Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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.

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; actor ought to speak and act in imitation of human beings.” The modern reader might offer a similar criticism of PEG WOFFINGTON. It...

(The entire section is 598 words.)