Saturday, 1 August 2015

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Favourite Novel: The Cloister and the Hearth, Charles Reade (1861)

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
In an article published in January 1898, in Munsey’s Magazine, Arthur Conan Doyle was the latest in a series of contemporary big names to write about his favourite writers and books. The novel he talks about as his particular favourite – containing more ‘accurate knowledge and ripe wisdom and passionate human emotion’ than any other – was Charles Reade’s 1861 historical romance The Cloister and the Hearth.

Over the last couple of weeks, I read Reade’s classic to discover why it garnered so much praise in the nineteenth century, from Doyle and others, and to spot any clues as to why, since then, it has fallen into relative obscurity.

The Cloister and the Hearth is a mediaeval drama, set around 1450. The story begins in Holland, not far from Rotterdam, but deals with a journey that takes its hero through France and eventually to Rome. Much of Doyle’s praise is given to the research that went into Reade’s writing of the novel and the vividness with which a far-flung period of history is made real to us. He writes: ‘it is a human medievalism, neither stiff nor conventional nor unnatural, but palpitating with rude life and with primitive emotions.

The immediacy of the world Reade writes about certainly still holds true today. The novel is packed with excitement and incident (think bear attacks, sieges, prison escapes, bandits) and populated with characters so recognisable in their humanity that you can connect despite the archaic dialogue, and distinctly period vocabulary. Here, for instance, a mother-in-law forces advice and money on her daughter-in-law:

She then recapitulated her experiences of infants, and instructed Margaret what to do in each coming emergency, and pressed money upon her, Margaret declined it with thanks, Catherine insisted, and turned angry. Margaret made excuses all so reasonable that Catherine rejected them with calm contempt; to her mind they lacked femininity.’

Sometimes the characters, or at least their living conditions, do indeed seem ‘rude’ or ‘primitive’. This is how an inn that Gerard, our hero, must sleep in is described:

‘He had peeped into a large but low room, the middle of which was filled by a huge round stove, or clay oven, that reached to the ceiling; round this, wet clothes were drying-some on lines, and some more compendiously, on rustics. These latter habiliments, impregnated with the wet of the day, but the dirt of a life, and lined with what another foot traveller in these parts call "rammish clowns," evolved rank vapours and compound odours inexpressible, in steaming clouds. In one corner was a travelling family, a large one: thence flowed into the common stock the peculiar sickly smell of neglected brats. Garlic filled up the interstices of the air. And all this with closed window, and intense heat of the central furnace, and the breath of at least forty persons.

But Reade is careful not to let his Victorian readers sit back too secure in their superiority:

When men drive a bargain, they strive to get the sunny side of it; it matters not one straw whether it is with man or Heaven they are bargaining. In this respect we are the same now, at bottom, as we were four hundred years ago: only in those days we did it a grain or two more naively, and that naivete shone out more palpably, because, in that rude age, body prevailing over mind, all sentiments took material forms.

Less palatable to a modern reader than this mantra of shared humanity, however, is the moral assumptions that lead to the novel’s conclusion. Doyle writes of the novel that ‘such an indictment against celibacy of the clergy has never yet been penned’, yet, for a modern reader, Gerard’s prioritisation of the priesthood over his wedding vows is more difficult to understand – prompting not, as presumably intended, critical feelings towards the Catholic Church, but rather extreme irritation with the novel’s apparently admirable characters.

This in turn has a negative effect on the novel’s ability to evoke pathos. Doyle writes of one deathbed scene ‘the man who can read that chapter with dry eyes is a man whom I do not wish to know’, but a reader today might be inclined to dash his or her head at a brick wall, rather than to cry, so frustrating is the religiosity. It’s all a question of degree. A Victorian reader might sympathise with Margaret’s helpless and ambiguous position, and think she would be well suited to the role of clergyman’s wife. Yet a reader now might take exception to the very assumption of her inferiority (the phrase ‘I am but a woman’ appears in the novel 11 times).

Doyle writes about the particular appeal of this historical period for fictionalisation, explaining:

Printing was coming, the Reformation was coming, the revival of learning was just at hand, but the greater part of Europe still lay in that blackest night which precedes the dawn.

What’s interesting in this is the parallels I find in how writers now approach the nineteenth century. In my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I’ve seen how twenty-first century writers respond to the late 1800s as a period just on the cusp, focusing on the advent of evolutionary theory, women’s education and suffrage movements, and questions of race and colonialism. Victorianism is a period of relative darkness for us – a dangerous world in which are own social concerns can be played out by novelists – just as the Middle Ages fulfils that role for Reade.

The Cloister and the Hearth is probably only a handful of people’s ‘favourite’ novel today, but it’s a well-written book, that reveals as much about the period in which it was conceived as it does about the time in which it was set.

What novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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