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A VL Classic, reposted from Autumn 2013
Published in 1880, but set in the late 1730s, Love and Life bears the subtitle ‘An Old Story in Eighteenth-Century Costume’, and that describes it well. The story is based on the tale of Eros and Psyche, and the style and atmosphere are that of the domestic and semi-Gothic novels of the late 18th century. Among many others, I could detect traces of Charlotte Smith, as well as Children of the Abbey by Regina Maria Roche – a wonderful novel of the 1790s, which was popular in the Victorian era but largely forgotten now, and about which I will write at a later date.
Major Delavie is the cousin – and poor dependent – of the grand Lady Belamour, and he has three daughters: the eldest, Betty, is homely but clever and sensible; Harriet is a bit capricious and silly, but still a nice girl; and the youngest, Aurelia, is a virtuous and beautiful maid of seventeen, and remarkably well-read for her tender years. Most of the novel centres on the fortunes of Aurelia, the Psyche in this story. Lady Belamour’s son Sir Amyas falls in love with her at first sight. Lady Belamour has other plans for her son, however, and practically blackmails Major Delavie into surrendering Aurelia into her care – to be placed in a secluded country seat to look after Lady Belamour’s neglected triplet daughters, as a sort of nursery governess. In these Gothic surroundings, she encounters the tragic recluse Mr Belamour, Sir Amyas’ uncle, who takes the innocent young girl under his wing, as he knows Lady Belamour to be up to no good. She, in turn, coaxes him out of his dark and mournful mode of life.
Romantic stratagems and various forms of captivity ensue. After the fashion of those late 18th-century novels, the young heroine suffers unjust suspicions and hardships that would break a weaker spirit, and credulity is sometimes taxed – as in the case of Mr Belamour’s age. He treads dangerously close to being the real Romantic Hero of this novel, so Yonge tries to emphasise his status as an Elderly Person… in his early forties. He has white hair, but then, so does Anderson Cooper. That’s not enough to turn him into a sufficiently unthreatening Elderly Person, and the author seems well aware of this.
Lady Belamour is a wonderfully well-drawn and manipulative villainess, striking as a goddess in her role as Venus. Almost all the men in the novel fall under her spell, and it seems scarcely credible to the reader, too, that this beautiful 18th-century socialite could be capable of such evil acts. Other characters are mostly either good, but convincingly so, or less good but still human in shades of grey. The one disgustingly evil character is a Jewish woman called Mrs Darke. Had her Jewishness not been mentioned, she would have been just a deliciously horrid creature, but as it was, Mrs Darke with her emphasised Jewishness was the only thing about this novel that left a bad taste in my mouth. Thank goodness Mr Belamour’s black servant is a thoroughly good man – though predictably simple-minded, and rather cringe-inducingly named Jumbo.
‘Pastiche’ needn’t be a dirty word, if it’s done this well. Yonge’s descriptions and details of 18th-century are executed with great assurance, and I think today’s historical novelists might do well to take a page or two out of her book. The characters’ sensibilities may be closer to the fictional landscape of 1797 than that of 1737, but no matter – Yonge makes the 18th century come to life, and I learnt many fun details from this novel that I’d never heard before; such as young ladies sitting under a tablecloth to shield their powdered hairdos for the night’s ball. The details are rather piled on in the rustic idyll of the beginning, with its cowslip wine, bread-and-butter breakfasts and white-washed interiors, but they later give way to the intricate plotting.
Love and Life is lively, engaging, and well-plotted, with a charming cast of supporting characters and beautifully realised settings. It is undoubtedly a Christian novel – Yonge was a devoted Anglo-Catholic – but the moral is likeable and warm-hearted, not the kind of homily you’d perhaps expect from a religious Victorian novelist. It wouldn’t have taken much to elevate Love and Life from an enjoyable novel to a truly great one in my estimation; a bit more personality in the young lovers (Sir Amyas especially) wouldn’t have been amiss, perhaps.
The title derives from an inscription on a tombstone, which echoes as a sober but comforting note throughout the novel:
Love is strong as Death.
Sorrow not as others that have no Hope.
For the full meaning, you’d have to read the book.