Yesterday in the hospice shop in Pembury there was just one older book among the paperbacks- a copy of Charles Reade's 1861 historical novel The Cloister and the Hearth- which was considered a classic of Eng Lit when I was a kid but now seems to have been scrubbed off the honours board. It was Conan Doyle's favourite novel and for a while- when I was about ten or eleven- mine too. Its hero is a 15th century Flemish artist, who gets his girlfriend pregnant (I could never quite work out how that happened because they never seemed to have the opportunity) is chased out of his home town, treks across 15th century Europe, is hunted by a bear, has a set-to with a bunch of cut throats in a mill and spends time in Italy, being louche and hanging out with Perugino. Somewhere along the way he acquires a companion in the shape of a profane and childlike Burgundian crossbowman whose excellent philosophy of life is summed up in the catchphrase "Courage, l'ami, le diable est mort." I've often wondered whether I'd still find it as entirely wonderful as I used to think it was...
Sometimes the universe just sort of nudges you in the ribs and says, "Go on, you know you want to..."
I'm six chapters in. Gerard and Margaret are livelier than young lovers in Victorian novels tend to be, the scenery is colourful and there is a sardonic strain of humour that went right over my head first time round. Reade's syntax can be knotty and his vocabulary esoteric; God, but I was a literate child! People speak a language no one ever spoke in real life, liberally besprinkled with exclamations like "forsooth" and "grammercy" and "Beshrew my shamefacedness" but one shrugs and gets used to it.
My copy was given as a prize to Ivor Jack Swain- a pupil at the Cheadle Hume School (The Manchester Warehousemen and Clerks' Orphan Schools) for "excellence in music, form IV, year ending July 1938", and has four- not very good- full colour illustrations.