Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/Charles Reade

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CHARLES READE.


Mr. Charles Reade is the youngest son of the late John Reade, Esquire, of Ipsden House, Oxfordshire. Mr. Reade is an Oxford man (he took his B.A. degree in 1835), and is a Doctor of Civil Law, and a fellow of Magdalen College in that university. He was called to the bar by the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn in 1843.

Charles Reade' s earliest stories were followed in 1856 by that powerful work of his genius, 'It is Never too Late to Mend.' The book created a great sensation: was read by everybody: and effected its author's purpose—viz, compelled the public to insist that the Model Prisons' system should be looked searchingly into.

From the publication of 'Peg Woffington,' Charles Reade has continued to apply his great talents to the work of writing novels and dramas: with what success, every reader of fiction knows.

The annexed complete list of his writings will give a correct idea of the extent of his productions in the difficult field of the Literature of Imagination, in which he has chosen to exercise his genius.


Stories in order of production.
vols.
Peg Woffington 1
Christie Johnstone 1
Clouds and Sunshine GullBrace.svg 1
Propria quæ Maribus
Art
It is Never too Late to Mend 3
Love me Little, Love me Long 2
Autobiography of a Thief GullBrace.svg[1] 1
Jack of all Trades
White Lies 3
Eighth Commandment 1
The Cloister and the Hearth 4
Hard Cash 3
Griffith Gaunt 3
Foul Play[2] 3
Put Yourself in his Place 3
A Terrible Temptation 3
A Simpleton.
Graphic Christmas Supplement.
Charles Reade.jpg

SOMETHING LIKE A NOVELIST.

Dramas in order of production.
The Ladies' Battle Translation.
The Village Tale Three-act drama.
The Lost Husband Four-act drama.
Masks and Faces[3] Two-act comedy.
Gold Drama, five acts.
Two Loves and a Life[3] Drama, four acts.
The King's Rival[3] Comedy, five acts.
The First Printer[3] Drama, three acts.
The Courier of Lyons Drama, three acts.
Honour before Titles Drama, three acts.
It is Never too Late to Mend Drama, five acts.
Griffith Gaunt Drama, five acts.
Foul Play Drama, five acts.
Dora Pastoral drama, three acts.
The Double Marriage Drama, five acts.
Put Yourself in his Place Drama, five acts.
The Robust Invalid Comedy, three acts.
Shilly Shally[4] Comedy, three acts.

This list shows that Charles Reade is the author, or joint-author—in four plays and one novel—of nineteen different stories, ranging in length from one-third of a volume to four volumes: and of eighteen dramatic works.

Now it certainly argues some want of real knowledge or study in the critics of the day, that they cannot assign his place, whatever that may be, to this writer. They can place inferior authors, but they really and honestly have no notion where this man stands, either as a novelist, or dramatist, or both. Perhaps it may tend to clear this absolute fog enveloping the judgment of the critics, if we descend from the indefinite to the definite, and compare him with a writer of acknowledged excellence. We are so fortunate as to possess in this country a novelist who, if contemporary criticism were to be trusted, is the greatest writer of fiction the world ever saw. With regard to Shakspeare, contemporary criticism has left but two remarks in print, both of them unfavourable. Corneille was so often lashed, and so little praised, that he has left a line behind him to celebrate the fact:

'J'ai peu des voix pour moi, mais je les ai sans brigue.'

Molière was denounced as a plagiarist; Voltaire was well lashed; Scott did not quite escape; Bulwer has been severely criticised; even Dickens was always roughly handled in certain respectable prints.

But George Eliot is faultless. This is the sober and often repeated verdict of every quarterly, monthly, and daily critic in the empire, except of one writer, who tried to stem the torrent of adulation in the 'Quarterly Review,' and failed because, being no critic, he selected certain of that excellent writer's beauties, and held them up for faults.

Now perhaps some people will open their eyes if we tell them that this prodigious writer often borrows ideas from Charles Reade, and sometimes improves them, sometimes bungles them. But, as in matters of art it is sometimes kind to open people's eyes, we shall assure you that this is so; and moreover that in a single instance the two writers have come into competition on fair terms, and the comparison is so unfavourable to the favourite, that the said comparison, though obvious, has always been dexterously avoided.

In 'It is Never too Late to Mend,' published in 1856, one of the situations is as follows: Good Mr. Eden, having to deal with a hardened thief, goes down on his knees in that thief's cell, and prays aloud for him; and softens him a little. In 'Adam Bede,' good Dinah goes on her knees in the cell of Hetty, an impenitent criminal; and softens her a little.

Reade uses few words, after his kind; and Eliot uses many words, after her kind. But amplification is not invention: the inventor and the only inventor of that famous scene in 'Adam Bede' is Charles Reade.

Mr. Eden preaches a sermon in the gaol. The author shuns the beaten track, and gives the very words of the sermon.

George Eliot profits by this, and gives her Dinah the very words of a sermon. And in one respect she goes beyond her original: for her sermon is fuller, and has a distinct merit, being composed—with great heart and beauty of—homely English, often Saxon, and nearly always monosyllabic. But she falls behind in one thing—she makes Dinah preach her sermon to strangers; and that shows a want of constructive art.

Charles Reade has since returned to his own invention, and has made his Rhoda Somerset preach a remarkable sermon, at which those personages are present whom that sermon hits. This is art. A sermon, preached to the reader only, is a mere excrescence on the narrative. It is a wart, though it may not be a blot.

The only situation of any power in 'The Mill on the Floss'—viz. the heroine and her lover drifting loose in a boat, and being out together all night—is manifestly taken from the similar situation in 'Love me Little, Love me Long.' But Eliot's treatment of the borrowed incident is petty and womanish by comparison with her model.

In 'Felix Holt,' the ground is admirably laid for strong situations : but in the actual treatment only two come out dramatically, and they are both borrowed. The young gentleman going to strike his steward, and being met by 'I am your Father;' and the heroine going into the witness-box to give evidence for her lover. The former is borrowed from an old novel, and the latter from Charles Reade's 'Hard Cash;' and it may be instructive to show how the inventor and the imitator deal with the idea.

We print in parallel columns quotations of the evidence given in court by both novelists' heroines.

HARD CASH.
(Vol. iii. p. 294, 1863.)
BY CHARLES READE.
FELIX HOLT THE RADICAL.
(Vol. iii. p. 228, 1866.)
BY GEORGE ELIOT.


Julia Dodd entered the box, and a sunbeam seemed to fill the court. She knew what to do: her left hand was gloved, but her white right hand bare. She kissed the book; and gave her evidence in her clear, mellow, melting voice: gave it reverently and modestly, for to her the court was a church. She said how long she had been acquainted with Alfred, and how his father was adverse, and her mother had thought it was because they did not pass for rich, and had told her they were rich; and with this she produced David's letter, and she also swore to having met Alfred and others carrying her father in a swoon from his father's very door. She deposed to Alfred's sanity on her wedding-eve, and on the day his recapture was attempted.

Saunders, against his own judgment, was instructed to cross-examine her; and, without meaning it, he put a question which gave her deep distress.

There was no blush upon her face: she stood, divested of all personal considerations, whether of vanity or shyness. Her clear voice sounded as it might have done if she had been making a confession of faith. She began and went on without query or interruption. Every face looked grave and respectful.

'I am Esther Lyon, the daughter of Mr. Lyon, the Independent minister at Treby, who has been one of the witnesses for the prisoner. I knew Felix Holt well. On the day of the election at Treby, when I had been much alarmed by the noises that reached me from the main street, Felix Holt came to call upon me. He knew that my father was away, and he thought that I should be alarmed by the sounds of disturbance. It was about the middle of the day, and he came to tell me that the disturbance was quieted, and that the streets were nearly emptied. But he said he feared that the men would collect again after drinking, and that something worse might happen later in the day. And he was in much sadness at this thought. He stayed a little while, and then he left me. He was very melancholy. His mind was full of great resolutions, that came from his kind feeling towards others. It was the last thing he would have done to join in riot or to hurt any man, if he could have helped it. His nature is very noble: he is tender-hearted; he could never have had any intention that was not brave and good.'

There was something so naive and beautiful in this action of Esther's, that it conquered every low or petty suggestion even in the commonest minds.

'Are you now engaged to the plaintiff?'

She looked timidly round, and saw Alfred, and hesitated. The serjeant pressed her politely, but firmly.

'Must I reply to that?' she said piteously.

'If you please.'

'Then, no. Another misfortune has now separated him and me for ever.'

'What is that, pray?'

'My father is said to have died at sea; and my mother thinks he is to blame.'

The Judge to Saunders. What on earth has this to do with Hardie against Hardie?

Saunders. You are warmly interested in the plaintiff's success?

Julia. O yes, sir.

(Colt, aside to Garrow. The fool is putting his foot into it: there's not a jury in England that would give a verdict to part two interesting young lovers.)

Saunders. You are attached to him?

Julia. Ah, that I do!

This burst, intended for poor Alfred, not the court, baffled cross-examination and grammar and everything else. Saunders was wise and generous, and said no more.

Colt cast a glance of triumph, and declined to reëxamine. He always let well alone. The Judge, however, evinced a desire to trace the fourteen thousand pounds from Calcutta; but Julia could not help him: that mysterious sum had been announced by letter as about to sail; and then no more was heard about it till Alfred accused his father of having it. All endeavours to fill this hiatus failed. However Julia, observing that in courts material objects affect the mind most, had provided herself with all the pièces de conviction she could find, and she produced her father's empty pocket-book, and said, when he was brought home senseless, this was in his breast-pocket.

'Hand it up to me,' said the Judge. He examined it, and said it had been in the water.

'Captain Dodd was wrecked off the French coast,' suggested Mr. Saunders.

'My learned friend had better go into the witness-box, if he means to give evidence,' said Mr. Colt.

'You are very much afraid of a very little truth,' retorted Saunders.

The Judge stopped this sham rancontre, by asking the witness whether her father had been wrecked. She said, 'Yes.'

'And that is how the money was lost,' persisted Saunders.

'Possibly,' said the Judge.

'I'm darned if it was,' said Joshua Fullalove composedly.

Instantly, all heads were turned in amazement at this audacious interruption to the soporific decorum of an English court. The transatlantic citizen received this battery of eyes with complete imperturbability.

Fertile situations are the true cream of fiction; these once supplied, any professional writer can find words.

Now, the fertile situation in 'Felix Holt' was supplied by Charles Reade. The true literary patent is in him. His is the witness with the clear mellow voice who gives her evidence as if before God—and that witness a young lady who loves the man for whom she gives evidence, he being present. To be sure, George Eliot's witness shows a disposition to argue the case; but that is no improvement on the original.

We will now call attention to another instance of George Eliot's imitation of Charles Reade.

In his little story, 'Clouds and Sunshine,' Charles Reade uses this expression—'the thunder of the horses' feet drawing the wagon into the barn.'

His unlucky imitator pounces on his 'thunder' and his 'wagon' and deals with them thus: 'The thunder of the wagon coming up the hill.' Now the iron shoes of a team going over the wooden floor of a barn do come the nearest to thunder of anything we ever heard; but a wagon coming up a hill does not thunder; the most prominent sound is the creaking of the slow wheels. This, then, is unintelligent imitation on a smaller scale.

In 1860 Mr. Reade produced a mediæval novel with an idea-ed title, 'The Cloister and the Hearth.'

His faithful imitator soon followed suit with a medieval novel, whose title was unidea-ed—'Romola.'

Here the two writers met on an arena that tests the highest quality they both pretend to—Imagination.

What is the result? In 'The Cloister and the Hearth' you have the middle ages, long and broad. The story begins in Holland, and the quaint Dutch figures live; it goes through Germany, and Germany lives; it picks up a French arbalétrier, and the medieval French soldier is alive again. It goes to Home, and the Roman men and women live again.

Compare with this the narrow canvas of 'Romola,' and the faint colours. The petty politics of mediæval Florence made to sit up in the grave, but not to come out of it. The gossip of modern Florence turned on to medieval subjects and called mediaeval gossip. Romola herself is a high-minded, delicate-minded, sober-minded lady of the nineteenth century, and no other. She has a gentle but tame and non-mediæval affection for a soft egotist who belongs to that or any age you like. One great historical figure, Savonarola, is taken, and turned into a woman by a female writer: sure sign imagination is wanting. There is a dearth of powerful incidents, though the time was full of them, as 'The Cloister and the Hearth' is full, of them. There you have the broad features of that marvellous age, so full of grand anomalies: the fine arts and the spirit that fed them; the feasts, the shows, the domestic life, the laws, the customs, the religion; the roads and their perils; the wild beasts disputing the civilised continent with man, man uppermost by day, the beasts by night; the hostelries, the robbers, the strange vows; the convents, shipwrecks, sieges, combats, escapes; a robbers' slaughter-house burnt, and the fire lighting up trees clad with snow. And through all this a deep current of true love—passionate, yet pure—ending in a medieval poem: the battle of ascetic religion against our duty to our neighbour, which was the great battle of the time that shook religious souls. But perhaps we shall be told this comparison is beside the mark; that a dearth of incidents is better than a surfeit, and that it is in the higher art of drawing characters George Eliot stands supreme, and Charles Reade fills an insignificant place. We will abide by that test in this comparison.

What genuine mediæval characters, to be compared with those of Walter Scott, for instance, live in the memory after reading the two works we are comparing?

'The Cloister and the Hearth' is a gallery of such portraits, painted in full colours to the life. 'Romola' is a portfolio of delicate studies. 'Romola' leaves on the memory: 1, a young lady of the nineteenth century, the exact opposite of a mediaeval woman; 2, the soft egotist, an excellent type; 3, an innocent little girl; 4, Savonarola emasculated. The other characters talk nineteen to the dozen, but they are little more than voluble shadows.

'The Cloister and the Hearth' fixes on the mind: 1, the true lover, hermit and priest, Gerard; 2, the true lover, medieval and northern, Margaret of Sevenbergen; 3, Dame Catherine, economist, gossip, and mother; the dwarf with his big voice; 5, the angelic cripple, little Kate; 6, the Burgomaster; 7, the Burgundian soldier, a character hewn out of mediæval rock; 8, the gaunt Dominican, hard, but holy; 9, the patrician monk, in love with heathenism, but safe from fiery fagots because he believed in the Pope; 10, the patrician Pope, in love with Plutarch, and sated with controversy; 11, the Princess Clælia, a true medieval; 12, the bravo's wife, a link between ancient and mediaeval Rome.

Philip of Burgundy does but cross the scene; yet he leaves his mark. Margaret Van Eyck is but flung upon the broad canvas; yet that single figure so drawn has suggested three volumes to another writer.

You can find a thousand Romolas in London, because she is drawn from observation, and is quite out of place in a medieval tale. But you cannot find the characters of 'The Cloister and the Hearth,' because they are creations.

When 'The Cloister and the Hearth' was first published, the 'Saturday Review,' staggered by the contents of the book, yet bound by the sacred tie of habit to say something against it, summed it up as inferior on the whole to Walter Scott. But nobody has ever compared 'Romola' to Walter Scott. Adulation, however fulsome, has evaded this comparison, because it would have provoked derision; and no reviewer, until this article was written, ever had the courage to compare 'Romola' with 'The Cloister and the Hearth.' Yet any one who has not made that comparison honestly and fairly knows little of Charles Reade, and cannot possibly assign him his true place amongst living writers of fiction.

Of 'The Cloister and the Hearth' it is impossible to speak too well. The author's perfect knowledge of mediaeval life, just before the time of Erasmus, is wonderful. The plot is full of incident of the newest and most striking, yet most probable and natural sort: the characters live, and seem to us real persons we know well: the France, Italy, Holland, and Germany of the time of Erasmus are faithfully reproduced. The interest never flags: there is always something to command attention and excite curiosity. 'The Cloister and the Hearth' is one of the most scholarlike and learned, as well as one of the most artistic and beautiful, works of fiction in any language. This splendid production can only be compared with the best books of one author Walter Scott. And in all things it is as good as 'Kenilworth' and 'Ivanhoe:' in some points it is better. Although we place two of Charles Reade's books first in their respective classes—'Foul Play' in the class of novels called sensational, and 'The Cloister and the Hearth' in that of the purely imaginative—yet his books, taken throughout, are of more even merit than those of almost any other novelist. They are written in English as pure, as simple, and as truly Saxon as any this century has produced: in a literary style—nervous, vigorous, and masculine—with which the most captious and partisan critic cannot find any fault.

Read him: resign yourself to the magic spell of his genius, and be lifted above the cares of everyday life into the regions of imagination, peopled by his real creations. You may be trusted then to draw your own conclusions as to the merit of his books.

By the million readers of the time to come, Bulwer, Dickens, Thackeray, and Reade will be handed down to fame together in every English-speaking country.

To the scholar and the man of culture, 'The Cloister and the Hearth' may possibly be dearer than the humorous and wonderful creations of Dickens's fertile genius, or the life-like characters and satirical digressions of Thackeray.

  1. Under title of 'Cream.'
  2. With Dion Boucicault.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 With Tom Taylor
  4. Founded on Trollope's novel.