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To a country and a century in which the higher form of drama has been supplanted and superseded by the higher form of novel, the loss of an energetic and able craftsman in the trade of narrative fiction must naturally seem more or less considerable.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 pretensions 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 NEW SERIES.-VOL. XL., No. 6
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 labored 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 Eugène 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 parper 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 comparison 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 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 ardor 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 dulness 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 vivify ing 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 Dantès; 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 by-play 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 nov
elist 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 sometimes 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 Ayr shire Tragedy. I have always thought, might have been a splendid success instead of being what it is, a more than creditable attempt, had its author been content to work on the same lines. as the author of Arden of Feversham;; foregoing all pretence and all endeavor 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 sceneshifter. 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 content 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 amœbæan ardor on the superior claims of their respective favorite 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 labored 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,"* 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 por-. trait 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 pretension 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
*Spectator, April 19, 1884.
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 Iachimo-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 fervor 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 fulness 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 wire puller 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 Romola 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 harbor. 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 plaguestricken 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 novelist 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