The Hermit's Dilemma in The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade (1861).

The Cloister and the Hearth by English writer Charles Reade (1814-1884) is set in late medieval Holland and Europe. Although characteristically melodramatic in the 19th century style of historical romance, some critics have viewed the novel as a critique of celibate clergy, eremitism, and monasticism. The subtitle "Maid, Wife, and Widow" describing the female protagonist vaguely suggests this subtext. For while the plot stands on its own sense of historical color, drama and tragedy, Reade was involved in the Tractarian or Oxford Movement controversy in England which pitted pro-Catholic Anglicans like John Henry Newman and Charles Kingsley against Protestant Anglicans that included Reade.

The story tells of Gerard, who flees the evil town mayor, leaving his wife Margaret, who is pregnant and will give birth to their son unbeknownst to Gerard. Gerard's brothers, scheming against him, send him a message purportedly by a friend of his wife that Margaret has died. After a period of mourning, then dissolution, Gerard becomes a Dominican friar (renamed Clement). Years later, preaching throughout Europe, he reaches Holland and discovers that Margaret is alive. Torn between his clerical vow and his love for Margaret, Gerard becomes a hermit in a cave in Gouda, near Rotterdam, succeeding an old hermit now deceased. Not unlike the the ancient desert hermits, Gerard undergoes physical and mental sufferings, but is especially haunted by human love. Margaret discovers Gerard. He gives up his eremitism, and they agree to live separately and in celibacy, Gerard becoming the "vicar" of Gouda (somewhat anachronistically) and raising their son. Margaret contracts the plague and dies. With this last sorrow, Gerard dies, too.

As a work of literature, the novel is filled with what today would be judged plot contrivances and overdone melodrama. Yet Reade was esteemed by his contemporaries an exemplary novelist, especially of the historical fiction genre. And regardless of plot specifics or his point of view, Reade treats the hermit's dilemma with fair sympathy, never directly indicting the Catholic Church or mocking the beliefs of his protagonists, leaving his protagonists to resolve their dilemma according to their milieu.

What follows treats of highlights of Gerard's time as a hermit.

Story and selected passages

The dilemma of the hermit does not begin until late in the book, foreshadowed by Gerard's momentous decision to become a priest. Though the tension in the novel has built during the over 80 percent of the chapters, the immediate conflict of domestic secular life ("hearth") and clerical or monastic life ("cloister") unfolds late.

Chapter 83 introduces the old "hermit of Gouda" and foreshadows the course of the plot in later chapters. Here Margaret and a friend visit the old "hermit of Gouda."

Margaret and Joan, then, reached the hermit's cave, and placed their present on the little platform. Margaret then applied her mouth to the aperture, made for that purpose, and said: "Holy hermit, we bring thee butter and eggs of the best; and I, a poor deserted girl, wife, yet no wife, and mother of the sweetest babe, come to pray thee tell me whether he is quick or dead, true to his vows or false."

A faint voice issued from the cave: "Trouble me not with the things of earth, but send me a holy friar, I am dying."

"Alas!" cried Margaret. "Is it e'en so, poor soul? Then let us in to help thee."

"Saints forbid! Thine is a woman's voice. Send me a holy friar."

By chapter 91, the mendicant preacher Clement, so recent in the town, would presumably have traveled on. But in fact he had lingered and attends to the old hermit.

When Clement had shriven him [the old hermit] and prayed by him, he, in his turn, sought counsel of one who was dying in so pious a frame, The hermit advised him to be his successor in this peaceful retreat. His had been a hard fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and he had never thoroughly baffled them till he retired into the citadel of Solitude.

Clement installs himself as the new hermit, though no one knows of his identity. Margaret and her maidservant converse about the new resident hermit.

She whispered, "Tis a far holier hermit than the last; he used to come in the town now and then, but this one ne'er shows his face to mortal man."

"And that is holiness?"

"Ay, sure."

"Then what a saint a dormouse must be?"

"Out, fie, mistress. Would ye even a beast to a man?"

"Come, Reicht," said Margaret, "my poor father taught me overmuch, So I will e'en sit here, and look at the manse once more. Go thou forward and question thy solitary, and tell me whether ye get nought or nonsense out of him, for 'twill be one."

As Reicht drew near the cave a number of birds flew out of it., She gave a little scream, and pointed to the cave to show Margaret they had come thence, On this Margaret felt sure there was no human being in the cave, and gave the matter no further attention, she fell into a deep reverie while looking at the little manse.

She was startled from it by Reicht's hand upon her shoulder, and a faint voice saying, "Let us go home."

"You got no answer at all, Reicht," said Margaret calmly.

"No, Margaret," said Reicht despondently. And they returned home.

Perhaps after all Margaret had nourished some faint secret hope in her heart, though her reason had rejected it, for she certainly went home more dejectedly.

Just as they entered Rotterdam, Reicht said, "Stay! Oh, Margaret, I am ill at deceit; but 'tis death to utter ill news to thee; I love thee so dear."

"Speak out, sweetheart," said Margaret. "I have gone through so much, I am almost past feeling any fresh trouble."

"Margaret, the hermit did speak to me."

"What, a hermit there? among all those birds."

"Ay; and doth not that show him a holy man?"

"I' God's name, what said he to thee, Reicht?"

"Alas! Margaret, I told him thy story, and I prayed him for our Lady's sake tell me where thy Gerard is, And I waited long for an answer, and presently a voice came like a trumpet: 'Pray for the soul of Gerard the son of Eli!"


The new hermit indirectly counsels Margaret to forget her Gerard. Later, a friend describes the hermit.

Joan proceeded to relate all the marvellous tales she had heard of this hermit's sanctity; how he never came out but at night, and prayed among the wolves, and they never molested him; and now he bade the people not bring him so much food to pamper his body, but to bring him candles.

"The candles are to burn before his saint," whispered Reicht solemnly.

"Ay, lass; and to read his holy books wi'. A neighbour o' mine saw his hand come out, and the birds sat thereon and pecked crumbs. She went for to kiss it, but the holy man whippit it away in a trice. They can't abide a woman to touch 'en, or even look at 'em, saints can't."

Immediately after, Margaret knits a heavy robe to give the hermit to keep him warm. She steals upon his cave from behind one day, struggling to cut through thick brambles, cannot, failing, too, to see the hermit come out of his dwelling.

Chapter 92 opens with the author summarizing what Clement (and now the reader) knows about the history of hermits in the Church, and adds,

He [Clement] looked round this roomy cell furnished with so many comforts, and compared it with the pictures in his mind of the hideous place, eremus in eremo, a desert in a desert, where holy Jerome, hermit, and the Plutarch of hermits, had wrestled with sickness, temptation, and despair four mortal years; and with the inaccessible and thorny niche, a hole in a precipice, where the boy hermit Benedict buried himself, and lived three years on the pittance the good monk Romanus could spare him from his scanty commons, and subdivided that mouthful with his friend, a raven; and the hollow tree of his patron St. Bavon; and the earthly purgatory at Fribourg, where lived a nameless saint in a horrid cavern, his eyes chilled with perpetual gloom, and his ears stunned with an eternal waterfall; and the pillar on which St. Simeon Stylita existed forty-five years; and the destina, or stone box, of St. Dunstan, where, like Hilarion in his bulrush hive, sepulchro potius quam domu, he could scarce sit, stand, or lie; and the living tombs, sealed with lead, of Thais, and Christina, and other recluses; and the damp dungeon of St. Alred. These and scores more of the dismal dens in which true hermits had worn out their wasted bodies on the rock, and the rock under their sleeping bodies, and their praying knees, all came into his mind ...

But Clement is tortured by the image of Margaret and feels his hermit life vain. His despondency grows to the point that "he groveled on the earth weeping and tearing his hair ... sighing and groaning, prayerless, tuneless, hopeless ..." Gradually recovering through fasting, prayer, and chant, the devil seems to visit him in dreams in the guise of Margaret herself; Clement immerses himself in cold water, then amongst the same brambles outside his cave that had deterred Margaret.

One day a wool cloak is left at Clement's door. The next night, having gone out as was his habit, he returns. Entering his cave, he finds Margaret there. They recognize one another and speak haltingly. Margaret wants him to at least quit his hermit life and live at the vicarage, where he can succeed the recently deceased vicar.

Chapter 94 unfolds their new relationship, tumultuous at first. At the cave:

"Unhappy girl," said he solemnly, yet deeply agitated, "would you have me risk my soul and yours for a miserable vicarage and the flowers that grow on it? But this is not thy doing: the bowelless fiend sends thee, poor simple girl, to me with this bait. But oh, cunning fiend, I will unmask thee even to this thine instrument, and she shall see thee, and abhor thee as I do, Margaret, my lost love, why am I here? Because I love thee."

"Oh! no, Gerard, you love me not or you would not have hidden from me; there was no need."

"Let there be no deceit between us twain, that have loved so true; and after this night, shall meet no more on earth."

"Now God forbid!" said she.

"I love thee, and thou hast not forgotten me, or thou hadst married ere this, and hadst not been the one to find me, buried here from sight of man. I am a priest, a monk: what but folly or sin can come of you and me living neighbours, and feeding a passion innocent once, but now (so Heaven wills it) impious and unholy? No, though my heart break I must be firm. 'Tis I that  am the man, 'tis I that am the priest. You and I must meet no more, till I am schooled by solitude, and thou art wedded to another."

"I consent to my doom but not to thine. I would ten times liever die; yet I will marry, ay, wed misery itself sooner than let thee lie in this foul dismal place, with yon sweet manse awaiting for thee." Clement groaned; at each word she spoke out stood clearer and clearer two things -- his duty, and the agony it must cost.

"My beloved," said he, with a strange mixture of tenderness and dogged resolution, "I bless thee for giving me one more sight of thy sweet face, and may God forgive thee, and bless thee, for destroying in a minute the holy peace it hath taken six months of solitude to build. No matter. A year of penance will, Dei gratia, restore me to my calm. My poor Margaret, I seem cruel: yet I am kind: 'tis best we part; ay, this moment."

"Part, Gerard? Never: we have seen what comes of parting. Part? Why, you have not heard half my story; no, nor the tithe, 'Tis not for thy mere comfort I take thee to Gouda manse. Hear me!"

"I may not. Thy very voice is a temptation with its music, memory's delight."

"But I say you shall hear me, Gerard, for forth this place I go not unheard."

"Then must we part by other means," said Clement sadly.

"Alack! what other means? Wouldst put me to thine own door, being the stronger?"

"Nay, Margaret, well thou knowest I would suffer many deaths rather than put force on thee; thy sweet body is dearer to me than my own; but a million times dearer to me are our immortal souls, both thine and mine. I have withstood this direst temptation of all long enow. Now I must fly it: farewell! farewell!"

He made to the door, and had actually opened it and got half out, when she darted after and caught him by the arm.

"Nay, then another must speak for me. I thought to reward thee for yielding to me; but unkind that thou art, I need his help I find; turn then this way one moment."

"Nay, nay."

"But I say ay! And then turn thy back on us an thou canst." She somewhat relaxed her grasp, thinking he would never deny her so small a favour. But at this he saw his opportunity and seized it.

"Fly, Clement, fly!" he almost shrieked; and his religious enthusiasm giving him for a moment his old strength, he burst wildly away from her, and after a few steps bounded over the little stream and ran beside it, but finding he was not followed stopped, and looked back.

She was lying on her face, with her hands spread out.

Yes, without meaning it, he had thrown her down and hurt her.

When he saw that, he groaned and turned back a step; but suddenly, by
another impulse flung himself into the icy water instead.

"There, kill my body!" he cried, "but save my soul!"

Whilst he stood there, up to his throat in liquid ice, so to speak, Margaret uttered one long, piteous moan, and rose to her knees.

He saw her as plain almost as in midday. Saw her pale face and her eyes
glistening; and then in the still night he heard these words:

"Oh, God! Thou that knowest all, Thou seest how I am used. Forgive me then! For I will not live another day." With this she suddenly started to her feet, and flew like some wild creature, wounded to death, close by his miserable hiding-place, shrieking:


Gerard slowly returns to the cave mouth, flings himself to the ground, prostrate a long time, praying that God take his life. He goes back into the cave. He discovers an infant  there, calling for his mother. It is Margaret's -- and his -- son, whom she left behind in her haste. After a little conversation, the child falls asleep. Margaret, who has anxiously returned and listens a moment, enters the cave.

In chapter 95, Margaret and Clement are reconciled, Clement to go to the vicarage of Gouda, and Margaret back to Rotterdam, leaving their son in his care, with a routine of meeting together as friends on Sundays in the Gouda vicarage.

And so the years glided; and these two persons, subjected to as strong and constant a temptation as can well be conceived, were each other's guardian angels, and not each other's tempters.

To be sure the well-greased morality of the next century, which taught that solemn vows to God are sacred in proportion as they are reasonable, had at that time entered no single mind; and the alternative to these two minds was self-denial or sacrilege.

But they accepted the arrangement for love's sake. Eight years later, Margaret contracted the plague and died. A little while later, Gerard, heart-broken, also dies.