Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

In an essay on Charles Reade written shortly after his death, A. C. Swinburne mentions a critical controversy as to whether Reade “was or was not a man of genius—whether his genius, if he had such a thing, was wide or narrow, deep or shallow, complete or incomplete.” One cannot imagine such a controversy now about Reade. He is remembered primarily for THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH, one of the best of all English historical novels. His many “problem novels,” written possibly under the influence of Dickens, have largely been forgotten, as have his numerous plays which he considered more important than his novels.

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Reade’s first novel, PEG WOFFINGTON, was adapted at the suggestion of an actress friend, Mrs. Laura Seymour, from a popular play, MASKS AND FACES (1852), which he had written with Tom Taylor, a well-known dramatist of the period. The dramatic source is evident throughout the novel in the story itself, in the theatrical locale of much of the book, in several of the characters (Clive, Quinn, and Cibber are barely disguised actual people), in most of the important scenes, and in the dialogue, some of which appears as in the printed edition of a play. At one point, Reade makes the authorial observation that “the stage is a representation not of stage, but of life; and...an actor ought to speak and act in imitation of human beings.” The modern reader might offer a similar criticism of PEG WOFFINGTON. It is stagy and melodramatic and much of it is incredible, particularly the “big” scene of the portrait hoax in which the poseurs are humiliated and sweet country innocence and truth triumph.

Reade was not aware of the overly sentimental quality of his novel simply because such sentimentality was accepted—even demanded—by his Victorian reading audience. In fact, because of the wealth of factual data in the story, which inspired one critic to term the novel “more than half a memoir,” Reade regarded his work as a truth rather than a lie, reporting instead of fiction. What he could not realize was the extent to which he altered Peg Woffington’s character to make her a suitable heroine by Victorian standards. In contrast to the scandalous life led by her real-life model, Peg’s improprieties are carefully presented as being not her fault; Reade painstakingly places the blame for her conduct on her immoral environment, implying that circumstances force her to lead a life she would never have freely chosen. This idea is ultimately proven by later events in the plot, as readers discover that Peg is, in her heart, virtuous, generous, and pure. Her abandonment of the stage, friendship with Mabel Vane, and devotion to the poor prove her true worth in Victorian terms, just as they bog the modern reader down with their wild improbability and blatant sentimentalism.

Reade makes plenteous use of author intrusion and exclamation points, as in: “Reader, it was too true!... Mr. Vane was a married man!” so that one is often reminded of the words flashed on the screen of a silent film melodrama. There is some play of waspish wit in exchanges involving old actors and young actors and the two theater critics Snarl and Soaper, but these stings are less penetrating in print than one imagines they may have been on a London stage when this kind of satire was fashionable. The brief, pointed insult was a perennially popular form of stage humor, and many of the “one-liners” in PEG WOFFINGTON might even be easily adapted for use in a modern television comedy skit.

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