The Cloister and the Hearth is one of the greatest historical novels ever written. Unfortunately, like many of our great works, it finds itself mostly ignored today, taking its place in the growing dustbin of literature that previously provided the foundation for Western civilization. This classic, by English author Charles Reade (1814-1884), was very popular in the nineteenth century. Reade has never been highly admired by critics, so I suppose it is not a huge surprise that it is not read much today. Having said that, this work is a glorious read, full of what makes great literature. In addition, the story itself has many ties to printing history, and so is interesting in a Books and Vines kind of way!
Reade wrote this long book based on nothing but a few lines written by Erasmus about his parents. The main character of The Cloister and the Hearth, named Gerard, ends up being the father of Erasmus (one of the world’s greatest thinkers, and a printer himself; his greatest work, The Praise of Folly, was reviewed recently by Books and Vines here). As Gerard wanders through Europe he meets Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweinheim, whose characters carried with them movable type and a small press, printing and selling books in the countryside. Like Erasmus, Pannartz and Sweinheim are real people, and important in the history of printing, being the first to bring Gutenberg‘s new mode of printing to Italy. In the book, Gerard also meets Fra Francesco Colonna in Rome, another real person who had written Hypnerotomachia Popophili in 1499, first printed by the great printer Aldus Manutius, in a type now known as Poliphilus, a recut version of which is used in this edition.
Besides the associations with such people important in the world of printing, the book is simply fantastic to read. The wanderings of Gerard through the Holland, France, Germany and Italy of the late 15th century is enlightening, intriguing and full of adventure. It is akin to immersing yourself in what life was really like five hundred years ago in Europe, so detailed and authentic does Reade convey his story. As the Monthly Letter (ML) of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) states, Reade’s knowledge of the period of which he writes is “complete and authoritative.” Very rarely does the Middle Ages come to life as it does in this story. As the ML further states:
With a style which now seems full of involution and sentimentality, he nevertheless created a book pulsing with life and excitement, full of love and hate and low comedy and high tragedy…
As for this 1932 edition from The Limited Editions Club, George Macy said:
It is sound bookmaking soundly done. The type is spaced closely and set well, printed serenely upon the paper, the margins and general layout of the chapter headings and the pages being workmanlike, pleasant to the eye.
Nonetheless, LEC members of the time were not that enthralled with the book production itself, ranking it 10th of 12 in the third series of the LEC. I do believe, however, that time has been kind to this publication. It is not greatly made, but like Macy said, it is soundly made, and has many things going for it. Earlier I mentioned the use of Poliphilus type. The ML tells us that it is around this type that the physical book is built:
Because the type is Italian in appearance and antique in mood, the book is made to seem somewhat Italian and somewhat antique.
Towards this end, the rag paper from The Hurlbut Paper Mills has a color that has a dull antique feel, which looks “mellow and old.” The binding, printed on a heavy white duck cloth with aniline dyes (so the cloth remains colorfast), is printed with a pale off-tan ink; upon this background, crosses are printed in dark brown and flames in a brilliant red; then the title of the book is printed in pure gold. This binding design further seeks an Italian and antique feel, and also is made to last:
[Lynd Ward] drew a design in several colors, with crosses to represent the Cloister aspect of the book, and flames to represent the Hearth aspect. These are drawn, with the crude appearance of an early Italian woodcut, to be reproduced upon a rough cloth. It looks like an especially woven material; we feel that the resulting binding is practical in that the colors are permanent, and the cloth staunch and impervious to the sun; and unusual; and beautiful indeed.
The methods used to help permanence seems to have helped, at least on my copy, as though the book is now 83 years old, the binding has held up very well, with very little indication of sun damage.
Besides designing the binding, the great American artist/illustrator Lynd Ward also provided the illustrations (as he did in the previously mentioned The Praise of Folly). In this case, Ward provided thirty full page drawings using pencil, soft crayon and varnish to create pictures to be reproduced by the photogravure process. The ML explains that in this process the:
pictures are etched onto a copper plate and then printed from sheets fed by hand into the rotogravure machines.
The illustrations are vivid and expressive, and are in an exaggerated fashion. In some ways they remind me of some Rockwell Kent illustrations from the same time period (see Erewhon as one example). The ML says:
these drawings are vigorous; they are full of a masculine vitality and a complete freedom from convention.
What I do know is the illustrations work well for this story. They somehow blend a medieval feel with a 1930’s stylistic component that is interesting, without being distracting.
In short, this is a very nice edition from the Limited Editions Club. The story is truly a treat to read, the book “soundly” designed and produced. Lynd Ward’s work is always worth a good look, and The Press of A. Colish always did a pretty nice job for their LEC work (see the type macro’s below). One can usually find this 83 year old edition in near fine or better condition for $40-80. Really???? Go get yourself one today and do yourself a favor, read it!
I will leave you with some flavor for Reade’s writing style and the depth of the content. He introduces us to the impending story with a truism that is reflective and thought provoking:
Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows….their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them.
How we delude ourselves is well spoken of:
Lower a bucket into a well of self-deception, and what comes up must be immortal truth, mustn’t it?
Perhaps one way to seek happiness is train yourself to have a moderate nature:
They whose moderate natures, or gentle fates, keep them, in life’s passage, from the fierce extremes of joy and anguish our nature is capable of, are perhaps the best, and certainly the happiest, of mankind.
Reade here sounds like Thomas Paine, when he says:
Life and liberty, while safe, are little thought of: for why? they are matters of course. Endangered, they are rated at their real value. In this, too, they are like sunshine, whose beauty men notice not a noon when it is greatest, but towards evening when it lies in flakes of topaz under shady elms.
I, for one, wish more remembered that lesson. Like Erasmus, Reade loves knowledge and love:
For I love thee so, that no treasure pleases me not shared with thee; and what treasure so good and enduring as knowledge?
But despises arrogance:
And in medicine or law, as in divinity, to be wiser than the All-wise is to be a fool.
Arrogance is their bane; with it they shut heaven’s open door in their own faces.
This passion for knowledge combined with a strong constitution against arrogance results in a proper humility towards modern man:
Well, then, in the world of mind, what have we discovered? Is it geometry? Is it logic? Nay, we are all pupils of Euclid and Aristotle. Is it written characters, an invention almost divine? We no more invented it than Cadmus did. Is it poetry? Homer hath never been approached by us, nor hath Virgil, nor Horace. Is it tragedy or comedy? Why poets, actors, theaters, all fell to dust at our touch, Have we succeeded in reviving them? Would you compare our miserable mysteries and moralities, all frigid personification and dog latin, with the glories of a Greek play (on the decoration of which a hundred thousand crowns had been spent) performed inside a marble miracle, the audience a seated city, and the poet a Sophocles?
While since the time of Erasmus, once could throw Shakespeare into the above statement, the point of it remains true. Don’t let technology fool you, the basis of what made the West is slipping from us. The knowledge and wisdom of those who came before us, which should serve as a foundation for further progress, has instead been disposed due to our arrogance; our belief that we are smarter and wiser than those who came before us. What could those previous generations possible teach us, we who delude ourselves that we are the pinnacle of humanity?
A couple other random quotes:
Fiction must often give false views of life and death….here on earth there will nearly always be some obstacle or other to your perfect happiness; to their early death apply your Reason and your Faith, by way of exercise and preparation….In every age the Master of Life and death, who is kinder as well as wiser than we are, has transplanted to heaven, young, earth’s sweetest flowers.
And, with the following, just imagine what Reade would think of today’s antiseptic drone based warfare:
Gunpowder has spoiled war. War was always detrimental to the solid interests of mankind. But in old times it was good for something: it painted well, sang divinely, furnished Iliads. But invisible butchery, under a pall of smoke a furlong thick, who is any better for that?
Lastly, a spoiler alert — do not read the next quote if you intend to read the book! Similar to how Reade began the book, he concludes with:
Thus after life’s fitful fever these true lovers were at peace. The grave, kinder to them than the Church, united them for ever: and now a man of another age and nation, touched with their fate, has laboured to build their tombstone, and rescue them from long and unmerited oblivion.
About the Edition
- Thirty full page drawings by Lynd Ward, using pencil and soft crayon and varnish to create pictures to be reproduced by the photogravure process
- Copper plates printed by Osborne Chromatic Gravure Co., of New Jersey
- Type is Poliphilus by the English Lanston Monotype Corporation
- Special rag paper made for this book by The Hurlbut Paper Mills of South Lee, Massachusetts
- Book printed by The Press of A. Colish in New York
- Binding design by Lynd Ward, printed on a heavy white duck cloth with aniline dyes so the cloth remains colorfast and a pale off-tan ink is printed; upon this background, the crosses are printed in dark brown and the flames in a brilliant red; then the title of the book is printed in pure gold
- 2 volumes, each 6 1/3″ by 9 2/3″, 832 pages
Pictures of the Edition
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