Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe (first published in 1853) was one of the best novels of its time, as popular even as Dickens, but now it's not so well-read: if we can rely on Goodreads to measure these things, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, one of his most popular novels, has been rated 476,803 times, The Heir of Redclyffe just 123 times. What went wrong?
Firstly, to get my own perspective down, I don't think it's enjoyable, not compared to Dickens, and not compared to most other works. It's dated, I think, not in the obvious way, it was published 164 years ago so of course it's dated, what I mean is the style, the characters, it's moral / religious message is neither universal nor particularly nostalgic. It's of a time gone by represented by characters who are simply not so interesting. Yonge tells the story of Guy Morville, the heir to the Redclyffe estate and baronetcy. After Sir Guy Morville the elder dies, the young Guy inherits, but, being only seventeen, is taken in by the Edmonstones (another branch of the family). He is welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Edmonstone, their children Charles, Charlotte, Laura, and Amy, but decidedly not by their cousin Philip Morville. Philip is the second heir of Redclyffe, who will inherit should Guy die, There was, to give that some background, bad feeling owing to a disputed inheritance, and Philip makes it his duty, his raison d'être, to hate Guy. Philip himself is in love with Laura, but when Guy and Amy fall in love and plan to marry, he tries everything to put a stop to it.
The real crux of this story are the characters Philip and Guy and their development. Philip is very arrogant, quick to put Guy down at any available opportunity (and if he can do so in Latin all the better), and even resorts to spreading false rumours. Guy, to his credit, tries to rise above it, turn the other cheek, and act as any Christian hero ought to do: he is not perfect, the key there is the word "tries". His faith and gentle nature sustain him and in him we see an ideal Victorian hero, and in Amy an ideal Victorian woman. This inspired by the likes of William Morris and Edward Burne Jones to fashion their ideal chivalric knights on Guy Morville.
It isn't a bad novel by any stretch; it's fairly enjoyable, quite sweet in its way, and with twists and turns all along, but I wasn't as interested as I hoped I might have been. But it was, as I say, one of the most popular novels of its time and for me that made it really worth reading, that glimpse into the Victorian reading habits is never dull. This was Charlotte Yonge's first best seller and she went on to produce a staggering output, surpassing even Anthony Trollope. I gather much of it is out of print, but if I ever come across another Yonge I will be sure to give it a read.