And now we come to the proposition that an author must be judged by his best work. If this proposition be true, then I must hold Reade to be a greater novelist than Scott. But do I hold this? Does anyone hold this? Why, the contention would be an absurdity.
Reade wrote some twenty novels beside The Cloister and the Hearth, and not one of the twenty approaches it. One only—Griffith Gaunt—is fit to be named in the same day with it; and Griffith Gaunt is marred by an insincerity in the plot which vitiates, and is at once felt to vitiate, the whole work. On everything he wrote before and after The Cloister Reade’s essential vulgarity of mind is written large. That he shook it off in that great instance is one of the miracles of literary history. It may be that the sublimity of his theme kept him throughout in a state of unnatural exaltation. If the case cannot be explained thus, it cannot be explained at all. Other of his writings display the same, or at any rate a like, capacity for sustained narrative. Hard Cash displays it; parts of It is Never Too Late to Mend display it. But over much of these two novels lies the trail of that defective taste which makes A Simpleton, for instance, a prodigy of cheap ineptitude.
But if Reade be hopelessly Scott’s inferior in manner and taste, what shall we say of the invention of the two men? Mr. Barrie once affirmed very wisely in an essay on Robert Louis Stevenson, “Critics have said enthusiastically—for it is difficult to write of Mr. Stevenson without enthusiasm—that Alan Breck is as good as anything in Scott. Alan Breck is certainly a masterpiece, quite worthy of the greatest of all story-tellers, who, nevertheless, it should be remembered, created these rich side characters by the score, another before dinner-time.” Inventiveness, is, I suppose, one of the first qualities of a great novelist: and to Scott’s invention there was no end. But set aside The Cloister; and Reade’s invention will be found to be extraordinarily barren. Plot after plot turns on the same old tiresome trick. Two young people are in love: by the villainy of a third person they are separated for a while, and one of the lovers is persuaded that the other is dead. The missing one may be kept missing by various devices; but always he is supposed to be dead, and always evidence is brought of his death, and always he turns up in the end. It is the same in The Cloister, in It is Never Too Late to Mend, in Put Yourself in His Place, in Griffith Gaunt, in A Simpleton. Sometimes, as in Hard Cash and A Terrible Temptation, he is wrongfully incarcerated as a madman; but this is obviously a variant only on the favorite trick. Now the device is good enough in a tale of the fourteenth century, when news travelled slowly, and when by the suppression of a letter, or by a piece of false news, two lovers, the one in Holland,