|Cartoon of Charles Reade|
Warring cousins, mistresses, missing children, changelings and lunatic asylums could be a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Charles Reade’s A Terrible Temptation (1871), a sensation novel which makes Lady Audley’s Secret look uneventful and The Woman in White slow-moving. The novel opens with Sir Charles Bassett paying off his mistress, ‘the Somerset’, in order to marry Bella Bruce. His cousin Richard Bassett (who feels the family estates should by right be his and, moreover, also loves Bella) intervenes to make things awkward for Sir Charles, and the plot is set in motion. Yet readerly expectations about the swift exaction of revenge by the slighted beauty and villainous cousin are soon thwarted by a novel so full of twists and turns that it takes many more years, and a whole new generation of children to set things finally to rights.
For the general reader: Taken as a whole, the novel is a little baffling - unstable in terms of pacing and a little unclear in its focus. The revelation of the ‘terrible temptation’ won’t come as much of a surprise and is a little anticlimactic so it’s best not to read with a detective fiction mindset. That said, the novel is so fast-paced, that it is a quick and entertaining read. There’s no lengthy description – hardly any description at all – and the language is modern, the sentences short and the text very dialogue-heavy, which may suit those put off by the verbosity of much nineteenth-century literature. The importance of servant characters to the plot is also well-suited to modern tastes and the events of the novel still scandalous enough to resonate.
For students: This is a good text to put alongside novels which deal with female madness and incarceration (Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret etc.), as here the sequestered ‘lunatic’ is male. There is also more discussion of the actual medical and legal workings of nineteenth-century madhouses than in these other novels which may interest social historians and literature students alike. The servant Mary Wells recalls Hortense in Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852-3), in her close alignment with her mistress and importance as a character, as well as the social-climbing Affy in Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861). Meanwhile Lady (Bella) Bassett herself can be read alongside Wood’s Isabel and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s eponymous Aurora Floyd (1863) – all three are wives who have sinned against their husbands and yet continue to entertain readers’ sympathy. Reade’s popularity also makes him a necessary read for those interested in sensation fiction as a genre – his style is very distinct from Collins, Wood and Braddon and definitely worthy of independent consideration and discussion.
Have you read A Terrible Temptation or any other Charles Reade? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!