“Heartsease, or The Brother’s Wife,” the Victorian Retelling of Austen’s “Mansfield Park”

Are you aware of the Victorian tale Heartsease, or the Brother’s Wife by Charlotte Mar8160955y Yonge? June Sturrock, editor of the Broadview Texts, gives us this summary of the story. “A very young, timid, but highly principled and religious girl from a large and humble family is taken into a rich, upper-class household, whose money comes mainly from large estates in the West Indies. In this cold and formal family, she is neglected, snubbed, and often made to feel like a vulgar and uneducated outsider, especially by the beautiful but passive lady of the house, by a self-possessed daughter of the house – and most of all by a spiteful, hostile, and mercenary aunt. One of the two sons shows her great kindness, but all the same, she suffers greatly through a number of trials, and is often unwell. She is brought into direct rivalry for the affections of her beloved with a richer, livelier, and better-known young woman. Eventually, after a series of family disasters, her strict adherence to her own ethical code places her as the moral center of her household, a household that is made more humane by her central role in it.

“This plot line will seem very familiar… However, it is a summary not for Mansfield Park, but of Heartsease, a novel published in 1854 by Charlotte Mary Yonge, the best-selling (and Austen loving) author of The Heir of Redclyffe…. Yonge’s pious mid-nineteenth-century rewriting of Mansfield Park elaborates on these subject [money, morals, and the West Indies] in a telling fashion. It sends Anglican missionaries off to the mismanaged West Indian properties belonging to its version of the Bertram family, and involves at least half-dozen other instances of gross financial mismanagement or corruption, as well as a series of both proposed and actual mercenary marriages. Evidently an astute, if biased, reader of this period saw both Austen’s West Indian references, and the related and insistent concern with false attitudes towards money, as significant moral aspects of Mansfield Park. Victorian readers and writers, that is, were prepared to view Austen’s fiction in terms of the morality of material and economic issues. After Yonge, however, these concerns were largely ignored by Austen’s readers for the next century or so. Not until the later twentieth century, and especially after the publication of Edward Said’s “Jane Austen and Empire” in 1989, was the West Indian question seen as being of much significance.” (Sturrock, June. “Money, Morals, and Mansfield Park: The West Indies Revisited, Persuasions. No. 26. 2006, pages 176 – 177.)

mwo220x200ipad_2_snap-pad220x200ffffffStella Waring provides us this plot summary of Heartsease: or The Brother’s Wife on The Charlotte M Yonge Fellowship Home PageCopyright © 2000-2010. 

Heartsease is Violet, the sixteen year old daughter of an ambitious solicitor, who married Arthur Martindale, a thoughtless young officer, without the knowledge and approval of his aristocratic family. This family consists of Lord and Lady Martindale, Arthur’s parents, Mrs Nesbit, his mother’s aunt, who dominates her niece and has a fortune which she holds over the head of the family. There is an elder brother, John, a semi-invalid who spends his winters abroad and has little to do with the rest of the family: apart from bad health, he has also fallen into a state of dispirited resignation since the death of his fiancée, Helen Fotheringham. There, is too, a sister, Theodora – an impulsive girl with strong feelings, who adores her brother Arthur.

“The reactions of the family are barely favourable – Mrs Nesbit is furious, Lord Martindale not happy but prepared to support the young couple, while Lady Martindale seems to have no strong feelings. Theodora, however, is angry and jealous. John goes on a mission of reconciliation to the young couple, and, to his surprised, is impressed by his new sister-in-law and comes out strongly in her defence. He plays a major part in strengthening Violet’s rather timid character by holding up to her the example of Helen Fotheringham, who had borne wearisome domestic trials with a brave and cheerful spirit.

“All this sounds very unpromising, and in the early years, Violet is very unhappy – not allowed to see her own family, disliked and distrusted by her in-laws, apart from John and his father, and neglected by her husband. She remains quiet and unassuming, fights her way through her misfortunes and eventually her influence permeates the family. The prime instance of this is Theodora – the ‘other’ heroine: high-principled but also wilful, jealous and intransigent. Under Violet’s guidance, Theodora gradually grows in self-knowledge and patience.

“It takes several family upheavals and disasters – including a fire which destroys the family mansion and kills off Mrs Nesbit – to make everyone aware of the beneficial effect Violet has come to exert on the whole family. In one of the later chapters, Percival Fotheringham, an important character and eventually the husband of Theodora, says this of Violet: ‘The history of these years is this … Everyone else has acted more or less idiotically . She has gone about softening, healing, stirring up the saving part of each one’s disposition …'”

heartseaseorbro00yonguoftPutnam’s monthly magazine of American literature, science and art. Volume 5, Issue 26, February 1855 : page 220 provides this review of Heartsease: “ The central idea of Heartsease (by the author of The Heir of Redcyffe) is the same with that of The Pride of Life; namely: the experience of a wife, married for her loveliness, into a sphere ‘above’ her own. Perhaps novels of this species are a sigti and outgrowth of the gradual equalization which seems to be slowly supervening upon the stratified texture of English society. But the book is of a much higher order, morally and artistically. than Lady Scott’s. The characters are exceedingly well drawn and distinguished. Violet is a true and lovely woman, operating upon her unstable husband, and her outrageously proud sister-in-law, Theodora, by forces beautiful and womanly, unconscious and still, but powerful and sure. Her own trials and changes, and those of her relatives, are very skillfully developed. The book, although not of the intense kind, bears evidence of very keen observation, and very true and careful thought; and as a work of art, must rank very high. There is one noticeable defect, in the management of the moral. This, which was apparently intended to permeate the whole texture of the narrative, is stuck in in unassimilated, uncomfortable lumps. We come upon them as upon an unexpected jolt ; with a start and an ‘oh !'” (CMYF)

In contrast, in September 2016, a reader on Amazon gave this review: Violet Moss, the apparent heroine of Heartsease, is barely 16 years old – pretty, humble, and ignorant – when she marries charming, handsome, selfish, and improvident Arthur Martindale. His upper-crust family at first deplore the match; but Violet is quickly befriended by Arthur’s kindhearted brother John; and, over the course of the story, she wins every heart with her sweetness, meekness, and religious faith. For me the real heroine of the book, however, is Arthur’s sister, Theodora, whose willfulness, passion, and benevolence make her a far more interesting character than the cloyingly sweet, submissive, and tediously pious Violet. Percy Fotheringham loves Theodora for her noble nature, despite its flaws, and determines to “tame the shrew”; but he finds, after they become engaged, that her “besetting sins” are more difficult to correct than he had imagined. They quarrel, and part; and both must come to recognise and conquer their own failings, before they can be happily reunited at the conclusion. The plot of Heartsease is at times dramatic, encompassing not only family and romantic difficulties, but illness, fire, and money troubles. Many readers will find the heavy-handed religious tone of the book irritating. It is also littered with racist epithets. (This person gave the story only 2 of 5 stars because of of the last two sentences. The book was written in 1854, and both the heavy-handed religious tone and the racial issues would be “contemporary” story telling.)

The full text of Heartsease can be found on Project Canterbury.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era, Victorian era and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Heartsease, or The Brother’s Wife,” the Victorian Retelling of Austen’s “Mansfield Park”

  1. Vesper says:

    Thank you for the review – found a free copy on gutenberg.org.

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