To a country and a century in which the higher form of drama has been supplanted and superseded by the higher form of novel, the loss of an energetic and able craftsman in the trade of narrative fiction must naturally seem more or less considerable. The brilliant industry of Mr. Charles Reade, his vivid and vehement force of style, his passionate belief and ardent delight in the greatness of his calling, would have conferred a certain kind of interest on a literary figure of less serious pretentions to regard. It is not at all wonderful that on the morrow of his death there should have arisen in the little world of letters a little noise of debate as to the proper station and definition of so remarkable a writer. Whether he was or was not a man of genius — whether his genius, if he had such a thing, was wide or narrow, deep or shallow, complete or incomplete — became at once, for the moment, a matter in some quarters of something like personal controversy. If he had often written as well as he could sometimes write — or, again,. if he had often written as ill as he could sometimes write — there would be no possibility of dispute on the subject. He has left not a few pages which if they do not live as long as the English language will fail to do so through no fault of their own, but solely through the malice of accident, by which so many reputations well worthy of a longer life have been casually submerged or eclipsed.
On the other hand, he has taken good care that few of his larger and more laboured works shall have so much as a fair chance for their lives. No man was ever at more pains to impair his own prospects of literary survival. His first two stories were the very quintessence of theatrical ability — and were now and then something more. But if some of his best effects were due to his experience as a dramatic aspirant, not a few of his more glaring faults as a novelist are traceable to the same source. The burlesque duel in Christie Johnstone the preposterous incident of the living portrait in Peg Woffington, might have made the fortune of a couple of farces; but in serious fiction they are such blemishes as cannot be effaced and can hardly be redeemed by the charming scenes which precede or follow them — the rescue of the drowning dauber by his discarded bride, and the charity of the triumphant actress to the household of the stage-struck poetaster. These are small matters: but there are errors of the same stamp in the more important works of the maturer novelist.
Take the first book which gave a wide echo to his name — that which bears the awkward label, It is Never too late to mend. One of the most important and indispensable figures in the story might have done well enough on the boards of a theatre, but does very much less than well between the boards of a novel. ‘Levi the Jew’ has been unjustly, I think, dismissed as an elaborate and absolute failure: he has at all events more vitality and verisimilitude than ‘the gentle Jew’ of Our Mutual Friend, or the Messianic Jew of Daniel Deronda, or even the less unimaginable Israelite of La Femme de Claude: the remnants of the chosen people seem seldom to bring their admiring students a stroke of good luck in the line of sentimental or enthusiastic fiction: but it is when set beside or between such living and complete figures as George Fielding and Tom Robinson that the grateful and vindictive Hebrew appears out of his place by day, so far from the footlights behind which he could be seen in due relief and measured by the proper standard.
A far more absolute failure is the athletico-seraphic chaplain — Prince Rodolphe (of the Mystères de Paris) in Anglican orders, and much astonished to find himself translated into a latitude less congenial than the slums of the Seine riverside. For all Mr. Reade's loud and loyal acclamation of Dumas, he had really more in common with the author of La Salamandre than with the author of La Reine Margot though his place as a writer is more decidedly above that of Sue than below that of Dumas. But for anything like a parallel to the interminably disgusting reiteration of diabolical and bestial cruelties by which a third part of his best-known book is overloaded and deformed, we should have to look further back — or further forward — in the record of French fiction than the date of Eugene Sue. That in this case the hideous and nauseous narrative is unmistakably inspired by no baser instinct than a pure and genuine loathing of cruelty is more than enough to exculpate the man, but by no means enough to exculpate the artist.
It is equally impossible not to recognize and not to respect the practical proof thus given that Charles Reade, as a lover of justice and mercy, a hater of atrocity and foul play, may claim a place in the noble army of which Voltaire was in the last century, as Hugo is in this, the indefatigable and lifelong leader; the great company of witnesses, by right of articulate genius and might of intelligent appeal, against all tenets and all theories of sophists and of saints which tend directly or indirectly to pamper or to stimulate, to fortify or to excuse, the tyrannous instinct or appetite for cruelty innate and latent alike in peoples of every race and every creed. To justify the ways of kings to men by comparison with 'the doings of the gods, which are cruel, though not that alone,' was a fashionable form of political or social sophistry which to no Englishman of his own or of any time could have seemed more despicable and detestable than to Reade. But the injury inflicted on his first elaborate or important work of fiction by the intrusion of the huge and horrible episode which encumbers and defaces it is a sign of instinct so inferior or of skill so imperfect as to make any com- parison of his art with the art of Voltaire only less absurd than would be a comparison of his genius with the genius of Hugo.
There is not, however, in all the range of his work, another as flagrant instance of passionate philanthropy riding roughshod over the ruins of artistic propriety. In Hard Cash the crusade against the villainous lunacy of the law regarding lunatics was conducted with more literary tact and skill — with nobler energy and ardour it could not be conducted — than this previous onslaught on the system which made homicide by torture a practical part of such prison discipline as well deserved the disgrace of approbation from the magnanimous worshipper of portable gallows and beneficent whip: the harsher and the humaner agents of an insane law who figure on the stage of the narrative which attacks it are more lifelike as well as less horrible than the infernal little disciples of Carlyle who infest and impede the progress of the earlier tale.
In the brilliant story of A Simpleton there are passages of almost as superfluous dullness as the dullest superfluities of the self-styled naturalist whose horrors Mr. Reade undertook to adapt for presentation on the English stage: and the dullness is of the same order as M. Zola's: it is deliberate and systematic, based on the French realist's great principle, that a study from life should be founded on what he calls ' documents ' — nay, that it should be made up of these, were they never so noisome or so wearisome: but the second half of the book redeems and rectifies the tedious excesses and excursions of the first.
In the power of realizing and vivifying what he could only have known by research or by report, Reade is second only to Defoe; while in liveliness and fluency of narrative he is generally as superior alike to Defoe and to Balzac as he is inferior to the one in depth and grasp of intellect, to the other in simplicity and purity of self-forgetting and self-effacing imagination. His African and Australian episodes are worthy of Dumas, when the king of storytellers was at his very best: the leading figures in these are more vivid and more actual than Edmond Dantes; their adventures not less delightful to follow, and easier to digest than his. When the rush of narrative carries the narrator as fairly and smoothly forward as a swimmer with wind and tide to back him — when he is too full of his work, and too much absorbed by the enjoyment of it, to pause for a passing indulgence in any personal tricks of posturing or byplay of controversial commentary--no reader could desire a keener or a healthier pleasure than this admirable master of his craft will repeatedly afford. Nevertheless, upon the whole, it may be questioned whether Reade is to be placed on a level with Dumas. Dumas, in the slightest and loosest work of his vainest mood or his idlest moment, is at least unaffected and unpretentious: the most fervent disciple of Reade will scarcely claim for his master the credit of these excellent qualities. In Dumas the novelist and the dramatist were thoroughly at one; the qualities of each were wholly and impartially serviceable to the other: Antony and Angèle were not hindrances but helps to the author of Olympe de Clèves and La Dame de Monsoreau. In Reade the properties and functions of the playwright were much less thoroughly fused and harmonized with the properties and functions of the narrator. The work of Dumas as a novelist is never the worse and sometimes the better for his experience of the stage: that of Reade is some- times the better and sometimes the worse for his less distinguished experiences in the same line. In this respect he stands midway between Dumas and Scott, who was hampered as a dramatist either by his habit of narrative writing or by his sense of a necessity to be on his guard against the influence of that habit. The Ayrshire Tragedy, I have always thought, might have been a splendid success instead of being what it is, a content to work on the same lines as the author of Arden of Feversham; foregoing all pretence and all endeavour to alter or modify or qualify or improve in any degree or in any detail the exact course of the incidents recorded.
The narrative or historic drama, the poetical chronicle of events represented in action rather than by relation, is one of the noblest and most legitimate forms of national poetry: none can be higher, none is more simple, none more difficult: but much of its dignity and value must depend on the constancy of the dramatist in his adherence to this difficult simplicity of treatment — on his perfect singleness of eye and straightforward fidelity of hand. Scott, thinking to improve and simplify by the process of adaptation and selection a complicated record of tragic events, impaired the interest and debased the value of his mutilated story. The old lamp of Marlowe, of Shakespeare, and of Ford would have guided him, as it has guided Sir Henry Taylor, on a straighter path to a surer goal than could be attained by the new light of the modern scene-shifter. Mr. Reade, by far the greatest master of narrative whom our country has produced since the death of Scott was as much his superior in dramatic dexterity as he was inferior to Dumas in the art of concealing rather than obtruding his natural command and his practical comprehension of this peculiar talent. It is the lack of that last and greatest art— not the art to blot, but the art to veil — it is the inability to keep his hand close, to abstain from proclamation and ostentation, to be con- tent with a quiet and triumphant display of his skill and knowledge and experience in all the rules and all the refinements of the game — it is this that sets him, as a narrative artist, so decidedly below Dumas; it is the lack of seeming unconsciousness and inevitable spontaneity which leaves his truest and finest pathos less effective and less durable in its impression than the truest and finest pathos of Scott.
The now fashionable comparison or contrast of Charles Reade with George Eliot seems to me altogether less profitable and less reasonable than a contrast or comparison of his work with that of the two most copious and spontaneous masters of romance. Indeed, had not the idolators of either insisted with amoeban ardour on the superior claims of their respective favourite to the same station and the same palm, I should have thought it indisputable that there could be no matter of dispute between the claims of two writers who had hardly an aim or a quality in common. What Charles Reade at his best could do, George Eliot could not even have attempted; what George Eliot could achieve at her best would have been as impossible for Charles Reade to accomplish as for the author of Les Trois Mousquetaires to have written a chapter of Les Parents Pauvres.
George Eliot, though not exactly a petticoated Shakespeare, was at once something more and something less than an English Balzac. I am not so certain as her exclusive partisans affirm themselves to be that her more laboured and finished figures have really more life in them than Reade's; that Caleb Garth, as an able and ardent advocate maintains, is a more actual and genuine person, a figure more distinct and positive, more worthy to be remembered 'as a personal friend' [ Spectator, April 19 1884] than David Dodd: nor yet that Lucy his wife 'is essentially other than' the woman who might have grown out of the girl so delicately and so vividly presented in the most perfect of all the author's books. Such an error would hardly have been possible to a writer of such conscientious and pertinacious industry, combined with such genuine self-respect and such ardent self-esteem. A third great novelist, of rarer genius but less loyalty than Reade's to the demands of his art, and naturally, therefore, of less faith in the value of his work, might give us an admirable portrait of an old knave as a pendant to the admirable portrait of a young scoundrel which he had given us many years before, and fail to convince us that the splendid libertine and scholar, the classic laureate of college fame, whom we knew as George Brandon in the heyday of superb and daring youth, could become a fawning and fulsome dunce, unable to construe a sentence of Latin, or to avoid the most vulgar errors of awkward pretention and flagrant sycophancy. Dr. Brand Firmin is a figure as excellently drawn as young Brandon, but surely not the same figure, modified simply by the advance of years and the change of circumstances. Mrs. Dodd, with her gentle self-reliance and pliable fortitude, is surely just such a woman as the cares and joys of happy wifehood and motherhood might have made of the quick-witted, dexterous, and generous girl, so hardly and so strangely won by so noble a lover in the pride of her youth and beauty.
Idle, however, as may be the general comparison of a writer like Charles Reade with a writer like George Eliot, there is at least this one point of plausible comparison between their two solitary attempts in the field of historic fiction: that the same age of the world has been chosen by both for the setting of their stories, and that part of the action of Charles Reade's takes place in the country which was chosen by George Eliot for the stage of her whole romance. Beyond this they have so little in common that nothing can be easier than for the champions of either to triumph in alternate demonstration of what the one has accomplished and the other has failed to achieve. No rational admirer will dispute the assertion that the author of The Cloister and the Hearth could not have completed — could not have conceived — so delicate a study in scientific psychology as the idlest or least sympathetic reader of Romola must recognize and admire in the figure of Tito; that his work shows nothing of such exquisite research and unfaltering subtlety in the anatomical demonstration of every process through which a human soul may pass in the course of decomposition, from the stage in which the subject would seem no worse a man than Mercutio to that in which he would seem no better than Lucio, and thence again to that in which he would seem no better than Jachimo —a creature distinguishable only by inferiority of intellect from Iago. There never was, I suppose, so thorough and triumphant an exposition of spiritual decay: the only touch of reserve which tempers or allays the full zest and fervour of our admiration is given by a half-stifled, reluctant, irrepressible perception or suspicion that there is something in all this of the preacher's or the lecturer's aim, variously garnished and delicately disguised; that Tito is presented — after the fashion of Richardson or George Sand — as a warning or fearful example, rather than simply represented — after the fashion of Shakespeare or of Balzac — as a natural and necessary figure. This may no doubt be merely a perverse fancy; but at all events it is for some readers an insurmountable impediment to the fullness of their pleasure and admiration. Now, when Mr. Reade's work makes anything of the like impression on us, we see at once that it matters less; for his didactic types or monitory figures are always unmistakable — and unmistakable as failures. Hawes, and even Grotait — a much more lifelike and interesting person than Hawes, are not the creations of a dramatist; they are the creatures of a mechanist: you see the action of the wirepuller behind at every movement they make; you feel at every word they utter that the ruffian is speaking by the book, talking in character, playing up to his part. Too refined and thoughtful an artist to run the least risk of any such error, George Eliot, on the other hand, wanted the dramatic touch, the skilful and vivid sleight of craftsmanship, which gives a general animation at once to the whole group of characters and to the whole movement of the action in every story, from the gravest to the slightest, ever written by Charles Reade. A story better conceived or better composed, better constructed or better related, than The Cloister and the Hearth, it would be difficult to find anywhere; while the most enthusiastic devotees of Roinola must surely admit the wellnigh puerile insufficiency of some of the resources by which the story has to be pushed forward or warped round before it can be got into harbour.
There is an almost infantine audacity of awkwardness in the device of handing your heroine at a pinch into a casually empty boat which drifts her away to a casually plague-stricken village, there to play the part of a casual sister of mercy dropped down from the sky by providential caprice, at the very nick of time when the novel- ist was helplessly at a loss for some more plausible contrivance, among a set of people equally strange to the reader and herself. Such an episode as this — an outrage at once on common credulity and on that natural logic of art which no school of romance can with impunity permit its disciples to ignore or to defy — neither Scott nor Dumas nor Reade would have allowed himself, even in a mere tale of adventure or 'moving accidents,' while his genius was still on the whole at its best and brightest; as George Eliot's most indisputably was, when Romola was written.
Again, I must confess my agreement with the critics who find in her study of Savonarola a laborious, conscientious, absolute failure — as complete as the failure of his own actual attempt to purge and renovate the epoch of the Borgias by what Mr. Carlyle would have called the 'Morison's Pill' of Catholic Puritanism. Charles Reade's Dominican is worth a dozen such 'wersh,' ineffectual, invertebrate studies, taken by marshlight and moonshine, as this spectre of a spectre which flits across the stage of romance to as little purpose as did its original across the stage of history: but when we come to collation of minor characters and groups the superiority of the male novelist is so obvious and so enormous that any comparison between the full robust proportions of his breathing figures and the stiff thin outlines of George Eliot's phantasmal puppets would be unfair if it were not unavoidable. The variety of life, the vigour of action, the straightforward and easy- mastery displayed at every step in every stage of the fiction, would of themselves be enough to place The Cloister and the Hearth among the very greatest masterpieces of narrative; while its tender truthfulness of sympathy, its ardour and depth of feeling, the constant sweetness of its humour, the frequent passion of its pathos, are qualities in which no other tale of adventure so stirring and incident so inexhaustible can pretend to a moment's comparison with it — unless we are foolish enough to risk a reference to the name by which no contemporary name can hope to stand higher or shine brighter, for prose or for verse, than does that of Shakepeare's greatest contemporary by the name of Shakespeare.
The wealth and splendour of invention, the superb command of historic resource, and the animating instinct which gives life to every limb and feature of the story, interest to every detail of various learning, and the charm of perfect credibility to the wildest phases of passion or of faith, the strangest adventure or coincidence, the boldest strokes of worse or better fortune which influence or modify the progress of character and event, would need more time and space to indicate and to praise with any show of adequacy than I can hope to afford them here. But this book is foundation enough, if any ground for prophecy may be supplied by the fortunes of other books, for a fame as durable as any romancer's ambition could desire. It is so copious and various that the strength and skill with which the unity of interest is maintained through all diversities of circumstance and byplay of episodes may almost be called incomparable: Dumas has never shown such power and tenderness of touch in the conduct and support of a story so pure and profound in its simplicity of effect through such a web of many-coloured adventure. And for vivid play of incident, for versatile animation of detail, Dumas him- self seems no longer incomparable in his kind to the reader of this book. He will miss indeed the charm of self-effacing straightforwardness which distinguishes the very finest narratives of the Frenchman. Dumas could sometimes forget Dumas, but Reade can never forget Reade: the one at his very best thinks only of the story he has to tell, and tells it with no more strain or show of effort than a child: the other is always on parade, always delightedly conscious of his powers and unhesitatingly ostentatious of his delight. But there are scenes in the The Cloister and the Hearth which Dumas, for all his excellent heart and all his brilliant genius, could hardly have written or conceived: such as the discovery of the baby in the hermit's cell by its unconscious father.
It seems singular that any important work of the hand which has given us so noble and high-toned a book as this great romance should ever have been taxed with immorality; and more singular still that it should in any sense be fairly liable to such a charge. Of the two among Mr. Reade's novels which were assailed on this score at the date of their first appearance, the later, A Terrible Temptation, seems to me the more easily and the more thoroughly defensible. Such attacks on it as I remember to have seen were not generally based on the simple fact that it contained a remarkably lifelike and brilliant study of a courtesan — ultimately transfigured by conversion into a field-preacher: they were based on the imputation that the married heroine of the story was represented as hovering more or less near the edge of adultery. How such a notion can ever have slipped into the head, I do not say of any rational and candid reader, but of the most viciously virtuous reviewer that ever gave tongue on the slot of an imaginary scandal, I have never been able to imagine. It requires not merely a vigorous effort of charity, but a determined innocence in the ways of the world of professional moralists, to believe that any reader of the book, at any stage of the story, can have really mistaken the character of the 'terrible' and most natural temptation which besets the tender and noble nature of the heroine: a temptation, not to illicit love, but to legal fraud instigated by conjugal devotion. To me this has always seemed one of the very best and truest in study of character, most rich in humour and interest, most faithful and natural in evolution and result, of all Mr. Reade's longer or shorter stories.
But for tragic power, for unfaltering command over all the springs and secrets of terror and pity, it is not comparable with the book which would beyond all question be generally acknowledged by all competent judges as his masterpiece, if its magnificent mechanism were not vitiated by a moral flaw in the very mainspring of the action. This mainspring, if we may believe the subtitle of Griffith Gaunt, is supplied by the passion of jealousy. But the vile crime on which the whole action of the latter part of the story depends, and but for which the book would want its very finest effects of pathos and interest, is not prompted by jealousy at all: it is prompted by envy. A man tied by law to a wife whom he believes unfaithful has inadvertently, by no fault of his, won the heart of a woman who believes him free, and has nursed him back from death to life. Unable to offer her marriage, and aware of her innocent reward for him, he loyally determines to withdraw from her society. An old suitor of hers meets and taunts him in the hour of his leave-taking. Instantly, rather than face the likelihood of a rival's triumph, the coward turns back and offers his hand to the girl, whose good offices he requites by deliberate betrayal of her trust and innocence to secret and incurable dishonour. This is no more an act of jealousy than murder by slow poison is an act of impatience. It is an act of envy; and one of the basest on record in fiction or in fact.
If the assailants of the book had confined their scheme of attack to this one hopelessly indefensible point, it would have been vain for the author to rage and foam over their alleged malignity and misrepresentation. The blemish can no more be erased by blustering impeachment of critical objectors than the blemish which disfigures what should have been George Eliot's masterpiece can be whitewashed by apology grounded on the uncertain and inexplicable caprices of attraction and attachment which may perplex the observing student of actual life. We do not forbid an artist in fiction to set before us strange instances of inconsistency and eccentricity in conduct: but we require of the artist that he should make us feel such aberrations to be as clearly inevitable as they are confessedly exceptional. If he can do this, but not otherwise, he has a right to maintain that fiction, like wisdom, is justified of all her children. George Sand, in her memoirs, objects to one of the most powerful scenes in La Cousine Bette on the score that a woman like Adeline Hulot could by no possibility, even for the sake of her daughter's life and happiness, have offered herself as a tardy victim to the waning passion of a man like Célestin Crevel. On this point a woman of genius must be a better judge than any man, were he Shake- speare or Balzac, could reasonably pretend to be; but it will be admitted by all that in the case disputed Balzac has at least succeeded in showing the all but irresistible and intolerable force of the temptation to which he may have been wrong in representing a wellnigh maddened and desperate mother as ready, despite an agony of abhorrence, for a moment to succumb. Now it seems to me undeniable that Charles Reade has not succeeded in making us feel it inevitable — and therefore has not suc- ceeded in making us feel it possible — that an honourable man should be so mastered by the temptation or provoca- tion which assails Griffith Gaunt as to throw all sense of honour to the winds rather than endure the momentary sting of insult from an inferior: any more than George Eliot has succeeded in making us feel it inevitable — or possible — that a high-minded woman should be so fasci- nated by the seduction of accident and the compulsion of circumstance as to forget for even an hour all sense of loyalty and duty for the sake of any one who has not inspired her with such profound and enduring passion as overrides all hindrance and overrules all thought.
Inadequacy of temptation, more than anything else. reduces the spiritual tone or moral effect of a story which depends for its evolution upon the less or greater force of potential resistance or endurance of temptation ascribed to the character for which our interest is demanded. Othello yields, and excites nothing but our love and pity: Leontes yields, and excites nothing but our disgust and horror: because in the one case the temptation applied is adequate, whereas in the other it is not. But Leontes is not for a moment presented to us as an object of possible sympathy: he is at once revealed as a tyrant, ignoble, impure, mean-spirited, savage and selfish, with just a touch of coarse animal tenderness for the child whom his base and brutal egotism inadvertently condemns to death.
Now Griffith Gaunt is represented, throughout the first half of the story which bears his name, not indeed as a man so wholly noble as the noble Moor, but as a man very different from the ruffianly fool Leontes: as a hot-blooded, headstrong, single-hearted, gallant and generous barbarian of the higher English type: with rather more brain than Squire Western, and rather more delicacy than Tom Jones. To make this man behave in a fashion worthy of Jonathan Wild or Blifil is an incongruity of which Fielding would have been as incapable as Thackeray. Here again, if I mistake not, we may trace the dangerous influence of the stage. The author had contracted not merely a theatrical style of writing, but a theatrical habit of mind: he saw, with the quick eye of a cunning playwright, the splendid opening for stage effects of surprise, anxiety, and terror, supplied by means of this incident to the future progress of the story: he could not forego such magnificent opportunities: he would not see, he could not consider, what a price he would be obliged to pay for them: no less than the inevitable destruction, in the mind of every reader worth having, of all sympathetic or serious interest in the future fortunes of his hero. It is the infallible note of the playwright as distinguished from the dramatist, of Euripides or Fletcher as opposed to Sophocles or Shakespeare, to find himself sooner or later reduced to choose between the consistency of his characters and the effectiveness of his situations; and when confronted with this dilemma to determine that character must rather be sacrificed to effect than effect give way to character. For the great dramatic poets this difficulty seems scarcely to have existed; and this is the crowning test, the final evidence, of supreme and culminating power in the highest province of the subtlest and sublimest and most arduous of all forms of art. But if it had — if Sophocles or Shakespeare had been driven to choose between two dangers — we may be sure which alternative would have commended itself to the choice of either. It would not have been the sacrifice of character — it would not have been the immolation of nature to the exigences of the stage. It would rather have been to resign a tempting occasion for startling effect, a shining opportunity for electric excitement of the spectator's or the reader's nerves, than to attain this triumphant result at the cost of representing Ajax as a dastard or Oedipus as a dullard, Hotspur as a liar or Hamlet as a fool.
Fletcher, on the other hand, or Euripides, would not for an instant have hesitated in making such a sacrifice; and would apparently have been astonished to hear that in doing so he had cut away the very root of interest from the very centre of his dramatic scheme or ethical design — had withdrawn from the creation of his fancy the essential property of imaginative life; that quality of moral truth, that condition of credible reality, the want of which deprives fiction of all right to exist and all reason for existing. The protagonist, under such circumstances, is no longer a good or a bad man, nor even a man of mixed and ambiguous character: he is the incongruous abortion of a playwright's incoherent brain, an Admetus or a Philaster, whose worse and better attributes are not inconsistent merely but incompatible with each other. Now, absurd beyond all depths of ridicule as it undoubtedly would be to speak of the greatest or even a greater novelist than the world has ever seen in the same breath with the greatest of its poets, it would be only less foolish to deny the superiority of such a writer as the author of Griffith Gaunt, considered as a student of life and an artist in character, to such writers as the Fletcher of Athens and the Euripides of England. The former, at his best, was a master of easy pathos, and a graceful adept in fluent and picturesque lyrical verse of a kind far enough from the highest; the latter was a master of romantic comedy, of tragic melodrama, of sentimental or farcical invention shot through with living lights of witty or pathetic fancy: but as lifelike painters or full-length students of human nature it would be simply grotesque to consider them worthy to be taken into any serious account. No critic worth notice will assert as much of Reade: and therefore we have a right to observe, and therefore it is a duty to object, when we find so masterly an artist in character condescending to the slovenly and shifty level of an Euripides or a Fletcher. And they at least, when they found themselves unable to draw, could sing: the sweetness of their voices has in either case made many generations of admirers overlook or forget or condone, perhaps with too partial and too facile a promptitude, their carelessness and weakness and clumsiness of hand. A novelist, perhaps not unhappily for his art and him- self, has no such resource to fall back upon, can offer no such plea in arrest of judgment, as this of the peccant poet's; a plea which after all is more or less irrelevant and inadequate. He must rest his defence — it is well for him indeed if he can rest it— on such pleas as may be urged with almost incomparable force in apology for the single defect of moral harmony in the story of Griffith Gaunt. No language can overpraise what hardly any praise can sufficiently acknowledge — the masterly construction, the sustained intensity of interest, the keen and profound pathos, the perfect and triumphant disguise of triumphant and perfect art, the living breath of passion, the spontaneous and vivid interaction of cha- racter and event, the noble touches of terror and the sublimer strokes of pity, which raise this story almost as high as prose can climb towards poetry, and set it perhaps as near as narrative can come to drama. The forty-third chapter is to my mind simply one of the most beautiful things in English literature; and no fitter praise can be given to the book than this — that so exquisite an interlude is not out of keeping with the rest.
Great as was usually the care displayed in the composition of Mr. Reade's other works, and great as was sometimes the skill which ensured success to this ungrudging and conscientious labour of love, there is not another of his books which as an all but absolute and consummate work of art can be set beside or near this masterpiece. In most of his longer stories there are some parts so very much better and some parts so very much worse than the rest of the book, as inevitably to raise this difficult and delicate question — How long can a work of art be expected to live, which depends for its chance of life rather on the excellence of episodes, on the charm of a single character or the effect of a particular scene, than on the final harmony and satisfying impression of the whole ? On the answer to this question — an answer to be ratified by the verdict of time alone — hangs the fate of many a noble piece of work in verse no less than in prose. It condemned for upwards of two centuries to 'dust and damned oblivion' all the matchless and magnificent tragic poetry of the Shakespearean age but Shakespeare's. Even when the day of resurrection dawns for such work so long entombed, it revives too often only in the partial light afforded here and there by the lamp of a special student. The best of Mr. Reade's romances are certainly not more finished works of higher or more faultless art than the best plays of Ford or Webster: their faults are generally not less gross and glaring than such as disfigure the masterpieces of Dekker or of Middleton. Will the names of their heroines be better known to more generations than the names of Calantha and Vittoria, Infelice and Beatrice- Joanna Will their splendid scenes of flood and fight and storm, their vivid interludes of passion, the subtlety and variety of their ' humours ' — and some of these may fairly challenge the full test of Ben Jonson's famous definition — will all suffice to keep them longer afloat than many a work less worthy to survive than the worst of them?
All we can say is that, if not, the loss will be theirs who shall have let such good merchandise go to wreck. It will be a loss — whatever good work of its own an age which utterly neglects them may produce — to know nothing of a book so full of keenly refined humour and nobly moving incident, such good studies and such good scenes, as that which carries the rather silly label, 'Love me little, love me long.' (By the way, it would be a benevolent despotism, and worthy of Mr. Arnold's ideal academy, which should make it a penal offence against literature for any writer to affix a proverb, a phrase, a quotation, but above all things a line of poetry, by way of tag or title, to his novel or to hers. Scripture and Shakespeare should be specially prohibited: and we should see no more such advertisements as 'A Girgashite,' 'His Own Figtree,' 'Down a Steep Place,' 'A Pillar of Salt,' 'Keep Close,' 'Jenny's Case,' 'The Ocular Proof,' 'An Ounce of Civet,' and so forth: which, to put it on the lowest ground, would be an advantage to common decency.) The story of David Dodd's courtship seems to me on the whole the most perfect of Charles Reade's works: both men and women, even when arranged for stage effect and adjusted for stage purposes, move and speak like real actors in the real human comedy: and the child, particularly in his character of special correspondent, commends himself to all readers of experience as what the peculiar object of Mr. Reade's literary and moral aversion would have called a Reality and no Phantasm. It seems to me not at all easier to draw a lifelike child than to draw a lifelike man or woman: Shakespeare and Webster were the only two men of their age who could do it with perfect delicacy and success: at least, if there was another who could, I must crave pardon of his happy memory for my forgetfulness or ignorance of his name. Our own age is more fortunate, on this single score at least, having a larger and a far nobler proportion of female writers: among whom, since the death of George Eliot, there is none left whose touch is so exquisite and masterly, whose love is so thoroughly according to knowledge, whose bright and sweet invention is so fruit- ful, so truthful, or so delightful as Mrs. Molesworth's. Any chapter of The Cuckoo Clock or the enchanting Adventures of Herr Baby [sic] is worth a shoal of the very best novels dealing with the characters and fortunes of mere adults.
The story in which the small figure of 'the terrible infant' is used with such humorous dexterity to further the fortunes and illustrate the characters of his elders may perhaps be considered in days to come a completer and happier example of its author's powers than any of his more ambitious and varied and eventful narratives. A man's most perfect work is not likely to be his greatest, unless the man himself be one of the very greatest writers of all time; and the full energy of Mr. Reade's genius is conspicuous rather in works less free from his besetting sins of pretention and prolixity. For, concise as was his usual method of narrative or comment, and indeed sometimes rather defiantly demonstrative of this excellent faculty of concision, he could be tediously prolix in the reiteration and reinforcement of theories and arguments by illustration and exposition at far greater length than was necessary or suitable to the very- effect at which he aimed.
Dickens, so often accused of extravagance and repetition, was far more temperate and reserved, had a far finer instinct for selection and suppression, than Reade. Here again, as in his apparent unconsciousness that fact done into fiction may easily or may ever become disgusting and insufferable, he reminds us of the too conscientious and too assiduous author of Nana. What has been so absurdly — not to say, so impudently — attempted in the cases of Samuel Richardson and Walter Scott would be less an outrage than a service to the genius and the memory of Charles Reade. Their masterpieces may be destroyed by evisceration: they cannot be condensed by compression. More than one or two of Reade's, if taken duly in hand by some less incapable restorer than the mutilators of Guy Mannering and Clarissa Harlowe, could only gain by the sweeping removal of much undigested rubbish. The author's own principle of selection may not have been as capricious as it appears; but when he struck out of his longest novel that admirable Autobiography of a Thief which is one of his finest and most thoughtful pieces of work, it is difficult to understand why he should have retained so much else which smacks alternately of sensational playbills and nauseating police reports. This little record is nothing less than a masterpiece of tragicomedy: the fellow's style is perhaps the very finest evidence of his creator's dramatic faculty which could be adduced from the whole collection of Charles Reade's romances. That faculty, however, brilliant and versatile as it is, is never so thoroughly or so strikingly displayed in the full completion or consummation of the work undertaken as in the vivid energy of single scenes, the vivid relief of single characters. The same, we must confess, may sometimes be said of all his contemporaries — even of the great masters who gave us Esmond and David Copperfield.
Mr. Trollope, in his singularly candid and interesting as well as amusing estimate of his own and other men's work, does not pretend to anticipate a survival of remembrance for more than two or three among the well- nigh innumerable figures of his industrious and pertinacious invention. I should be disposed to assign a fully equal chance of survival to several others of their kindred: but when he foretells oblivion or neglect for Mr. Reade on the ground that he has left no such living and enduring figures — not 'a character that will remain' — in any part of his work, the judgment seems to me as rash and foolish as his remarks on the rashness and foolishness of Mr. Reade's own bearing and behaviour in various matters of controversy are sensible and sound.
Reade's unhappy and ludicrous habit of sputtering at any objection taken to any part or feature of his work, of yelling and foaming at any reflection cast on any one who had the fortune or misfortune of his friend- ship or acquaintance, was less injurious to his fame than what his friendly rival has justly stigmatized as his amazing misconception of the duty — nay, the very nature and essence — of literary honesty. It must be allowed that he was rich enough to have dispensed with borrowed or stolen goods; that the assailant who should attribute his pilferings to the necessity of conscious incompetence, to the compulsion of intellectual penury, would stand self-confuted and self-convicted of stupidity as perverse as Mr. Reade's own fancy that he could honestly buy the produce of another man's brain and honourably pass it off as the produce of his own.
But this does not improve either the morality or the comprehensibility of his position: nor does it justify, however fully it may explain, the rabid virulence of his retorts on those who differed from his theory or objected to his practice. Strength and plainness of speech are thoroughly commendable only when the application of plain terms and strong epithets is so manifestly just that no man of common honesty and candour will question its justice or its necessity. To insist on calling a spade a toothpick is not more foolish than to insist on calling a toothpick a spade. All effect is destroyed, all force is withdrawn from the strongest phrases in the language, when a critic who merely objects to the method or impugns the conclusions of an author is assailed in such terms as would be simply proper and requisite to define the character of a detractor who skulks aside or sneaks away from responsibility for words which he might be called upon, by the force of general opinion or the law of literary honour, at once to swallow or to prove.
A brainless and frontless trafficker in scandal, a secret and scurrilous traducer who strews insult and scatters defamation in the holes and corners of crepuscular and furtive literature, behind the backs of men who have met with equally contemptuous indifference his previous advances and his previous impertinences, must, if he be a responsible creature, know himself to be, in the eyes of any one with any pretention to honour, a person of such unspeakably infamous character that every foul word or insolent allusion which in conscious security from all chance of reprisals he may venture to cast at his superiors does but more loudly proclaim him a liar and a slanderer, a coward and a cur. Such an one, in homely English, is by common consent a blackguard: and a blackguard who invites and challenges the chastisement of exposure is not less indisputably a blockhead. These, in such a case, are terms of scientific definition rather than of individual obloquy. But when terms are straightforward and epithets as forcible as these are habitually flung at the head of any one who rightly or wrongly asserts that a man's verses are bad poetry, that his play is a dull performance or his novel a stupid story, then, were the critic never so much in the wrong, the author will have contrived to put him, comparatively speaking, in the right. Much more will this be the case when the charge, even if unjust and excessive in the wording of its expression, is grounded on indisputable facts. That I am no lukewarm admirer of Mr. Reade's genius will hardly, I presume, be questioned by any reader of these lines; and his warmest admirers have the best right to place on record their regret that he should have made it necessary for them to remark on the singular lack of taste and judgment displayed in the collection and preservation of his most unwise and violent extravagances in the field of personal or critical controversy. Honest indignation is a great thing when it makes great verses, and a good thing when it makes good prose: but the fact is no less obvious than lament- able that Reade's, however unaffected it may have been, had only too often no foothold in reason, no ground of common sense to stand on.
From a writer capable of such vehement follies and such high-toned ambitions, a rational reader would naturally have expected nothing better, if nothing worse, than Reade has left behind him. What Mr. Trollope says of Charlotte Brontë is more exactly true, it seems to me, of Charles Reade. 'If it could be right to judge the work of a novelist from one small portion of one novel,' — or rather, in this case, from sundry small portions of various novels — 'and to say of an author that he is to be accounted as strong as he shows himself to be in his strongest morsel of work,' — then, to finish the sentence for myself, I should say that the station of Charles Reade would be high among the very highest workers in creative fiction. As a painter of manners, and of character as affected by social conditions, he is never much above Trollope at his best; indeed I doubt if he has ever done anything at all better than the study of that hapless, high-souled, unmanageable and irrational saint and hero, whose protracted martyrdom and ultimate deliverance give such original and unique interest to The Last Chronicle of Barset. More delightfully actual and lifelike groups or figures than the Grantlys, the Luftons, and the Proudies, it would be impossible to find on any canvas of Mr. Reade's: and these leading figures or groups of Barsetshire society are sketched with such lightness of hand, such an attractive ease and simplicity of manner, that the obtrusive and persistent vehemence of presentation which distinguishes the style and the method of Charles Reade appears by comparison inartistic and ineffectual. Perhaps he did not think better of his own characters than they deserved: but he would seem to have thought worse than it probably deserves of his average reader's intelligence, in supposing it incompetent or slow to appreciate, with quiet recognition and peaceable approval, the charm or the force of character, the strength or the subtlety of motive displayed in the conduct of action or dialogue, without some vigorous note of more or less direct and personal appeal to the attention and admiration required by the writer as his due.
But this and all other defects or infirmities of his genius disappear or become transfigured when it suddenly takes fire and spreads wing for heights far beyond the reach of the finest painter of social manners, the most faithful and trustworthy spokesman or showman of commonplace event and character. There is a vivid force in his best and highest examples of narrative which informs even prose with something of the effect of epic rather than dramatic poetry. There is more romantic beauty, more passionate depth of moral impression, in the penultimate chapter of Westward Ho! than in any chapter of Reade's; but it hardly attains the actual and direct force of convincing as well as exciting effect which we recognize in the narrative of the Agra's last voyage homeward. That magnificent if not matchless narrative is the crowning evidence of its author's genius: if it should not live as long as the language, so much the worse for all students of the language who shall overlook so noble an example of its powers. As much, in my poor opinion, may be said for the narrative of Gerard's adventures in the company of Denys the Burgundian; this latter, with all deference to the sounder judgment and the finer taste of Mr. Anthony Trollope, 'a character that will remain' as long as most figures in English fiction. There are characteristic and serious faults in the story called Put yourself in his place; the sublimely- silly old squire is a venerable stage property not worth so much refurbishing as the author's care has bestowed on it; the narrative is perhaps a little overcharged with details of documentary evidence; but the hero, the villain, and the two or three heroines are all excellently well drawn; the construction or composition of the story is a model of ingenuity, delicacy, and vigour; and the account of the inundation is another of those trium- phant instances of masterful and superb description which give actually the same delight, evoke the same admiration, stimulate and satisfy the same intense and fervid interest, on a tenth as on a first reading. There is nothing nearly so good as this in A Woman-Hater; but here again the villain is a very creditable villain, the story is well arranged and sustained, the characters generally are well handled and developed. The Double Marriage is best in its martial episodes, towards the close; there is in these an apparently lifelike vivacity which makes them seem good enough to be matched against anything I know of the kind in fiction or in history except Stendhal's incomparable picture of a young soldier's experience and emotion — or lack of emotion — on such a field as that of Waterloo. The opening of La Chartreuse de Parme remains of course unapproached for concise realism of impression and terse effect of apparent accuracy; but Reade, as a painter of battle, is at once credible, comprehensible, and interesting beyond the run of historians and other dealers in more or less conscientious fiction. In Foul Play there is very good writing, with some genuine pathos and much industrious ingenuity; but it is not, I think, by any means to be counted among its author's more distinct and triumphant successes.
Of his shorter stories, The Wandering Heir seems to me very decidedly the worst, Clouds and Sunshine as decidedly the best; for the Autobiography of a Thief is not so much a story as an episodical study of character, cast with superb ingenuity and most sensitive tact into the form of a prose monodrama. Midway between these I should place Jack of all Trades, with the posthumous story of Singleheart and Doubleface. But Charles Reade's place in literature must always depend on the ultimate rank assignable to a writer whose reputation has mainly to rely on the value of splendid episodes and the excellence of single figures rather than on the production of any work, in any line of his art, at once so thoroughly single in its aim and so thoroughly perfect in its success, as The Bride of Lammermoor or Notre-Dame de Paris, La Cousine Bette or L’Enfant Maudit. What this rank may be I certainly do not pretend or aspire to foretell. But that he was at his very best, and that not very rarely, a truly great writer of a truly noble genius, I do not understand how any competent judge of letters could possibly hesitate to affirm.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Miscellanies. London: Chatto & Windus, 1886. 271-302. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library, Web. 5 April 2020.
Last modified 5 April 2020