Christie Johnstone
by Charles Reade

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Richard Bentley: London, 1853
334 pages

Ticknor & Fields: Boston, 1855
310 pages

included in —
Delphi Complete Works of Charles Reade

June 2014

Romance, the seacoast, and Shakespeare

Charles Reade's second novel, Christie Johnstone, is a romance with several moving parts so it is not too predictable. The characters are interesting, particularly Christie herself, a successful fish-monger, well-read and independent. She's likely to steal the scene of the narrative whenever she's on deck. There is a languid and bored young aristocrat, Viscount Ipsden, and his helpful valet, Saunders; the lovely, enthusiastic, but unwooable Lady Barbara; and a fine motley of fishermen with their families, local and visting artists, and other inhabitants of the coast of Scotland — which is the setting for most of the story.

Very early on, Reade shows that he intends to lift his people out of formulaic reactions and furnish them with some individuality. The love-smitted Ipsden, having proposed to Barbara by letter, is rejected with her matter-of-fact reply:

... The man I marry must have two things, virtues and vices — you have neither. You do nothing, and never will do anything but sketch and hum tunes, and dance and dangle. Forget this folly the day after to-morrow, my dear Ipsden, and, if I may ask a favor of one to whom I refuse that which would not be a kindness, be still good friends ...

Saunders noting his master's despondency, diagnoses it as a liver ailment, and sends for the doctor. The doctor, expert beyond straightforward medicine, evaluates Ipsden more correctly, discovers a chink in the latter's virtue-free and vice-free ennui through which may be seen a fondness for yachting. The doctor dictates to Ipsden a prescription of boating along the Scottish coast, and further.

"Make acquaintance with all the people of low estate who have time to be bothered with you; learn their ways, their minds, and, above all, their troubles."

"Won’t all this bore me?" suggested the writer.

"You will see. Relieve one fellow-creature every day, and let Mr. Saunders book the circumstances."

Ipsden proceeds to enter into the fishing community near Edinburgh, meet the rest of our characters, and interact with them willy-nilly. A good prescription.

So Christie Johnstone is an enjoyable romance, even with some adventure. But one really striking aspect of the heroine (although her personality and character are interesting and exemplary) is Christie's penchant for reading everything she can lay hands on, feeding into a natural storytelling gift. Her English comes from reading books, but to locals she shines at storytelling in Scots dialect. Having recently been impressed by reading The Merchant of Venice, at a picnic she regales friends and neighbors with some of that story's twists and turns, thickly interlined with audience repartee, all in dialect. I won't try to extract from this scene, but I think it a clever treat for lovers of Shakespeare.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

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