, and Ethel accepted that her calling in life was to try to get navvies’ children to read the Bible. One of the brothers went off to New Zealand, to try to convert Maoris, seeing as they were all heathens – never mind the culture they’d had for thousands of years. And one of the sisters married the heathen-converting brother’s wife’s rich half-brother, but their nanny accidentally killed their baby by turning her into an opium addict.
All right, all right, this was written in the 1850s, but for crying out loud! I accept that there was a feeling at the time that soup kitchens, except in times of severe economic distress, would encourage “dependency”, and bring vagrants into the area, but how about sewing classes or industrial classes, like we had during the Cotton Famine, which was only a few years later? And Prince Albert would probably have told them to spend all the money on building decent toilets for the entire town … which would have been a pretty good idea, really.
The book was about an upper middle class family, with lots of children, living in Gloucestershire, in the 1850s. Early on, the mother was killed in a carriage accident, which also left Margaret, the eldest daughter with the sort of mysterious spinal injury that Katy Carr had – expected to heal if she spent a couple of years in bed or on the settee – and the father, a doctor, with damage to his arm. I wasn’t sure if Margaret was going to do a Katy and make a full recovery or be like Cousin Helen and tell her admirer, later her fiancé, that she couldn’t marry him … but then the fiancé drowned, and then Margaret died as well. More interesting was the case of one of the Cocksmoor girls, who’d suffered a serious injury whilst in service and lost her job, and was permanently “lame”, and who was given a job as a teacher at the school and made a very good job of it. I’d like to have heard more about her. There were also some interesting references to Ethel’s poor eyesight, and the belief at the time that she shouldn’t wear glasses because they’d make her eyes lazy and her vision worse, but it all seemed to be forgotten about, as did the dad’s bad arm.
Ethel (short for Etheldred!) was potentially a very interesting character – she was being taught at home, but managed to keep up with the work that her older brothers were doing at the local minor public school. That’s very unusual in a Victorian book. But it was all so stereotypical – the clever girl was also the plain girl. I really was quite chuffed when it looked like she was going to bag this nice aristocrat, but no. That’s what you get for being a plain, intelligent female!
A point made by Ethel about a bazaar which was organised to raise money for the Sunday school. She said that, if people wanted to give money to charity, they should just give it, rather than buying some bit of tat from a bazaar. Discuss!
Flora, another of the sisters, married the rich half-brother of their friend Meta – a spoilt brat who turned out nice thanks to her friendship with our heroines – but neglected their baby because they were too busy with political networking … er, so the baby cried a lot, and the nanny tried to soothe her with some cordial which she didn’t realise contained opium, and accidentally killed her. That’s a bit OTT even as moralising Victorian novels go!
The storylines with the boys were better, unusually for a book by a female Victorian author. There was quite a lot about bullying at school, and being led into bad ways. Norman, one of the brothers, became dux/head boy by virtue of coming top in an exam, but was sacked after being wrongly accused of something he hadn’t done … but, of course, his name was cleared in the end. Norman was a fascinating character: he struggled to come to terms with his mother’s death, and had issues with “nerves”. Female Victorian characters with bad nerves are common, but a male mental health storyline is unusual.
And he eventually married Meta, which was nice, but he became a missionary, and, whilst he wasn’t an annoying git like St John Rivers, I don’t get on very well with storylines about missionaries. A lot of racist language was used, not by Norman but by Richard, another of the brothers. I fully accept that this would not have been considered shocking in the 1850s, but in this particular instance it was particularly bad – not just the white man’s burden/ignorant native type thing but a lot worse. And I’m just not good with storylines about missionaries, whether in the 19th century or whether it’s people knocking on my door in the 21st century. I understand that Norman, and St John Rivers, and the rest of them, thought they were doing a great job by “civilising” other peoples, but … well, you could write all day about that.
I don’t mean as a racist issue, particularly, because they took much the same attitude towards Cocksmoor as they did towards New Zealand and the Loyalty Islands. Am I being too much of an industrial-Northerner for an upper middle class Southern book 🙂 ? The attitude in Manchester or Leeds would have been more about self-help, libraries and evening classes, or a general school like the one that St Jon Rivers (he did have his good points!) set up. I get that. And I get paternalism – taking round baskets of food. But the idea that the best thing to do for Cocksmoor was to open a Sunday school and spend all that money on opening a church … no, that I do not get, and I wouldn’t have got it even if I’d been around in the 1850s.
As I said, I shall not be rushing to read anything else by Charlotte Yonge! But I do feel quite pleased with myself for getting through this very, very long book!