The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 9. Charles Reade
Few writers of the nineteenth century could contend on the score of wide and eager interest in life with Charles Reade, whose physical and mental vigour animate his pages, sometimes to the point of violence. The most characteristic products of the man are those in which he worked, Hugo-like, on a large symbolic scale, for human compassion and justice. These more grandiose compositions have a little obscured from view the novels of manners, in which he exercises a more delicate art. The first of his novels, Peg Woffington (1853), was of this lighter kind; it was made, on the advice of his life-long friend Laura Seymour, our of one of his few successful plays, Masks and Faces (1852). Reade spent an inordinate amount both of mental energy and of his fortune upon the stage; he wrote in a period of staginess and melodrama and easily succumbed to the taste of the time. He shared the opinion of Wilkie Collins that fiction and drama do not differ in essence, but merely in mechanism of expression. His play Gold (1853) could, therefore, be turned into It is never too late to mend (1856); Foul Play (1869) and other writings could appear either as plays or novels; and his most effective play Drink (1879) was made out of Zola’s L’Assommoir. A scene of crude theatricality which mars the play Masks and Faces recurs in the novel Peg Woffington; but, apart from that scene, both make skilful use of an old theme, the mingled glamour and pathos in the double life of the stage queen. Christie Johnstone (1853) owes much to Maria Edgeworth, not only in its representation of the ennui of the leisured lord Ipsden, but, also, in the delineation of the markedly individual Scots fishing village, Newhaven. Christie Johnstone, in her simplicity, devotion and heroism, is the forerunner of other humbly born heroines—Mercy Vint, in Griffith Gaunt (1866), and Jael Dence, in Put Yourself in his Place (1870). In characters of this type, Reade is evidently breaking with conventional romance and reacting against the satirical tone of Thackeray’s realism and the heroic challenge of Carlyle. The other novels of manners have a background more familiar in this kind of fiction, that of English squirearchy. Love me Little, Love me Long (1859), which gives the earlier history of characters in Hard Cash (1863), has a brilliantly conceived portrait of an elderly egotist, Mrs. Bazalgette, going about with pre-meditated selfishness to have her own way. Her niece, Lucy Fountain, like the Kate Peyton of Griffith Gaunt and the Philippa Chester of The Wandering Heir (1872), is a girl of graceful person, quick resource, high spirit and incalculable feminine pride, such as Meredith was afterwards to elaborate in Rose Jocelyn. In Griffith Gaunt, Reade came nigh to producing a masterpiece; the earlier part, describing the courtship of the young Cumberland girl Kate Peyton, has the brilliance and fineness of style to which Reade could always modulate his strength in his portraits of women. In this part are seen the first phases of jealousy; later comes the masterly diagnosis in dramatic, not analytic, fashion of the moods and devices of that malignant passion. The flaw in the book was indicated by Swinburne; the moving and pathetic development follows from a criminal and incredible act, the bigamous marriage of Gaunt with Mercy Vint, through envy of a rustic rival. The inadmissible plot beneath all the fine workmanship affects us like similar things in the plays of John Ford. The doctrine of the celibate priesthood, a motif repeated from The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), adds a complicating thread to the web of intrigue; the tractarians had forced the subject to the forefront of controversy, and Kingsley had already raised his protest in The Saint’s Tragedy in 1848. A Terrible Temptation (1871) is altogether coarser in fibre than the novels hitherto named; lurid and sensational elements, a demi-mondaine turned roadside preacher, a kidnapping, asylum horrors and the like, overbear the quieter and more gracious figure of Lady Bassett. Nevertheless, it is a book of power, and it anticipates some important developments of the novel; it is a study of a strain of wild blood handing on hereditary qualities of ferocity and brutality. The Wandering Heir, which makes use of the murder and peerage trials of the Annesley claimant in 1743, is notable for a passage descriptive of Irish manners in the early eighteenth century. The passage is based largely on Swift’s The Journal of a Modern Lady, and, on a smaller scale, shows the same power as The Cloister and the Hearth of weaving scattered material into a living picture of an unfamiliar period. A charge of plagiarism from Swift, Reade repudiated angrily in a reply appended to a later edition; by what a mass and diversity of reading his pictures are supported may be gathered from that document. This was but one of numerous occasions on which Reade’s notions of literary property brought him under suspicion, and his litigious and combative disposition often turned suspicion into active enmity.