Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 10. Novels based on “documents”

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XIII. Lesser Novelists

§ 10. Novels based on “documents”

Reade was deeply in sympathy with the impulse towards realism which was at work in fiction in the middle of the century. Whereas Trollope thought a kind of “mental daguerroutype” the ideal manner of presenting truth, Reade put his trust in immense accumulations of reports of actual events, by means of which he supported his boast, that, when he spoke of fact, he was “upon oath.” In A Terrible Temptation, he describes his method of collecting and indexing his material, a task upon which, at one period, he spent five hours a day. The method was, of course, that adopted later by Zola; the differences of temper between the two writers are explained, to some extent, by the fact that Reade comes before, and Zola after, the scientific revolution.

Reade’s documentary novels are not all of one kind; there are, first, those in which he makes use of his knowledge, Defoelike in its intimacy, of out-of-the-way trades and occupations; such are The Autobiography of a Thief (1858), Jack of all Trades (1858) and A Hero and a Martyr (1874). Jack of all Trades includes a novel episode of picaresque, describing, with graphic force, the life of a keeper of a murderous performing elephant. Secondly, there are stories of philanthropic purpose; in these, Reade sweeps aside Godwin’s theories and Lytton’s sentiment, replacing them by fact irrefutably established and by direct denunciation. The ghastly cranks and collars and jackets of It is never too late to mend were things he had seen in the goals of Durham, Oxford and Reading, or knew by report in the trial of lieutenant Austin at Birmingham in 1855. He could cite precedent for every single horror of the asylum scenes in Hard Cash; on all the other abuses which he attacked—“shipknacking” in Foul Play, “rattening” in Put Yourself in his Place, insanitary village life in A Woman Hater (1877)—he wrote as an authority on scandals flagrant at the moment, not, as sometimes happened in the case of Dickens, about those of a past day. Pitiless, insistent hammering at the social conscience is the method of these novels, which remind us, at times of Victor Hugo, at times of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, at times, of Eugéne Sue’s Mystéres de Paris. Reade’s habit of challenging attention by capitals, dashes, short emphatic paragraphs, changes of type and other Sternean oddities, accentuates the general impression of urgency. This is a small thing in comparison with the gift, exemplified in most of these novels, of sustained and absorbing narrative. The homeward voyage of the “Agra,” escaping pirates and the tornado to be wrecked amid Hugo-like scenes on the northern coast of France; the rescue of Harvie and Dodd from the burning asylum; the bursting of the reservoir in the Ousely valley: these and other scenes are depicted with a power which makes the reader a participant in the event, sets the pulse throbbing faster and keeps the mind tense with solicitude for the outcome. Hugo’s headlong rhetorical outpouring is different is kind; Reade’s prose is concentrated, masterful, deliberate and, at the highest pitch of excitement, can bear the closest scrutiny of detail. The humorous English mind does not often produce pure narrative of action; on Reade’s own scale, he has no competitor.