The Best-loved Book of the Victorian Era

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The Heir of Redclyffe, Charlotte M. Yonge, 1853

Get ready for the single most popular book of the Victorian Period (according to something I read, which I did not fact check, because this is a blog not a Ph.D. thesis. If any universities would like to award me a Ph.D. for this project, I will find some evidence to support that claim.) Everyone and their mom read this book. Girls, boys, men, women, cats, dogs and canaries all read this book, but you don’t have to, because I am going to tell you everything you need to know.

First of all the characters:

Guy Morville—the hero

  • He’s the main guy, a Byronic hero, but sweeter.
  • Floppy chestnut hair.
  • Somewhat effeminate, non-threatening build.
  • Heir to Redclyffe, a dark gothic castle perched on a peak overlooking rugged moors and stormy seas.
  • Guy’s father married the daughter of a traveling musician, much to the dismay of Guy’s grandfather. The father died in a tragic horse riding accident before the grandfather could forgive him.
  • Guy lives in constant fear of turning out like his impetuous father. He subjects himself to an absurd amount of self-discipline. Seriously, any time he enjoys something, he starts thinking “Oh shit, I’m having fun. My dad liked to have fun, and then he died. So, I better not ever have any fun.”
  • Loves animals.
  • Willing to risk his own safety for the wellbeing of any person or animal.

Phillip Morville—the antagonist

  • Half of my annotations in the books are just the word “douche” next to things that Phillip says.
  • Guy’s cousin and next-in-line to be Heir of Redclyffe.
  • Resents Guy, because he wants to be the heir.
  • Generally thinks the worst of everyone.
  • Pompous, conceited, hypocritical ass with a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar.
  • Stands around at parties saying super pleasant stuff like “She’s very Irish” in a scornful tone whenever anyone says something nice about another human.
  • Involved in the military.
  • Part of the gentility, but doesn’t have enough money to marry.
  • Just about the least likable character imaginable.
  • Tall, handsome, manly.

The Edmonstone Family—there are 7,000 of them, but I’ll only mention the ones who matter. They are all somewhat related to Guy and Phillip.

Laura

  • The eldest.
  • No discernible personality, except obedience to authority, I guess.

Amabelle

  • Yes, that’s her name.
  • Loves flowers.
  • That’s basically it. (Women don’t need personalities, y’all.) She’s sweet and innocent and all that a female character in a Victorian novel is supposed to be.

Charles

  • Only son.
  • Crippled.
  • Funny.
  • The only one in the entire Edmonstone family with the good sense to see that Guy rules and Phillip drools.

Mother and Father

  • Also appear in the novel.

The action of the novel chiefly consists of Phillip trolling Guy and ruining his life. Phillip constantly belittles Guy. He’s a serpent hissing evil thoughts into the ears of the Edmonstones, trying to turn them against Guy. Phillip portrays him as a dangerous, temperamental person, a time-bomb whose horrible inherited traits bubble under the surface waiting to boil over. Meanwhile, Guy is doing his damned best and being sweet to everyone, but those silly Edmonstones have too much respect for Phillip to see that he’s the horrible, dangerous one.

Phillip begins to worry that Laura will fall in love with Guy, because Guy is smart and nice to her, and she watches him from the window while he does sexual things like bale hay with his shirt off (to make a soft seat for a lady to sit on. He’s a gentleman, not a farmer!). Phillip’s resentment toward Guy builds, because Phillip doesn’t have enough income to marry Laura while Guy can marry whenever he wishes, because he has that craggy castle. Phillip secretly proposes to Laura and makes her promise not to tell. Covertly getting engaged to the eldest daughter is the single worst thing a young man can do to a family, so Phillip is being a giant dirtbag by Victorian standards. His romance with Laura is revolting. He’s very paternalistic and moralizing, constantly telling her what to do as if he’s some moral authority, when he’s actually persuading her to violate her parents’ trust. Laura is essentially robbed of the joys of youth, because she’s overwhelmed by her guilty secret. Phillip sucks.

Guy and Amabelle fall in love and much to everyone’s (except Phillip’s) joy, get engaged. Shortly thereafter Guy helps a shady relative out with his gambling debts. Phillip witnesses this and starts spreading rumors that Guy has been gambling. Guy, having promised his uncle that he would never speak about their arrangement, refuses to explain the truth to the Edmonstones. Like so many frustrating literary characters, he does the honorable thing even when it’s the thing that causes the most pain to the best people and helps the evil people get exactly what they wanted. The Edmonstones disown Guy and the engagement is broken off. As you can imagine, Phillip is extra smug about this even though his secret love affair with Laura continues.

Eventually, after much soul-searching and doing nice things for people, Guy manages to be such a magical angel person that the Edmonstones forgive him. He marries Amabelle and they go gallivanting about Europe, being happy and young on mountaintops in Italy and so on. During one excursion silly little Amabelle tries to reach a flower on a steep slope and almost falls to her death. Of course, our dashing hero saves her.

The honeymooners bump into Phillip, who is still a worthless twit. Guy mentions that they are altering their plans to go to some Italian city due to reports of terrible infectious disease. Wannabe alfa-male Phillip just can’t let Guy be right about anything. So, he insists on going there out of sheer obstinacy. The more Amy and Guy plead with him not to go, the more he has to prove.

Phillip goes to Deathtown and despite his profound egotism falls gravely ill. Guy, being the best person in the known world, follows Phillip to Deathtown and patiently nurses him back to health. Selfless Christian that he is, Guy risks his health to save the succubus who has spent his whole life trying to screw Guy over. The power of Guy’s goodness converts Phillip. He realizes that Guy has been really swell this whole time and that he, Phillip, has been truly repugnant. After finally gaining the approval of a male authority, Guy is free to succumb to the illness that Phillip gave him. Yep, he dies. Phillip lives. Twist! Phillip has been the Heir of Redclyffe all along.

Everyone in the world is sad. Amabelle has a baby. She never remarries, because she just can’t.

And that’s the most popular book of the Victorian Era.

You might like The Heir of Redclyffe if:

  • you’re a teenager with great reading comprehension skills.
  • you want to access your sentimental teenager side.

You might not like The Heir of Redclyffe if:

  • you just don’t have time for long novels of insignificant literary merit.

Final thoughts:

It’s not terrible. Revision: it’s not terribly written. There are some good lines in there. The book is a bit trite, overly sentimental and long, but it’s ok. Like most bestsellers, it’s fun, but lacks substance.

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