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Michael Godfrey, Illustration - Linda Kelly on Charlotte M. Yonge, The Little Duke

The Big-hearted Little Duke

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One of the consequences – and perhaps advantages – of being brought up during and just after the war was that due to a shortage of paper there were very few new books for children, so we were thrown back on the classics of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The fairy stories of Andrew Lang, The Cuckoo Clock, The Princess and Curdie, The Secret Garden – these opened up enchanted worlds. But I liked the historical novels best of all. I devoured the works of G. A. Henty, Conan Doyle, Baroness Orczy – what better introduction to the French Revolution than The Scarlet Pimpernel? – and, later, Walter Scott, whom I now find dauntingly long-winded. (Another effect of a wartime upbringing was that with little in the way of outside entertainment there was endless time for reading.)

My first introduction to historical fiction, however, came when I was too young for any of these. Richard of Normandy, the hero of Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Little Duke, is only 8 when the story begins. I must have been about the same age when I first read it and some of its scenes, with their rugged Norman settings, have remained with me ever since. My children loved it too, but when I came across it again the other day I wondered if I dared reread it. Would it be too moralistic, too old-fashioned? Why disturb my childhood memories? I soon found I needn’t have worried. The Little Duke is as exciting and moving as ever. And it is amazing how much historical knowledge the simply told story conveys.

Charlotte Mary Yonge was one of the most popular writers of the nineteenth century, outselling even Dickens and Thackeray in her time. Her novels for adults were usually dramas of family life, notable for their skilfully drawn characters and high moral tone: Keble, a leading figure in the Oxford Movement, was a neighbour and close friend. Many of her stories were touched by tragedy – consumption and o

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One of the consequences – and perhaps advantages – of being brought up during and just after the war was that due to a shortage of paper there were very few new books for children, so we were thrown back on the classics of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The fairy stories of Andrew Lang, The Cuckoo Clock, The Princess and Curdie, The Secret Garden – these opened up enchanted worlds. But I liked the historical novels best of all. I devoured the works of G. A. Henty, Conan Doyle, Baroness Orczy – what better introduction to the French Revolution than The Scarlet Pimpernel? – and, later, Walter Scott, whom I now find dauntingly long-winded. (Another effect of a wartime upbringing was that with little in the way of outside entertainment there was endless time for reading.)

My first introduction to historical fiction, however, came when I was too young for any of these. Richard of Normandy, the hero of Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Little Duke, is only 8 when the story begins. I must have been about the same age when I first read it and some of its scenes, with their rugged Norman settings, have remained with me ever since. My children loved it too, but when I came across it again the other day I wondered if I dared reread it. Would it be too moralistic, too old-fashioned? Why disturb my childhood memories? I soon found I needn’t have worried. The Little Duke is as exciting and moving as ever. And it is amazing how much historical knowledge the simply told story conveys. Charlotte Mary Yonge was one of the most popular writers of the nineteenth century, outselling even Dickens and Thackeray in her time. Her novels for adults were usually dramas of family life, notable for their skilfully drawn characters and high moral tone: Keble, a leading figure in the Oxford Movement, was a neighbour and close friend. Many of her stories were touched by tragedy – consumption and other diseases, now curable, were familiar visitors in most Victorian households. The death from a fever in Italy of Guy Morville, the self-sacrificing hero of her first great success, The Heir of Redclyffe, made strong men weep on the Crimean battlefields; almost everyone in his regiment had a copy, the author’s brother told her proudly. The Little Duke, published a year later, in 1854, was perhaps the best loved of her many historical romances for children. Its hero, the little duke of the title, is based on an actual character, Richard the Fearless, great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, and the story roughly follows the events of his early life. The scene is set in the first sentence: ‘On a bright autumn day, as long ago as the year 943, there was a great bustle in the Castle of Bayeux in Normandy.’ Richard’s father, William Longsword, arrives at the castle that night, to consult his barons and to visit his small son. It is the last time Richard sees his father for William is murdered by a treacherous ally shortly after, and Richard becomes Duke of Normandy. He is immediately placed in danger from the intrigues of his neighbouring rulers, above all his feudal overlord, the King of France, who is eager to acquire his lands and control his fate. The story is told from two points of view, that of Richard, a heedless small boy at the outset, and that of his counsellors, aware of the risk to Richard’s safety yet lacking the military strength to refuse when the King of France offers to bring him up with his own children at the French court. Richard is flattered by the King’s cajoling ways when they first meet, but the King’s tone changes once Richard is in his power, and the Queen is distant and unwelcoming. It is soon clear that Richard is a captive, his only protector at court the young squire Osmond, who has accompanied him to France. The King’s two sons are about Richard’s age. Lothaire, the elder, is vicious and cruel, though too cowardly to confront him directly. But Carloman, the younger, timid and sickly, appeals to Richard’s natural chivalry and the boys become devoted to each other. Yonge had a great feeling for children and was obviously used to having them around her. Richard is a recognizable small boy, generous and impetuous, but never sentimentalized or wiser than his age. We follow the development of his character in a hostile setting; from being the centre of attention, accustomed to getting his own way, he learns to endure neglect and ill treatment, anxiously watched over by Osmond who knows how precarious his position is. The mounting sense of danger and their escape from the castle of Laon, where the murderer of Richard’s father is welcomed by the King, are thrillingly described. Meanwhile Richard’s Norman elders weigh up the political odds of taking on the French. The Norman victory, thanks to the help of the Viking King of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth, turns the tables on the French king who is forced to give up his own two sons as hostages to the Normans. Richard’s generous treatment of the two princes, in contrast to that he received himself, will do little to change Lothaire’s character. The real victim is Carloman who, despite being lovingly treated by Richard and those around him, is too weak to survive his uprooting from the warmer climate of his native France. His death leaves Lothaire distraught and terrified that he too will die in Normandy. Richard is now 10, and his first independent action as Duke is to persuade the King of Denmark and his Norman counsellors to allow Lothaire to return to France. ‘Farewell, Richard,’ are Lothaire’s parting words; ‘If I lived with you I might be good like you. I shall never forget what you have done for me.’ Good has been returned for evil, and though the French will break their promises, the lessons of courage and forgiveness have been taught. Stirring stuff for an 8-year-old reader! ‘Perhaps,’ Proust once wrote, ‘there are no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believed we’d left without having lived them, those spent with a favourite book.’ The Little Duke was one of those favourite books for me: the seemingly uneventful hours spent reading it were more eventful than I knew. What a joy to return to it now and find its magic still unchanged.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Linda Kelly 2017


About the contributor

Linda Kelly has carried her interest in history into adult life. She has written a number of books on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century subjects including Women of the French Revolution, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and most recently Holland House.

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