Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Great Reade

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.”

The book that begins thus was one of the greatest reading experiences of my life, but it is comparatively little known today. It is The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade. I read it perhaps eight to ten years ago, and no book since (and possibly no book before Fiction Books ) has involved me so deeply with its characters, or made me care so much about their fate. I can think of no higher recommendation for any work of fiction.

Next year The Cloister and the Hearth will be 150 years old, and in many ways it shows its age; it’s too long, mostly due to the fact that the plot wanders all over the place, and Reade’s use of language might be a barrier for the modern reader (though clearly not for this reader!). The book is an extended demonstration that the strictures in regard to a normal family life imposed on clerics by the Catholic faith are inhuman and unworkable, but this never gets in the way of the most important thing in the story (in any story) – the portrayal of the people. That is all that’s needed to make it a success in my eyes; it is a book to awaken and educate the heart (beside which Sir Walter Scott considered everything else as "moonshine").

Reade wrote other books, Fiction Books the most notable being It’s Never Too Late To Mend. I haven’t read any of them, but I will, someday, return to The Cloister and the Hearth. I recommend giving it a go; and if 775 pages (in the 1912 Chatto edition I have) seems like a lot to get through (unless, like me, you happen to prefer big books), I would also add it is lightened by sly flashes of unexpected humour:
“…it was an age in which artists sought out and loved one another [C & H is set in the 15th Century]. Should this last statement stagger a writer or painter of our day, let me remind him that even Christians loved one another at first starting.”

If anyone does manage to get around to it, I’d be interested to hear what you think…

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