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Charles Reade


Since Charles Reade's books are published in cheap editions one can
assume that he still has his following, but it is unusual to meet anyone
who has voluntarily read him. In most people his name seems to evoke, at
most, a vague memory of 'doing' THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH as a school
holiday task. It is his bad luck to be remembered by this particular
book, rather as Mark Twain, thanks to the films, is chiefly remembered by
books, and THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH is one of them. But he also wrote
three novels which I personally would back to outlive the entire works of
Meredith and George Eliot, besides some brilliant long-short stories such

What is the attraction of Reade? At bottom it is the same charm as one
finds in R. Austin Freeman's detective stories or Lieutenant-Commander
Gould's collections of curiosities--the charm of useless knowledge.
Reade was a man of what one might call penny-encyclopaedic learning. He
possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively
narrative gift allowed him to cram into books which would at any rate
pass as novels. If you have the sort of mind that takes a pleasure in
dates, lists, catalogues, concrete details, descriptions of processes,
junk-shop windows and back numbers of the EXCHANGE AND MART, the sort of
mind that likes knowing exactly how a medieval catapult worked or just
what objects a prison cell of the eighteen-forties contained, then you
can hardly help enjoying Reade. He himself, of course, did not see his
work in quite this light. He prided himself on his accuracy and compiled
his books largely from newspaper cuttings, but the strange facts which he
collected were subsidiary to what he would have regarded as his
'purpose'. For he was a social reformer in a fragmentary way, and made
vigorous attacks on such diverse evils as blood-letting, the treadmill,
private asylums, clerical celibacy and tight-lacing.

My own favourite has always been FOUL PLAY, which as it happens is not an
attack on anything in particular. Like most nineteenth-century novels
FOUL PLAY is too complicated to be summarized, but its central story is
that of a young clergyman, Robert Penfold, who is unjustly convicted of
forgery, is transported to Australia, absconds in disguise, and is
wrecked on a desert island together with the heroine. Here, of course,
Reade is in his element. Of all men who ever lived, he was the best
fitted to write a desert-island story. Some desert-island stories, of
course, are worse than others, but none is altogether bad when it sticks
to the actual concrete details of the struggle to keep alive. A list of
the objects in a shipwrecked man's possession is probably the surest
winner in fiction, surer even than a trial scene. Nearly thirty years
after reading the book I can still remember more or less exactly what
things the three heroes of Ballantyne's CORAL ISLAND possessed between
them. (A telescope, six yards of whipcord, a penknife, a brass ring and a
piece of hoop iron.) Even a dismal book like ROBINSON CRUSOE, so
unreadable as a whole that few people even know that the second part
exists, becomes interesting when it describes Crusoe's efforts to make a
table, glaze earthenware and grow a patch of wheat. Reade, however, was
an expert on desert islands, or at any rate he was very well up in the
geography textbooks of the time. Moreover he was the kind of man who
would have been at home on a desert island himself. He would never, like
Crusoe, have been stumped by such an easy problem as that of leavening
bread and, unlike Ballantyne, he knew that civilized men cannot make fire
by rubbing sticks together.

The hero of FOUL PLAY, like most of Reade's heroes, is a kind of
superman. He is hero, saint, scholar, gentleman, athlete, pugilist,
navigator, physiologist, botanist, blacksmith and carpenter all rolled
into one, the sort of compendium of all the talents that Reade honestly
imagined to be the normal product of an English university. Needless to
say, it is only a month or two before this wonderful clergyman has got
the desert island running like a West End hotel. Even before reaching the
island, when the last survivors of the wrecked ship are dying of thirst
in an open boat, he has shown his ingenuity by constructing a distilling
apparatus with a jar, a hot-water bottle and a piece of tubing. But his
best stroke of all is the way in which he contrives to leave the island.
He himself, with a price on his head, would be glad enough to remain, but
the heroine, Helen Rollestone, who has no idea that he is a convict, is
naturally anxious to escape. She asks Robert to turn his 'great mind' to
this problem. The first difficulty, of course, is to discover exactly
where the island is. Luckily, however, Helen is still wearing her watch,
which is still keeping Sydney time. By fixing a stick in the ground and
watching its shadow Robert notes the exact moment of noon, after which it
is a simple matter to work out the longitude--for naturally a man of his
calibre would know the longitude of Sydney. It is equally natural that he
can determine the latitude within a degree or two by the nature of the
vegetation. But the next difficulty is to send a message to the outside
world. After some thought Robert writes a series of messages on pieces of
parchment made from seals' bladders, with ink obtained from cochineal
insects. He has noticed that migrant birds often use the island as a
stopping-place, and he fixes on ducks as the likeliest messengers,
because every duck is liable to be shot sooner or later. By a stratagem
often used in India he captures a number of ducks, ties a message to each
of their legs and lets them go. Finally, of course, one of the ducks
takes refuge on a ship, and the couple are rescued, but even then the
story is barely half finished. There follow enormous ramifications, plots
and counterplots, intrigues, triumphs and disasters, ending with the
vindication of Robert, and wedding bells.

In any of Reade's three best books, FOUL PLAY, HARD CASH and IT IS NEVER
TOO LATE TO MEND, it is not fair to say that the sole interest is in the
technical detail. His power of descriptive writing, especially of
describing violent action, is also very striking, and on a serial-story
level he is a wonderful contriver of plots. Simply as a novelist it is
impossible to take him seriously, because he has no sense whatever of
character or of probability, but he himself had the advantage of
believing in even the absurdest details of his own stories. He wrote of
life as he saw it, and many Victorians saw it in the same way: that is,
as a series of tremendous melodramas, with virtue triumphant every time.
Of all the nineteenth-century novelists who have remained readable, he is
perhaps the only one who is completely in tune with his own age. For all
his unconventionality, his 'purpose', his eagerness to expose abuses, he
never makes a fundamental criticism. Save for a few surface evils he sees
nothing wrong in an acquisitive society, with its equation of money and
virtue, its pious millionaires and erastian clergymen. Perhaps nothing
gives one his measure better than the fact that in introducing Robert
Penfold, at the beginning of FOUL PLAY, he mentions that he is a scholar
and a cricketer and only thirdly and almost casually adds that he is a

That is not to say that Reade's social conscience was not sound so far as
it went, and in several minor ways he probably helped to educate public
opinion. His attack on the prison system in IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO MEND
is relevant to this day, or was so till very recently, and in his medical
theories he is said to have been a long way ahead of his time. What he
lacked was any notion that the early railway age, with the special scheme
of values appropriate to it, was not going to last for ever. This is a
little surprising when one remembers that he was the brother of Winwood
Reade. However hastily and unbalanced Winwood Reade's MARTYRDOM OF MAN
may seem now, it is a book that shows an astonishing width of vision, and
it is probably the unacknowledged grandparent of the 'outlines' so
popular today. Charles Reade might have written an 'outline' of
phrenology, cabinet-making or the habits of whales, but not of human
history. He was simply a middle-class gentleman with a little more
conscience than most, a scholar who happened to prefer popular science to
the classics. Just for that reason he is one of the best 'escape'
novelists we have. FOUL PLAY and HARD CASH would be good books to send to
a soldier enduring the miseries of trench warfare, for instance. There
are no problems in them, no genuine 'messages', merely the fascination of
a gifted mind functioning within very narrow limits, and offering as
complete a detachment from real life as a game of chess or a jigsaw

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