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"Worthy ambition": religion and domesticity in The Daisy Chain.

Charlotte Yonge's two-novel sequence The Daisy Chain and The Trial, which chronicles the fortunes of the large family of May siblings, is one of the most typical and fully realized examples of nineteenth-century domestic realism. Yonge is as famous for her detailed and minute depictions of family dynamics as she is for her conservative religion and politics, and her chronicles always lend their realism to advancing the ideas of the Oxford Movement and domestic ideology. Yonge's very commitment to realism, however, with its reportorial detail and fine discriminations of emotional states, frequently leads her to depict situations that do not accord completely with her narrator's overt ideological agendas. As Talia Schaffer neatly summarizes this phenomenon, "her commitment to realism made her chronicle materials that undermine her politics" (245). (1) The undermining is most apparent in the realm of gender politics, and The Daisy Chain, one of her most popular novels, embodies that dual movement in charting the spiritual ambitions of its protagonist, Etheldred May. Ethel is both intellectually accomplished, keeping up with the classical studies of her brother Norman purely for the fun of it, and also deeply spiritual, perhaps the most religious of her fervently religious family. Her mental proclivities put her at odds with her destined role as a woman, and much of the plot of The Daisy Chain is concerned with her development from a headstrong and impetuous girl into a self-effacing and disciplined woman who sacrifices uncomplainingly for home and family. Yonge cannot, however, bring herself to destroy Ethel's ambitions completely, and in allowing her to achieve her greatest vision (the building of a church in an underserved rural district near her home), Yonge provides a dramatic example of "materials that undermine her politics." In this particular case, Yonge's commitment to delineating a fully realized and textured character leads her to depict a situation in which her own political commitments contradict each other; religious piety and gender conformity are not mutually compatible in Ethel's life, and the path the heroine chooses only imperfectly reconciles the two ideologies. A girl who can build a church is admirable, but she is not a pattern-card of "ladylike" behavior.

The unstable ideological valence of the church-building project is symbolized through the associated trope of vision that runs throughout the novel. Ethel May's quest to build a church at Cocksmoor is a sublimation of her inability to control her own domestic space. She is restricted in two ways: her physical circumscription to the family home and to her native town, which she leaves only twice during the course of two novels; and her myopia, which makes her unable to see and adequately control her physical surroundings. The latter of these is a particularly poignant restriction, because her mother and brother Harry object to her wearing glasses in order to correct her vision, and yet her mother also forbids her to carry the baby because she is "so blind" (16). Ethel's father and brother wear spectacles throughout both novels, and by the time of The Trial, old maid Ethel has begun to do so as well. In youth, she occasionally borrows her father's glasses for a quick, snatched chance at the pleasures of being able to see what is far away. But for most of The Daisy Chain, Ethel's myopia is a direct bodily manifestation of a woman's restricted role. Ethel's frustration over this role makes her all the more fervent in her desire to "see" transcendent space, and eventually to control it. After her first visit to the Cocksmoor quarry district, she conceives of her lifelong project--her "worthy ambition" (25)--specifically as a vision, in which she casts herself as the sole benefactor: "She would compose, publish, earn money--some day call papa, show him her hoard, beg him to take it, and, never owning whence it came, raise the building. Spire and chancel--pinnacle and buttress, rose before her eyes" (25). If she cannot see what is far away, she will build it instead. Her success at church-building provides authorial approval for her ambitious spiritual goals. By pursuing the rather obvious irony of making a myopic into a "visionary," Yonge seems to satirize the restrictions that require Ethel to channel all her energies into appropriately feminine self-sacrifice. Yet Yonge allows Ethel to achieve her goal only after she has learned how to sacrifice herself to her family in every other conceivable way.

Deciding what political agenda Ethel's vision serves is another example of the critical double bind Schaffer describes: "if we read Yonge's novels against the grain as a realist author, we misrepresent her central motive; yet if we read her as a pious pedagogue (as she would prefer), we can find nothing to say" (245). The symbolic function of vision in The Daisy Chain indicates the contours of this dilemma. On the one hand, Yonge's detailed realism supports her pedagogical agenda by making the "lessons" of her novel seem more applicable to real life because the characters themselves are so richly drawn that we believe in them; most critics agree with David Brownell that "Yonge's characters are her great triumph" (170). Yet on the other hand this very complexity generates both ambiguity about the lessons to be drawn and sympathy for desires that go beyond them. By the end of the novel, piety and domesticity are as much in conflict as they are in harmony, because Yonge has made Ethel May's motivations and actions realistically and richly overdetermined. In this novel, at least, it proves impossible for Yonge to be simply a "pious pedagogue," because the ideologies she teaches do not mesh.

The problem Ethel represents for Yonge's pedagogical agenda has often been described. Brownell astutely notes that "a source of tension that animates all of Yonge's best books" was her ability to sympathize deeply with children who were sensitive and oppressed in family life, as she had been, while having simultaneously "sufficiently accepted her parents' system of values to judge her characters by these standards, and to condemn the characters with whom she sympathizes" (171). Ethel is a signal example of such a character. Shirley Foster and Judy Simons similarly argue that The Daisy Chain "contextualizes children's behaviour almost wholly with reference to an adult code of values ... albeit sympathetically" (63); they note that even other Victorians often found the "high and demanding ethical ideals" of Yonge's novels to be unrealistic and "not generally accessible enough to the ordinary reader of the time" (66), but that Ethel is a sympathetic "authorial self-portrait" (72). These are points most critics unite in making: the rigidity and consistency of the narrator's ethical framework, the contradiction between sympathy and criticism of characters, and Ethel as self-portrait. There is some difference, however, in whether critics see contradictions as being resolved. (2) Brownell sees the contradiction as being sufficiently resolved by Yonge's strong religious principles--she might sympathize, but she does not allow that to prevent her from condemning when necessary, or from wholeheartedly allowing Ethel to "find satisfaction" with her sacrificial life rather than seeing herself as "fearfully exploited" (176). Foster and Simons similarly point to religion as the solution. While they argue that some subversion of gender runs throughout the novel, they clearly see the ending, in which Ethel finds purely spiritual satisfaction in sacrificing herself for her family, as a containment of that subversion: "only by relocating womanly self-expression in other-worldliness can the tensions between varying alternatives to gender orthodoxy be resolved" (82). I will argue, however, that in the context of the novel religious other-worldliness is presented as one of those very "alternatives to gender orthodoxy": Ethel's desire to build a church is as subversive as her desire to excel at Greek. Religion and gender are competing discourses, and therefore the triumph of one is not a reinforcement of the other.

This situation may be an exception in Yonge's vast body of work. Schaffer describes one solution to the easily perceived conflict between sympathy for and repression of rebellious characters in Yonge's novels. Like many critics of Yonge, Schaffer finds herself simultaneously strongly drawn to and repelled by the novels, and she theorizes that this is because Yonge is able (through realistic narrative techniques) to make us identify with the rebellious adolescent characters so thoroughly that it returns us to a childlike state and activates "primordial patterns in our own family past" (246), including the "fantasy of winning approval from omnipotent parents" (247). Thus when the rebellious character finally achieves, through self-discipline, that state of union with the parents that we long for, and adheres to ideologies we as modern readers find repulsive, we are nevertheless drawn in by the emotional identification created by realism to "be infiltrated by a paradigm we can neither approve nor resist. This, indeed, is the constitutive experience of reading Yonge, the sense of being forced to believe in what we regard with horrified fascination" (275). Schaffer's description powerfully illuminates my own experience of reading Yonge, and makes sense of otherwise contradictory responses in various critics of Yonge. Her model has great explanatory power and probably accurately describes the majority of Yonge's novels. But the particular case of Etheldred May does not fit it, precisely because this novel attempts to force Ethel to conform to more than one "paradigm," and in the slippage between them, there is space for resistance.

It may at first be difficult to see that the two paradigms Ethel is attempting to live out are in conflict with each other, and it is also tempting for a reader to resolve the conflict by simply privileging one side or the other--erasing either the feminist potential of religion, or its conservative force. On the one hand, the average reader may assume that religious piety and the "separate spheres" vision of gender roles were mutually reinforcing ideologies in the Victorian period, and that therefore there is no conflict between them in the novel. However, the era was in fact quite complex in its religious beliefs, including ideas surviving from earlier eras. Ethel's growth is in the area of self-discipline, which is figured in the novel as a Christian virtue both she and her brothers must attain. As James Eli Adams explains in Dandies and Desert Saints, this cardinal Victorian virtue began the century as a concept that was, if anything, feminine, but was transformed by many writers into a relentlessly masculine trait. Thomas Carlyle's early Victorian conception of ascetic masculinity or desert sainthood, began to reappropriate the concept of self-discipline, and Charles Kingsley's "muscular Christianity" of the 1850s solidified its regendering, so that the nature of Christian virtues themselves became different for men and women: "commentators increasingly distinguished between a masculine self-discipline, which they represented as an ongoing regimen of aggressive self-mastery, and a feminine self-denial, which they represented as a spontaneous and essentially static surrender of the will to external authority" (Adams 8-9). That represents the separate spheres vision most Victorianists find familiar. As Carolyn Oulton points out, however, many Victorian Christians rejected or criticized this extreme division. According to Oulton, when Wilkie Collins has Walter Hartright say that the story of The Woman in White shows "what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve" (82), he means the statement ironically and is not endorsing his narrator's assumptions. In the May family, all the children, both male and female, are expected to learn both self-discipline and self-denial, and Ethel's struggle to master herself is portrayed as an active one, victory over which leads to her "achieving" great results through her resolution. The gender-neutrality of the Christian virtues in the May family is a sign of the incompleteness with which any discourse takes hold in society over time. Though Yonge might have rejected this link, the essential sameness of all human souls as souls, and of Christian virtues as virtues, for both men and women, was the basis of Mary Wollstonecraft's argument in Vindication of the Rights of Woman; the radical potential of this thread of Christian philosophy remained viable throughout the period.

It is easy to overstate this radically subversive potential of Christianity in the 1850s, however, so that Yonge's portrayal of Ethel looks unified in the opposite way. Yonge allows Ethel to engage in philanthropy outside the home (running a school and building a church for the poor) for religious reasons. Religiously motivated philanthropy as a "profession" for women outside the home was an increasing reality and a dominant issue of debate in Victorian society, (3) and the trend of recent scholarship has been to see female philanthropy and the religious philosophy underpinning it as ultimately destructive of the doctrine of separate spheres. Under this theory, Ethel is simply another philanthropic heroine using religion as a reason to break out of the private sphere--an uncomplicated feminist figure. Dorice Williams Elliott essentially writes such a narrative of the effects of female philanthropy in The Angel Out of the House. She argues, following Freud, that the private sphere confined women to "erotic" desires (which included motherhood and spirituality), and that the public sphere allowed men to have "ambitious" desires--anything that was not erotic (7). Philanthropy gave women a way to express ambitious desires that was nevertheless not quite public, and the very existence of such outlets and their representation in fiction created the further desire for more public ambitions that ultimately led to feminism. Yonge's constant use of the word "ambition" throughout The Daisy Chain would seem to align her with this movement: first philanthropy, then the world! But the novel is in fact engaged in the project of taming ambition, and the narrator frequently and explicitly rejects the kinds of ambition that Elliott and other modern scholars would see as the beginning of expanding the private sphere into the public. (4)

The potentially feminist idea that women's "private sphere" could encompass the whole world through philanthropy is most famously expressed in Ruskin's "Of Queen's Gardens" (1865): "what the woman is to be within her gates, as the centre of order, the balm of distress, and the mirror of beauty: that she is also to be without her gates, where order is more difficult, distress more imminent, loveliness more rare" (169). In fact, this is woman's duty "as a member of the commonwealth," and her duties relate to "the state" (169). Ruskin's grandiose notion of the true "mission" of woman is representative of a whole strand of Victorian thinking about women's Christian duties--the work of salvation was felt to belong as much to women as to men, and since Tractarianism values works as much as faith, High Church thinking is particularly receptive to the idea of female philanthropy outside the home (Sturrock 53). But Ruskin praises women's philanthropy in wholly theoretical, abstract terms. When it came to practical manifestations of this very lofty theoretical vision of women's power, many Victorians were far more skeptical. Dickens's satirical portrait of Mrs. Jellyby, who neglects husband and children for Borrioboola-Gha (Bleak House, chapter 4), illustrates the doubts women faced when putting the theory into practice. Where should the boundaries of women's philanthropy be drawn, in hard reality rather than metaphor?

For almost all Victorians, including Tractarians and Yonge herself, the answer was that female philanthropy was best when it stayed closest to home. Yonge's views on this issue come through most clearly in relation to the vexed question of charitable sisterhoods, one of Tractarianism's most notorious contributions to mid-Victorian English culture. John Shelton Reed, in his magisterial discussion of the politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism Glorious Battle, describes the potentially feminist elements of Tractarian doctrine, including residential sisterhoods, and assesses their actual effect. His conclusion is that while these elements of Tractarianism do respond to the same discontentments that led to Victorian feminism, they were not themselves feminist, but best seen as "an alternative to feminism" (209). Still, for most Victorians, philanthropy in general, and especially philanthropy carried out while living in a religious community rather than in a family home, "represented an extension of woman's sphere" (Reed 208)--just like Ruskin's movement from the personal garden to the garden of the state--and that extension was largely resisted. Reed, like other critics of Yonge, sees her as supporting this sort of extension (208). But in fact Yonge was more firmly aligned with those Tractarians who attempted to blunt criticism of the movement by explicitly rejecting sisterhoods or philanthropy as alternatives to domestic duties, since "home duties were given by divine providence and ... they were therefore primary" (Sturrock 71). Only women who had "no significant family duties" (Sturrock 57) were encouraged by most Tractarian clergymen to join sisterhoods, and throughout The Daisy Chain the narrator's explicit commentary places duties to home and family above any other. Indeed, Ethel's devotion to her family--particularly her father--is sometimes so strong that she seems instead to be embodying that "idolatry" of family, turning it into the "Fetich" that John Shelton Reed quotes Florence Nightingale complaining of in "the Evangelical party" (209, emphasis mine).

It is possible that there is a third alternative. While separate spheres theory generally focuses on a strict binary between public and private, so that one must choose between family and the wider world, Elliott argues that the mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of a new "social sphere," partly public and partly private (113). Professional men and philanthropic women "competed for access to and authority over" this sphere (114). Elliott locates the height of this competition during the 1850s, the decade during which The Daisy Chain was published. It might be tempting to see Yonge as advocating for women's control of the new social sphere, but in fact, if anything, this novel portrays and sympathizes with the pushback from male professionals. Ethel cannot succeed in any of her projects until she achieves authorization and aid from a host of men, including her clergyman brother, doctor father, and several other local clergy as well. A connected aspect of the gender politics of philanthropy was the question of what activities were "ladylike." Both Ethel's deceased mother and the other ladies of Stoneborough highly value certain ladylike accomplishments and restrictions, from perfect handwriting to a delicacy that would make it impossible for a girl to walk as far as Cocksmoor. In this novel, no matter what might have been true in the outer world, Yonge depicts Ethel's philanthropic ambitions as being incompatible with true domesticity. Thus, the fact that Ethel is nevertheless allowed to achieve her ambitions and does so without having to give up essential elements of her character speaks to a more fundamental slippage between the two ideologies, even among those who wished to hold to both. Yonge seems to make Ethel successful despite herself (or despite the narrator's expressed ideas), just as her novels force us to experience ideologies we might hate. Realism holds Yonge in its grip as much as it does her readers.

From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that everyone in Ethel May's family perceives the incongruity of her limited physical vision and her limitless spiritual vision just as clearly as the reader does, but for the pragmatic members of her family they seem to be two sides of one coin, both easily summed up as Ethel's "heedlessness" (137). Her ambitious visions lead her to impetuous enthusiasms and uncontrolled outbursts of speech and emotion, and also to spending more time on scholarship and romances than on homely pursuits such as sewing; her passion for reading leads her to be unpunctual as well, so that her family nickname is Etheldred the Unready. She is, in addition, very clumsy with everyday physical matters in which girls are supposed to be painstaking and handy. While it might seem obvious to a modern reader that her myopia contributes to this clumsiness, and that it is an injustice bordering on child abuse not to correct her vision, her mother sees it as a lack of discipline. When Mrs. May refuses to allow Ethel to hold the baby because she is "blind," one suspects that she sees this blindness metaphorically rather than literally--Ethel is willfully blind to her duty to take care, and she could be trusted with the baby if she only cared enough about it to try harder. After the mother's death in the opening chapters of the novel, her opinion of Ethel is perpetuated by the two oldest children in the family, Richard and Margaret, who try to cure Ethel of impetuosity. However, by the end of the novel, it becomes clear that Ethel's heedlessness is only one manifestation of an underlying character trait, ardency or enthusiasm, that also makes possible great religious and intellectual achievements. While the narrator endorses the family's attempt to make Ethel more able to control her visionary temperament, she also valorizes the visionary mode itself. Ethel must be "tamed" into a lady in some areas, but significantly not in all, and this desire to allow Ethel to have her cake and eat it too undermines simple didacticism.

Ethel's project of building a church at Cocksmoor is made into an index of her progress in self-discipline very early on. Given Yonge's High Church agenda and her own biography, it is hardly likely that she would disapprove of Ethel's goal (church-building figures as a virtuous pastime for the squirearchy in a great many of her novels), but the manner of achieving her goal must be properly disciplined. Yonge herself published her first literary work, Le Chateau de Melville, at the age of fifteen (the same as Ethel at the beginning of the novel) for the express purpose of funding a Sunday school for girls (Mare and Percival 124). Ethel's desire to fund her church through authorship is the first of many biographical parallels between author and character. But there is clearly too much ambition and thought of self in Ethel's vision, and the rest of the novel is a course in pruning these traits, as well as her impulsiveness. "Ambition" was meant as the "keynote" lesson of the novel (Mare and Percival 147), as the subtitle Aspirations suggests, and authorship is clearly seen as excessive ambition for Ethel, if not for Yonge herself. Immediately after the narrator relates Ethel's dream vision of spire and chancel paid for by her earnings, the very next paragraph begins the sequence in which the Mays learn that their mother has died in a carriage accident, in which Margaret and Dr. May have also been seriously injured. This juxtaposition seems like an obvious and heavy-handed way to dash Ethel's pretensions, but it is only partially successful. The narrator tells us that, during Ethel's visit of charity to Cocksmoor with Richard, her desires had been "not effaced, but rather burnt in, by all that had subsequently happened" (55), so that Ethel at least does not take her mother's death as a sign of her own flaws. But a close look at the conversation Ethel has with her brother on this walk helps illustrate both Yonge's realistic characterization and the way this technique complicates her pedagogical goals.

While walking with Richard, Ethel mentions having noticed a certain look of pain in her father's face, at which Richard is surprised she was able to notice such fine detail at a distance she normally can't see. Ethel replies "I look after what I care about.... One sees more with one's mind than one's eyes. The best sight is inside" (54). Richard's rueful response is "I wonder you don't wear spectacles," to which Ethel replies "Dear mamma did not like me to use them" (54). This exchange highlights the ambiguity of Yonge's message about vision, domesticity and gender. While it confirms that Ethel's mother might have been correct that her myopia is as much a matter of inattention as physical failing ("I look after what I care about"), Richard's suggestion of spectacles is made to seem prosaically inferior to the more philosophical point Ethel is trying to convey about the value of sight; Ethel laughs at Richard's remark because it is "so inapposite to her own reflections" (54). Ethel's determination not to wear glasses because her mother did not like them now seems sentimentally high-flown and the wearing of glasses to be the more practical and disciplined thing to do, ironically reversing the position of Ethel's eminently practical mother. By extension, her desire to build a church at Cocksmoor is equally sentimental and impractical, but nevertheless finer and higher than Richard's more earthbound vision. Yet when she confides her project to him on the walk home, his reaction is dismissive, and Ethel withdraws from him into a silence that is broken only by his criticizing her for dragging her skirt in the mud. While Richard probably does not mean his remark to be connected to the earlier topic, Ethel takes it as "a sarcasm on her projects" (57), and the narrator does not repudiate the link. Symbolically, Ethel's inability to control the small practical details of everyday life is the major obstacle to her character growth and to her larger project. She complains that she simply does not know how to keep her long, full, mourning dress tucked and pinned properly, and Richard replies that "It is only taking care"--but then successfully teaches her how to pin it up effectively, which she laughs that no one else was able to do. But Ethel cannot win, because when they meet her father later, he sharply scolds her for having her skirt pinned too high. It never seems to occur to either man that Ethel would have an easier time keeping her skirt out of mud puddles if she could see them! But the injustice does not occur to Ethel either, and she sees the "draggle-tailed petticoats weighing down ... her missionary projects at Cocksmoor" (58) as a valid and completely logical symbol of her failure of femininity. The full skirts she is forced to wear and which she cannot control are as obvious a symbol of domestic imprisonment as one can find in any Victorian novel (which makes Richard's ability to pin them properly puzzlingly feminine (5)). How we are to take this scene is not entirely clear, because while on the one hand it is obvious that no one gives Ethel enough credit, on the other hand by her own admission her vision problems are at least partially a matter of "taking care." And yet the sequence as a whole is given in such rich detail, and the contradictions in the personalities and attitudes of the three characters spring so organically from motivations that the narrator is at pains to explain in each case, that the impression of realism is stronger than the confusion of conflicting values. People are, in reality, inconsistent, but in depicting that so well Yonge blunts what would otherwise be a clear message. (6)

Despite what Ethel had perceived as a dismissal of her plans, Richard determines that the project is worth pursuing, but chooses to use it as a means of helping Ethel learn self-discipline. He promises to take it up with their father and a local clergyman, as long as she can control her enthusiasm and keep sober and disciplined about it until he feels the time is right to begin, and as long as she learns "to keep [her] frock out of the dirt" (81). She is able to get through this period of probation because of her strong motivation and because Richard helps her with advice that she can understand, in contrast to her sisters. But as soon as Richard successfully broaches the project to Dr. May, Ethel's period of enforced repression backlashes into a "wild state of felicity" in which "she saw a gathering school and rising church, which eclipsed all thought of present inattentions and gaucheries" (135). Her vision and attention are wholly taken up with her project for the next night and day to the exclusion of all the little domestic duties she had occupied herself with during her probation. This reversion leads to one of the most climactic incidents in Ethel's plot. As she reads an article on missionary work, "with her face to the cupboard, and her book held up to catch the light" (136), her three-year-old brother manages to set his pinafore on fire in the same room without her noticing it. He is saved by the timely entrance of her father, who is appalled by Ethel's failure in attention: "'I didn't see--' she faltered. 'Didn't see! Didn't look, didn't think, didn't care! ... There's no bearing it! I'll put a stop to all schools and Greek, if it is to lead to this, and make you good for nothing'" (136). The contrast between seeing and looking continues the theory that Ethel is not so much nearsighted as undisciplined. Ethel herself is so shocked by the averted disaster that she makes no objection, but eventually her father admits that her fault is the same as his own, because she shares his temperament more than any of his other children do. He exhorts her to cure herself of carelessness before it leads to the same consequences as his, and here she learns that he has blamed himself for the carriage accident in which his wife died (137). After this moment of confidence from her father, and deeply shaken by one death and one near death, Ethel is more motivated than she ever had been, and from this point, about a quarter of the way through the novel, proceeds steadily to grow in self-discipline with no further setbacks. Having a baby brother almost die in a fire might seem a sensationalistic plot point, but the way in which he sets himself on fire (trying to "sail" on the flames a boat Ethel made out of newspaper for him) is so domestic, homely, and entirely plausible that instead it feels exactly like something that might happen to any reader. And certainly the effect of almost having been responsible for a sibling's death would, realistically, achieve a personality reform.

As her father's exclamation above makes clear, both Ethel's scholastic accomplishments in Latin and Greek, and her romantic vision of a school and church at Cocksmoor, are manifestations of the same character trait and are equally dangerous, as occupations that distract Ethel from domestic duties like child care. (7) Interestingly, reading and scholarship might easily be seen as contributing to her myopia, which then makes her more visionary in compensation, and thus more alienated from domesticity (although the thoroughly domestic occupation of sewing is equally bad for the eyes). After Ethel takes on the school at Cocksmoor, running it takes up so much of her time that she is no longer able to keep up with Norman's studies in school and also do her own lessons and domestic duties. The governess finally complains to the eldest sister that Ethel's French, history, arithmetic, sewing, and handwriting are all suffering because of her desire to pursue both Greek and Cocksmoor. She adduces as evidence a specimen of Ethel's wretched handwriting, which is described in a long and amusingly hyperbolic passage that contains one revealing aside: "The necessity she believed herself under of doing what Harry called writing with the end of her nose, and her always holding her pen with her fingers almost in the ink, added considerably to the difficulty of the performance" (178). This is a reference to Ethel's eyesight handicapping her, and yet the narrator's ambiguous wording ("believed herself") leaves open the possibility that Ethel does not really need to get her face so close to the paper-that it is all a matter of taking time rather than really being myopic. Fine sewing work presents Ethel with similar difficulties, and again it is equally unclear whether it is because she rushes through it wanting to spend more time on Greek, or because she cannot see it very well.

Margaret, the eldest sister, agrees with the governess enough to force Ethel to give up her classical scholarship, though not Cocksmoor. The governess wishes Ethel to be forbidden both, and in fact blames Cocksmoor more, for taking "off her whole mind from her proper occupations" (177), but in the May family, the religious charity work Ethel does at Cocksmoor is considered well within the sphere of Ethel's proper occupations--in stark contrast to the opinions of the more conventional ladies who live in Stoneborough (including the governess), whose idea of domesticity is far more circumscribed. Cocksmoor is too far from town, and too "rough," for any "lady" to walk there even for charity purposes, but these objections mean little to the May family. However, no one in the family, including her father or Norman, can see any good reason for Ethel to continue in so unwomanly a pursuit as Greek. Margaret convinces her to give up all but a small amount of maintenance study by pointing out to Ethel that "men have more power than women" and that scholarship will be Norman's whole life at Oxford, whereas no woman can ever give her life wholly to such pursuits without giving up her domestic character as a "useful, steady daughter and sister at home" and "a comfort to papa" (181). Ethel is persuaded by Margaret's sentimental appeals to her father's love and her dead mother's desires--"I don't think dear mamma would have liked Greek and Cocksmoor to swallow up all the little common lady-like things" (182)--but has at least one moment of regret when she confides to Norman that having "tiresome little trifles" comprise the whole of her duty is almost enough to make her hate being a woman (182).

Throughout this sequence, the reader's sympathy is squarely with Ethel and against the pedantic governess. Of course, it is necessary to be careful in assuming one reader's reactions are a yardstick to measure the author's intentions; any modern reader (especially a scholar whose handwriting is likely to be as atrocious as Ethel's own!) will sympathize wholeheartedly with Ethel's plight, and will be tempted to read subversion into this scene, even without justification. According to Talia Schaffer's theory of Yonge's fictional method, our very identification with Ethel here is meant to force us to participate all the more fully in her eventual acceptance of her lot at the end of the chapter. But even after one does one's best to correct for these factors, subversive elements remain. Given the visual handicaps Ethel labors under, the great pains the narrator takes to make the governess seem "old-fashioned and unduly repressive" (Sturrock 36) through the little details of her characterization and dialogue, and the ruthless way sentiment is used to compel Ethel's submission to her female role, the narrator seems almost as conflicted about Ethel's decision as Ethel is herself. All of these complicating factors are described in the kind of detail typical of domestic realism, and that very detail prevents one from simply accepting the dead mother's view that "little common lady-like things" are the apex of female existence. And the Mays' own willingness to redefine what "lady-like" means when religion is in question undermines domestic ideology completely.

Both Catherine Sandbach-Dahlstrom and June Sturrock point out that Ethel's sacrifice of intellectual pursuits is mirrored later by Norman's similar sacrifice of intellectual glory at Oxford to become a missionary. For Sandbach-Dahlstrom, this parallel is just a narrative device Yonge uses to separate the idealized Ethel from negative character traits. She and her two siblings Flora and Norman represent different kinds of ambition, and in the end Ethel's purely religious ambition must be seen as superior (80-81). Sturrock argues that the parallel, and the much greater suffering that Norman undergoes in his temptation toward religious doubt at Oxford, points to the moral that education for boys should be more like that of girls, rather than vice versa; "domestic obscurity" (46) is a value of paramount importance for men as well as women. For Sturrock, Yonge's subversion is a reversal of what we think of as feminism: "Rather than undercutting domestic ideology, she actually extends it far beyond its conventional limitations and represents the domestic--and by implication, the feminine--as morally, spiritually, and culturally central for male as well as female" (25). But while there are certainly intriguing gender reversals at work in the May family, like Richard's handiness with pins and needles, it is not possible to equate Ethel's work at Cocksmoor with traditional domesticity, which is adequately represented and rejected in the person of the governess--and thus Ethel's sacrifice of Greek is not quite the same as Norman's sacrifice of Oxford. Greek and Cocksmoor spring from the same personality trait in Ethel, and only one must be given up. Domesticity may trump scholarship, but religion trumps domesticity, and in fact even the Greek is not forbidden entirely. Ethel maintains enough competency in Latin and Greek that later in life she tutors her youngest brother Aubrey through the full course of Eton scholarship. By this time, in The Trial, Ethel is an old maid (at twenty-five!), and her scholarship is treated, for the most part, as an accepted component of her place in the family.

Ethel's progress in self-discipline is steady for the middle third of The Daisy Chain, and culminates in a dramatic decision at age eighteen to abandon all worldly hopes for herself and dedicate herself to her father and her siblings. Her oldest sister's injuries and her second oldest sister's marriage prevent either from acting as the mistress of her father's house and taking the place of mother to the younger children (the family totals eleven siblings). During a trip to Oxford to watch Norman receive the Newdigate Prize for poetry, she is very mildly courted by a distant cousin, a minor Scottish aristocrat. She responds to this courtship almost unconsciously, but as soon as she realizes she wishes to marry Norman Ogilvie, she determines to flee back to her home and never leave it again. Her resolution to avoid marriage for herself had been made a few months previously, as she watched a scene between her father and her two older sisters, both of them engaged. "Ethel stood unnoticed and silent, making no outward protestation, but with lips compressed, as in her heart of hearts, she passed the resolution--that her father should never feel this pain on her account. Leave him who might, she would never forsake him; nothing but the will of Heaven should part them. It might be hasty and venturesome. She knew not what it might cost her; but, where Ethel had treasured her resolve to work for Cocksmoor, there she also laid up her secret vow--that no earthly object should be placed between her and her father" (393). Ethel's power to vow more strongly than others can is a facet of the same ardency and enthusiasm of character that made her "heedless" as well. Years earlier, at her Confirmation, Dr. May had described her, approvingly, to Margaret as looking as if she were "promising on and on, straight into eternity. I heard her 'I do,' dear child, and it was in such a tone as if she meant to be forever doing" (274). In that case her ardent vision was a positive trait, portrayed as an active virtue rather than a passive one. The narrator approves this new vow of Ethel's as well, even while in the same breath linking it to the similarly rash vow Ethel made about Cocksmoor. The ability to dream a great dream and commit oneself to a vast and unending project without counting the cost was heedlessness in the young Ethel, but now that she has learned to discipline herself in small matters, the same sort of vow is a sign of high character.

When Ethel recalls this vow in Oxford, she repeats some of the same incestuous language: "she was sure that she loved her father better than anything else in the world, and whilst she did so, it was best to preserve her heart for him. Widowed as he was, she knew that he would sorely miss her, and that for years to come, she should be necessary at home" (434). Flora, the most practical of all Ethel's siblings, greatly objects to Ethel leaving Oxford in order to fulfill this vow and prevent a marriage with Norman Ogilvie, but Flora's worldly pragmatism is, by this point in the novel, a trait the narrator disapproves, so that by extension Ethel's faith to her vow takes on added narratorial approval. The fact that Ethel is the one of Dr. May's children most like him, and that the character trait they share is the same one that makes her heedless yet faithful and capable of greatness, both emphasizes and endorses the incestuousness of her sacrifice. The timing of her greatest trial, during an event in which her brother Norman is being honored by one of Oxford's greatest prizes, recalls the talent for scholarship that Ethel equally possesses, and which she has also sacrificed uncomplainingly for the welfare of her family. These threads--ardency, intensity of love bordering on incest, scholarship, and sacrifice--have been so thoroughly complicated in their values by this point in the novel that it is difficult to tell whether or not we are supposed to approve of Ethel's vow, or of the domestic ideology that makes it necessary. At the same time, her character has been established so vividly that her action is exactly what we would expect of her, just as if she were a person we knew in real life.

After Ethel's action at Oxford, the ultimate sacrifice that symbolizes her self-discipline, the focus moves away to other members of her family for the latter third of the novel, until the time when Ethel's vow to build a church and school at Cocksmoor can be fulfilled. This fulfillment, like every other aspect of Ethel's plot, is ambiguous in its message about the relative values of ambition and domesticity in a woman's life. Ethel does not bring about the building of the church through any direct means of her own; rather, the funds for the church come as a bequest from Margaret's fiance, Alan Ernescliffe, who dies in the South Pacific after a naval shipwreck. The endowment of the church by a male landowner certainly fulfills Yonge's High Church ideals about proper social relations between the classes and genders, and satisfies novelistic conventions as well--what can be more sensational than a sudden legacy from a hidden will, especially when it is accompanied by the return of a brother thought lost at sea in the same wreck? Yet Alan gave the money in his will because he had been infected with Ethel's vision. Just before he leaves on the fateful sea voyage, while conversing with Margaret, he tells her that he thinks of endowing Ethel's church as a "thankoffering" (306) for having found Margaret and a surrogate home with the Mays, but only if he finds that his newly inherited estate can support the expense. He does not want to tell Ethel, because "I would not let these vague dreams interfere with her resolute work; but, Margaret, what a vision it is!" (306). Together they embroider that vision as a symbol of their love for each other, which is as religiously tinged as anything else in the Mays' lives. Alan here displays the same cautions about Ethel's uncontrolled enthusiasms as all the family do--and yet it is clear that he shares her ability to imagine the future, and the church would never have been built if he had not been infected by the same ardency. As Alan lies dying, he consoles himself with the vision of the church that will be built, in delirious and lyrical words related by Harry, the sailor brother: "I remember one night, I don't know whether he was quite himself, for he looked full at me with his eyes, that had grown so large, till I did not know what was coming, and he said, 'I have seen a ship built by a sailor's vow; the roof was like the timbers of a ship--that was right. Mind, it is so. That is the ship that bears through the waves; there is the anchor that enters within the veil'" (534). At his death Alan displays all the poetic, ardent, ambitious enthusiasm that characterized the young Ethel, especially symbolized through the dilation of his eyes, showing the strength of his vision.

Significantly, by the end of the novel, Ethel has given up all association of self or pride with her vision, and sees Alan as the true founder of the church, while everyone around her gives most of the credit to her. Both at the ceremony laying the cornerstone and at the consecration after the church is completed, the narrator draws attention to people in the congregation looking at or speaking of Ethel as the true mover and shaker, while she is unaware of their scrutiny (605, 643). Even Ethel's sister Flora, who is jealous of Ethel's achievements and her place with their father, says that "Ethel has been the real person and does not know it" (655). During the consecration ceremony, a full paragraph describing Ethel's feelings is given by the narrator, with only a single reference to what she sees; instead, during this description, the dominant sense is that of hearing, as Ethel dwells on the words and the hymns. She retains all the same ardency as from her youth, as the sound of the hymn is able to induce a state of ecstasy like those she had felt as a young girl, but selflessly: "Never had Ethel been so happy--not in the sense of the finished work--no, she had lost all that, but in being more carried out of herself than ever she had been before, the free spirit of praise so bearing up her heart that the cry of Glory came from her with ... exulting gladness" (641). Perhaps the transmutation of visual to auditory imagery symbolizes the purification of her vision. Ardency is good only if tempered by selflessness and disciplined down from limitless vision to limited hearing.

This movement is echoed and yet also undercut in the final passage of The Daisy Chain, in which Ethel sums up her character growth so far and muses on her probable future life. She has been standing in the porch of the church at Cocksmoor at sunset, watching while "the pearly tints of a cloudless sunset were fading into the western sky" (666), and begins to think about her brother Norman, who has left to be a missionary in the South Seas, and whether he can see the sunset as well. This moment implies, interestingly, that she either is wearing glasses or can see the far-away sky perfectly well without glasses-perhaps she has learned how to "take care" enough to overcome her bodily limitations after all, in a truly muscular triumph of Christianity. The narration next moves to internal "visions of her girlhood" (666) when she had first conceived of the project of the church. The idea that the church exists after all suddenly seems so strange to her "that she even touched the stone to assure herself of the reality" (666). This moment of grounding the faraway sense of sight in the homely, closely circumscribed sense of touch transforms immediately into yet a further vision, brought down from the boundless sky and religious elevation into Ethel's personal future. "Home and Cocksmoor had been her choice, and they were before her. Home! but her eyes had been opened to see that earthly homes may not endure, nor fill the heart" (666). Several sentences follow in which Ethel imagines the full self-denial that she will have to endure, as a sister and daughter will never be what a wife and mother can be to any one single person: "The unmarried woman must not seek undivided return of affection" (667). In other words, even in a novel in which many of Ethel's unfeminine ambitions must be sacrificed for the sake of domesticity, domesticity itself is acknowledged in the end to be insufficient. The only solace for Ethel is religious: "She ... tried to realize what her lonely life might be, but broke off smiling at herself, 'What is that to me? What will it be when it is over? My course and aim are straight on, and He will direct my paths'" (667). Dedication to a life of religious service is a higher calling even than domesticity, and allows her to trust that "I must have my treasure above" (667). The idea of a course and aim "straight on" recall Dr. May's description of the young Ethel "promising on and on, straight into eternity," so that in the end, after all Ethel's trials, it is the limitlessness of her vision that survives. Her character has not changed its essential nature at all, and though she may have become adept at disciplining herself into "looking after" domestic trifles, her religious ardency is still clearly seen by the narrator as her most admirable trait.

Looking to heaven for true satisfaction rather than to the home may seem like a pallid form of rebellion at best, but it has radical potential, as has been more obvious in other ages than the Victorian. Ethel could have been an anchorite or a mystic, a Julian of Norwich or a Theresa of Avila, but not in the nineteenth century. Indeed, in this sense Ethel fares better than a more famous frustrated saint, Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch. Ironically, given that Yonge is thought of as so much more conservative than Eliot, Ethel does not have to give up her ecstasy or ardency as Dorothea does, and she is not forced to be content with "unhistoric acts" (Eliot 825) as her sole gift to posterity. A church is a substantial legacy, and one for which Ethel gets the credit. Eliot explicitly claims that saints are not possible in modern times and that the mystic temperament that Dorothea and Ethel share with St. Theresa cannot succeed in the way it did in the past, because "the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone" (825). Yonge never mentions saints in the course of the novel, and if she had, might well have agreed with Eliot's skepticism-and yet the outcomes of her plot belie such an attitude. In general Yonge has been regarded by Victorian critics who do not specialize in her work as a simple proponent of patriarchal Christian views of women, but this novel complicates that portrait. In a recent collection of essays examining Victorian religion and gender, subtitled Reassessing the Angel in the House, the overall picture that emerges is of real Victorian women, whether authors or missionaries, critiquing or rebelling against the "crushing limitations of Victorian society" (Gill 174) and domesticity. Charlotte Yonge is mentioned only twice in the collection, and in both cases she is held up as an exemplar of the orthodox attitude. (8) Yet The Daisy Chain portrays domesticity and religion as only uneasily working in harness.

This impression is supported by the narrator's clear sympathy for the plight of a girl whose mental talents are not appreciated as they ought to be. One often feels that Yonge's portrait of an imaginative and enthusiastic young writer whose dreams are frustrated might owe some of the minuteness of its detail to the author's memories of her own youthful self. Yet despite the skill with which Yonge uses descriptive detail and reported thoughts to draw readers in to sympathize with Ethel, she also fully endorses in her narratorial voice the training and pruning of character that Ethel's older family members impose on her, a pruning only slightly less radical than what Dorothea Brooke undergoes. This is what makes it so difficult to read Yonge now, why we must "fight" to read her, as Talia Schaffer puts it. But Ethel May's equivocal outcome makes the fight worthwhile. Given the completely smooth and polished facade of ideological consistency that Yonge's image maintains in the mind of the average reader (or average Victorianist), even a tiny crack is worth pointing out. Her novels are worth the effort of reading. Her strategy of ideological indoctrination through character identification is really just a more intense version of the method employed by all realist novels, and experiencing it against one's will is important to understanding the genre of the novel overall. Ethel May extends that understanding by defining the limits of realism's ideological power.



Adams, James Eli. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.

Brownell, David. "The Two Worlds of Charlotte Yonge." The Worlds of Victorian Fiction. Ed. Jerome H. Buckley. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. 165-78.

Colby, Vineta. Yesterday's Woman: Domestic Realism in the English Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-72. Ed. David Carroll. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1986.

Elliott, Dorice Williams. The Angel Out of the House: Philanthropy and Gender in Nineteenth-Century England. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2002.

Foster, Shirley, and Judy Simons. What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of 'Classic' Stories for Girls. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Gill, Sean. "Heroines of Missionary Adventure: The Portrayal of Victorian Women Missionaries in Popular Fiction and Biography." Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the House. Ed. Anne Hogan and Andrew Bradstock. New York: St. Martin's P, 1998. 172-85.

Hayter, Alethea. Charlotte Yonge. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 1996.

Hogan, Anne, and Andrew Bradstock, eds. Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the House. New York: St. Martin's P, 1998.

Jansson, Siv. "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Rejecting the Angel's Influence." Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the House. Ed. Anne Hogan and Andrew Bradstock. New York: St. Martin's P, 1998. 31-47.

Mare, Margaret, and Alicia C. Percival. Victorian Best-Seller: The World of Charlotte M. Yonge. 1947. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P, 1970.

Oulton, Carolyn. Literature and Religion in Mid-Victorian England: From Dickens to Eliot. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Prochaska, F. K. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1980.

Reed, John Shelton. Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1996.

Ruskin, John. "Of Queen's Gardens." Selected Writings. Ed. Dinah Birch. Oxford: World's Classics, 2004. 154-74.

Sandbach-Dahlstrom, Catherine. Be Good, Sweet Maid: Charlotte Yonge's Domestic Fiction: A Study in Dogmatic Purpose and Fictional Form. Stockholm Studies in English 59. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1984.

Schaffer, Talia. "The Mysterious Magnum Bonum: Fighting to Read Charlotte Yonge." Nineteenth-Century Literature 55 (2000): 244-75.

Sturrock, June. "Heaven and Home": Charlotte M. Yonge's Domestic Fiction and the Victorian Debate over Women. English Literary Studies Monograph Series 66. Victoria, B.C.: U of Victoria, 1995.

Yonge, Charlotte Mary. The Daisy Chain. 1856. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.

--. The Trial. 1864. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing/Pocket Classics, 1996.


(1) This is a common view among critics of Yonge's novels. Sandbach-Dahlstrom argues that the conflict between dogmatic idealism and "empirical reality" is a source of "fruitful dramatic tension" (21) in the novels. Hayter has attempted to oppose this standard critical tendency to deconstruct Yonge's novels to find "tension" (13), "sub-text," or "hidden agendas" (14). She sees this tendency as particularly the province of feminist critics, and derides the way Ethel May has become one of many "feminist icons of martyrdom to male oppression" because of the way she is "morally blackmailed" into giving up Greek (57)--without actually denying that Ethel is oppressed.

(2) Not every critic even sees a contradiction. Sandbach-Dahlstrom regards Ethel as an uncomplicated "ideal examplar of the Christian life" (78), whose small faults are designed merely to make her more lovable. For Colby the novel consistently portrays the power of "a working faith" in enabling Ethel to make sacrifices "in such a natural easy manner that neither she nor the reader broods over the alternatives" (191). The idea that Ethel's sacrifices are easy ignores the narrator's many descriptions of her struggles, however.

(3) Women's philanthropic work increased greatly over the course of the nineteenth century. Prochaska shows a general progress of women from subordinate auxiliaries of men's organizations to formidable free agents lobbying Parliament and pursuing brothel keepers.

(4) The narrator's overt disapproval of ambition is not necessarily the main factor in assessing the novel's political effect, of course. Elliott contends that the many nineteenth century novels with "philanthropic heroines" did the "cultural work" (6) of making philanthropy seem like a normal extension of the domestic sphere-even the ones that were negative about it. She posits that since realism draws its readers in to its fictionalized world, the mere portrayal of philanthropic heroines in so many novels tended to "produce and authorize women's desires to participate in such endeavors" (6). This is a theory of realism with which I certainly agree, and Elliott may well be correct about the aggregate effect of such novels. But even Elliott characterizes Yonge's specific novels (The Daisy Chain and The Clever Woman of the Family) as being generally negative about female philanthropy. For Elliott, the issue is whether or not a novel portrays philanthropic "ambition" as compatible with "erotic" fulfillment, and obviously both Yonge novels depict them as mutually incompatible (Elliott 171-72).

(5) Foster and Simons mention this handiness of Richard's with a pin as one of several examples in which "gender roles seem blurred or reversed" (78) among the May siblings. They see this as part of the novel's "equivocal ... representation and confirmation of gender roles" (80), a subversion that is ultimately contained in the ending. In a novel with such a consistently moralistic narrator, the examples of oddly gendered behavior stand out.

(6) This is a trait that runs through all Yonge's fiction and that has been remarked upon by many critics. Her own process of composition seems to have been to start a book with a principle in mind to be illustrated, but her characters became so real to her that they did what they would do, rather than what would best illustrate her "keynote" (Mare and Percival 130). While writing The Heir of Redclyffe Yonge claimed that "what Guy and Philip may choose to turn out I cannot tell, they seem just like real acquaintances" (Mare and Percival 134). The May family, especially Ethel, were among her most beloved characters, and perhaps developed in the same way.

(7) Both Foster and Simons (73) and Sturrock (37) quote the "schools and Greek" comment as applying solely to intellectual pursuits, but in fact, the school Dr. May is referring to in that passage is Ethel's charity project of teaching at Cocksmoor, not her studies with Norman.

(8) Jansson, in contextualizing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, contrasts Bronte to Yonge, who has "a clearly didactic purpose in her work, which is primarily to maintain the status quo" (31). Sean Gill similarly uses a quote from Yonge to exemplify the entire "patriarchal theological perspective" (173) in his piece on female missionaries.
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Author:Schaub, Melissa; Cha, The Daisy
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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