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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Reade (1814–1884)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN the early fifties, Mrs. Seymour, a popular actress at the Haymarket Theatre, London, received a call one day from a stranger, a Mr. Charles Reade. He was a tall, heavily built man of attractive manner, and seemed younger than his age, which was nearly forty. For some years he had been writing plays, and trying unsuccessfully to get them accepted. He had brought part of a manuscript drama, which he was anxious to read her. Mrs. Seymour listened politely, was complimentary, but added, “Why don’t you write a novel?” This indirect criticism stung the would-be dramatist, who hurried away. Good-natured Mrs. Seymour, sorry to have wounded her visitor, and concluding that he was pressed by poverty, wrote him a kindly note inclosing a £5 note as a loan. Charles Reade promptly returned the money, but he welcomed the frank sympathy. The two became friends; and his talent thus gained a much-needed practical stimulus. Up to this time he had been somewhat of a dilettante,—ardent, ambitious, and energetic, but disseminating his forces too widely for adequate achievement.  1
  From his boyhood he had been strongly attracted toward drama. Its life and action, the visual presentment of moral problems, suited his taste. Yet all his first plays were refused by the managers. To the end of his life he considered himself primarily a playwright, in spite of the greater success of his fiction. Some of his plots took form first as plays, and some first as stories; but sooner or later most of them found their way to the stage.  2
  Among his early works are many sketches and short stories, written for cheap London journals; and it is characteristic of the man that he did these as well as he could, and signed his own name to them, although by so doing he led the critics to consider him beneath their notice.  3
  His first noteworthy original work—he had done some translation—was the well known and brilliant comedy, ‘Masks and Faces,’ which he wrote in collaboration with Tom Taylor. The effective plot-development shows dramatic instinct; and the spontaneity and sparkling dialogue gave it great vogue. Later, acting upon Mrs. Seymour’s suggestion, he turned it into a novel, ‘Peg Woffington’ (1852). The next year he published another story, ‘Christie Johnstone,’ which resembles ‘Peg Woffington’ in its primarily dramatic arrangement. In vivid characterization, descriptive charm, and emotional range, the two are as fine and as distinctive as anything he ever wrote. During holiday trips in Scotland he had gathered material for ‘Christie Johnstone’; and he was thoroughly at home in the breezy fishing hamlet where Joan and Christie, sturdy young fishwives, teach the blasé young viscount the true values of life. The wit though sharp is good-natured, and mingled with deeper sentiment. Humor and pathos, tragedy and comedy, are all blended in the one short tale. With drawing-room life Reade was not in sympathy; nor does he describe it successfully. But he excels in the strong presentment of individuals, and in establishing the harmony between them and their environment. Rugged Griffith Gaunt is an unpleasant but very real country gentleman of a past century. Jael Dence in her reserve and simple strength is the product of her native village.  4
  Charles Reade was born at Ipsden in 1814, youngest of the eleven children of John Reade, a good country squire. His father and mother were busy, healthy people, fond of society, of religious observances, of regulating village affairs. Among their many interests their children were decidedly in the way; and although they loved them heartily, they gladly turned them over to tutors and governesses as soon as possible. Charles spent much of his childhood in boarding-school; for years with a merciless Mr. Slater, who flogged his pupils daily, and whose only idea of teaching was memory-cramming. It was not until he escaped from this thraldom that Reade began to show his quickness of mind.  5
  In 1831 he entered Magdalen College on a demyship; and three years later, when he took his degree, he was appointed to a fellowship, which he held for fifty years, until his death in 1884. In spite of this long connection he did not love Oxford. His freelance spirit detested her conventions, and he preferred the freer air of London. Nor did he love the fellowship which he could not resign. Charles Reade never experienced acute poverty, yet for years his means were just meager enough to make him feel pinched and uncomfortable. His fellowship with its income was necessary to him. So his life was perforce influenced by monasticism; and he showed a deep personal appreciation of all the commonplace happiness renounced by the monk Gerard, the epic hero of ‘The Cloister and the Hearth.’ After his graduation he read law; in rather desultory fashion, for his livelier interests were in general reading, in making himself an authority upon violins ancient and modern, and in traveling whenever he could afford it.  6
  It took the public some time to relish Reade’s new flavor and to recognize his merit. But with ‘It’s Never too Late to Mend’ (1856) he found himself a popular novelist. The book provoked wide discussion, and was read, praised, and reviled on both sides of the Atlantic.  7
  Charles Reade was a fighting Englishman, always ready for a fray, always believing himself or somebody else ill-used. He was a man of deep feeling, too alive to human suffering to take life lightly. He was a man of intense energy which constantly sought vent. He was generous and warm-hearted, ready to give time, money, and influence for the relief of others. The morbid sensitiveness to criticism which continually embroiled him with critics and publishers, and most of those with whom he had business dealings, made him a butt of ridicule. It was not all self-love, but a stout demand for justice, which he was as ready to make for others as for himself. No sooner was he fairly launched as a writer of repute than he aspired to become a social reformer. This inclination was doubtless strengthened by his friendship with Dickens, for whose Household Words and All the Year Round he wrote; and whom he warmly admired. The two had been introduced by Bulwer-Lytton, and found themselves in sympathy at once. Like the author of ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ Reade longed to right abuses. ‘It’s Never too Late to Mend’ was an exposition of the evils of the English prison system. So strong was the indignation aroused, that when reproduced at the Princess Theatre years after its first dramatization, there was almost a riot in the audience. What he himself said in it might stand as a motto to most of his novels:
          “I have taken a few undeniable truths out of many, and have labored to make my readers realize those appalling facts of the day which most men know, but not one in a thousand comprehends, and not one in a hundred thousand realizes, until fiction—which, whatever you may have been told to the contrary, is the highest, widest, noblest, and greatest of all the arts—comes to his aid, studies, penetrates, digests the hard facts of chronicles and blue-books, and makes their dry bones live.”
  8
  He took up one alleged evil after another: in ‘Hard Cash,’ abuses of insane asylums, and still more the legal power of physicians to commit for insanity, which he accused them of exercising on the sane for bribes; in ‘Foul Play,’ those in the merchant shipping service; in ‘Put Yourself in His Place,’ those resulting from trades-unions and labor conditions. Upon these different themes he employed all his strength of mind and imagination, and he produced novels which were read, and are still read, for their lively romantic interest. Never dully didactic, they fully achieved a forceful presentment of the evil.  9
  The system upon which he worked was laborious. “I propose never to guess what I can know,” he said; and was an indefatigable collector of newspaper clippings, institution reports, and the like. When his statements were questioned, his facts denied, or he was accused of exaggeration, he would turn triumphantly to his carefully classified collections, and refute the objection with positive proof. He knew how to fuse this material into an artistic whole. “It would require a chemical analysis to separate the fiction from the reality,” said Justin McCarthy of Reade’s novels.  10
  “I studied the great art of fiction closely for fifteen years before I presumed to write a word of it. I was a ripe critic long before I became an artist,” wrote Reade. One result of this study was the determination to seek personal sincerity of expression above everything else. In the effort to see things for himself, not through other people’s eyes, his unusualness of phrase is sometimes startling. The effect is often delightfully novel, occasionally harsh and jagged. Yet there is always a charm in his trenchant wit and uncompromising frankness. He pictured English life as he saw it, with an intuition of what was salient in a character, a locality, or a period.  11
  In 1859 Charles Reade published in Once a Week a short serial called ‘A Good Fight.’ While writing it he discovered other possibilities in the plot, and resolved to give it a more comprehensive treatment. But the publishers of the magazine took editorial liberties with the manuscript, which Reade quickly resented. Therefore he hurried up the tale to a happy but inartistic conclusion, and soon set about remodeling it on a different scale, and with the new title, ‘The Cloister and the Hearth.’  12
  ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ (1861), Reade’s masterpiece, stands out clearly differentiated from anything else he did. He put his best into it, and the maturity of his mind. He was a scholar as well as man of general reading, and for all his knowledge he found scope in this great mediæval romance. All the minor characters—as well as the pathetic figures of Gerard and Margaret, and the gay Burgundian Denys—are drawn with an artistic insight and power of sympathy which make the old time live again. With rare synthetic power, his imagination grasped the social conditions of the fifteenth century, and recognized what the lives of men and women must have been. His book is truer than history; for while based on historical records, it reflects with life and color, not alone outward fact but also the workings of minds and hearts.  13
 
 
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