FICTIONAL FOREMOTHERS BY WOMEN, 1

Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000)

 

Charlotte M Yonge and Dr Janet Brownlow

Charlotte Yonge

Charlotte M Yonge (1823–1901)

 

Charlotte Yonge was a prolific Victorian novelist whose work is little read today, probably because of its open intention to edify young women.

In ‘Magnum Bonum; or Mother Carey's Brood’ (1879), Janet is the oldest of a large ‘brood’ of children known as ‘Mother Carey's Chickens’ because of their mother Caroline's nickname (it is also a name for the Stormy Petrel birds). The medical father, Dr Brownlow, when dying, left instructions to Carey that his secret scientific discovery, ‘Magnum Bonum’, should be given to the most deserving son. Janet overhears this and feels left out.

Janet is plain, a tomboy, and studious, and is at first forbidden to ‘meddle with medical books’. Nevertheless, when she comes of age, she announces to her mother her wish to study medicine. She asks why she should not be worthy of the ‘Magnum Bonum’ as none of her brothers looked like taking up medicine. Her mother refuses, saying that a course of experiments would be necessary to complete the process, and she did not think that would be possible for a woman.

In the course of time, however, when the family becomes more prosperous, Janet gains her wish to study and take a degree in medicine in Zurich.  Later, Carey finds that Janet has taken the ‘Magnum Bonum’ from her desk, and demands it back – she has not changed her mind. Nor does she after meeting Janet’s new husband, a Professor Demetrius Hermann, whom she finds dubious and self-seeking. Subsequently the men of the family give the Professor £500 and he goes off to America with Janet. The second son, Jock, qualifies well medically and his mother hands him the Magnum Bonum.

In the USA Professor Hermann gives paid lectures in his flowery way, for which Janet provides the science. He hints at the ‘Magnum Bonum’ and also uses elements of it, but not with understanding, and exaggerates his successes. Eventually he uses it dangerously on a young woman  who dies as a consequence. He flees from the townsfolk, leaving Janet with a dying child. She changes her name, and offers her services to a yellow fever outbreak in Saratoga, where she saves the life of her heroically ill and exhausted doctor brother Jock, reconciles remorsefully with her mother, and then dies herself. After recovering, Jock becomes engaged to a general’s daughter.

Mother Carey is content...

 

Zurich University Hospital

Zurich University Hospital

Comment

Doctor Janet is not portrayed as a sympathetic person (studiousness and ambition not being desirable qualities in a young woman apparently), nor is her fate regarded as a tragedy. She is more of an ‘awful warning’. Yet, there seems to be something of the author in her, and there is no other emotional focus apart from the elaborate domestic toings and froings seen from her wise mother’s point of view.  Charlotte Yonge’s writing was extremely popular in her day, but is not in fashion now.