An introduction to her life and work

Charlotte Yonge lived at Otterbourne (outside Winchester) all her life but her name was known throughout the United Kingdom, the British Empire, the USA and (via translations of her books) in Europe too. Her best-selling novels were loved by millions, and the influence of her vividly presented characters had a lasting impact on her readers. She also wrote many non-fiction works: history, biography, natural history, and folklore; and for over forty years she edited a periodical for girls, The Monthly Packet.

William Yonge came from Puslinch near Torquay, but met and fell in love with Fanny Bargus of Otterbourne. Their love was tested by her mother’s stipulation that they could only marry if William gave up his promising career in an infantry regiment. This was a real sacrifice for William, who had fought in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, and had been gazetted Lieutenant. But he moved into his mother-in-law’s home, Otterbourne House, ran the small estate, served as self-taught doctor to the villagers, and built a school.

Charlotte was Fanny and William’s first child, born in 1823; her only brother, Julian, arrived seven years later. As was usual for girls, she was educated at home, with both parents sharing in her teaching. So this clever and creative child was also quite solitary, except during the annual visits to her father’s old home in Devon, where she delighted in the company of her numerous cousins. She compensated for her loneliness by making up stories about the doings of a large imaginary family of children.

When Charlotte was 13, the Revd John Keble was appointed as Vicar of Hursley and Otterbourne. His arrival was significant both for Charlotte’s religious life (he prepared her for Confirmation) and her writing career. Keble, already famous as the poet-author of The Christian Year, was deeply involved in the impetus to take Anglicanism in a more High Church direction. This – known as the ‘Oxford Movement’ or ‘Tractarianism’ – was congenial to the traditions of the Yonge family, and had a deep appeal to Charlotte herself. Keble maintained close links with its leaders, and introduced the Yonges to a wider intellectual circle than that offered by Otterbourne.

Tractarians had a profound respect for seemly worship and a church open to all. William Yonge recognised that Otterbourne’s small mediaeval church was no longer adequate to the village’s needs. Encouraged by John Keble and the local landowner Sir William Heathcote, he found a site and designed the new building himself, with help from Winchester architect Owen Browne Carter. The Yonges were comfortably off but not wealthy, so it took effort and sacrifice on the family’s part to gather the funds to endow St Matthew’s and its school (1839). The annual holiday in Devon was one of the things given up. And 15-year-old Charlotte put her imaginary family into a book of French tales, Le Château de Melville, which was sold to raise funds for a girls’ school.

This early attempt evidently gave Charlotte a taste for authorship, and she began writing short stories about village children. Her first full length novel, Abbeychurch, appeared in 1844, soon followed by The Heir of Redclyffe, the book that made her name. The germ of the plot came from another friend, Marianne Dyson, sister of the Rector of Dogmersfield, near Alton. Marianne – somewhat older – mentored and encouraged the younger author; Yonges, Kebles, and Dysons read and commented as Charlotte composed. The novel appeared in 1853, and sold in thousands. It was read by everyone from servants to soldiers, from priests to princesses. Other successful books followed, some targeted at children or teenagers, others at adults: William Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson and William Morris were among Yonge’s readers.

Charlotte lived in Otterbourne all her days, attending St Matthew’s and teaching in the Sunday school until her death in 1901. A lasting interest was the natural history and local customs of her own district, memorably recorded in An Old Woman’s Outlook in a Hampshire Village. But her life was far from narrow: her career as a writer and editor was demanding, and she also had a large correspondence (over 3000 letters survive, and can be accessed on this website (opens in a new tab) : Having her own income allowed her to travel, to buy books, and to donate generously to charitable causes, particularly missionary work: the profits of The Daisy Chain (one of her best-loved books) went to fit out a mission ship to the South Sea Islands. But when she was in her fifties, her brother was financially ruined in a business venture, and from then on Charlotte supported him and his family.

CMY’s family chronicle novels still attract a devoted readership. Their charm lies in the lively depiction of a large cast of characters, every one individualised with their own features and foibles and their own way of talking. Yonge shows them as they change and develop, meeting setbacks and enjoying successes – and her great and enduring talent is to make her readers believe in them and care for them as real people. A good starting point for present-day readers is The Heir of Redclyffe: it has a well-constructed plot and a small number of characters. It was Charlotte's best-selling novel, and is still well worth reading.. Its hero, Sir Guy Morville, embodied the appeal of chivalry and service in modern life, and was emulated by countless young people of the day. Alternatively, The Daisy Chain offers varied portraits of a large family who lose their mother at the start of the book. Foremost among the children is Ethel May: awkward, intense, and deeply committed to her ideals, she is one of Yonge’s most loved characters. This book’s sequel, The Trial, shows Ethel grown up, and represents Yonge’s foray into the ‘sensation novel’ genre, with a plot involving family rifts, murder and repentance. Countess Kate (about a little girl who finds that inheriting a title is not the fun she expected) and The Little Duke, about the childhood of Richard of Normandy, ancestor of William the Conqueror, demonstrate Yonge’s lively story-telling for children. Many of Yonge’s books are available online: see links on the Her Works page of this website.


Other accounts of Charlotte's life

There is a short, near-contemporary account of Charlotte Yonge's life from Mary K Seeger here.

The London Catholic Literature Association produced a biography of Charlotte Yonge in 1933, in their Heroes of the Catholic Revival series. Click here to see this document.

There are a number of short accounts of Charlotte's life scattered about on the internet. Try using a search engine to look for "Charlotte Mary Yonge".


Images of Charlotte Yonge at various ages

For (rather small) portraits of Charlotte Yonge held in the National Portrait Gallery, London – none of which are normally on display to the public – see the National Portrait Gallery website. (Click on the small pictures to expand them.)


1891 census data for Otterbourne

The following is recorded for Charlotte Yonge's house, Elderfield:

Name Age   Born
YONGE Charlotte M 67 y Author, Living On Own Means HAM Otterbourne
WALTER Gertrude 41 y Living On Own Means OVB East Indies
SPRATT Harriett 69 y House Keeper HAM Otterbourne
SPRATT Jessie Palmer 37 y Ladies Maid ESS Cranham
SAVAGE Elizabeth 50 y Cook HAM Eling
GODWIN Rosa 25 y House Maid HAM Otterbourne
SHRUBB Ann 16 y Kitchen Maid HAM Headley



The Times, 26th March, 1901

"Not only to the gentle inmates of country rectories, but to many people who lay claim to a wider literary appreciation than is sometimes to be found there, the news of Miss Charlotte Yonge’s death comes with a sense of a personal loss. She died on Sunday at Otterbourne, near Winchester, where she was born on August 11th, 1823. The daughter of Mr William Crawley Yonge, JP, sometime of the 52nd regiment, and Frances Mary Bargus, she was educated at home by her parents, and her life, apart from her writings and her 30 years’ editorship of the Monthly Packet was not outwardly different from the lives of thousands of home-keeping English gentlewomen. Her friends, and especially her poorer neighbours, knew both the strength and the winning charm of her character. Thus the late Archbishop Benson noted in his diary her ‘odd majesty and kindliness, which are very strong’.

But it is of course as a writer that Miss Yonge will be remembered. She had an inventive mind and a ready pen, and a bare list of the books written or edited by her would probably occupy nearly a whole column of The Times. She wrote chiefly for young people, especially young girls, and her books are the result not only of a strong ethical purpose, but also of her firm devotion to the High Church view of Christian doctrine and practice. No doubt this caused her to be ignored by many hasty literary critics, who regarded her as beneath consideration, under the mistaken idea that her books were merely ‘goody-goody’ tracts in the guise of fiction, or at best, sentimental tales of dull girls. Against this view must be set the fact that her books were and still are read and re-read with keen delight not only by young girls but by older people whose literary judgment is not to be despised. Nor are her readers by any means limited to members of the Church of England, or even to believers in any form of Christianity. The truth is that her power of telling a story and her power of delineating character were great enough to throw certain obvious defects into the shade. Her earlier works seem nowadays too controversial, and at times even morbid, and this is notably the case with The Heir of Redclyffe, the best known of all her books. But as her mental powers matured these characteristics became less and less observable, though still she always clung to her ethical purpose, and had no sympathy for ‘art for art’s sake’ in literature."

Cecilia Bass writes:

[The second half of the Obituary is devoted to listing her main publications, her work for the Melanesian Mission (eg £2,000 donated by her from the sales of The Daisy Chain), details of the University scholarship founded at the Winchester High School for Girls and bearing her name. There is a paragraph on her influence on other writers, especially William Morris and friends. The last word is given to Canon Dixon [LINK] , a minor Pre-Raphaelite, on The Heir of Redclyffe, which he declared to be “Unquestionably one of the finest books in the world”.]


15th June 1901

“The will bears the date December 17, 1897, with a codicil of May 25, 1900, of Miss Charlotte Mary Yonge of Elderfield, Otterbourne, Hants., author of The Heir of Redclyffe, who died on March 24 last. Miss Yonge bequeathed to her executors the copyright of The Daisy Chain, in trust for sale, to be in trust for the mission to the Melanesian Islands, and she bequeathed her collection of shells and dried flowers and her books on botany and conchology to Winchester College, but her niece, Helen Emma Yonge, is to retain the collection during her pleasure. She bequeathed in trust for the Otterbourne Parish Schools whilst they are Voluntary Church Schools, £100. The late Miss Yonge’s estate has been valued at £12,913.11s.3d gross including personal estate of the n4 value of £10,809.13s.5d.”

Cecilia Bass writes:

(Other wills listed in the same volume include that of a Suffolk farmer who left personal estate of £67,054. A Miss Barclay of Hampshire left personal estate of £26,170. A comparison of these figures with Charlotte Yonge’s relatively modest estate would suggest that though she was by no means poor, she was not as wealthy as might be expected from a best-selling novelist, whose books continued to sell right through the nineteenth century. It seems reasonable then to conclude from the details given in the Obituary and the Will that she gave away most of the proceeds of her work, including all the profits of The Daisy Chain).



30th March, 1901

“The remains of the late Miss Charlotte M Yonge were laid to rest yesterday afternoon in the churchyard at Otterbourne. The body had lain in the church all through the previous night, and yesterday morning there was a requiem celebration of the Holy Communion. The funeral service, which was attended by a large number of friends, villagers and admirers of the author from far and near, was conducted by the Rev. H A Bowles, the vicar of the parish, assisted by the Dean of Winchester and the Rev. H W Brock. The grave was lined with moss, primroses and daffodils, and is at the foot of the cross erected many years ago to the memory of Keble, the author of The Christian Year. A large number of floral tributes were placed on the grave, all of them eloquent of the esteem and regard in which Miss Yonge was held.”

Two sermons preached at S. Matthews', Otterbourne.
In memoriam, C.M.Y., March 31st, 1901

By Robert Campbell Moberly and H. Walter Brock.

Published: Eastleigh, Hants, Eastleigh Print. Works, 1901
14 p. 21 cm.


Some recent opinions of Charlotte Yonge

"... the ideas that she promulgated through her books, through her personal influence and through her letters were actually major ideas for a key generation of Victorian women – the women born in the second half of the 1840's who went on to become the first generation of women head teachers, who founded the Girls' High Schools, and who became the Principals of the new women's colleges at various universities."  (Julia Courtney, Open University)

" ... Yonge addressed herself energetically for over hald a century to precisely the issues with which convinced feminists were concerned ..." (Charlotte Mitchell, co-editor of Yonge's letters)

"... one could say that this (The Monthly Packet) was one of the first teenage magazines that was ever written ...  " (Amy de Gruchy, UCL)

"... she's not a feminist, but she doesn't say that being a woman lets you out of anything at all ... " (Julia Courtney, Open University)

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