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Title:  Charles Reade
Author: E. W. Hornung
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1800251h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  April 2018
Most recent update: April 2018

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Charles Reade*

E. W. Hornung

* Charles Reade: A Memoir. By Charles L. Reade and the Rev.Compton Reade. Chapman & Hall. Two Volumes. 1887. Charles Reade as I knew Him. By John Coleman. Trehearne & Co. 1903. Charles Reade’s Note-books at the London Library.

CHARLES READE was the youngest son of a country gentleman, one of the Reades of Ipsden, in Oxfordshire, where he was born twelve months before Waterloo. His schooling was private and ferocious; but at seventeen, thanks to an English Essay well above the average, he gained a Demyship at Magdalen, and four years later was elected a Fellow of the college. From that moment he considered himself condemned to perpetual celibacy, and observed the letter of an oppressive law inflexibly; yet the other celibates did not altogether approve of him.

In truth there never can have been a Don less donnish, or one less in sympathy with the accepted type. Did he not depict himself, in A Terrible Temptation, as “looking like a great fat country farmer” and “walking like a sailor”? Had not his colleagues of the high-table “some of the thickest skulls I have ever encountered”? Not that he saw much of them, unless it was in the year 1851, when Charles Reade was Vice-President of Magdalen. Thereafter his chief use for Oxford was to go down and shut himself up in his rooms to write his book or ransack the Bodleian for the facts on which his books were built. In earlier days he would absent himself altogether on alien enterprises, some of them the reverse of academic. He was called to the Bar, but did not appear in court; he had fought a Publisher and lost, though represented by distinguished counsel; then he characteristically conducted a second case himself, won it, but was disallowed his costs. Medicine he tried at Edinburgh, but abandoned upon fainting in the dissecting-room; the Church was considered, though less favourably, under strong domestic pressure. There are traces of all three phases in Reade’s novels; most of them contain a lawyer, a doctor, and an ecclesiastic, all drawn with some inside knowledge of their respective jobs.

But it was not only with the learned professions that this fickle Fellow flirted; the six hundred a year his college paid him left a margin for financial ventures as incongruous as they were surreptitious. At one time he was in business partnership with a French fiddle-dealer in the purlieus of Soho, and at another with an Edinburgh fishwife in a fleet of herring-boats. Both ventures were rooted in romance. All his days Reade was a virtuoso in the violin—a fair performer, but a great connoisseur—and his erudite but fascinating articles on Cremona fiddles, his speciality, are worth all the money he can have dropped on the craze. As for the fishwife, she is still deliciously alive as the canny heroine of Christie Johnstone, possibly the best Scotch story ever written by an Englishman. Reade’s women are too often either shrews or sheep, if not both in turn, but this comely creature trips off his pen as she came into his early life, unencumbered by the knowing generalities bestowed upon so many of her successors.

Not that Christie Johnstone was a first novel; it had been preceded by Peg Woffington, but only by a matter of months, so that we may look upon the pair as heading the procession of Reade’s books in double harness. They had everything in common except a theme: both were one-volume novels, written with extraordinary freshness and dramatic vigour, albeit with certain dubious eccentricities of style. Peg Woffington suffers from being the narrative version of a more famous comedy, Masks and Faces, in which Reade had the skilled assistance of Tom Taylor. The best scenes depend on stage effects, fall flat without them; but the characters of Triplet and of Peg, Pomander and the Vanes, are lightly and strongly drawn, while as a minor gem Colley Cibber is possibly no loser by the book. Here, at any rate, was a new novelist with whom the world of letters would have to reckon. Yet the two books had no successors for some years, and they were years that might have daunted a less valiant spirit, for it was over these books that Reade took the law of Bentley, with results already given, and on balance a loss to the author of £150. He was now nearly forty, and it seemed still uncertain that he would settle down even to literature. But with all his vagaries he had been for years preparing himself, on a system all his own, for the pursuit he had at last taken up. “I studied the great art of Fiction closely,” he declares, “for fifteen years before I wrote a line.” But he had written at least fifteen plays, most of which remained, and still remain, unacted. One of them, however, a topical melodrama on the then alluring subject of the Australian diggings, eventually enjoyed a short run at Drury Lane under the auspicious name of Gold.

In the first act of Gold the leading character, an habitual criminal, is taken up for picking pockets; transported to Australia, he reappears in worthier case, to work out his moral and pecuniary salvation in some thrilling scenes before the finish. As first mentioned in a spasmodic diary, the piece was to be “a great original play” and “make a great hit”; but long before its acceptance, encouraged, no doubt, by the literary success of Peg Woffington, Reade was busy turning Gold also into a novel. His plan was to split up his melodrama into a mere frame for a terrific picture of prison life in England at that time—the new inspiration sprang from “a noble passage in the Times of September 7th or 8th, 1853”—and he went to work with grim gusto on lines long since laid down, but hardly tested hitherto.

June 20. The plan I propose to myself in writing stories will, I see, cost me undeniable labour. I propose never to guess where I can know. For instance, Tom Robinson is in gaol. I have therefore been to Oxford Gaol and visited every inch, and shall do the same at Reading. Having also collected material in Durham Gaol, whatever I write about Tom Robinson’s gaol will therefore carry, I hope, a physical exterior of truth. . . .

My story must cross the water to Australia, and plunge after that into a gold mine. To be consistent with myself I ought to cross-examine at the very least a dozen men that have farmed, dug, or robbed in that land. If I can get hold of two or three that have really been in it, I think I could win the public ear by these means. Failing these I must read books and letters and do the best I can. Such is the mechanism of a novel by Charles Reade. . . .

Now, I know exactly what I am worth. If I can work the above great system there is enough of me to make one of the writers of the day; without it, NO, NO.

Distrust of a fine imagination was already a perverse yet endearing foible in a man of Reade’s outward and combative self-esteem; but concrete fact was not as yet the fetish he was to make of it in after years. Nor was it in It is Never too Late to Mend that documentary evidence became his master. He had explored the prisons in person as he describes; and it was the prison part of his book that stirred his countrymen, if it was not the only part to “win the public ear.” In York Castle he had been locked up in “the black hole” so long that another five minutes, he felt, would have driven him mad; and none of the prison chapters is more poignant than the one depicting Robinson’s agony in the dark cell, unless it be the terrible little chapter devoted to a young suicide’s last night on earth; and that is nothing if not imaginative. Four years this big book took to write, and after nearly threescore and ten it remains unapproached by any convict story written in English. For the Term of his Natural Life is a closer and more accurate study of transportation, written within easy reach of the scenes described; but Marcus Clarke, working on Reade’s lines, has nothing like Reade’s vivacious sense of character and situation. His superhuman hero is made to endure in his own person the authentic agonies of a number of extreme cases. Reade knew better than to make Tom Robinson even the chief sufferer under the system he laid bare: nor is he by any means the injured innocent of the typical convict yarn, nor yet the villain-hero of the picturesque romance, but just a flashy, bumptious, cunning, altogether realistic scamp. Those two hundred pages, though an ugly hump on the body of the book, are the most powerful mat Charles Reade ever wrote. If “a physical exterior of truth” was indeed his modest aim, the furious shame of every decent reader is his achievement.

In prison Robinson is human and himself from first to last. His reformation is a real change of heart, poignant and precarious as in life itself. He is not less excellent in the lively episode of his partial relapse in Sydney. In later phases, as the historic convict who discovered the first gold in Australia and as uncrowned king of the earliest diggings, he will appeal less to the sophisticated reader of to-day; but as moral nouveau riche he is still true enough to type. The very full and vigorous account of the great gold-rush must have been a revelation to many who took part in it, for the evidence has been sifted and set out by that rare combination, a judicial yet imaginative mind. It is the work of a great narrator with a genius for assembling diverse facts as the machinery of his tale.

It is interesting to note that the proverbial title, precursor of many with less point in them, was a lively satisfaction to Martin Tupper, who wrote to congratulate the novelist “on having made popular so good and true a refrain as It is Never too Late to Mend.” It is also said to have been a prophetic double entendre on the part of Reade at his own expense, he being forty-two and something of an all-round failure when the one book brought him fame and fortune. Its immediate successors cannot have added much to either. White Lies, written as a serial for the London Journal and now better known as The Double Marriage, was again the narrative version of a hitherto unacted play; and there are sure signs that Love me Little, Love me Long was yet such another. The latter story, though a first installment of Hard Cash, is heavy comedy with hardly any sensational relief. This was a dark hour for the author’s now innumerable admirers, but Mr. Tupper could have told them what it meant.

In 1859 Messrs. Bradbury & Evans had started Once a Week to fill the place of Household Words, which had come to an end as the climax of a painful chapter in the life of Dickens. The new journal, making due departure from the old, went in for “names,” including Tennyson’s in the first number, and for illustrations by Millais and the Punch artists. The opening serial was written by Charles Reade and illustrated by Charles Keene, whose work he considered “paltry” and “far below the level of the penny Press.” But Reade’s eye for a drawing was very much his own, and may have been jaundiced in this instance by a running squabble with the editor on other grounds. That despot was soon being “very annoying, tampering with my text and so on,” and, when told “he must distinguish between anonymous contributions and those in which an approved author takes the responsibility by signing his own name,” duly refusing to “resign his editorial function.” The quarrel is as old as periodical literature and as new as last month’s magazines. Reade ended it by ending his story—in an installment as vindictively abrupt, bald, and unconvincing as the hand of embittered craftsman could make it. You see the editor mop his brow, for the story had arrived on delicate ground, had perhaps elicited the stray anonymous expostulation which carries more weight than the tacit approval of ninety-and-nine just subscribers. But I doubt whether his surviving readers have even now lived long enough to forgive the man; for week after week they had had Charles Reade at something better than Charles Reade’s best; week after week they had been making hot love and fighting or flying for their Victorian lives with the young foreign couple of a mediaeval romance; and now it was all over until, two years later, A Great Fight, as the discontinued story had been called, was fought to a finish in The Cloister and the Hearth.

On a classic that is also a “best seller” to this day, as most publishers of popular reprints can testify, there is very little left to say. Three generations of sober and accredited critics have praised this book in terms of just extravagance; where I venture to think that many have been unjust is in praising it at the expense of Reade’s other books. Granted it is his one great book, and the best of the others is but “big,” yet the Cloister and the Hearth stands as deliberately aloof from the rest of Reade as A Tale of Two Cities stands deliberately aloof from the rest of Dickens; if greater heights were reached, higher ground had been chosen; it is a breezy plateau of the past after the dense and tortuous valley of a man’s own times. Now a novel ought to be weighed against the same sort of novel by any other hand rather than against an entirely different kind of novel by the same hand. But this is a point which novelists perhaps see clearer, and certainly see redder, than other people. Reade was furious with anybody who suggested that The Cloister and the Hearth was his masterpiece. “If that s your opinion,” he once retorted, with Johnsonian savagery, “you ought to be in a lunatic asylum”; and his humblest follower, with some stray triumph but many a hard-wrought failure to his name, will enter into Charles Reade’s feelings.

Yet I suppose the fact does remain that his historical novel, whether better worth doing or not, was indubitably better done than his modern novels. The truth is that nearly all his novels were written on the system usually reserved and best adapted for the writing of historical novels. He did not use his eyes as other novelists use theirs. He used his eyes to scan the wide world’s Press in search of outlandish grist for his mill; he preferred chapter and verse in print to all the raw material that came his way in the shape of ordinary mortals. His imagination did not respond to ordinary flesh and blood (though shortly before his death he was meditating a novel on Zazel, the lady who used to be shot out of a cannon at the Aquarium, and had made her acquaintance as a preliminary step!). “Pen in hand,” he confessed, “I am fond of hot passions and pictorial incidents, and, like the historians, care too little for ‘the middle of humanity.’ ” But “like the historians,” because he was one, he cared intensely for the extreme case that gets into the papers; had a wondrous faculty for adapting all such to his uses; collected them like stamps, pasted them into large scrap-books, indexed and cross-indexed these with commercial thoroughness, and so, if he required as much as a common assault in the course of his narrative, knew where to lay his finger on the very thing. Thackeray thumped the desk and cried “That’s genius!” with the ink still wet upon a famous touch. Reade was probably as elated when he dived into his home-made tomes and fished up what he called the “warm facts” of a case in point.

It was not an ideal way of writing modern novels; but it must be the only way to give verisimilitude to a story of the past. His “newspapers” were now but crabbed chronicles in monkish Latin; but give him a bone of the decadent language, and Charles Reade, “an artist, a scholar,” was the man to reconstruct a living scene. His Dutch interiors were little pictures in print. He throws on a costume in a phrase, betrays a custom as it were by inadvertence, can paint and set his most elaborate scene in a paragraph without a negligible or unwanted word. It is difficult not to describe such art in the terms of sister arts, so pictorial and dramatic is it all; yet to read this book is to have much more than a sense of walking through a picture-gallery or sitting at the play; it is frequently to feel oneself encompassed by the dangers and discomforts of the Middle Ages. The picture ceases to be a picture; it becomes a personal experience of the reader. Thus we tremble with Gerard and Denys at one villainous inn, scratch with them in another, and are no less realistically bored at a third. We feel, indeed, there are too many of these inns, and so there are; but had not Reade picked up in Paris a wonderful Tractate on the Inns of the Middle Ages, and could an artist who was also a virtuoso be expected to leave any of them out? Such are the provocations of research as the handmaid of imagination; and hence those engaging excesses of detail, that unblushing redundancy of adventure, which alone disfigure The Cloister and the Hearth artistically. Much as we may love our Gerard, gentle student yet potential demon, and Denys the Burgundian, with his immortal watchword and his innocent immoralities, their tramp across darkest Europe is yet a little long; it even has its longueurs. The pair encounter every conceivable kind of peril; just one, you feel, might nave been omitted if only to placate the literal mind. The somewhat similar outwitting of two different robber bands reads like alternative adventures, both so splendid that the author could not find it in his heart to forgo either, nor human reader to wish he had. The same may be said of the deplorable entertainment afforded by the heretical Fra Colonna, and even of the fascinating portrait of Pietro Vanucci and other Roman miniatures. These things are on the track of the tale; yet so beautifully are they handled, so deftly introduced, that the true end and aim are never out of sight. And this is only another way of saying that the book throughout is written as Reade never wrote anything else throughout: in a style which, in Stevenson’s sentence on Pepys, “condescends to the most fastidious particulars and yet sweeps all away in the forthright current of the narrative.” Nor is it ever partly an objective narrative, though the subjectivity is an undercurrent as in life. In the journey of Gerard and Denys, which throws a beam across mediaeval Europe, it is not the road alone that is lighted up, nor the dancing motes of obsolete humanity, but always those two wayfaring hearts as well; the one combustible with hot adventure, the other steadily aglow with Margaret’s love.

It is not unfair to turn from this acknowledged masterpiece to Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy, which Reade himself persisted in proclaiming his masterpiece. It might have been. There were five years between the two, and as big a book as Hard Cash was the earlier product of the interval. At the height of his popularity, but only stimulated by success, Charles Reade must have been at his very best when he wrote Griffith Gaunt; and signs are not wanting that he was. It opens with as shrewd a “punch” as even he ever delivers:

“Then I say once for all that priest shall never darken my doors again.”
“Then I say they are my doors and not yours, and that holy man shall brighten then whenever he will.”

After that the “white line” that Reade always used with effect; and after that nearly two hundred pages of pluperfect narrative before we come up to the same two opening sentences in their proper place.

This audacious introductory slab is perhaps the finest example of sustained accomplishment in all Reade’s work. The problem has been set in a turn of the hand; it is worked up to a point considerably beyond the one indicated above with the utmost mastery; if the working out were on the same level we should have had the Othello of prose fiction. As it is we get, on the whole, our author’s best-written book, a book singularly free from the more lurid mannerisms of an innately mannered, though utterly unaffected, style, and richer than any other in that genuine passion which was Reade’s noblest quality as a novelist. The pictures of eighteenth-century country-house life never once smell of the reading-lamp; they convince by their masterly incompleteness, the “silence implying sound” that it takes a master to keep. Griffith himself, the rough, riotous, drinking, duelling, hare-brained yet great-hearted young squire, is the creature of his time from top to toe. His Catholic wife is Reade’s greatest lady, and her two spiritual directors are notable additions to those studies on the Roman priesthood, begun in The Cloister and the Hearth, which by their unbiased breadth and understanding are enough to stamp the Anglican author as a person of essential culture. Father Francis, the “burly ecclesiastic” who was not a gentleman, but a man full of horse-sense and astringent sympathy, is beautifully drawn. Brother Leonard has to play the unlovely part assigned to a sad proportion of the friars of fiction: he is neither a new nor a representative type. The inevitable catastrophe would be more moving had Kate Gaunt been more to blame; but only a tragic expiation could have redeemed Griffith’s bigamous reprisal. The “happy” ending wrested from so dire an imbroglio is in fact the most infelicitous feature. It involves a murder mystery and trial which only serve to remind one how admirably Reade dispenses with mysteries in general. Almost alone among “sensation” novelists he achieves suspense entirely by means of the impending event; and this departure from so rare a rule is the more unfortunate inasmuch as the puzzle solves itself at sight. Notwithstanding a fine scene between the wedded and the unwedded wife, the book ends in such bathos that one is almost sorry it was ever finished. Half-written but unspoilt, Griffith Gaunt might have ranked with Weir of Hermiston as a perfect fragment.

The rest of the novels bear a stronger family likeness. Hard Cash deals with private asylums and the sea as faithfully as It is Never too Late to Mend dealt with prisons and the gold-diggings. Like its fellows, it has a literary history almost as interesting as the tale itself. Under the less excellent title of Very Hard Cash it appeared in All the Year Round piecemeal as soon as written, and was none too successful a serial. Indeed, it was said to have lowered the circulation by three thousand copies, and Wills was eventually entrusted by Dickens with the delicate job of requesting Reade to cut the story short. “Peevish nonsense!” wrote the latter, mildly enough for him. “Wills is sure it will be a great success as a book, and Dickens swears by it.” Wills was right; but the apparent paradox, in reality one of the commonest experiences in authorship, was especially comprehensible in this case. None of Reade’s novels takes so much “getting into” as Hard Cash. The first half-dozen chapters—the crucial chapters of any serial—are truly ponderous. Reade, indeed, felt there was “no go” in him at the time; but it is to be doubted whether, with all its wealth of exciting episode, his work ever really lent itself to serial publication. Even when his best was brewing he was not the man to serve it out in thrifty rations; his stuff must simmer for a month or boil over in every column, according to the fire that was in him for the nonce; and facts are kittle fuel. Hard Cash is a mass of hard facts. The preparation it required, as recorded in one of his famous notebooks, is not only a concrete instance of Charles Reade’s method, but an entertainment to all who take a morbid interest in literary procuration.


I took notes for this work in various ways. I covered

1. Eight or ten large double folio cards; some of these still survive.

2. I pasted extracts from journals and Dickson’s works on a screen, where I could see them in one view.

3. I devoted a double sheet each to some of the characters.

4. I took notes on the ordinary system in books.

5. I worked in materials furnished by my brother William, whereof Mathingleyana—the basis of Maxley—and his William’s voyage from China survive, I believe. Altogether I bestowed the labour and original research that go to two or three soi-disant learned works.

The pleadings are from Fletcher v. Fletcher, which case I had worked from first to last.

I have been accused of inaccuracy in all that relates to asyla, but I offered publicly inspection of my proofs, and my detractors one and all shrank from the test.

My materials are now somewhat scattered, but I shall endeavour to point out where several of my authorities can be found.

Follows a portentous list of technical tomes; on banking, seamanship, Biblical research; lexicons and glossaries of scientific terms; and six or seven medical works! What with the plastered screen it may be imagined there is a good deal of Dr. Dickson, the Sampson of the story, perhaps the most maddening Scotchman in or out of fiction, though some of his phonetic outpourings may be forgiven for the sake of his burlesque prescription for the lovesick heroine herewith appended and construed:

But this is pure Magdalen. Nor is Sampson the only doctor in the book; the mad-doctors are all excellent, especially the amiable Dr. Wycherley, whose own bonnet had its bee.

Dr. Wycherley, you see, was a collector of mad people, and collectors are always amateurs and very solemn connoisseurs. His turn of mind co-operating with his interests led him to put down any man a lunatic whose intellect was manifestly superior to his own. Alfred Hardie, and one or two more contemporaries, had suffered by this humour of the good doctor’s. Nor did the dead escape him entirely. Pascal, according to Wycherley, was a madman with an illusion about a precipice; John Howard a moral lunatic in whom the affections were reversed; Saul a moping maniac with homicidal paroxysms and nocturnal visions; Paul an incoherent lunatic, who in his writings flies off at a tangent, and who admits having once been the victim of a photopsic illusion in broad daylight; Nebuchadnezzar a lycanthropical lunatic; Joan of Arc a theomaniac; Bobby Burton and Oliver Cromwell melancholy maniacs; Napoleon an ambitious maniac in whom the sense of impossibility became gradually extinguished by visceral and cerebral derangement; Porson an oinomaniac; Luther a phrenotic patient of the old demoniac breed, alluded to by Shakespeare:

                       “One sees more devils than vast Hell can hold.
                       That is the madman.”

But without intending any disrespect to any of these gentlemen, he assigned the golden crown of Insanity to Hamlet.

Research cannot build up paragraphs like that or infuse them with so rich an irony. The cracked alienist is a perfect miniature; as for his sane patient, Alfred Hardie, he is as human as Tom Robinson, and his torments in “asyla” as affecting as Robinson’s in gaol. As before, all this part is the best; there was something in the mere thought of forcible confinement that put Reade on his mettle. The kidnapping of the bridegroom on his wedding morning, with his running fight for it against cruel odds, is not only one of the most exciting chapters Reade ever wrote, it is one of the most pathetic incidents ever described in terms of action. It takes the reader by the throat, as he feels it must have taken the writer before him. Alfred Hardie does not escape from the asylum; but for once Charles Reade has escaped from his prison-house of prearranged facts and given us one of those scenes which are as coals of fire from the imagination he so strangely distrusted.

Foul Play, again, treats boldly of the sea. In “carpentry” it excels Hard Cash, thanks clearly to the collaboration of Boucicault, world’s champion at the game; otherwise Foul Play is a very much poorer book. It attacks none of those abuses that inspired the novelist with righteous passion; it was just the desert-island story on which every romantic likes to try his hand. Reade, being Reade, assailed his subject scientifically; you would swear to his flora and fauna. But his two castaways leave the male too little, the female too much, to be desired. On learning that her heroic lover is also a convict the lady behaves much as the protagonists of Etiquette in a similar quandary; it is a ruinous scene which may well have been the germ of the Bab Ballad in question. Foul Play provoked Bumand’s Punch skit, Chikkin Hazard, which Reade (again, being Reade) quite failed to enjoy; and this is sad when one remembers the derelict chair that yielded castor oil, the capers the ready hero cut for the sauce, and other inoffensive joys. Bret Harte’s Handsome Is as Handsome Does is a more searching parody of a much better book—Put Yourself in His Place—the most artistic of the propagandist novels. But the cruellest parodies on Charles Reade were written by himself—or his accomplice—in the later chapters of Foul Play.

Though his books are full of the things that betray an author’s antecedents, it was many years before he devoted a whole novel to the kind of old-world country-house life that was in his bones; and then he must break new ground for trouble by hitting on his one improper plot! The expression is used with due regard for modern emancipation in these matters. The plain tale of a reformed rake’s retributively childless marriage, of his philoprogenitive monomania and his lady wife s desperate remedy for the same, would probably offend in English at any time of day; yet such is the problem plot of A Terrible Temptation. Lady Bassett does not indeed resort to infidelity; but, in committing a fraud for which, all things considered, some piety may be claimed, she does that which would be perhaps more difficult to recite to a mixed audience—as written straight from the shoulder by Charles Reade. The motherhood denied to her has been thrust upon her confidential abigail; the two women change figures, as it were, before the reader’s eyes, the details being given with as much literary nonchalance as those of the most ordinary masquerade. Nor is the effect on Sir Charles less frankly and casually described. Innocently enchanted with the changeling, he in time becomes own father to a legitimate heir. Possunt quia posse videntur.

Such is the plot that Charles Reade treated like any other plot in 1871. In nothing was he more ahead of his time than in the utter simplicity with which he habitually refers to what was invidiously termed “the facts of life”; he to whom life was all facts used no such ignoble euphemisms, but on principle—if he thought twice about it—“the homely expressions of Scripture.” As in terminology, so with the veiled language of suggestion and in mere matters of taste. You shall search the works of his old bachelor in vain for the shadow of a joke about childbirth; and adultery in his hands is less offensive than flirtation in the hands of many. None could wish to see such a subject more healthily treated than it is here—in a manner less calculated to debauch an innocent mind. But this is just the trouble with A Terrible Temptation. The treatment is too healthy; it is even breezy. With perfect truth Reade claims that there is “more real invention” in the story than in most of his; but this ingenious manipulation of the elemental is one of the very things that jar. The infant impostor is in reality the by-blow of Richard Bassett, heir-presumptive and mortal enemy to the unfortunate baronet; thus there is manifold irony in the situation, which is maintained at a high dramatic level to the end, never sinking to the rank melodrama without which Reade could seldom conclude a novel. As a last aggravation the character-drawing is as much above his average as the general technique of this astounding tale.

One of the characters was, to be sure, the novelist himself, under a transparent alias and no disguise at all: a remarkably candid portrait, if not quite so unflattering as Reade rather naively protested in answer to those critics who branded it as vile bravado in such a book. Otherwise his defence against a massed attack was in his most slashing vein, and made piquant examples of the Criticaster, the Prurient Prude, the Sham-Sample-Swindler, the Anonymancule, and other “Vermin” at whose expense he enriched the vernacular. Yet these were not the first to condemn the book: it had been declined by many publishers before meeting with acceptance on the worst terms the author had received for years. What is much more astonishing is the fact that it had actually run through Cassell’s Magazine, of all respected periodicals!

In America, where Griffith Gaunt had been a scandalous success on its demerits, A Terrible Temptation was held up to nothing less than execration, while in the Toronto Globe an old Magdalen score was paid off by one whose anonymity Reade scornfully respected in his passionate rejoinder. He had the temperament, so common among creative artists, which reacts outwardly against criticism as against a blow; but inwardly he took the most preposterous onslaught pathetically to heart. In a notebook of this period is neatly pasted an American notice describing him as “a slimy, snaky, poisonous literary reptile,” his book as “this mass of brothel garbage,” and himself again as “a gatherer of offal for the hyenas of the human race.” Some writers collect that sort of thing to read aloud with roars of merriment. Charles Reade let himself go as follows for our benefit:

I leave this on record for the instruction of those who complain that authors work for money instead of contenting themselves with the meed of praise they receive.

Was anything of mine ever praised as heartily as here an excellent and innocent story is abused?

Through my whole career it has been so: a little faint reluctant praise—bushels of insolent vituperation.

But with the proceeds of a pen that never wrote a line till I was 35 years of age, I have got me 3 freeholds in the Brompton Road, a leasehold in Albert Terrace, a house full of rich furniture, and pictures—and a few thousands floating, and so I can snap my fingers at a public I despise and a Press I know and loath. To God alone my thanks are due who gave me my good gifts and the sense to see that literature is a trade and that an author is a being secretly despised and who can only raise himself above contempt


               June 8,1872

A childish outpouring for a famous novelist, on his fifty-eighth birthday too! But a certain childishness is part of the novelist’s equipment; and here there is much more of the individual Reade. The distinguished critic who long ago discovered “Reade’s essential vulgarity of mind” will find plenty here (besides that unnatural slap at the man’s own public) to confirm a youthful judgment. But to me this sad message reveals at least one equally essential, equally demonstrable humility of heart. Only a humble-hearted man, in the position of Charles Reade after Dickens’s death, before Mr. Hardy’s rise or Meredith’s recognition, could have pointed to the goods and chattels his work had brought him rather than to the work itself.

This is the true clue to a nature more than ordinarily complex and self contradictory; a truculent and fiery temper, a stubborn though a wayward will, were but the bristling defences of a citadel riven with self-distrust. Hence this inveterate dependence on “warm facts,” not only in working up strange cases, but in considering his own. His furniture and his freeholds are the “warm facts” of his success; anything less material might be partly his imagination—that “good gift” which he distrusts the most of all.

You begin to see that he was not altogether wrong; and his books bear him out. They are stronger in episode than in plot, sounder in tactics than in strategy. This is manifest from the last hundred pages of almost any one of them. However fresh the opening, a fatal sameness marks the close of all but two or three. Nothing is harder to finish decently than a sensational story in which all your ends are on the table and no mystery is reserved for solution in the last chapter; but in eschewing this invention Reade had repeated recourse to the same set of devices for reinforcing the intrinsic interest of his tale. The forged, intercepted, or anonymous letter is his favourite instrument of mental torture; it invariably screws the heroine up to a loveless marriage with the villain, as a rule prevented at the altar-rails, though in Put Yourself in His Place the actual ceremony is performed by a spurious priest whose handiwork is undone betimes. Such an ending to stories so full of freshness and power would be regrettable enough in a single instance; it is deplorable in book after book. But the pace has been set and must be accelerated at all costs in the straight. “Keep a gallop for the avenue,” was Lever’s advice to James Payn, who passed it on to the present writer. It was a cardinal rule in the old-fashioned fiction, and is for that matter a plank in the drama of all time. Unfortunately it was just in the avenue that Reade fell off.

An exciting novel ought obviously to become more and more so as the chapters fly, but the excitement must be inherent in the situation and on no account betray the nervous anxiety of an author who is afraid of being dull. This is probably the one form of fear that Charles Reade ever knew; yet it is only another side of a subconscious self-distrust. It shows itself not only in the artificial complications of a natural narrative; it is always showing itself in his style. He distrusts his power of making some specially dramatic point, so has it set up in the largest capitals in the fount; an equally momentous whisper is represented by print that requires a microscope; or the page is broken by a crude wood-cut of clasped hands, as though there were no words for a handshake, or by a miner’s knife-blade as large as life, or by a disenchanting diagram of the Southern Cross.

These reflections on the English language, which no English writer has used more pictorially than Charles Reade, are the first faults on which a “criticaster” pounces; they are not, however, the worst. Like all novelists of his day, including his one or two betters, he is continually recalling us from the playground of the story into the august presence of the master whose existence we had forgotten. This bad old habit matters less in Dickens, who is strangely independent of illusion, and hardly at all in Thackeray, whose variations are often as good as the tune. With Reade they are a discord in another key; with Reade, who is always coaxing up steep places, they are the dig in the ribs which is enough to bring one heavily to earth again.

“Forgive my heat, dear reader. I am not an Eden, and these fellows rile me.” “Oh, my heroines! When will you learn to be faultless!” “He had not skimmed so many, many books as we have . . . and this, oh men of paper, and oh C. R. in particular, gave him a tremendous advantage over you.” Thus he apostrophises his readers, his creatures or himself, with indifferent damage to the context. “Now would you mind closing this book for a minute and making an effort to realise all this? It will save us so much repetition.” This in The Cloister and the Hearth, of all books; but so are allusions to the crinoline, the Duke of Wellington, and Macready in Macbeth! Even in Griffith Gaunt, which does on the whole leave the eighteenth century to itself, we are brought back from the duel in the snow to our own fireside by the bêtise, “ ‘N.B.—This is rote sarcastical,’ as Artemus, the delicious, says.” Yet such is the art of the man that all is forgotten in the next sentence every time, and we are back with him on the heights from which his horseplay has dislodged us; for the truth is that his art is author-proof and his style so verily the man that we should suspect his sincerity if he failed to annoy us for many chapters on end.

“I make it a rule,” he himself says somewhere, “to put a little good and a little bad into every page I write, so as to suit the average reader.” Of course he made it nothing of the sort, but possibly some such consideration did condone some conscious blemishes. “Import some Victor Hugoisms into my Anglo-Saxon” is a darker memorandum, for if ever novelist had a style of his own it was Charles Reade. It was a style quick with colour, vigour, and variety; now economical as stage instructions, now expanding in a fine extravagance; jumpy yet supple, stentorian yet often musical, scholarly yet never academic; in a word, the writing of a gentleman in his shirt-sleeves. And from its very imperfections it was a style which dropped without effort into as good story-telling dialogue as ever was written. Now the relation between narrative and dialogue is an interesting study in any novelist; in the pithiest set-to between his characters will be found a subtle survival of the author’s rhythm and imagery. Thus the Wessex peasant takes as kindly to polysyllables as to cider, while the children of Meredith belabour each other with broken epigrams. Thus Charles Reade’s characters talk just as naturally and emphatically as Charles Reade wrote.

That they are in themselves a very interesting lot would be a bold contention; but then we never see these people “in themselves.” They are shown in collision with circumstances or with each other, and they are not analysed for our benefit either before, during, or after the event; by their behaviour at a pinch we are to judge them; and that, after all, is a test much valued in everyday life. But it is not an everyday test, and on the whole it is more important to know how folks behave at the fireside than at a fire. Time has shown that human nature is better in an emergency than out of one; and we should like to know more of these mettlesome young women in their hours of ease and of their too patient swains when patience has been duly rewarded. The wish is granted in the case of Griffith and Catherine Gaunt, and for a few short paces that tantalising couple are quietly yet tinglingly alive. We know what they are thinking of each other as well as we know what Alfred Hardie, fresh from Oxford, would have thought of Hard Cash. The same can hardly be said of the Fieldings or the Littles or the Dodds, though we could swear to David sane or crazy, as we could to Thomas Robinson (unreformed) on a dark night anywhere. On the bulk of their brethren there is more than a dab of grease-paint; the strong men sob oftener and more ladies have downright hysterics than is credible even of early-Victorian times off the stage; in fact, they are dramatis personae rather than characters in novels.

Why, then, was Charles Reade a comparatively unsuccessful, though a most persistent, playwright? All his life he was frankly stage-struck; with the proceeds of a novel he would hasten to put up his own dramatic version, only to lose his money oftener than not; and on his tombstone the words “Dramatist, Novelist, and Journalist” owe their order to his wishes. Yet even in his lifetime no other sane person dreamt of ranking his dramas with his books; and, without going into comparisons, the broad reason is not, I think, very far to seek. Every book Reade ever wrote is replete with the author’s personality; this quality goes by the board in all his plays. “In all plays,” one might as truly say, were it not for a living dramatist whose worst line would be recognisable as his alone on any moderately articulate gramophone. The run of good plays is none the less as devoid of literary personality as the run of good books is full of it. Reade’s books were packed with it from cover to cover; it is the secret of their collective force, their highest common factor. Often enough it is an intensive personality, the jocose or irascible showman with his irritating patter; but from first to last it is a lusty mind that animates the page, a seeing eye that makes it glow before our own, an ardent, uncompromising, and courageous spirit which cannot fail to lift and to enlarge the heart with room in it for a real man and all his foibles. And if he did overdo his doctrine of facts, at least there was something noble in the creed:

I say before heaven and earth that the man who could grasp the facts of this day and do an immortal writer’s duty by them, i.e., so paint them as a later age will be content to engrave them, would be the greatest writer ever lived: such is the force, weight, and number of the grand topics that lie this day on the world’s face. I say that he who has eyes to see may now see greater and more poetic things than human eyes have seen since our Lord and His apostles and His miracles left the earth.*

* It is Never too Late to Mend.


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