The Cloister and the Hearth; Or, Maid, Wife, and Widow


A Matter-Of-Fact Romance. By CHARLES READE, Author of “Never too Late to Mend,” etc., etc. New York : Rudd & Carleton. 8vo.
THE novels of Charles Reade are generally marked not only by individuality of genius, but by individualisms of egotism and caprice. The latter provoke the reader almost as much as the former gives him delight. It disturbs the least critical mind to find the keenest insight in company with the loudest bravado, and the statement of a wise or beautiful thought followed up by a dogmatic assertion of infallibility as harsh as a slap on the face. The indisposition to recognize such a genius comes from the fact that he irritates as well as stimulates the minds he addresses. Everybody reads him, but the feeling he inspires is made up of admiration and exasperation. The public is both delighted and insulted. He not only does not attempt to conceal his contemptuous sense of superiority to common men, but he absolutely screeches and bawls it out. Fearful that the dull Anglo-Saxon mind cannot appreciate his finest strokes, he emphasizes his inspirations not merely by Italics, but by capitals, thus conveying his brightest wit and deepest contrivances by a kind of typographic yell. Were there not a solid foundation of observation, learning, genius, and conscience to his work, his egotistic eccentricities would awake a tempest of hisses. Being, in reality, superficial and not central, they are readily pardoned by discerning critics. Even these, however, must object to his disposition to cluck or crow, in a manner altogether unseemly, whenever he hits upon a thought of more than ordinary delicacy or depth.
It is but just to say, in palliation of this fault, that Mr. Reade’s insolent tone is not peculiar to him. It characterizes almost every prominent person who has attempted to mould the opinions of the age. We find it in Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Kingsley, as well as in Reade. Modesty is not the characteristic of the genius of the nineteenth century; and the last thing we look for in any powerful work of the present day is toleration for other minds and opposing opinions. Each capable person who puts in his thumb and pulls out a plum draws instantly the same inference which occurred to the first explorer of the Cliristmas-pie. Charles Reade has no reservation at all, and boldly echoes Master Horner’s sage conclusion.
“The Cloister and the Hearth,” in spite of its faults, is really a great book. It is a positive contribution to history as well as to romance. It would be vain to point to any other volume which could convey to common minds so clear and accurate a conception of European life in the fifteenth century as this. The author has deeply studied the annals, memoirs, and histories which record the peculiarities of that life, and he has carried into the study a knowledge of those powers and passions of human nature which are the same in every age. The result is a “ romance of history” which contains more essential truth than the most labored histories ; for the writer is a man who has both the heart to feel and the imagination to conceive the realities of the time about which he writes.
The characterization of the book is original, various, and powerful. It ranges from the lowest hind to the most exquisite representative of female tenderness and purity. The scenes of passion show a clear conception of and a strong hold upon the emotional elements of character, and a capacity to exhibit their most terrible workings in language which seems identical with the feelings it so burningly expresses. In vigor and vividness of description and narration the novel excels any of Reade’s previous books. The plot is about the same as that of “ The Good Fight,” though the dénouement is different. “ The Cloister and the Hearth,” indeed, incorporates “ The Good Fight ” in its pages, but the latter forms not more than a fourth of the extended work. Altogether the romance must be classed among the best which have appeared during the last twenty years.