Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197
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 HEARTH. By absorbing himself in the literature and history of the period, Reade produced in this novel a picture of a remote era so faithfully and so finely etched and so vividly realistic that it never has been surpassed and rarely approached.
In THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH, Reade caught much of the tone of light and dark that dominated the end of the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance; it was a brutal and turbulent time, stiff and heavy with death. The Dukes of Burgundy, with their ostentation, violence, and half-mad pride, were perhaps its representative rulers. The novel is crowded with wandering, lost individuals and at times becomes a danse macabre, a picture of rapidly growing cities, violence, wild superstition, crumbling religion, cynical realism, and ever-lusty humor. Reade’s style is sometimes nervous and irritating, but it is always vigorous and compelling and never fake or gushing like that of so many of his contemporaries. His perspective on the period of the novel is acute and perceptive, and his panorama crowded and colorful, yet never confusing.
Born in 1814 in Oxfordshire, the son of a country squire, Reade received his B.A. at Magdalen College, Oxford, and became a fellow of the college. He kept his fellowship at Magdalen all of his life but spent the greater part of his time in London where he began his career as a dramatist. On the advice of the actress Laura Seymour, who later became his housekeeper and mistress, he transformed one of his plays into a novel. Several other novels followed in quick succession. The flaws of his fiction, a certain theatricality and occasional falseness of tone, can be attributed to the sensational theater pieces of the day and their influence upon him.
THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH was originally published serially as the long story “A Good Fight” in the magazine ONCE A WEEK; it was then expanded to more than five times its length before it was published in four volumes. The novel, published (at the author’s expense) on commission, provided Reade with his first financial success at the age of forty-eight.
Returning from the fifteenth century to modern English life, Reade produced another well-received novel, HARD CASH, in which he directed attention to the abuses of private lunatic asylums. Three other novels “with a purpose” followed, in which he grappled with trade unions, the degrading conditions of village life, and other problems. The Reade of later years, who had earned the admiration of such different artists as Dickens and Swinburne, was accused of wasting his talents in pursuit of social reforms. ..FT.-Reade’s last and greatest success as a dramatist was DRINK, an adaptation of Zola’s L’ASSOMMOIR, produced in 1879. In that year, Laura Seymour died, and soon Reade’s health failed. He died in 1884, leaving behind him a completed novel, A PERILOUS SECRET, which showed no decline in his abilities to weave a complicated plot and to devise thrilling situations.
The epic theme of THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH is the misery caused by the vow of celibacy demanded of its priests by the Roman Church. Margaret, who loves and is beloved by Gerard, is the mother of his child and yet is denied the privilege of being his wife because he is a priest. This situation is described with excruciating pathos. Reade’s own study of medicine led to the minor theme and indictment of the practice of bleeding patients that is so vividly presented in the novel. The growth of the arts during the first days of the Renaissance provides a continuing theme that reaches its peak of interest in the chapters in Italy.
The imaginative power of the narration is shown in many vivid scenes (for example, the frail wooden ship battling the storm off the Italian coast), yet the author’s imagination seems to fail with the minor characters, who tend to be reduced to cliches of good and evil. This oversimplification of character is the one serious flaw in the novel, but it does not distract from the power and sweep of the story and the impact of the conclusion when the reader learns that from these two troubled lives (Gerard and Margaret) will come the greatest humanist and writer of the period.
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