The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 82/Charles Reade
Some one lately took occasion, in passing, to class Charles Reade with the clever writers of the day, sandwiching him between Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins,—for no other reason, apparently, than that he never, with Chinese accuracy, gives us gossiping drivel that reduces life to the dregs of the commonplace, or snarls us in any inextricable tangle of plots.
Charles Reade is not a clever writer merely, but a great one,—how great, only a careful résumé of his productions can tell us. We know too well that no one can take the place of him who has just left us, and who touched so truly the chords of every passion; but out of the ranks some one must step now to the leadership so deserted,—for Dickens reigns in another region,—and whether or not it shall be Charles Reade depends solely upon his own election: no one else is so competent, and nothing but wilfulness or vanity need prevent him,—the wilfulness of persisting in certain errors, or the vanity of assuming that he has no farther to go. He needs to learn the calmness of a less variable temperature and a truer equilibrium, less positive sharpness and more philosophy; he will be a thorough master, when the subject glows in his forge and he himself remains unheated.
He is about the only writer we have who gives us anything of himself. Quite unconsciously, every sentence he writes is saturated with his own identity; he is, then, a man of courage, and—the postulate assumed that we are not speaking of fools—courage in such case springs only from two sources, carelessness of opinion and possession of power. Now no one, of course, can be entirely indifferent to the audience he strives to please; and it would seem, then, that that daring which is the first element of success arises here from innate capacity. Unconsciously, as we have said, is it that our author is self-betrayed, for he is by nature so peculiarly a raconteur that he forgets himself entirely in seizing the prominent points of his story; and it is to this that his chief fault is attributable,—the want of elaboration,—a fault, however, which he has greatly overcome in his later books, where, leaving sketchy outlines, he has given us one or two complete and perfect pictures. His style, too, owes some slight debt to this fact; it has been saved thereby from offensive mannerism, and yet given traits of its own insusceptible of imitation,—for by mannerism we mean affectations of language, not absurdities of type.
There is a racy verve and vigor in Charles Reade's style, which, after the current inanities, is as inspiriting as a fine breeze on the upland; it tingles with vitality; he seems to bring to his work a superb physical strength, which he employs impartially in the statement of a trifle or the storming of a city; and if on this page he handles a ship in a sea-fight with the skill and force of a Viking, on the other he picks up a pin cleaner of the adjacent dust than weaker fingers would do it. There is no trace of the stale, flat, and unprofitable here; the books are fairly alive, and that gesture tells their author best with which a great actress once portrayed to us the poet Browning, rolling her hands rapidly over one another, while she threw them up in the air, as if she would describe a bubbling, boiling fountain.
Charles Reade is the prose for Browning. The temperament of the two in their works is almost identical, having first allowed for the delicate femineity proper to every poet; and the richness that Browning lavishes till it strikes the world no more than the lavish gold of the sun, the lavish blue of the sky, Reade, taking warning, hoards, and lets out only by glimpses. Yet such glimpses! for beauty and brilliancy and strength, when they do occur, unrivalled. Yet never does he desert his narrative for them one moment; on the contrary, we might complain that he almost ignores the effect of Nature on various moods and minds: in a volume of six hundred pages, the sole bit of so-called fine writing is the following, justified by the prominence of its subject in the incidents, and showing in spite of itself a certain masculine contempt for the finicalities of language:—
"The leaves were many shades deeper and richer than any other tree could show for a hundred miles round,—a deep green, fiery, yet soft; and then their multitude,—the staircases of foliage, as you looked up the tree, and could scarce catch a glimpse of the sky,—an inverted abyss of color, a mound, a dome, of flake-emeralds that quivered in the golden air.
"And now the sun sets,—the green leaves are black,—the moon rises,—her cold light shoots across one-half that giant stem.
"How solemn and calm stands the great round tower of living wood, half ebony, half silver, with its mighty cloud above of flake-jet leaves tinged with frosty fire at one edge!"
This oak was in Brittany,—the very one, perhaps, before which,
"So hollow, huge, and old,
It looked a tower of ruined mason-work,
At Merlin's feet the wileful Vivien lay."
Indeed, Brittany seems a kind of fairy-land to many writers. Tennyson, Spenser, Matthew Arnold, Reade, all locate some one of their choicest scenes there. The reason is not, perhaps, very remote. We prate about the Anglo-Saxon blood; yet, in reality, there is very little of it to prate about, especially in the educated classes. When the British were driven from their island, they took refuge in Wales and Brittany. When William the Norman conquered that island again, his force was chiefly composed of the descendants of those very Britons; for so feeble was the genuine Norse element that it had been long since absorbed, and in the language of the Norman—used until a late day upon certain records in England—there is not one single word of Scandinavian origin. Thus it was neither French nor Norman nor Scandinavian invading the white cliffs, but the exiled Briton reconquering his native land; and, to make the fact still stronger, the army of Richmond, Henry VII., was entirely recruited in Brittany. Perhaps, then, the reason that Brittany is to many a region of romance and delight is a feeling akin to the pleasure we take in visiting some ancestral domain from whose soil our fathers once drew their being.
The Breton novel of Mr. Reade, "White Lies," although somewhat crude, otherwise ranks with his best. The action is uninterrupted and swift, the characters sharply defined, if legendary, the dialogue always sparkling, the plot cleanly executed, the whole full of humor and seasoned with wit. So well has it caught the spirit of the scene that it reads like a translation, and, lest we should mistake the locale, everybody in the book lies abominably from beginning to end.
"'A lie is a lump of sin and a piece of folly,' cries Jacintha.
"Edouard notes it down, and then says, in allusion to a previous remark of hers,—
"'I did not think you were five-and-twenty, though.'
"'I am, then,—don't you believe me?'
"'Why not? Indeed, how could I disbelieve you after your lecture?'
"'It is well,' said Jacintha, with dignity.
"She was twenty-seven by the parish-books."
There is a good deal of picturesque beauty in this volume, and at the opening of its affairs there occurs a paragraph which we appropriate, not merely for its merit, nor because it is the only "interior" that we can recall in all his novels, but because also it contains a characteristically fearless measuring of swords with a great champion:—
"A spacious saloon panelled: dead, but snowy white picked out sparingly with gold. Festoons of fruit and flowers finely carved in wood on some of the panels. These also not smothered with gilding, but as it were gold speckled here and there like tongues of flame winding among insoluble snows. . . . . Midway from the candle to the distant door its twilight deepened, and all became shapeless and sombre. The prospect ended half-way, sharp and black, as in those out-o'-door closets imagined and painted by Mr. Turner, whose Nature (Mr. Turner's) comes to a full stop as soon as Mr. Turner sees no further occasion for her, instead of melting by fine expanse and exquisite gradation into genuine distance, as Nature does in Claude and in Nature. To reverse the picture: standing at the door, you looked across forty feet of black, and the little corner seemed on fire, and the fair heads about the candle shone like the heads of St. Cecilias and Madonnas in an antique stained-glass window. At last Laure [Laure Aglaë Rose de Beaurepaire,—would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?] observed the door open, and another candle glowed upon Jacintha's comely peasant-face in the doorway; she dived into the shadow, and emerged into light again close to the table, with napkins on her arm."
The book abounds, as indeed all its companions do, in quaint passages, comical turns of a word, shrewd sayings,—of which a handful:—
"'Now you know,' said Dard, 'if I am to do this little job to-day, I must start.'
"'Who keeps you?' was the reply.
"Thus these two loved."
Dard, by the way, being an entirely new addition to the novelists' corps dramatique, and almost a Shakspearian character.
"It was her feelings, her confidence, the little love wanted,—not her secret: that lay bare already to the shrewd young minx,—I beg her pardon,—lynx."
Another involves a curious philosophy, summed up in the following formula:—
"She does not love him quite enough.
"He loves her a little too much. Cure,—marriage."
But there are one or two scenes in this tale of "White Lies" perfectly matchless for fire and spirit; and to support the assertion, the reader must allow a citation. And he will pardon the first for the sake of the others, since Josephine is the betrothed of Camille Dujardin.
"When he uttered these terrible words, each of which was a blow with a bludgeon to the Baroness, the old lady, whose courage was not equal to her spirit, shrank over the side of her arm-chair, and cried piteously,—'He threatens me! he threatens me! I am frightened!'—and put up her trembling hands, so suggestive was the notary's eloquence of physical violence. Then his brutality received an unexpected check. Imagine that a sparrow-hawk had seized a trembling pigeon, and that a royal falcon swooped, and with one lightning-like stroke of body and wing buffeted him away, and there he was on his back, gaping and glaring and grasping at nothing with his claws. So swift and irresistible, but far more terrible and majestic, Josephine de Beaurepaire came from her chair with one gesture of her body between her mother and the notary, who was advancing on her with arms folded in a brutal menacing way,—not the Josephine we have seen her, the calm, languid beauty, but the Demoiselle de Beaurepaire,—her great heart on fire, her blood up,—not her own only, but all the blood of all the De Beaurepaires,—pale as ashes with wrath, her purple eyes flaring, and her whole panther-like body ready either to spring or strike.
"'Slave! you dare to insult her, and before me! Arrière, misérable! or I soil my hand with your face!'
"And her hand was up with the word, up, up,—higher it seemed than ever a hand was lifted before. And if he had hesitated one moment, I believe it would have come down; and if it had, he would have gone to her feet before it: not under its weight,—the lightning is not heavy,—but under the soul that would have struck with it. But there was no need: the towering threat and the flaming eye and the swift rush buffeted the caitiff away: he recoiled three steps, and nearly fell down. She followed him as he went, strong in that moment as Hercules, beautiful and terrible as Michael driving Satan. He dared not, or rather he could not, stand before her: he writhed and cowered and recoiled down the room while she marched upon him. Then the driven serpent hissed as it wriggled away.
"'For all this, she too shall be turned out of Beaurepaire,—not like me, but forever! I swear it, parolé de Perrin!'
"'She shall never be turned out! I swear it, foi de De Beaurepaire!'
"'You, too, daughter of Sa———'
"'Tais toi, et sors à l'instant même! Lâche!'
"The old lady moaning and trembling and all but fainting in her chair; the young noble like destroying angel, hand in air, and great eye scorching and withering; and the caitiff wriggling out at the door, wincing with body and head, his knees knocking, his heart panting, yet raging, his teeth gnashing, his cheek livid, his eye gleaming with the fire of hell."
Too much of this sort of thing becomes meretricious; a man is never the master of his subject, when he suffers himself to be carried away by it. And though a fault of haste is pardonable, when lost in fine execution, we must acknowledge that there is certainly something very "Frenchy" in this scene,—a remark, though, which can hardly be considered as derogatory, when we remember that altogether the most readable fiction of the day is French itself. Our author is evidently a great admirer of Victor Hugo, though he is no such careful artist in language: he seldom closes with such tremendous subjects as that adventurous writer attempts; but he has all the sharp antithesis, the pungent epigram of the other, and in his freest flight, though he peppers us as prodigally with colons, he never becomes absurd, which the other is constantly on the edge of being.
The next scene which we adduce is that where the battered figure of a pale, grisly man walks into the garrison-town of Bayonne, after a three-years' absence, explained only to his disgrace, mutely overcomes the guard, and rings the bell of the Governor's house.
"The servant left him in the hall, and went up-stairs to tell his master. At the name, the Governor reflected, then frowned, then bade his servant reach him down a certain book. He inspected it.
"'I thought so: any one with him?'
"'No, Monsieur the Governor.'
"'Load my pistols: put them on the table: put that book back: show him in: and then order a guard to the door.'
"The Governor was a stern veteran, with a powerful brow, a shaggy eyebrow, and a piercing eye. He never rose, but leaned his chin on his hand, and his elbow on a table that stood between them, and eyed the new-comer very fixedly and strangely.
"'We did not expect to see you on this side of the Pyrenees.'
"'Nor I myself, Governor.'
"'What do you come to me for?'
"'A welcome, a suit of regimentals, and money to take me to Paris.'
"'And suppose, instead of that, I turn out a corporal's guard, and bid them shoot you in the court-yard?'
"'It would be the drollest thing you ever did, all things considered,' said the other, coolly; but he looked a little surprised.
"The Governor went for the book he had lately consulted, found the page, handed it to the rusty officer, and watched him keenly: the blood rushed all over his face, and his lip trembled; but his eye dwelt stern, yet sorrowful, on the Governor.
"'I have read your book: now read mine.'
"He drew off his coat, and showed his wrists and arms, blue and waled.
"'Can you read that, Monsieur?'
"'All the better for you! Spanish fetters, General.'
"He showed a white scar on his shoulder.
"'Can you read that, Sir?'
"'This is what I cut out of it,'—and he handed the Governor a little round stone, as big and almost as regular as a musket-ball.
"'Humph! that could hardly have been fired from a French musket.'
"'Can you read this?'—and he showed him a long cicatrix on his other arm.
"'Knife, I think?' said the Governor.
"'You are right, Monsieur: Spanish knife!—Can you read this?'—and opening his bosom, he showed a raw and bloody wound on his breast.
"'Oh, the Devil!' cried the General.
"The wounded man put his coat on again, and stood erect and haughty and silent.
"The General eyed him, and saw his great spirit shining through this man. The more he looked, the less could the scarecrow veil the hero from his practised eye.
"'There has been some mistake, or else I dote—and can't tell a soldier from a'———
"'Don't say the word, old man, or your heart will bleed!'
"'Humph! I must go into this matter at once. Be seated, Captain, if you please, and tell me what have you been doing all these years?'
"'What, all the time?'
"'But what? suffering what?'
"'Cold, hunger, darkness, wounds, solitude, sickness, despair, prison,—all that man can suffer.'
"'Impossible! a man would be dead at that rate before this.'
"'I should have died a dozen times, but for one thing.'
"'Ay! what was that?'
"'I had promised to live.'
"There was a pause. Then the old man said, calmly,—
"'To the facts, young man: I listen.'"
And high time, be it said; since it begins to read very much like one of Artemas Ward's burlesques. The upshot of which listening was, that the man left for Paris directly in the demanded regimentals, and wrapt about with the Governor's furred cloak to boot; that he would not delay in the metropolis one moment, even to put on the epaulets they gave him, but saved them for his sweetheart to make him a colonel with, and, though weary and torn with pain, galloped away to the Château de Beaurepaire, to find that sweetheart another man's wife.
"He turned his back quickly on her. 'To the army!' he cried, hoarsely. He drew himself haughtily up in marching-attitude. He took three strides, erect and fiery and bold. At the fourth the great heart snapped, and the worn body it had held up so long rolled like a dead log upon the ground, with a tremendous fall."
Which scene must be followed by its pendant, taking place during the siege of a Prussian town, when, from the enemy's bastion, Long Tom, out of range of Dujardin's battery, was throwing red-hot shot, sending half a hundred-weight of iron up into the clouds, and plunging it down into the French lines a mile off.
"'Volunteers to go out of the trenches!' cried Sergeant La Croix, in a stentorian voice, standing erect as a poker, and swelling with importance.
"There were fifty offers in less than as many seconds.
"'Only twelve allowed to go,' said the Sergeant; 'and I am one,' added he, adroitly inserting himself.
"A gun was taken down, placed on a carriage, and posted near Death's Alley, but out of the line of fire.
"The Colonel himself superintended the loading of this gun; and to the surprise of his men had the shot weighed first, and then weighed out the powder himself.
"He then waited quietly a long time, till the bastion pitched one of its periodical shots into Death's Alley; but no sooner had the shot struck, and sent the sand flying past the two lanes of curious noses, than Colonel Dujardin jumped upon the gun and waved his cocked hat. At this preconcerted signal, his battery opened fire on the bastion, and the battery to his right hand opened on the wall that fronted them; and the Colonel gave the word to run the gun out of the trenches. They ran it out into the cloud of smoke their own guns were belching forth, unseen by the enemy; but they had no sooner twisted it into the line of Long Tom than the smoke was gone, and there they were, a fair mark.
"'Back into the trenches, all but one!' roared Dujardin.
"And in they ran like rabbits.
"'Quick! the elevation.'
"Colonel Dujardin and La Croix raised the muzzle to the mark,—hoo! hoo! hoo! ping! ping! ping' came the bullets about their ears.
"'Away with you!' cried the Colonel, taking the linstock from him.
"Then Colonel Dujardin, fifteen yards from the trenches, in full blazing uniform, showed two armies what one intrepid soldier can do. He kneeled down and adjusted his gun, just as he would have done in a practising-ground. He had a pot-shot to take, and a pot-shot he would take. He ignored three hundred muskets that were levelled at him. He looked along his gun, adjusted it and readjusted to a hair's-breadth. The enemy's bullets pattered over it; still he adjusted and readjusted. His men were groaning and tearing their hair inside at his danger.
"At last it was levelled to his mind, and then his movements were as quick as they had hitherto been slow. In a moment he stood erect in the half-fencing attitude of a gunner, and his linstock at the touch-hole: a huge tongue of flame, a volume of smoke, a roar, and the iron thunderbolt was on its way, and the Colonel walked haughtily, but rapidly, back to the trenches: for in all this no bravado. He was there to make a shot,—not to throw a chance of life away, watching the effect.
"Ten thousand eyes did that for him.
"Both French and Prussians risked their own lives, craning out to see what a colonel in full uniform was doing under fire from a whole line of forts, and what would be his fate: but when he fired the gun, their curiosity left the man and followed the iron thunderbolt.
"For two seconds all was uncertain: the ball was travelling.
"Tom gave a rear like a wild horse, his protruding muzzle went up sky-high, then was seen no more, and a ring of old iron and a clatter of fragments were heard on the top of the bastion. Long Tom was dismounted. Oh, the roar of laughter and triumph from one end to another of the trenches, and the clapping of forty thousand hands, that went on for full five minutes! then the Prussians, either through a burst of generous praise for an act so chivalrous and so brilliant, or because they would not be crowed over, clapped their ten thousand hands as loudly, and thundering heart-thrilling salvo of applause answered salvo on both sides that terrible arena."
If all this was melodramatic, it should be remembered that the time was melodramatic itself; it is, however, saved from such accusation by the truthfulness of the handling; and the homeliness of a portion of it recalls the ballad of "Up at the villa, down in the city," with its speeches of drum and fife. Nevertheless, here are combined the true elements of modern sensational writing: there are the broad canvas, the vivid colors, the abrupt contrast, all the dramatic and startling effects that weekly fiction affords, the supernatural heroine, the more than mortal hero. What, then, rescues it? It would be hard to reply. Perhaps the reckless, rollicking wit: we cannot censure one who makes us laugh with him. Perhaps nothing but the writer's exuberant and superabundant vitality, which through such warp shoots a golden woof till it is filled and interwoven with the true glance and gleam of genius. The difference between these pages and that of the previously mentioned style is the same as exists between any coarse scene-curtain and some glorious painting, be it Church, with his tropical lushness, or Gifford, with his shaking, shining mists,—
Like a vaporous amethyst,
Or an air-dissolved star
Mingling light and fragrance far
As the curved horizon's bound,"—
some canvas that seems to palpitate and live and tremble with the breathing being confided to it by the painter. Indeed, Charles Reade has a great deal of this pictorial power. A single sentence will sometimes give not only the sketch, but all its tints. Take, for instance, the paragraph in which, speaking of the Newhaven fish-wives, he says, "It is a race of women that the Northern sun peachifies instead of rosewoodizing"; and it is as good as that picture of the "Two Grandmothers," where the rosy woman with her rosy troop is confronted by the tawny sunburnt gypsy and her swarthy group of dancing-girl and tambourine-tosser.
When "Peg Woffington" first fell upon us, a dozen years ago or so, Humdrum opened his eyes: it was like setting one's teeth in a juicy pear fresh from the warm sunshine. Then came "Christie Johnstone," a perfect pearl of its kind, in which we recognize an important contribution to one class of romance. If ever the literature of the fishing-coast shall be compiled, it will be found to be scanty, but superlative; let us suggest that it shall open with Lucy Larcom's "Poor Lone Hannah," the most touching and tearful of the songs of New-England life,—followed by Christie Johnstone's night at sea among the blue-lights and the nets with their silver and lightning mixed, where the fishers struggle with that immense sheet varnished in red-hot silver,—and at the end let not the "Pilot's Pretty Daughter" of William Allingham's be forgotten:—
"Were it my lot—there peeped a wish—
To hand a pilot's oar and sail,
Or haul the dripping moonlit mesh
Spangled with herring-scale:
By dying stars how sweet 'twould be,
And dawn-blow freshening the sea,
With weary, cheery pull to shore
To gain my cottage-home once more,
And meet, before I reached the door,
My pretty pilot's daughter!"
But it is a fine fashion of this noble world never to acknowledge itself too well pleased. Men are ashamed of satisfaction. So soon as they have exhausted the honey, they condemn the comb; it will do to wax an old wife's thread;—they forget that the cells whose sides break the usual uniformity contain the royal embryos. Humdrum read these little novels through and through, laughed and cried over them in secret, then pulled a long face, stepped forth and denounced—the typography. Now we admit that the page presents a fairer appearance with single punctuations, unblurred by Italics, and its smooth surface unbroken by strings of capitals;—but let us ask these criticasters for what purpose types were cast at all. To assist the author in the expression of his ideas, and to elucidate subtile shades of meaning? or to prove his let and hindrance, and to wrap his expression in mystery? Whether or no, it is patent that Charles Reade makes an exclamation—and an interrogation-point together say as much as many novelists can dibble over a whole page. Nevertheless, in his latest work these eccentricities are greatly modified; yet who would forego in the sea-fight that almost inaudible, breathless whisper of "Our ammunition is nearly done"? or again the moment when Skinner pokes Mr. Hardie lightly in the side and says, "But—I've—got—the receipt"? And could anything express the state of young Reginald's mind so ineffably as the primer type of his letter to Lucy?
A much less venial fault than any typographical trifle is a tendency belonging to this author to repeat both incident and colloquy. This of course is merely the result of negligence,—and negligence no one likes to forgive; only Shakspeare can afford to be careless of his fame, and the rags that his commentators make of him are a warning to all pettier people. We have seen the manuscript of a man already immortal, so interlined, erased, and corrected as to be undecipherable by any but himself and the printer who has been for twenty years condemned to such hard labor; surely others can condescend to the same pains;—yet we doubt if Mr. Reade so much as looks his over a second time.
Many persons have a trick of writing their names, not on the fly-leaf of the books they possess, but on the hundredth or the fiftieth page. Perhaps it is according to some such brand of the warehouse that we find in "Very Hard Cash," or in "White Lies," indifferently, such brief dialogues as this:—
"'Are you sure?'
Then, Reade's characters are perpetually doing the same thing. Josephine and Margaret both seize their throats not to cry out; Josephine and Margaret both kiss their babies alike,—a very pretty description of the act, though:—
"The young mother sprang silently upon her child,—you would have thought she was going to kill it,—her head reared itself again and again, like a crested snake's, and again and again, and again and again plunged down upon the child, and she kissed his little body from head to foot with soft violence, and murmured through her starting tears."
But not content with that, Margaret must reënact it. Then Gerard and Alfred, returning from long absences, both find their only sister dead; and the plot of three of the novels turns on the fact of long and inexplicable absences on the part of the heroes. The Baroness de Beaurepaire, who is flavored with what her maker calls the "congealed essence of grandmamma," shares her horror of the jargon-vocabulary equally with Mrs. Dodd, (the captain's wife, who "reared her children in a suburban villa with the manners which adorn a palace,—when they happen to be there"). There is a singular habit in the several works of putting up marble inscriptions for folks before actual demise requires it,—Hardie showing Lucy Fountain hers, Camille erecting one to Raynal. All his heroines, as soon as they are crossed in love, invariably lose their tempers, and invariably by the same process; all, without exception, have violet eyes and velvet lips, (and sometimes the heroes also have the latter!) and all of them should wear key-holes at their ear-rings. Indeed, here is our quarrel with Mr. Reade. The conception of an artless woman is impossible with him. Plenty of beautiful ideals he creates, but with the actual woman he is almost unacquainted: Lucy Fountain, of all his feminine characters, is the only one whose counterpart we have ever met; Julia, the most perfect type of his fancy, impetuous, sparkling, and sweet, has this to say for herself, on occasion of a boat-race:—"'We have won at last,' cried Julia, all on fire, 'and fairly; only think of that!'" Through every sentence that he jots down runs a vein of gentle satire on the sex. Every specimen that he has drawn from it possesses feline characteristics: if provoked, they scratch; if happy, they purr; when they move, it is with the bodies of panthers; when they caress their children, it is like snakes; and in every single one of his books the women listen, behind the door, behind the hedge, behind the boat.
"'He would make an intolerable woman,' says the Baroness. 'A fine life, if one had a parcel of women about one, blurting out their real minds every moment, and never smoothing matters!'
"'Mamma, what a horrid picture!' cries Laure."
When upon this subject our author leaves innuendo, and fairly shows his colors, he writes in this wise:—
"For nothing is so hard to her sex as a long, steady struggle. In matters physical, this is the thing the muscles of the fair cannot stand. In matters intellectual and moral, the long strain it is that beats them dead. Do not look for a Bacona, a Newtona, a Handella, a Victoria Huga. Some American ladies tell us education has stopped the growth of these. No, Mesdames! These are not in Nature. They can bubble letters in ten minutes that you could no more deliver to order in ten days than a river can play like a fountain. They can sparkle gems of stories; they can flash little diamonds of poems. The entire sex has never produced one opera, nor one epic that mankind could tolerate a minute: and why?—these come by long, high-strung labor. But, weak as they are in the long run of everything but the affections, (and there giants,) they are all overpowering while the gallop lasts. Fragilla shall dance any two of you flat on the floor before four o'clock, and then dance on till peep of day. You trundle off to your business as usual, and could dance again the next night, and so on through countless ages. She who danced you into nothing is in bed, a human jelly crowned with headache."
Certainly, the concluding sentence shows that the writer is unacquainted with the Fifth-Avenue Fragilla. And, moreover, we were unaware that she had ever entered herself as competitor with Dr. Windship in the lifting of three-thousand-pound weights. But this is poor stuff for a man of talent to busy himself with,—as if the Creator intended rivalry between beings complementary to each other, and of too diverse physical organization to allow the idea. Yet a fair friend of ours would meet him on his own ungallant ground. If Mr. Reade will trouble himself, says Una and the Lion, to turn over a work of Frances Power Cobbe's on Intuitive Morals, he will see that the first two impossibilities in his catalogue are lessened so far as to allow hope; as for Handella, there is reason to believe in her advent,—many women have written faultless tunes,—all that is wanted is mathematical harmony,—and Mary Somerville, Maria Mitchell, and the sister of the Herschels forbid despair on that point; and God forbid the Victoria Huga! the male of the species is more than enough. We must look upon any wide departure from the prevailing pattern either as a monstrosity or as a development of the great plan; therefore, if one of these women is a monstrosity, Laplace and Aristotle are to be considered equally so. And then, also, Mr. Reade, masculine as he is, finds eclipse in the shade of either Mrs. Lewes, (Marion Evans,) or Charlotte Brontè, or Madame Dudevant. As for men, they are themselves just emerging from barbarism; a race rises only with its women, as all history shows. The whole sex has produced no operas? they are modern things; when men have advanced a little, when our audience is ready, we shall write operas. Epics? how many has the entire opposite sex produced? well, four: terrible disparity, when we count by billions! These are not in Nature? Whose assertion for that? till he can prove it, the word of "some American ladies" is as good as the word of Mr. Charles Reade. For myself, continued the outraged Una, I know a beautiful woman who left lovers, society, pleasures,—absorbed in her moulding and modelling, day by day and year by year, with no positive result except in her own convictions and consciousness,—who spent the long summer hours alone in the little building with her white ideas, and who, winter night after night, rose to cross street and garden and snowy fields to tend the fire and wet the clay, and who, on more than one morning finding the weary labor of months wasted where the frozen substance had peeled from the framework and lay in fragments on the floor, without a murmur began the patient work again. That was during the trial; afterwards attainment. Was there no long strain and steady struggle there?
Una's enthusiasm infects us; and very apropos to all this do we hear Mr. Reade's Jacintha remark,—
"We are good creatures, but we don't trouble our heads with justice; it is a word you shall never hear a woman use, unless she happens to be doing some monstrous injustice at the very moment."
And with the best-natured contempt in the world, Dr. Sampson exclaims,—
"What! go t' a wumman for the truth, when I can go t' infallible inference?"
Even Lucy Fountain saw many young ladies healed of many young enthusiasms by a wedding-ring,—but a wittier woman has said it better, Una declares, in asserting that a married woman's name is her epitaph. If, however, Mr. Reade's opinion of womankind is at any time justifiable, we must bring Una to witness that it is so in the following instance:—
"Realize the situation, and the strange incongruity between the senses and the mind in these poor fellows! The day had ripened its beauty; beneath a purple heaven shone, sparkled, and laughed a blue sea, in whose waves the tropical sun seemed to have fused his beams; and beneath that fair, sinless, peaceful sky, wafted by a balmy breeze over those smiling, transparent, golden waves, a bloodthirsty pirate bore down on them with a crew of human tigers; and a lady babble babble babble babble babble babbled in their quivering ears!"
We have heard numberless inquiries as to Mr. Reade's private life, with which, whether they have the right or not, the public will concern itself. So at home is he on every subject that each appears to be his specialty. One asserts that he follows Galen: witness his mania on medicine. Certainly not, another replies; are not his principles erroneous, and second-hand at that? Does he not dredge the science with ridicule? No practitioner would gravely assert the feasibility of transfusion, an operation never yet performed with success, since the red globules of his own blood seem to be as proper to each individual as his identity, and allow no admixture from alien veins; in surgery he has but one foe,—phlebotomy; in pharmacy, but one friend,—chloroform; he asserts of Dr. Sampson, (Dr. Dickson, the writer of "Fallacies of the Faculty"?) that "he was strong, but not strong enough to make the populace suspend an opinion; yet it might be done: by chloroforming them." (Which leads one parenthetically to remark that it is great pity, then, that, in the prevalent headlong precipitancy of public judgment, anæsthetics have not been more generally employed on this side of the water of late.) Certainly he is no physician, they say. But, on the other hand, a conjecture that he has been before the mast is as plausible a one as that ever Herman Melville was; there is the true sailor's-roll about him; nobody less skilful than the captain of a three-decker could have run the Agra through such a gantlet of broadsides and hurricanes; the manœuvring of the ship, when her master puts her before the wind that he may rake one schooner's deck and hurl the majestic monster bodily upon the other, is unequalled by anything in nautical literature, and approached by nothing in verity, except it may be Admiral Dupont's waltz of fire around the two forts of Hilton Head. Another, who laughs at both of these amateur statements, has a Grub-Street one; but, except to a favored few, to everybody in this country he is only an impersonal existence. In this general dearth of useful information, there are, however, one or two biographical sketches afloat,—possibly hints of those waiting their chance in the pigeon-holes of the Thunderer,—of which we are tempted to give the reader a sample, brought to us by Una in substantiation of her hostilities.
The subject of the present notice was picked up at sea, a child, and, under the provisions of maritime law concerning flotsam, jetsam, and lagan, was appropriated by the crew. He then followed their fortunes for several years, with various adventures, among which is the one wherein he is said to have accompanied Arthur Gordon Pym (disguised in the published account of that voyage under the name and appearance of one Peters) upon his fearful South-Sea sail towards that vapory cataract at the world's end which was seen "rolling silently into the sea from some immense and far-distant rampart of the heaven," from the horrors of which he escaped in the same miraculous manner that Mr. Pym did. He must still have been young at the time, as this occurred in 1838. Unable to find any credence to these extraordinary statements upon his return, he found an asylum from the unbelieving world, where, in order not to become a permanent resident, and being capable of impartial judgment thereon, he employed himself in a profound study of finance. Emerging from this seclusion, lest he should defraud his natural element entirely, he plunged into the hot water of the revolutions then ravaging Europe. Receiving wounds, he was laid up in hospital; and being of an active turn of mind and debarred from other pursuits, he fell (like Dr. Marie Zakrzewski) to studying the cards renewed every day above the patients' beds with the disease written thereon, its symptoms, and its treatment; in this manner he acquired quite a knowledge of medicine. He was, however, mercifully prevented from practising by the fact, that, upon repeating his story to an acquaintance, he met, as before, with such total disbelief, that, most fortunately for many readers, he determined at once to devote the remainder of his days to fiction.
How much faith such a narrative deserves we leave others to decide. It, however, has the virtue, as Una declares again, of plausibly explaining Mr. Reade's entire misapprehension of the feminine portion of humanity,—since, during the whole course of such a career, it would have been impossible that he should have made intimate acquaintance with a single specimen of the sex. It is true that in "Christie Johnstone" he speaks of the musical performances of certain female relatives of his own; but of course that is to be taken only as a part of the fiction. One thing, however, is evident,—that, if this sketch is not true, the converse of it must be, and where the reader has paid his money he may take his choice.
Mr. Reade's latest novel, "Very Hard Cash," is a continuation of a previous one, "Love me Little, Love me Long." A great charm of Thackeray's books was, that in every fresh one we heard a little news of the dear old friends of former ones; and "Very Hard Cash" has all the advantage of prepossession in its favor. Its forerunner was a startling thing to the circulating-library, for the hero was an entirely new character, dashing among the elegancies of the habitual hero like a shaggy dog in a drawing-room; and though the author admires him to the core of his heart, he never once hesitates to put him in ridiculous plight, and sets at last this diamond-in-the-rough in his purest and most polished gold. It is a delightful book, with one scene in it, the memorable night at sea, worth scores of customary novels, and, apart from the noble and beautiful delineation of David Dodd, would be invaluable for nothing else but its faultless portraiture of that millinery devotee, Mrs. Bazalgette.
From two such natures as David and his wife nothing less noble should spring; and therefore, through necessity, their daughter Julia, the heroine of "Very Hard Cash," is that ideal of vehemence and sweetness which we find her, not by any choice or fancy of the writer, but on account of fate, natural deduction, and a priori logic. She is, however, for all that, to some extent a creation; one may imagine her, long for her, look for her,—one will not immediately find her. Youth never was painted so well as here; both Julia and Alfred are aureoled in its beauty; they are not reasonable mortals with the accumulated perfections of three-score and ten, but young creatures just brimmed, as young creatures are, with the blissfulness of being. Nobody ever appreciated youth as this writer does, nobody has so entered into it; he never fails, to be sure, to make you laugh at it a little, but all the time he confesses a kind of loving worship of that buoyant time when the effervescence of the animal spirits fills the brain with its happy fumes, of that fearless, confident period that
"Is not, like Atlas, curled
Stooping 'neath the gray old world,
But which takes it, lithe and bland,
Easily in its small hand."
We have often wondered that no one ever before grappled with the material of this last volume. The easy ability of one person to incarcerate another in a mad-house is as often abused in America as in England, and circumstances in this drama which might strike a casual reader as preposterous we can match with kindred and more hopeless cases within our own knowledge. Perhaps one of the ablest portions of the treatment which this book affords the theme is in the singular collocation of characters,—the hero being wrongfully imprisoned as insane, the heroine's father really made so by medical malpractice, the hero's sister dying of injuries received from another maniac, his uncle being imbecile, and his father and one of his physicians becoming monomaniac. Nicer shades than these allow could not be drawn, and the subject stands in bold relief as a monument of dauntless courage and enthusiasm.
No one can hesitate to declare this novel, as it is the latest, to be also the finest of all that Charles Reade has given us. In saying this we do not forget the "Cloister and Hearth," which, however tender and touching and true to its century, is rather a rambling narrative than an elucidated plot. "Very Hard Cash" is wrought out with the finest finish, yet nowhere overdone; it so abounds in scenes of dramatic climax that we fancy the stage has lost immensely by the romance-reader's gain; yet there is never a single situation thrown away, every word tends in the main direction, and after that the prolific mind of the writer overflows in marginalia. There are one or two striking improbabilities, which Mr. Reade himself excuses by asserting that the commonplace is neither dramatic nor evangelical,—and therefore we confess, that, so long as Reginald Bazalgette had a ship, Captain Dodd was as likely to turn up on that as on any other, the purser as likely to make his communication at that moment as later, and the fly as likely to resuscitate the patient as the surgeon. But the characterization in this book is wonderful; every name becomes an acquaintance, from Mrs. Beresford, dividing Ajax's emotion and declining to be drowned in the dark, with her servant Ramgolam and his matchless Orientalisms, up to the loftier models, one of whom he endows with this exquisite bit of description:—
"A head overflowed by ripples of dark-brown hair sat with heroic grace upon his solid white throat, like some glossy falcon new-lighted on a Parian column."
We must, however, object to Fullalove, who is quite unworthy of the author, though perhaps complacently regarded by him as a success, being merely the traditional Yankee compound of patents and conjectures, a little smarter than usual, as of course a passage through Mr. Reade's pen must make him;—he never touched his brain. Vespasian, also, is not so good as he might be, although one enjoys his contempt for the pirate's crew of Papuans, Sooloos, and Portuguese, as a "mixellaneous bilin' of darkies," and finds something inimitable in his injured dignity over the anomalous sobriquet afforded him, whose changes he rings through analogy and anatomy till he declares himself to be only a "darned anemone." The real charm of the book, however, lies in the beautiful relation which it pictures between mother and children, and in the nature of the daughter herself, so exuberant, so dancing, yet the foam subsiding into such a luminous body of clearness, which so lights up the page with its loveliness, that, seeing how an artless woman is foreign to Mr. Reade's ideas, we are forced to believe that Nature was too strong for him and he wrote against the grain. Nevertheless, there is enough of his own prejudice retained for piquancy,—and since the poor things must be insignificantly wicked, see how charming they can be! There are many scenes between these covers that would well bear repetition, were they not too fresh in the reader's mind to require it; we will content ourselves with a single one, which contains the only pretentious writing of the whole novel, done at a touch, with a light, loose pen, but showing beyond compare the soul of the poet through the flesh of the novelist.
"At six twenty-five, the grand orb set calm and red, and the sea was gorgeous with miles and miles of great ruby dimples: it was the first glowing smile of southern latitude. The night stole on so soft, so clear, so balmy, all were loath to close their eyes on it; the passengers lingered long on deck, watching the Great Bear dip, and the Southern Cross rise, and overhead a whole heaven of glorious stars most of us have never seen and never shall see in this world. No belching smoke obscured, no plunging paddles deepened; all was musical; the soft air sighing among the sails; the phosphorescent water bubbling from the ship's bows; the murmurs from little knots of men on deck subdued by the great calm: home seemed near, all danger far; Peace ruled the sea, the sky, the heart: the ship, making a track of white fire on the deep, glided gently, yet swiftly, homeward, urged by snowy sails piled up like alabaster towers against a violet sky, out of which looked a thousand eyes of holy, tranquil fire. So melted the sweet night away.
"Now carmine streaks tinged the eastern sky at the water's edge, and that water blushed; now the streaks turned orange, and the waves below them sparkled. Thence splashes of living gold flew and settled on the ship's white sails, the deck, and the faces; and, with no more prologue, being so near the line, up came majestically a huge, fiery, golden sun, and set the sea flaming liquid topaz.
"Instant the lookout at the foretop-gallant-mast-head hailed the deck below.
"'Strange sail! Right ahead!'
"Ah! the stranger's deck swarms black with men!
"His sham ports fell as if by magic, his guns grinned through the gaps like black teeth; his huge foresail rose and filled, and out he came in chase.
"The breeze was a kiss from Heaven, the sky a vaulted sapphire, the sea a million dimples of liquid, lucid gold."
In conclusion, we must pronounce Mr. Reade's merit, in our judgment, to belong not so much to what he has already done as to what, if life be allowed him, he is yet to do. All his previous works read like 'studies,' in the light of his last. For "Very Hard Cash" is the beginning of a new era; it shows the careful hand of the artist doing justice to the conceptions of genius, in the prime of his vigor, with all his powers well in hand. The forms of literature change with the necessities of the age,—to some future generation what illustration the dramatists were to the Elizabethan day the knot of superior novelists will be to this, and among them all Charles Reade is destined to no subordinate rank.