Online text of The Pillars of the House Volume I

Online text of The Pillars of the House Volume 2

 Plot summary          Abstract of paper by Gavin Budge        Chapter on Pillars by Ethel Romanes

Paper relating to Pillars by Susan E. Colón

Paper on gender in Pillars by Elizabeth Juckett

Illustration from the title page of The Pillars of the House. Click to see a larger version of this picture

Click here to reach the latest version of Pillars of the House Volume I  from Gutenberg

(Many thanks to Sandra Laythorpe)

Plot summary for Pillars of the House

Text for this page kindly provided by Stella Waring

This is the story of the thirteen Underwood children. Their father, the Rev. Edward Underwood, is a poor curate in the industrial town of Bexley, but he comes from an upper-class family, the Underwoods of Vale Leston, and lost his family inheritance through a flaw in his uncle’s will. He dies of consumption just after his wife has given birth to boy and girl twins, the last of the thirteen. Mrs Underwood dies three years later.

At the moment of their father’s death the children are: 

Felix (aged 16)
Wilmet and Alda, twins (15)
Edgar (14)
Geraldine (13)
Clement (12)
Fulbert (10)
Lancelot (3)
Robina (6)
Angela (3)
Bernard (2) 
Stella and Theodore, newborn twins

The book chronicles the history of the family from Felix’s sixteenth birthday to Stella’s marriage, with a final chapter and conclusion to tie up loose ends. Before his parents die, Felix has ‘lost status’ by giving up his hopes for University and going to work for a local printer and bookseller to help with the family finances. After their parents' death, in spite of offers from well-meaning friends, Felix and Wilmet determine that the family shall stay together. They accept a certain amount of help — school places for Clement and Lancelot, and Edgar and Alda go to live with a family connection in London — but it is Felix and Wilmet who are the two Pillars of the House.

The first part of the book tells of their struggles in the early years, but it is not just a depressing chronicle of ‘make do’. After a spectacular fire at the hotel next door, a romantic half-Mexican young man, Ferdinand Travis, becomes part of the household for a time and part of the family in due course.

Very few of the Underwoods live quiet, humdrum lives. Felix, who works hard, both at his job and attempting to be a father to his younger siblings, gives up all hope of marriage, although he twice falls in love. At length, after several convenient deaths, he inherits the family home at Vale Leston and has the satisfaction, before he dies, of seeing all the family at home there. Little Theodore of the last twins, who is mentally and physically retarded, survives until the age of 17, gently guarded and supported by Felix.

Edgar, the brilliant, studies Art but cannot persevere, causes problems among his female acquaintances, forges a cheque and runs away, ending up in America where he is killed by Indians and leaves behind a son to succeed Felix. Alda, after rudely jilting Ferdinand Travis, marries a rich baronet for his money and produces a succession of small girls — the hoped-for son only arrives as his father dies of DTs. Wilmet rules the family with a rod of iron in the early years, then has a romantic marriage with an engineer. Clement, who goes to an Anglican church school in London is a bit of a prig at first but develops into a thoroughly competent and compassionate clergyman and brother. Geraldine, limited by a crippled ankle but with artistic talent, is Felix’s right hand and sister-confidante; she also studies in London and has pictures hung at the Royal Academy.

Of Fulbert we hear the least; he is, at first, a thoroughly tough young boy. He then goes out to Australia, only to return just before Stella’s wedding. Lancelot (Lance) however, has an eventful career, beginning as a chorister but in the end he joins Felix 'in trade’. Angela is the problem girl as soon as she goes to school and on to the end of the book and in the books that follow. Angela has enthusiasms and carries them too far and has to be rescued by her family. She is redeemed by her whole-hearted devotion to Felix. Robina when at school, is one of those who suffer from Angela’s enthusiasms but she is a steady persevering girl, gets herself educated to the best of her ability and goes out as a governess to be independent and help the family budget. Last of the boys (not counting Theodore) Bernard is spoiled, until the change in the family fortunes allow him to go to a decent school and Stella, last of the girls, is the family’s ‘Princess Fair-Star’ until she leaves them to get married.


Sister Constance from The Castle Builders
Kate Caergwent from Countess Kate
Dr May, Ethel, Tom. Flora and Gertrude from The Daisy Chain
Robert Fulmort and his sister Bertha and Miss Fennimore from Hopes and Fears

Click here to enlarge

Performance Anxiety: Sexuality, Aestheticism and Modernity in Charlotte M. Yonge's The Pillars of the House

Gavin Budge

Abstract of a paper given at
Victorian Performances, Lancaster University, September 2001

Charlotte M. Yonge's mammoth family saga The Pillars of the House was published in 1873, and went through numerous editions until the turn of the century. Central to the plot of the novel is an interestingly early treatment of the issue of "aestheticism" as a way of life. In this paper I would like to explore the connection between the novel's presentation of "aestheticism", with related anxieties about the morally corrupting nature of public performance, and the questions about sexuality which the novel raises in a somewhat less overt, but still recognisable, manner. Both these elements, I would like to suggest, are connected with the novel's rather troubled preoccupation with social modernity.

Due to her Tractarian affiliations, Yonge is often dismissed by modern critics, insofar as they bother to consider her at all, as a purely reactionary writer. In The Pillars of the House, however, despite the gentry affiliations of the orphaned clergy family who are the books central subject, Yonge depicts at length a condition of grinding genteel poverty in the suburbs of a small town, anticipating the social realism of writers such as H G Wells. The book's politics are admittedly conservative: the dedication to duty and traditional values of the eldest son are eventually rewarded by the inheritance of the family estate from his uncle. But this conservatism is not escapist: the son continues to work in the printing trade even after inheriting the estate, and insists that his eleven siblings continue in the lower middle-class occupations (as governesses, etc) which they have adopted.

Yonge's attempt to elaborate a lower middle-class conservatism, to counteract the effects of extension of the franchise, exhibits a considerable degree of strain - at the level of the plot, this is present in the family's rather forced reconciliation of gentry status with "trade". Interestingly, though, this sense of strain is also present in the characters themselves, and particularly in the novel's treatment of their sexuality. The eldest son effectively kills himself through "overwork", and is made to appear disturbingly asexual; he gives up his childhood sweetheart to one of his brothers, and dies in the end of a mysterious groin strain, which hints at impotence or castration (echoing Uncle Toby's groin injury in Tristram Shandy). There are also indications of homosexuality in two of the family. A younger brother, Clement, is consistently presented as effeminate and "shrill"; his formative influence is the disturbingly extreme ritualism of an all-male "settlement" attached to a London church. Similarly, one of the sisters is shown as unruly and "masculine", with her sole ambition being to join an Anglican sisterhood.

These allusions to sexuality complement the novel's major preoccupation with the insidious corruptions of "aestheticism". Edward, the second son, is presented as a Du Maurier-like aesthete, who adds to his talent for painting a proclivity for dabbling in music and journalism. His impecunious and Bohemian lifestyle eventually leads to him forging a signature, for which he has to flee the country; he dies in a hovel in the American West, where he has gone to seek his fortune, and, Yonge strongly hints, dies incapable of true repentance and therefore damned. Edward's artistic and musical talents are also possessed by two of his siblings, but these make the decision not to venture into public exhibition or performance, a decision which Yonge suggests benefits not only their personal morality, but also their stature as true artists.

Sexual and artistic dissipation are linked in Yonge's strongly negative portrayal of the effects of performance. This constellation of sexuality, aestheticism and religion strikingly anticipates the set of concerns we usually link with the 1890s. It would be my project in this paper to link Yonge's novel with emergent debates about aestheticism of the 1860s and 1870s (perhaps as connected with controversies about the "sensation" novel, and Buchanan's attack on "the fleshly school of poetry"), and to trace its connection with nineteenth century discourses of "anti-theatricalism", particularly as they were used to police the distinction between Tractarian Anglo-Catholicism and the unacceptable flamboyance of Roman Catholicism.

Click here to enlarge

Chapter on Pillars of the House by Ethel Romanes

Click here to read Chapter VIII. 'The Pillars of the House,' and other Family Chronicles – Changes

from Charlotte Mary Yonge: An Appreciation by Ethel Romanes (1908)

This text is made available by Project Canterbury

Click here to enlarge

Paper relating to Pillars of the House by Susan E. Colón

The 2010 special issue of Women's Writing on Charlotte Yonge includes a paper by Susan E. Colón.

Colón, Susan E. "Realism And Reserve: Charlotte Yonge And Tractarian Aesthetics"
Volume 17 Issue 2 2010

Publisher's abstract: Reserve was absolutely central to the Tractarian theological and aesthetic programme, and Yonge's position as a leading practitioner of Tractarian aesthetics demands that we understand the relationship of reserve to her realism. Some critics have assumed that realism is simply incommensurate with reserve, while others have reduced reserve to its psychological dimension. However, while John Keble's and Isaac Williams' complex discussions of reserve are well understood, it is clear that realism has distinct value for reserve both theologically and aesthetically. Yonge cannily exploited realism's potential both to practise and preach reserve. This essay reads The Pillars of the House (1873), especially the scene of the cathedral choral festival, to explore the unique power of Yonge's realism to instruct readers in the doctrine of reserve without violating reserve in doing so.


Susan E. Colón is associate professor of literature at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. She is the author of The Professional Ideal in the Victorian Novel: The Works of Disraeli, Trollope, Gaskell, and Eliot (Palgrave, 2007), as well as articles on George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Charles Dickens, A.S. Byatt, and Margery Kempe.

Click here to enlarge

A paper on gender in Pillars by Elizabeth Juckett

"Cross-Gendering the Underwoods: Christian Subjection in Charlotte Yonge’s Pillars of the House"

in Antifeminism and the Victorian novel : rereading nineteenth-century women writers
edited by Tamara Wagner. New York, 2009. ISBN 978-1-60497-607-6

(You may be able to access some of parts of this book,
including pp 10-11 of Tamara Wagner's introduction which contain remarks on Elizabeth Juckett's paper,
by clicking here

Click here to enlarge   Click here to enlarge