In its day, The Daisy Chain was extremely popular. Published in 1856 and very much in the style of the day, Charlotte M Yonge's novel reinforced all of the mores of mid-Victorian England. Religion underpins the lives of the characters, along with respect for parents and other authority figures, women and girls dedicated to making life easier and more rewarding for boys and men, self-effacement, modesty, humility, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, stifling of one's yearnings, and absolute honesty.
The story begins with the death in a carriage accident of the mother of the May family, and the permanent crippling of the eldest daughter, Margaret. Dr May is left with 11 children to raise on his own, relying very heavily on his elder daughters to guide the younger ones as their mother would have done.
The plot is thready, with episodes concerning crises in the lives of the May children arising and being dealt with in serial fashion. Bullying at school, over-reaching for a scholarship, the surprising choice of husband for one of the girls, the founding of a school for the children of brickmakers, and eventually a church in their neighborhood, all are examined and analyzed and the most honest, self-effacing, and generous solution discovered. Then the story moves on.
The novel's primary character, the child whose development we are most interested in, is Ethelred May, in her early teens when he mother dies, and a keen scholar, actually tutoring her brothers who are in school while she teaches herself at home. She is clearly more intelligent and suited for scholarship than they are and she loves the Latin and Greek she is immersed in.
Scholarship is Ethel's gift and the reader's heart breaks as she eventually convinces herself that she must sacrifice it to become a real woman, focused on helping the others in her family and denying herself that which she is best at and loves most. This was vastly appealing to the Victorian reader, and influenced many other novels of the time. The modern reader's reaction ranges from heartbreak to fury as Ethel turns from her books and instead applies her intelligence and hard work to teaching Sunday school, running the household, and giving wise advice to her siblings.
The author, Charlotte M Yonge, never married, and she devoted herself and the proceeds from her many and popular novels to just the undertakings she praises in the novel: bringing education and religion to the working classes, missionaries, and devotion to the Church of England and especially the Oxford Movement. (John Keble was a neighbor and friend.)
Yonge donated large amounts of money for the missionary movement in the South Seas, and she sends some of her characters in The Daisy Chain as missionaries to New Zealand and Melanesia. The boys, influenced by Ethel and their eldest brother, Richard, undertake careers that they are not entirely convinced will be satisfying to them in order to do what their religion and family loyalty expects of them.
The Daisy Chain has a sequel, The Trial, published in 1864, which I discovered after working my way through the 661 pages of the novel. Its 416 pages bring the story of the May family to more than 1,000 pages, all of which we are told were eagerly read and re-read by Yonge's admirers, which included George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, and Trollope.