Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

The two outstanding features of this novel are its photographic details of fifteenth century European life, and the vivid character portrayal of Denys, the Burgundian crossbowman. Charles Reade did tremendous research in order to achieve his accurate descriptions of fifteenth century European life. His Denys is one of the most delightful characters in English literature. Among the variety of literary types found in THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH are the long letter, poetry, dramatic dialogue, the tale within the tale, and picaresque romance. The description of the Catholic Church and clergy in the late Middle Ages is illuminating.

Essentially a picaresque novel, THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH is rich with incident and vividly drawn characters, if not always profound or thoughtful. The accurate detail is never boring, and a good-natured humor pervades the narrative. Despite its great length, the novel moves briskly, maintaining the reader’s interest constantly. The scenes at the Burgundian Inn, for example, describing the gory battle between Gerard and Denys and the gang of thieves, are among the most thrilling in English fiction and are worthy of the senior Dumas or Balzac.

THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH may have been in part an imitation of Scott’s historical novels (many others, including George Eliot in ROMOLA, were also copying Scott at this time), but it became much more than that. It stands by itself as a great novel. Much of the book is a quest, the story of a youth’s education and pursuit of both a livelihood and a romantic goal. The pattern of the first half of the book is that of Gerard’s learning process. He does not know what his destiny will be, but each step takes him closer to it. Only at the end, after his death, is the pattern finished and the meaning made clear. Gerard and his beloved Margaret are living not only for themselves but for their future son.

Denys, the Burgundian bowman and “Pilgrim of Friendship,” bursts with vitality, and every page on which he strides and boasts is filled with life. Katherine, Gerard’s mother, is another excellent characterization: lively, witty, and sensible. She begins as a type but soon transcends type to become a sympathetic, clever, and amusing individual. The reader suspects that Reade was, himself, fond of her. The spinster Margaret Van Eyck emerges as a vivid personality—an intelligent, liberated female in an age when women were required to be both married and docile.

Reade kept voluminous files of clippings and notebooks in which he recorded all manner of information that interested him; in writing his novels, he made use of this material. A novel, he believed, must be based on facts. His method of handling detail, setting, and episodes brought artistic truth to his books. He saturated himself in medieval history, art, and social customs and manners to write THE CLOISTER AND THE...

(The entire section is 1197 words.)