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Women Every Christian Should Know: Charlotte Mary Yonge

By modern standards, British writer Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) lived an “uneventful” life.[1] One biographer emphasizes this point with this brief description of Charlotte’s life: “[She] was educated at home, only once traveled outside England, had a comfortable income, enjoyed good health, and held no inflammatory opinions.” Additionally, Charlotte never married or had children even though nineteenth-century social conventions dictated that proper, middle-class women become wives and mothers. Yet, Charlotte did not try to correct the narrative that she had lived anything other than an ordinary, provincial life. She even admitted that the “greatest event” of her life was the birth of her younger brother.[2] As a result, many academic scholars have viewed Charlotte’s oeuvre as too boring for modern consumption; her writing is a relic of a bygone, moralistic era and best forgotten. But as Christians, we would be careless to overlook Charlotte Mary Yonge’s writing or life story. Indeed, Charlotte was a remarkable Christian woman who impacted generations of men and women through her prolific prose, philanthropic work, and faithful devotion to God.

A Daughter of Anglo-Catholicism

Born in 1823, Charlotte came of age during the Oxford Movement, which began in 1833 with the Tracts for the Times, a series of publications written by conservative clergymen based out of Oxford University who were concerned about theological liberalism within the Church of England. While differing theologically from evangelicals on issues like liturgical practice and the role of the priest, Anglo-Catholics (also known as Tractarians) emphasized biblical literalism and advocated for a return to piety similarly to the great religious reformers from eighteenth-century evangelical revivals. As a child, Charlotte was most influenced by two Anglo-Catholic men: her religious father William Yonge, who oversaw her education at home, and John Keble, leader of the Oxford Movement and author of the best-selling The Christian Year(1827).[3] Keble prepared Yonge for confirmation and she later enjoyed an extended stay with the clergyman and his wife at their vicarage, affectionately termed “another home,” in the spring of 1839.[4] Whether due to the abiding influence of her father or her genuine awe of Keble’s own literary talents, Yonge would later reflect that “no one, save my own father, had so much to do with my whole cast of mind”. Even though the young Charlotte demonstrated an acute understanding of complex theological matters, she came to believe that a devout Anglican’s lived out their faith through active prayer, committed repentance, and good works.

Writing as Ministry

One biographer observes that Charlotte was a committed volunteer in local parish work but “her ‘ministry’ was primarily conducted through her publications”. After encouragement from her mother, Charlotte published her first stories to raise money for a local school. Rather shy and unassuming, she confessed to a cousin, “I hope the story is not very foolish, but I am in hopes that it has a little better ​[morality] than [others]” (Letters late December 1838 or early January 1839). As much as Charlotte was reluctant to share her work publicly, she went on to write a staggering 160 major religious works, novels, historical accounts, and biographies. While many Victorian writers leaned towards didactic story-telling, Charlotte conveyed religious truths in a reserved, gentle manner with her fiction operating as a guide to moral life rather than a dictate to her audience. Throughout her life, Charlotte wrote about issues that Anglo-Catholics considered necessary for the reformation of the Church of England and society: “her theme was [morality]; her object was charitable; and her story was marked by vivid characterization and lively dialogue.”

Educator, Mentor & Philanthropist

Charlotte believed that one of her primary responsibilities was disseminating the Gospel to the next generation through education, mentoring, and philanthropic work. Click To TweetCharlotte believed that one of her primary responsibilities was disseminating the Gospel to the next generation through education, mentoring, and philanthropic work. As she wrote in The Daisy Chain (1856), childhood is when “the character is chiefly formed” and many a child could be saved through “influential teaching.”[5] In her own parish, she taught daily at her local Sunday School for over seventy years. One biographer and friend marveled at Charlotte’s energy in the classroom with a wide-range of pupils: “She was the most skillful and brilliant teacher I ever knew. She taught in school like the most sympathetic and cultivated of day-school teachers.”[6] While Charlotte’s letters are full of sweet exchanges with children and young relatives, she also sought to extend her influence to women beyond her immediate circle. Between 1851-1890, she edited ​The Monthly Packet​, a magazine aimed at educating middle-class girls. She also mentored women through “The Gosling Society” (1859-1877), an essay society that often examined religious topics.[7] Charlotte termed herself “Mother Goose” and the contributors as her “Goslings,” who went by individual pen names like “Queen Bee,” “Sparrow hawk,” and “Cricket”. In their written exchanges, Charlotte encouraged the essayists to pursue their callings by fostering opportunities for further education and creating support networks for their literary endeavors. In this way, she played a role in shaping the minds of the next generation of women writers, missionaries, and social reformers. She also used the earnings from her books to support missionary efforts at home and abroad. Due to success of novels The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) and The Daisy Chain (1856), Charlotte was able to outfit a ship for missionary George Selwyn and finance a missionary college in Auckland, New Zealand.”[8] While we do not have a record of Charlotte’s other bequests, biographers suggest that she donated most of, if not all, of her literary profits to charitable causes.

Content in All Things

Although Charlotte was admired by contemporaries like Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and George Eliot (Middlemarch), she did not dwell on critics’ favorable reviews or the praise of others. Instead, Charlotte’s life embodied contentment, humility, and steadfast faith. She considered these qualities to be the cornerstone of vocation: “[t]hat daily work of homely mercy, hoping for nothing again, was surely the true way of doing service” (The Daisy Chain 212). As a Christian writer, Charlotte saw it as her ministry to make religious truth compelling and digestible for adults and children.  In letters to families and friends, Charlotte would often explain how a piece of fiction sought to explore humanity’s vices and virtues to the irreligious and religious. When viewed through the lens of doing God’s work, Charlotte Mary Yonge’s life was anything but ordinary.


Endnotes

[1] Nelson, Claudia. “Charlotte (Mary) Yonge.” ​British Children’s Writers, 1800-1880​, edited by Meena Khorana, Gale, 1996. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 163.

[2] The Church Quarterly Review, October 1903-January 1904, Volume LVII.

[3] Yonge, Charlotte M. The Letters of Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901), edited by Charlotte Mitchell, et. al, UCL Discovery, 2007.

[4] Yonge, Charlotte M. Musings over the ‘Christian Year’ and ‘Lyra Innocentium’ together with a few Gleanings of Recollections of the Rev. John Keble, gathered by several friends. James Parker & Co., 1871.

[5] Yonge, Charlotte M. The Daisy Chain; or, Aspirations. John W. Parker and Son, 1856.

[6] “Charlotte Mary Yonge.” The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

[7] Mitchell, Charlotte. “The Gosling Society: 1859-1877.” Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship, 2012 

[8] “Charlotte Mary Yonge-A Victorian Writer.”

Ashley King

Ashley is a follower of Jesus, an Army wife, and a mother. While completing her Ph.D in English Literature, she discovered a lot of stories of Christian women who have been gospel influencers in the home, the church, ad society. With her friend Mandy, she just launched the first season of “Women of the Church” podcast to share these women’s stories to educate and encourage Christian women of today. Find her at @ashleyjaneking2 on Instagram, listen to her on the Women of the Church podcast, or follow along on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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