Walking the walk

Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend is rather obviously a didactic novel, just it is rather obviously a bad novel. However, despite these glaring flaws the novel was able to launch Reade to literary superstardom (Poovey 434-435). While these too positions appear to be  in opposition, I’d like to argue instead that they are intrinsically linked. The link is not because the public likes bad books, but rather because critics have missed the point entirely in their critique of Reade. It is popular to praise or dismiss Reade for his excess of details, but the plain fact is that Reade’s greatest flaw is his lack of details. His vague and nebulous sketches do not allow for either an Ideal or Realistic approach to truth, but instead leave reader’s stuck in his muddy prose.

The probably is most clearly demonstrated by Reade’s own admittance that Robinson’s backstory cannot be introduced: “Unfortunately, we cannot afford so late in our story to make any retrograde step. The ‘Autobiography of a Thief’ must therefore be thrust in my Appendix or printed elsewhere” (location 5666). The details of Robinson’s history are of supreme importance for a realistic novel, and yet they are dismissed due to shoddy narrative structure and introduced only briefly (and artificially) through a letter to George at the end of the novel. Although the title insists that it is never too late to mend, that rule evidently does’t apply to text due for publication.

This might be acceptable if the novel were truly a moral tract, attempting to convey a lesson more important than the character of Robinson. Indeed, it often seems that this is the intent of the book. Yet this cannot be, for what is the lesson? If it is to emphasize the redemptive effects of labor, it is a flaw that George’s farming fails and that his Gold prospecting succeeds. If it is to argue that forgiveness leads to redemption, why are Black Will and mephistopheles allowed to die? (Although I do admire the almost Pauline touch of Levi in Meadow’s repentance) Perhaps the book intends to argue against otherness, but then why do Jacky, Robinson, Evans, Merton, Wil, and even George constantly make like Bonnie Tyler?

In short, the book is too realistic to be merely didactic and too didactic to be realistic. It lacks internal consistency, leaping from subplot to subplot and inexpertly weaving them together at an altar (though you have to admire George’s professions). This is precisely the commercial appeal of the novel. If Stephanie Meyer has taught us anything, it is that generic heroes set in standard plots against fantastic settings are incredibly popular. The appeal of Eden’s legal attack on Hawes (brilliantly parodied by the Judge Lynch scene) is not its facts, but rather the sense of self-righteousness that we are able to partake in. It is not the thrill justice of justice, but of victory. The whole scene is a sham–it would never stand in a court of law–but it fills us with a sense of moral superiority. We thunder along with Mr. Eden as he cries, “To your knees, MAN-slayer!” This is why one reads Read, and it’s the same reason one tweets #KONY2012 or argues for gun control for two weeks after a school shooting, because it’s nice to feel like a hero, as long as it doesn’t cost anything.

 

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