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SOMETHING TO DO: CHARLOTTE YONGE, TRACTARIANISM AND THE QUESTION OF WOMEN'S WORK JuneSturrock Simon Fraser University "Here am I, able and willing, only longing to task myself to the uttermost, yet tethered down to the merest mockery of usefulness by conventionalities." (3) The woman who speaks for so many of her prosperous but frustrated sisters is not, as one might suppose, Florence Nightingale in the fury of her wasted youth, but Rachel Curtis, the central character of The Clever Woman of the Family (1865), a contribution to the lively contemporary debate on women and work by the prolific Tractarian novelist, Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901). This novel celebrates the domestic and religious duties ofwomen; but it also explores and vindicates a fierce and frustrated yearning for useful work. It is a conservative novel centred on a vigorous unconventional independent woman, and many of Yonge's novels can be described in these terms. This aspect of her fiction perhaps arose from the double compulsion under which she lived. Yonge needed urgently both the approval of her conservative father and the freedom to write (Showalter 56). She acknowledged frankly her need for paternal approval (Romanes 16), and the strength of her drive to fiction was evidently a large element in her success. She possesses to a high degree the capacity to inspire what A. S. Byatt calls "narrative greed" (335), the counterpart of her own appetite to tell stories. Yet Yonge's treatment of women and work is not just the result of her personal position as a daughter and a writer. It is an aspect of her Tractarianism, and reflects the thought and actions of the other women and men in the Oxford Movement. The Tractarians, despite their principled traditionalism and hostility to all causes associated with liberalism, took the question ofwomen's work very seriously, largely because of their belief in the spiritual importance of good works as well as faith. The establishment, through the endeavors Victorian Review 18.2 (Winter 1992) June Sturrock29 of dedicated Tractarians, of Anglican sisterhoods from 1845 onwards, as well as enabling the church more effectively to educate, nurse, and generally help the poor, also both provided for certain women a channel for their energies, by broadening their narrow range of opportunities and, perhaps more importantly, demonstrated that the church supported women's claim to effectiveness and responsibility. The Tractarian movement plays a complex part in that shifting of middle-class ideology, an ideology which Mary Poovey describes as "always open to revision, disputes and the emergence of oppositional formations" (3). This paper, after briefly discussing the Tractarian position on women's work in the mid-Victorian period, and the growth ofthe Anglican sisterhoods, explores Yonge's own treatment of women's work and women's capacities, both through the situations and characters she invents and through the structure of her plots. Despite her ingrained distaste for the emancipated woman and the conservative "stay-at-home" propaganda of her early novels (Vicinus 11), Yonge provided her countless young readers with models of able, energetic and achieving women, and created a recognizable version of her society, in which such achievements can be viewed as an acceptable part of the life of a good religious woman. Her female characters have interesting alternatives to marriage and, what is more, in her plots she carefully avoids treating marriage as resolution. I "Something to do was her cry" (7) writes Charlotte Yonge of Rachel Curtis, who longs to fight against "the mass of misery and evil" (3) which crushed the Victorian poor. Rachel's cry is one among hundreds in the 1850s and 60s: "from every rank and every class of women there rises up the cry that work is wanted and no work is to be had" remarked J. BoydKinnear in 1869 (qtd. Hollis 54). The work that was wanted was both paid and unpaid. Emily Davies, founder of Girton College, Cambridge, states bluntly her belief in the primary importance of this question: "in considering the various means by which the present condition of women might be improved the most obvious is that of extending the range of occupations open to them" (10). The Recorder of Hull in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 28-48
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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