[Scanned, edited, and linked by George P. Landow.]
A FEW days ago I came by chance upon an old number of an illustrated publication which made a rather brilliant start in London four or five years since, but died, I believe, not long after. It sprang up when there was a sudden rage in England for satirical portraits of eminent persons, and it really showed some skill and humor in this not very healthful or dignified department of art. This number of which I speak has a humorous cartoon called "Companions of the Bath," and representing a miscellaneous crowd of the celebrated men and women of the day enjoying a plunge in the waves at Havre, Dieppe, or some other French bathing-place. There are Gladstone and Disraeli; burly Alexandre Dumas and small, fragile Swinburne; Tennyson and Longfellow; Christine Nilsson and Adelina Piitti, the two latter looking very pretty in their tunics and caleçons. Most of the likenesses are good, and the attitudes are often characteristic and droll. Mr. Spurgeon flounders and puffs wildly in the waves; Gladstone cleaves his way sternly and earnestly; Mario floats with easy grace. One group at present attracts very special attention. It represents a big, heavy, gray-headed man, ungainly of appearance, whom a smaller personage, bald and neat, is pushing on a plank into the water. The smaller man is Dion Boucicault; the larger is Mr. Charles Reade. This was the time when Reade and Boucicault were working together in Foul Play. The insinuation of the artist evidently was that Boucieault, always ready for any plunge into the waves of sensationalism, had to give a push to his hesitating companion in order to impel him to the decisive "header."
The artist has been evidently unjust to Mr. Reade. Indeed, one can hardly help suspecting that there roust have been some little personal grievance which the pencil was employed to pay off, after the fashion threatened more than one by Hogarth. Mr. Reade is not an Adonis, but this attempt at his likeness is cruelly grotesque and extravagant. Charles Reade is a big, heavy, rugged, gray man; a sort of portlier Walt Whitman, but with closer-cut hair and beard; a Walt Whitman, let us say, put into training for the part of a stout British vestryman. He impresses you at once as a man of character, energy, and originality, although he is by no means the sort of person you would pick out as a typical romaneist [novelist]. But the artist who has delineated him in this cartoon, and who has dealt so fairly, albeit humorously, with Tennyson and Swinburne and Longfellow, must surely have had some spite against the author of Peg Woffington [192/193] when he depicted him is a sort of huge human gorilla. It is in fact for this reason only that I have thought it worth while to introduce an allusion to such a caricature. The caricature is in itself illustrative of my subject. It helps to introduce an inevitable allusion to a weakness of Mr. Charles Reade's which makes for him many enemies and satirists among minor authors, critics, and artists in London. To a wonderful energy and virility of genius and temperament Charles Reade adds a more than feminine susceptibility and impatience when criticism attempts to touch him. With a faith in his own capacity and an admiration for his own works such as never were surpassed in literary history, he can yet be rendered almost beside himself by a disparaging remark from the obscurest critic in the corner of the poorest provincial newspaper. There is no pen so feeble anywhere but it can sting Charles Reade into something like delirium. He replies to every attack, and he discovers a personal enemy in every critic. Therefore he is always in quarrels, always assailing this man and being assailed by that, and to the very utmost of his power trying to prevent the public from appreciating or even recognizing the wealth of genuine manhood, truth, and feeling, which is bestowed everywhere in the rugged ore of his strange and paradoxical character. I am not myself one of Mr. Reade's friends, or even acquaintances; but from those who are, and whom I know, I have always heard the one opinion of the sterling integrity, kindness, and trueheartedness of the man who so often runs counter to all principles of social amenity, and whose bursts of impulsive ill-humour have offended many who would fain have admired.
I said once before in the pages of The Galaxy, when speaking of another English novelist, that Charles Reade seems to me to rank more highly in America than he does in England. It is only of quite recent years that English criticism of the higher class has treated him with anything like fair consideration. There was a long time of Reade's growing popularity during which such criticism declined altogether to regard him au sérieux. Even now he has not justice done to him. But if I cannot help believing thai Mr. Reade rates himself far too highly, and announces his opinion far too frankly, neither can I help thinking that English criticism in general fails to do him justice. For a long time he had to struggle hard to obtain a mere recognition. He had during part of his early career the good sense, or the spirit, or the misfortune, according as people choose to view it, to write in one of the popular weekly journals of London which correspond somewhat with the New York Ledger. I think Charles Dickens described Reade as the one only man with a genuine literary reputation who at that time had ventured upon such a performance. There are indeed men now of undoubted rank in literature who began their career with work like this; but they did not put their names to it, and the world was never the wiser. Reade worked boldly and worked his best, and put his own name to it, and therefore the London press for some time regarded or affected to regard him as an author of that class whose genius supplies weekly installments of sensation and tremendously high life, to delight the servant girls of Islington and the errand boys of the City. Long after the issue of some of the finest novels Reade has written, the annual publication called "Men of the Time" contained no notice of the author. The odd thing about this is that Reade is an author of the very class which English criticisms of the kind I allude to ought to have delighted to encourage. In the reaction against literary Bohemianism, which of late years hay grown up in England, and which the Saturday Review may be said [193/194] to have inaugurated, it became the whim and fashion to believe that only gentlemen with university degrees, only "blood and culture," as the cant phrase was, could write anything which gentlemanly persons could find it worth their while to read. The Saturday Review for a long time affected to treat Dickens as a good-humored and vulgar buffoon, with a gift of genius to delight the lower classes. It usually regarded Thackeray as a person made for better things, who had forfeited his position as a gentleman and a university man by descending to literature and to lectures. Now Charles Reade is what in the phraseology of English caste would be called a gentleman. He is of good English family; he is a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford. He is man of culture and scholarship. His reading, and especially his classical acquirements, I presume to be far wider and deeper than those of Thackeray, who, it need hardly he said, was as Porson or Parr when compared with Dickens. Altogether Reade seems to have been the sort of man whom the Saturday Review, for example, ought to have taken promptly up and patted on the back and loftily patronized. But nothing of the sort occurred. Reade was treated merely as the clever, audacious concocter of sensational stories. He was hardly dealt with as an artist at all. The reviews only began to come round when they discovered that the public were positively with the new and stirring romancist. What renders this more curious is the fact that the earlier novels were incomparably more highly finished works of art than their successors. Peg Woffington and Christie Johnstone — the former published so long ago as 1852 — seem almost perfect in their symmetry and beauty. The Cloister and the Hearth might well-nigh have persuaded a reader that a new Walter Scott was about to arise on the horizon of our literature. All the more recent works seem crude and rough by comparison. They ought to have been the vigorous, uncouth, undisciplined efforts of the author's earlier years. They ought to have led up to the Cloister and the Hearth and Peg Woffington, instead of succeeding them. Yet, if I am not greatly mistaken, it was while he was publishing those earlier and finer products of his fresh intellect that Charles Reade was especially depreciated and even despised by what is called high-class English criticism. He never indeed has had much for which to thank the English critics, and he has never been slow to express his peculiar sense of obligation; but assuredly they treated with greater respect the works which will be soonest forgotten than those on which he may perhaps rest a claim to a more enduring reputation.
The general public, however, soon began to find him out. Peg Woffington was a decided success. Its dramatic adaptation is still one of the favorite pieces of the English stage. It is Never Too Late to Mend set everybody talking. Reade began to devote himself to exposing this or that social and legal grievance calling for reform, and people came to understand that a new branch of the art of novel-writing was in process of development, the special gift of which was to convert a Parliamentary blue-book into a work of fiction. The treatment of criminals in prisons and in far-off penal settlements, the manner in which patients are dealt with in private lunatic asylums, became the main subject and backbone of the new style of novel, instead of the misunderstandings of lovers, the trials of honest poverty, or the struggles for ascendancy in the fashionable circles of Belgravia. Mr. Reade undoubtedly stands supreme and indeed alone fn work of this kind. No man but he can make a blue-book live and yet, be a blue-book still. When Dickens undertook some special and practical question, we all knew that we had to look for lavish outpouring of humor, [195/196] fancy, and eccentricity, for generous pathos, and for a sentimental misapplication or complete elimination of the actual facts. Miss Martineau made dry little stories about political economy; and Disraeli's Sibyl is only a fashionable novel and a string of tracts bound up together and called by one name. But Reade takes the hard and naked facts as he finds them in some newspaper or in the report of some Parliamentary commission, and he so fuses them into the other material whereof his romance is to be made up that it would require a chemical analysis to separate the fiction from the reality. You are not conscious that you are going through the boiled-down contents of a blue-book. You have no aggrieved sense of being entrapped into the dry details of some harassing social question. The reality reads like romance; the romance carries you along like reality. No author ever indulged in a fairer piece of self-glorification than that contained in the last sentence of Put Yourself in his Place: "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." To this object, to this kind of work, Reade seems to have deliberately purposed to devote himself. It was evidently in accordance with his natural tastes and sympathies. He is a man of exuberant and irrepressible energy. He must be doing something definite always. He did actually bestir himself in the case of a person whom he believed to be unjustly confined in a lunatic asylum, as energetically as he makes Dr. Sampson do in Hard Cash, and with equal success. Most of the scenes he describes, in England at least, have thus in some way fallen in to be part of his own experience. Whatever he undertakes to do he does with a tremendous earnestness. His method of workmanship is, I believe, something like that of Mr. Wilkie Collins, but of course the object is totally different. Wilkie Collins collects all the remarkable police cases and other judicial narratives he can find, and makes what Jean Paul Richtcer called "quarry" of them — a vast accumulation of materials in which to go digging for subjects and illustrations at leisure. Charles Reade does the same with blue-books and the reports of official inquiries. The author of the "Dead Secret" is looking for perplexing little mysteries of human crime; the author of Hard Cash for stories of legal or social wrong to be redressed. I need hardly say, perhaps, that I rank Charles Reade high above Wilkie Collins. The latter can string his dry bones on wires with remarkable ingenuity; the former can, as he fairly boasts, make the dry bones live.
Meanwhile, let us follow out the progress of Mr. Charles Reade as a literary influence. He grows to have a distinct place and power in England quite independently of the reviewers, and at last the very storm of controversy which his books awaken compels the reviewers themselves to take him into account. It is Never Too Late to Mend raised a clamor among prison disciplinarians. Years after its publication it is brought out as a drama in London, and its first appearance creates a sort of riot in the Princess's Theatre. Hostile critics rise in the stalls and denounce it; supporters and admirers vehemently defend it; speeches are made on either side. Mr. Reade plunges into the arena of controversy a day or two after in the newspapers, assails one of the critics by name, and charges him with having denounced the piece in the theatre, and applauded his own denunciation in the journal for which he wrote.[195/196]
Some friend of the critic replies by the assertion that one of Mr. Reade's most enthusiastic literary supporters is Mr. Reade's own nephew. All this sort of thing is dreadfully undignified, but it brings an author at all events into public notice, and it did for Mr. Reade —what I am convinced he would have disdained to do consciously — it "puffed" his books. An amusing story is told in connection with the production of this drama. An East End manager thought of bringing it out. (The East End, I need hardly say, is the lower and poorer quarter of London.) This manager came and studied the piece as produced at the West End. One of the strong scenes, the sensation scene, was a realistic exhibition of prison discipline. The West End had been duly impressed and thrilled with this scene. But the East End manager shook his head. "It would never do for me," he said despondingly to a friend. "Not like the real thing at all. My gallery would never stand it. Bless you, my fellows know the real thing too well to put up with that."
In this, as in other cases, Mr. Reade's hot temper, immense self-conceit, and eager love of controversy plunged him into discussions from which another man would have shrunk with disgust. He went so far on one occasion as to write to the editor of a London daily paper, threatening that if his books were not more fairly dealt with he would order his publisher to withdraw his advertisements from the offending journal. One can fancy what terror the threat of a loss of a few shillings a month would have had upon the proprietors of a flourishing London paper, and the amount of ridicule to which the bare suggestion of such a thing exposed" the irritable novelist. But Reade was, and probably is, incurable. He would keep pelting his peppery little notes at the head of any and everybody against "whom he fancied that he had a grievance. I remember one peculiarly whimsical illustration of this weakness, which found its way into print some years ago in London, but which perhaps will be quite new in the United States, and I cannot resist the temptation to reproduce it. Once upon a time, it would seem from the correspondence, Mr. Reade wrote a play called Gold, which was produced at Drury Lane Theatre. Except from this correspondence I own that I never heard of the play. Subsequently, Mr. Reade presented himself one night at the stage-door of Drury Lane Theatre, and was refused admittance. Mr. Charles Mathews was then performing at the theatre, and Mr. Reade evidently supposed him to have been the manager and responsible for all the arrangements. Therefore he addressed his complaint to the incomparable light comedian, who is as renowned for easy sparkling humor and wit off the stage as for brilliant acting on it. Here is the correspondence; and we shall see how much Mr. Reade took by his motion:
GARRICK CLUB, COVENT GARDEN, November 28.
DEAR SIR : I was stopped the other night at the stage-door of Drury Lane Theatre by people whom I remember to have seen at the Lyceum under your reign.
This is the first time such an affront was ever put upon me in any theatre where I had produced a play, and is without precedent unless when an affront was intended. As I never forgive an affront, I am not hasty to suppose one intended. It is very possible that this was done inadvertently; and the present stage-list may have been made out without the older claims being examined.
Will you be so kind as to let me know at once whether this is so, and if the people who stopped me at the stage-door are yours, will you protect the author of Gold, etc., from any repetition of such an annoyance?
I am, dear sir, yours faithfully,
To this imperious demand Mr. Reade received next day the following genial answer:
T. R., DRURY LANE, November 29.
Dear SIR : If ignorance is bliss on general occasions, on the present it certainly would be folly to be wise. I am therefore happy to be able to inform you that I am ignorant of your having produced a play at this theatre; ignorant that you are the author of Gold; ignorant of the merits of that play; ignorant that your name has been erased from the list at the stage-door; ignorant that it had ever been on it; ignorant that you had presented yourself for admittance; ignorant that it had been refused; ignorant that such a refusal was without precedent; ignorant that in the man who stopped you recognized one of the persons lately with me at the Lyceum; ignorant that the doorkeeper was ever in that theatre; ignorant that you never forgive an affront; ignorant that any had been offered; ignorant of when, how, or by whom the list was made out, and equally so by whom it was altered.
Allow me to add that I am quite incapable of offering any discourtesy to a gentleman I have barely the pleasure of knowing, and moreover have no power whatever to interfere with Mr. Smith's arrangements or disarrangements; and, with this wholesale admission of ignorance, incapacity, and impotence, believe me
C. T. MATHEWS.
CHARLES READE, ESQ.
The correspondence got into print somehow, and created, I need hardly say, infinite merriment in the literary clubs and circles of London. Not all disputes with Charles Reade ended so humorously, for the British novelist is as fond of actions at law as Fenimore Cooper used to be. Thus more than one critic has had to dread the terrors of an action for damages when he has ventured in a rash moment to disparage the literary value of Mr. Readers teaching. Lately, however, in the case of the Times, and its attack on A Terrible Temptation, Mr. Reade adopted the unexpected tone of mild and even flattering remonstrance. Whether he thought it hopeless to alarm the Times by any threat of action, or feared that if he wrote a savage letter the journal would not even give him the comfort of seeing it in print, I do not know. But he certainly took a meek tone and endeavored to propitiate, and got rather coarsely rebuked for his pains. People in London were amused to find that he could be thus mild and gentle. I do remember, however, that on one occasion he wrote a letter of remonstrance, which was probably intended to he a kind of rugged compliment to the Saturday Review, a paper which likewise cares nothing about actions for damages. Usually, however, his tone of argument with his critics is perfervid, and his estimate of himself is exquisitely candid. In one of his manifestoes lie assured the world that he never allowed a publisher to offer any suggestions with regard to his story, but simply sold the manuscript in bulk — "c'est a prendre ou a laisser." In another instance he spoke of one of his novels as "floating" the serial publication in which it was making its appearance, and which we were therefore given to understand would havw sank to the bottom but for his cooperation. In short, it is well known in London that Mr. diaries Readers character is disfigured by a self-conceit which amounts to something like mania, and an impatience of criticism which occasionally makes him all hut a laughing-stock to the public. Rarely, indeed, in literary history have high and genuine talents been united with such a flatulence of self-conceit.
Probably Reade had reached his highest position just after the publication of Hard Cash. This remarkable novel, crammed with substance enough to make half a dozen novels, appeared in the first instance in Dickens's All the year Round. Dickens himself, if I remember rightly, felt bound to publish a [197/198] note disclaiming any concurrence in or personal responsibility for the attacks on the private madhouse system, and the whole subject aroused a very lively controversy, wherein, I think, Reade certainly was not worsted. The Griffith Gaunt controversy we all remember. I confess that I have no sympathy whatever with the kind of criticism which treats any of Mr. Reade's works as immoral in tendency, and I think the charge was even more absurd when urged against Griffith Gaunt than when pressed against the Terrible Temptation. To me the clear tendency of Reade's novels seems always healthy, purifying, and bracing, like a fresh, strong breeze. I cannot understand how any man or woman could be the worse for reading one of them. They are always novels with a purpose, and I, at least, never could discern any purpose in them which was not honest and sound. I feel inclined to excuse all Reade's vehemence of self-vindication and childish frankness of self-praise when I read some of the attacks against what people try to paint as the immorality of his books. But I need not go into that controversy. Enough to say for my own part that I found Griffith Gaunt a grim and dreary book — a tiresome book, in fact; but I saw nothing in it which could with any justice be said to have the slightest tendency to demoralize any reader. I have indeed heard people who are in general fair critics condemn Adam Bede as immoral because Hetty is seduced, and I have even heard poor Maggie Tulliver rated as unfit for decent society because she even allowed even a moment's thought of her cousin's engaged lover to enter her mind. On this principle, doubtless, Griffith Gaunt is immoral. There are people in the book who commit sin, and yet are not eaten by lions or bodily carried down below like Don Juan. But if we are to have novels made up only of good people who always do right and the one stock villain who always does wrong, I think the novelist's art cannot too soon be delegated to its only fitting province — the amusement of the nursery. Griffith Gaunt, however, I regard as a falling off, because it, is a sour, unpleasant, and therefore inartistic book. Foul Play was a clever tour de force, a brilliant thing, made to sell, with hardly more character in it than would suffice for a Bowery melodrama. Put Your self in his Place was a wholesome return to the former style, a marrowy, living blue-book, instinct with power and passion. A Terrible Temptation I do not admire. I do not think it immoral, but it hardly calls for any deliberate criticism. Since Hard Cash Mr. Keade has, in my opinion, written only one novel which the literary world will care to preserve, and even that one, Put Yourself in his Place, can hardly be said to add one cubit to his stature.
Mr. Reade has, I believe, rather a passion for dramatic enterprise, and a characteristic faith in his power to turn out a good drama. A season or two back he hired, I am told, a London theatre, in order to have the complete superintendence of the production of one of his novels turned into a drama. I have been assured that the dramatic version was accomplished entirely by himself. If so, I am sure no enemy could have more cruelly damaged the original work. All the character was completely sponged out of it. The one really effective and original personage in the novel did not appear in the play. A number of the most antique and conventional melodramatic situations and sur- prises were crammed into the piece. All the silly old stage business about mysterious conspiracies carried on under the very ear of the identical person- age who never ought to have been allowed to hear them are called in to form an essential feature of the drama. The play, of course, was not successful, although the novel had in it naturally all the elements of a stirring and powerful drama. If Charles Reade really with his own hand converted a vigorous and [198/199] thrilling story into that limp, languid, and vapid play, it was surely the most awful warning against amateur dramatic enterprise that ever self-conceit could receive undismayed.
Of course we won't rank Mr. Reade as one of the most popular novelists now in England. But his popularity is something very different indeed from that of Dickens, or even from that of Thackeray. In Forster's Life of Dickens there is a letter of the great novelist's in which he complains of having been treated (by Bentley, I think) no better than any author who had sold but fifteen hundred copies. I should think the occasions were very rare when Mr. Reade's circulation in England went much beyond fifteen hundred copies. The whole system of publishing is so different in England from that which prevails in America, our fictitious prices and the controlling monopoly of our great libraries so restrict and limit the sale, that a New York reader would perhaps hardly believe how small a number constitute a good circulation for an English novelist. I assume that, speaking roughly, Reade, Wilkie Collins, and Trollope may be said to have about the same kind of circulation — almost immeasurably below Dickens, and below some such abnormal sale as that of Lothair or Lady Audley's Secret, but much above even the best of the younger novelists. I venture to think that not one of these three popular and successful authors may be counted on to reach a circulation of two thousand copies. Probably about eighteen hundred copies would be a decidedly good thing for one of Charles Reade's novels. Of the three, I should say that Wilkie Collins has the most eager readers; that Trollope's novels take the highest place in what is called "society", and that Reade's rank the best among men of brains. But there is so wide a difference between the popularity of Dickens and that of Reade that it seems almost absurd to employ the same word to describe two things so utterly unlike. It is, indeed, a remarkable proof of Reade's power and success that, selling out as he always does to tell a story which shall convey information and a purpose of some practical kind, he can get any sort of large circulation at all. For one great charm and excellence of our library system is that it creates a huge class of regular, I might almost say professional, novel-readers, who subscribe to Mudie's by the year, want to get all the reading they can out of it, and instinctively shudder at the thought of any novel that is weighted by solid information and overtaxing thought. This is the class for whom and by whom the circulating libraries exist, and Mr. Reade deserves the full credit of having utterly disregarded them, or rather boldly encountered them, and at least to some extent compelled them to read him.
Mr. Reade's position as a novelist may be adjudged now as safely as ever a novelist's place can be fixed by a contemporary generation. He is nearly sixty years old, and he has written about a dozen novels. It is not likely that he will ever write anything which could greatly enhance the estimate the public have already formed of him; and no future failures could affect his past success. I think his career is, therefore, fairly and fully before us. We know how singularly limited his dramatis personae are. He marches them on and off the stage boldly ever so often, and by a change of dresses every now and ihen be for a while almost succeeds in making us believe that he has a very full company at his command. But we soon get to know every one by sight, and can swear to him or her, no matter by what name or garb disguised. We know the sweet, impulsive, incoherent heroine, who is always contradicting herself and saying what she ought not to say and does not mean to say; who now denounces the hero, and then falls upon his neck and vows that she loves him more than life. This young woman is sometimes Julia and sometimes [199/200] Helen and sometimes Grace; she now is exiled for awhile on a lonely island, and even she is carried away by a flood; but in every case she is just the same girl rescued by the same hero. That hero is always a being of wonderful mechanical and scientific knowledge of some kind or other, whether as Captain Dodd lie makes love to Lucy Fountain, or as Henry Little he captivates Grace Garden, or as the gentleman in Foul Play he cures the heroine of consumption and builds island huts better than Robinson Crusoe. Then we have the rough, clever, eccentric personage. Dr. Sampson or Dr. Amboyne, whose business principally is to act a part like that of Herr Mittler in Goethe's novel, and help the characters of the book through every difficulty. Then we have the white-livered sneak, the villain of the book when lie is bad enough for such a part; the Coventry of Put Yourself in his Place; I forget what his name is in Foul Play. These are the puppets which principally make up the show. Very vigorously and cleverly do they dance, and capitally do they imitate life; but there are so very few of them that we grow a little tired of seeing them over and over again. Indeed, Charles Reade's array of characters sometimes reminds us of the simple system of Plautus, in which we have for every play the same types of people — the rather stingy father, the embarrassed lover, the clever comic slave, and so forth. It cannot be said that Reade has added a single character to notion. He understands human nature, or at least such types of it as he habitually selects, very well, and he draws vigorously his figures and groups; but he has discovered nothing fresh, he has rescued no existence from the commonplace and evanescent realistics of life, to be preserved immortal in a work of art. Not one of his characters is cited in ordinary conversation or in the writings of journalists. Nobody quotes from him unless in reference to some one of the stirring social topics which he has illustrated, and even then only as one would quote from a correspondent of the Times. Every educated man and woman in England is assumed, as a matter of course, to be familiar with the works of George Eliot; but nobody is necessarily assumed to have read Charles Reade. That educated people do read him and do admire him is certain; but it is quite a matter of option with them to read him or let him alone so far as society and public opinion are concerned. There are certain tests and evidences of a novelist's having attained a front-rank place in England which are unmistakable. They are purely social, may be only superficial, and will neither one way nor the other affect the views of foreign critics or of posterity; but they are decisive as far as England is concerned. Among them I shall mention two or three. One is the fact those writers in the press allude to some of his characters without feeling bound to explain in whose novel and what novel the characters appear. Another is the fact that artists voluntarily select from his works subjects for paintings to be sent to the Royal Academy annual exhibition or elsewhere. A third is the fact that articles about him, not formal reviews of a work just published, appear pretty often in the magazines. Now, whatever may be the genius and merits of an author, I think he cannot be said to have attained the front rank in English public opinion unless he can show these evidences of success; and, so far as I know. Mr. Reade cannot show any of them. For myself, I do not believe that Mr. Reade ever could under any circumstances have become a really great novelist. All the higher gifts of imagination and all the richer veins of humor have been denied to him. Not one gleam of poetic fancy ever seems to have floated across the nervous Saxon of his style. He is a powerful story-teller, who has a manly purpose in every tale lie tells, and that is all. That surely is a great deal. No one tells a, story more thrillingly. Once you begin to listen, you [200/201] cannot release yourself from the spell of the raconteur until all be done. A strong, healthy air of honest and high purpose breathes through nearly all the stories. An utter absence of cant, affectation, and sham distinguishes them. A surprising variety of descriptive power, at once bold, broad, and realistic is one of their great merit. Mr. Reade can describe a sea-fight, a storm, the forging of a horseshoe, the ravages of an inundation, the trimming of a lady's dress, the tuning of a piano, witli equal accuracy and apparent zest. I once heard an animated discussion in a literary club as to whether the scrap of minute description was artistic and effective or absurd and ludicrous which makes us acquainted with the fact that when Henry Little dragged Grace Garden out of the raging flood, the force of the water washed away the heroine's stockings and garters and left her barefoot. Some irreverent critics would only laugh at the gravity with which the author detailed this important circumstance. Others, however, insisted that this little touch, so homely, and to the profane mind so exceedingly ridiculous, was necessary and artistic; that it heightened the effect of the great word-picture, previously shown by the force of its practical and circumstantial reality. However this momentous controversy may settle itself in the estimation of readers, it cannot be denied that some at least of Reader success is due to the courage and self-reliance which will brave the risk of being ridiculous for the sake of being real and effective. Indeed, Mr. Reade wants no quality which is necessary to make a powerful story-teller, while he is distinguished from all mere story-tellers by the fact that he has some great social object to serve in nearly everything he undertakes to detail. More than this I do not believe he is, nor, despite the evidences of something yet higher which were given in Christie Johnstone and The Cloister and the Hearth, do I think he ever could have been. He is a magnificent specimen of the modern special correspondent, endowed with the additional and unique gift of a faculty for throwing his report into the form of a thrilling story. But it requires something more than this, something higher than this, to make a great novelist whom the world will always remember. Mr. Reade is unsurpassed in the second class of English novelists, but he does not belong to the front rank. His success has been great in its way, but it is for an age and not for time.
McCarthy, Justin. Modern Leaders: Being a Series of Biographical Sketches. New York: Sheldon, 1872. 192-201.
Last modified 24 June 2004