Saturday, November 16, 2019

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Heir of Redclyffe


Opening Passage:

The drawing-room of Hollywell House was one of the favoured apartments, where a peculiar air of home seems to reside, whether seen in the middle of summer, all its large windows open to the garden, or, as when our story commences, its bright fire and stands of fragrant green-house plants contrasted with the wintry fog and leafless trees of November. There were two persons in the room—a young lady, who sat drawing at the round table, and a youth, lying on a couch near the fire, surrounded with books and newspapers, and a pair of crutches near him. Both looked up with a smile of welcome at the entrance of a tall, fine-looking young man, whom each greeted with 'Good morning, Philip.'

'Good morning, Laura. Good morning, Charles; I am glad you are downstairs again! How are you to-day?'

Summary: Guy Morville is from a family that has always had a greater share of competence than morals. Intensely and sometimes darkly passionate, the main line of the family has a long history of wrongdoing. Guy's grandfather repented in his old age of some of his wild deeds, and, as Guy's father is dead, he takes him in and makes something of an effort to raise him appropriately on the family's remote estate of Redclyffe. When his grandfather also dies, Guy, now a quiet, bookish boy who feels that his family heritage guarantees his moral doom, comes to live at Hollywell with the Edmonstone family, who are distant cousins through Mrs. Edmonstone. The family includes Charlie, crippled from a diseased hip-joint, sarcastically intelligent and frank, qualities that he gets from the combination of mild bitterness and over-pettedness given to him by his illness; Laura, who is mature for her age, intelligent and levelheaded; Amabel, often called Amy, who is young for her age, and often thought soft and silly by herself as well as others, although, as it turns out, there is much more to her than meets the eye; and Charlotte, the youngest, who is perhaps getting a little too much of Charlie's influence. Although the adjustment is awkward, many of the family come to like Guy, who, once he begins to be comfortable brings a great deal of joy to others. Guy also meets his cousin Philip Morville, who happens to be the second in line for Redclyffe if Guy has no male children, and their personalities immediately clash. Philip is cool, levelheaded, inclined to take charge, and insufferably aware of his own reasonableness. (You get a lot of what he is when you know that he thinks Le Morte d'Arthur is a poor piece of literature nobody could seriously enjoy, and that this is something that any reasonable person could discover just by a cursory skimming of the book, a position that brings one of his early clashes with Guy.) It doesn't help that Guy is born to wealth and Philip is not, and very aware that, however close to being wealthy by being in line for Redclyffe, he never will be. Philip, worrying that Laura might get caught up with Guy, who is, after all, from the dangerous and sometimes violent line of the Morvilles, realizes that he loves her, and they both come to an agreement that constitutes an almost-but-not-quite engagement, one that they keep secret.

The work is extremely good in terms of its characterizations; almost everything at every step contributes to giving us a better understanding of characters, sometimes in clever ways. At one point all the cousins play a game in which everyone has to write on a strip of a paper their favorites for the categories of historical character, fictional character, flower, virtue, and time. They then have to guess who wrote it. Much is made of the fact that Philip's (Lavender—steadfastness—Strafford—Cordelia in ‘King Lear’—the late war) and Laura's (Honeysuckle—steadfastness—Lord Strafford—Cordelia—the present time) share three of the same entries, which leads to a great deal of teasing. But the teasing hides something from the characters that the perceptive reader might catch, namely, that Guy's (Heather—Truth—King Charles—Sir Galahad—the present time) shares two entries with Amy's (Lily of the valley—truth—Joan of Arc—Padre Cristoforo—the present time), and that his fictional character has a sort of affinity with her historical character. Guy and Amy in fact become somewhat sweet on each other.

Trouble begins dividing the family when Guy goes off to Oxford and Philip begins collecting evidence that Guy is dissipating his funds through gambling, which comes to a head when Guy asks Mr. Edmonstone for a thousand pounds and will not say what it is for. It's his own money, but it seems to clinch the argument: Guy is following in the dissipated footsteps of his ancestors. In fact, he is not; Guy wants the money to fund a school, but needs to do it quietly, and Philip is getting some of his information through his sister, who is jealous of the young women who would be running the school. Guy is not allowed to return to Hollywell and Amy is told she must give him up. This will eventually work itself out, but when Guy and Amy meet up with Philip while on their honeymoon things become darker; Philip gets into an argument with Guy about whether the peasants are exaggerating the danger of an epidemic in a particular part of Italy they had originally planned to visit (guess which of the two is certain that superstitious Italian peasants must be exaggerating), and Philip goes and visits anyway, falling terribly ill because of it.

The book on occasion pulls out all the emotional stops, and the illness and its aftermath is one of those occasions. In Alcott's Little Women there's a scene in which Meg comes across Jo crying over The Heir of Redclyffe, and anyone who has read the latter knows exactly what scenes made Jo cry.

Being something of a Charlie by temperament, I, like Charlie, often wanted to strangle Philip, but this is a book without villains. Precisely the problem is that Philip is a generally decent, generally intelligent, generally reasonable man. He is the kind of man on whom you can rely. It's just that, like every other generally decent, generally intelligent, generally reasonable person, he has a dangerous capacity to argue himself into believing that he is being decent, intelligent, and reasonable, when his choices are really being distorted by his emotions, in this case a kind of sense of inferiority to the wealthy and surprisingly charming Guy that he can't stand feeling. The desire to show your superiority to another is dangerous in general; combined with a feeling that you might actually be inferior, it can lead to horrible things done with (one convinces oneself) the best of intentions. And it results also in an abundance of excuses. Philip's secret agreement with Laura is wrong, but of course, he would be open about it if he had the kind of money Guy will have. It is also made worse by the fact that, because he is the kind of person who is well-educated, intelligent, and reasonable, nobody can really outargue him. Sarcastic Charlie, for instance, who takes Guy's side, will always sound, to Philip's own ears and occasionally to the ears of others, more petty and less sensible than Philip. Philip's disaster comes step by step, every single step avoidable, and yet each one comes with a kind of inevitability, because this is what happens when you are smart enough to convince yourself of the falsehood that you are always right.

Guy is an extremely admirable and sympathetic character, and Charlie, Amy, and Charlotte all start out likable and have grown more so by the end. It is a powerfully moving book, because it's a book in which the author clearly cares for her characters, and in such a way that the reader can come to care for them, too.

Favorite Passage:

They went to the strangers’ corner of the grave-yard, for, of course the church did not open to a member of another communion of the visible church; but around them were the hills in which he had read many a meaning, and which had echoed a response to his last chant with the promise of the blessing of peace.

The blessing of peace came in the precious English burial-service, as they laid him to rest in the earth, beneath the spreading chestnut-tree, rendered a home by those words of his Mother Church—the mother who had guided each of his steps in his orphaned life. It was a distant grave, far from his home and kindred, but in a hallowed spot, and a most fair one; and there might his mortal frame meetly rest till the day when he should rise, while from their ancestral tombs should likewise awaken the forefathers whose sins were indeed visited on him in his early death; but, thanks to Him who giveth the victory, in death without the sting.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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