Like Little Women but more religious. So you have to like nineteenth-century domestic fiction and to have a strong stomach for didacticism. This is the story of a family of eleven children whose mother dies in the first few chapters. Their father, a country doctor, generous, absent-minded, with a temper that prevents his children at times from trusting him, has been used to leaving all domestic concerns to his wife. Naturally, his teenage daughters take on a great deal of this responsibility for him. One of these daughters, Ethel, is the main character if the book has a main character. She’s rather a Jo March type who has to learn to channel her enthusiasm in order to achieve things, to sacrifice things because women can’t have it all, and to become more domestic. She’s the character whose virtue is worth most because we are most involved in her struggle to attain it. Not that the other characters don’t have their own struggles. Yonge is particularly concerned here with how to cope with being clever, well-off and popular; she sees these as problems to be taken very seriously. Sometimes it is a character’s duty to suffer heroically through being lauded and lucky and sometimes it isn’t. This has the gossipy feel of small incidents in a small group of characters, punctuated by melodrama when characters die or don’t die.
The thing about Yonge is that if you can get over the fact that self-sacrifice and death are presented as good things in almost any circumstance, she’s a good writer. She engages with people and puts much more into the book than she has to. She doesn’t drag her characters from A to B, bent only on proving her point. She takes the time to acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of particular characters’ psychology so that they get to B under their own steam. The characters each have their different, carefully thought out strengths and weaknesses. She has a great imagination for moral flaws and sees them in the most unlikely places so that, for all the didacticism, your moral imagination is put to work rather than put to sleep.
Ethel should have married the Scottish laird though.