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

XIII. Lesser Novelists

§ 11. The Cloister and the Hearth

The documentary method has its most triumphant justification, however, in the historical novel The Cloister and the Hearth, enlarged from the slight and propitious love-story A Good Fight, which appeared in Once a Week in 1859. This was Reade’s only incursion into the middle ages; the remoteness of the scene relieves his intense humanity from the chafing of its fiery yoke-fellow in the propagandist novels—indignation. His imagination was inspired and steadied by the volume and worth of his documents, the Colloquies and Compendium Vitae of Erasmus, the satires of Gringoire, the writings of Froissart and Luther, Liber Vagatorum and other beggar books, monkish chronicles, jest books, medieval encyclopaedias of medicine, astrology and the like. He mounts above this mass of learning to view as from a peak the dawn of the renascene over medieval Europe; the survey gives historic significance to the simple closing phrase, Haec est parva domus natus qua magnus Erasmus. In two points, in especial, Reade’s judgment and prevision are shown: first, in the creation of Gerard the supposed father of Erasmus to fill the rôle of protagonist, and, secondly, in seizing upon the rich opportunity afforded by the wandering scholar and soldier of the middle ages. The scenes which are laid in taverns, monasteries, churches, studios, palaces, above all upon the road itself, are not more various than the characters—ruffians, beggars, freebooters, burgomasters, campaigners, doctors, penitents, priests of loose or of grave behaviour, artists, printers, bishops and dignitaries higher still in church and state: each is portrayed with appropriate dialect and garb and custom, none more effectively than the master-beggar Cul de Jatte; not one, however insignificant, is feebly imagined or carelessly drawn. What else might have been mere brilliant picaresque gains unity from the large theme of the book, the conflict between ecclesiastical system and human passion, in which the apparent is not the real victor—a theme at once symbolic of the whole age and of dramatic personal concern to Gerard and Margaret. These characters and the Burgundian Denys are drawn with the bold simplicity of outline, the freedom from subtlety, which befit the epic scale; at the same time, their experience never lifts them out of reach of common human sympathy. The endurance of Margaret’s passion dominates and ennobles all other impressions; the mind is drawn from every incident to view its effect upon her fortunes in Holland. The plain prose of the philanthropic novels is here coloured and varied and modulated to the expression of every mood of courage, despair, pathos, chagrin, humour, poetic exultation, as the narrative in its course gives occasion. Attempts to classify The Cloister and the Hearth fail, because, in spaciousness of design and many-sidedness of interest, in range of knowledge, in fertility of creation, in narrative art and in emotional power, the book is unique; the age must be rich indeed which can afford to consider the author of The Cloister and the Hearth a minor novelist.