Friday 24 January 2014

Review: The Daisy Chain; or Aspirations, Charlotte Yonge (1856)

In some ways antithetical to the sensation fiction I often write about on this blog, Yonge’s quiet, restrained and domestic novel - the story of a doctor’s eleven children – was unexpectedly compelling. Despite the distinctness if many of Yonge’s views on life and morality to my own, hers is a novel which, more than anything, rings true – in its presentation of family life, in the interiority of its characters, including the developing consciousnesses of the young, and in the dramas affecting the May family, which are the dramas of real life, where not all ‘good’ characters get rewarding ‘storybook’ endings.

For general readers: Reading The Daisy Chain was like getting to know a real family. I wasn’t blown away in the first few chapters but a hundred pages or so in and I was hooked, because the characters felt genuine, especially the children (who are often so saccharine in nineteenth-century they defy the parody of George Eliot’s ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (1856)). At times the novel frustrates by not delivering the neat conclusions fiction leads us to expect – at others it fulfils these utterly. Its subjects sound mundane if listed – parish meetings, school boy transgressions, platonic romances – but the humanity of their treatment makes for a great read.

For students: There’s a lot here. If the length of the novel is off-putting it is some comfort to know that there are particular characters, storylines and sections which will the focus of your study depending on the topic which interests you.
The third sister Ethel, who has most claim to be the novel’s protagonist, is an interesting counter study when set against Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver. She doesn’t take naturally to domestic tasks, preferring instead to keep up with her brothers in the study of Latin and Greek – but Yonge’s treatment of this issue is very different from that found in The Mill on the Floss (1860). Ethel’s role as a single female, caring for children not her own as well as her own father, is also interesting from historical perspective – since so many nineteenth-century women were in this very same position. But Yonge does not make this a tragedy. If anything it is the beautiful Flora, who follows the path of a traditional heroine, not ugly Ethel, disabled Margaret, dependable Mary or the young Blanche and Gertrude, who is the novel’s tragic figure.
Other areas for study include Yonge’s theology, close as she was to the Oxford Movement, as religion informs the novel throughout; the issue of children killed while under the care of servants (compare the take here with Braddon’s); colonial contexts and the work of missionaries, especially in the South Pacific; the role of the parish doctor (another instance of the novel as a useful intertext with Eliot) and education (with a focus on boys’ schools, girls’ lessons at home and Oxford, including an interesting plot section dealing with the Newdigate Prize).
The Daisy Chain is also an obvious second choice novel for those studying Charlotte Yonge herself, after her most famous novel – The Heir of Redclyffe (1853).
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