Charles Reade 1814–1884
English novelist and dramatist.
For additional information on Reade's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 2.
During his lifetime, Reade was a respected writer whose novels were sometimes compared favorably with those of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Like Dickens, he often used his fiction as a vehicle for social commentary, and he compiled massive notebooks of material about contemporary abuses for use in his writing. He also wrote several works—notably Griffith Gaunt (1866)—in which he portrayed unconventional female characters and explored feminine psychology and sexuality. Reade, however, is best remembered today neither for his novels portraying social problems nor for his fictional studies of women but for his somewhat atypical historical novel, The Cloister and the Hearth (1861).
The youngest son of an Oxfordshire squire, Reade attended Oxford University's Magdalen College, graduating in 1835. His mother wanted him to enter the Catholic Church, but Reade declined. Instead, he studied both medicine and law and was even called to the bar in 1842, but he never practiced either profession. He did, however, go to court more than once in later years as a plaintiff in disputes over his works, and he was fond of satirizing the medical profession. As early as 1835, Reade began collecting information with a view to later producing fiction; he eventually produced a massive accumulation of notebooks containing newspaper clippings, extracts from government reports, and other material that he would later incorporate into his novels and plays. During this period, before he began his literary career, Reade survived in part thanks to a Magdalen College fellowship, which he could hold only as long as he did not marry. Reade abided by this prohibition against marriage, remaining a bachelor all his life, but he wrote very critically about enforced celibacy, notably in The Cloister and the Hearth. Reade's first completed literary work, the play The Ladies' Battle (adapted from a French work), was performed in London in 1851. Twelve more of his plays were performed over the next five years, including four written
in collaboration with Tom Taylor. One of these collaborations, Masks and Faces (1852), was moderately successful, as was his play Gold (1853), about the Australian gold fields, but Reade won greater popularity with his fiction, which he began publishing in 1853, than with his dramas. His first major success came with his novel It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1856), although its graphic depiction of abusive practices in prisons also prompted objections from those who believed that Reade was exaggerating. Typically, Reade responded with letters and a pamphlet providing evidence to support his claims. His next major success was in 1861 with The Cloister and the Hearth. Griffith Gaunt was also popular but provoked an outcry, especially in America, because of its "indecency." Reade responded with a lawsuit and was awarded the derisory sum of six cents. Contentiousness surrounded him throughout his career. He became involved in a dispute with Anthony Trollope after turning Trollope's novel Ralph the Heir into the play Shilly-Shally (1872) without his permission. This situation was somewhat unusual for Reade because he was more frequently on the other side in cases of unauthorized adaptations and pirated editions; he even published a book, The Eighth Commandment (1860), and a series of letters, The Rights and Wrongs of Authors (1875), defending authors' rights in these situations. Throughout his career, Reade continually returned to playwriting, and in his final years he insisted on being described first as a dramatist, but it was as a novelist that he gained his greatest fame.
Reade's earliest works followed the conventions of Victorian melodrama, but in 1852 the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and the publication of Stowe's "key" explaining the documentary basis of her accomplishment inspired Reade to develop a similar approach to literature. He had already been collecting information on topical matters, but now he began to collect and systematically arrange these materials and to incorporate them in his works. He did this to a certain extent in Gold, presenting factual material about Australia, and he practiced this method to a much greater extent in his first socially conscious novel, it Is Never Too Late to Mend, in which he included lengthy descriptions of abuses in English prisons. Reade later produced several more novels depicting social issues, including Hard Cash (1863), about the evils of lunatic asylums; Foul Play (1868), about insurance fraud; and Put Yourself in His Place (1870), an attack on labor unions. He did not, however, give up melodrama, combining social commentary with sensational action and resourceful heroes. He is thus often associated with such novelists as Wilkie Collins rather than with the more domestic school of Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. At the same time, however, he was opposed to Carlyle's notions of hero worship, going out of his way in The Cloister and the Hearth to celebrate the lives of two ordinary people. That same novel is also notable for its exploration of the choice between a life of spiritual development in isolation from the world (the life of the cloister) and a life spent in the world (at the domestic hearth). Reade's melodramatic inclinations often led him to produce simple conflicts of good and evil, but while his male characters tended to be stock figures, he at times created complex and unconventional female characters, particularly Kate Peyton, whose sexual and emotional conflicts Reade explored in Griffith Gaunt.
Reade referred to several of his novels as "matter-of-fact romances," and his combination of realism and romance led some commentators to fault him for being too realistic, while others found him not realistic enough. Praised in his own day for his didactic purpose and documentary thoroughness, he eventually fell from favor for his excess of factual detail as well as for his unrealistic characterizations and improbable plots. The Cloister and the Hearth, with its detailed re-creation of fifteenth-century Europe, came to eclipse all his other works; but Reade stated that only a "lunatic" could call it his best, and it has been written that to judge Reade by this somewhat unrepresentative historical novel is as misleading as judging Dickens by A Tale of Two Cities. Reade himself, along with some later commentators, preferred Griffith Gaunt. Surprisingly, however, this portrayal of a complex female character has not attracted the attention of modern feminist critics. Indeed, Reade has attracted little attention during the latter half of the twentieth century.
The Ladies' Battle [adaptor; from the drama La bataille des dames by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé] (drama) 1851
*Peregrine Pickle [adaptor; from the novel Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett] (drama) 1851
Masks and Faces [with Tom Taylor] (drama) 1852
Gold (drama) 1853
Peg Woffington (novel) 1853
Christie Johnstone (novel) 1853
It Is Never Too Late to Mend (novel) 1856
The Bloomer (short story) 1857
White Lies (novel) 1857
Cream (short stories) 1858
Love Me Little, Love Me Long (novel) 1859
The Eighth Commandment (essay) 1860
The Cloister and the Hearth (novel) 1861
Hard Cash (novel) 1863
It Is Never Too Late to Mend [adaptor; from his own novel] (drama) 1865
Griffith Gaunt (novel) 1866
Foul Play [with Dion Boucicault] (drama) 1868
Put Yourself in His Place (novel) 1870
Free Labour [adaptor; from his own novel Put Yourself in His Place] (drama) 1870
A Terrible Temptation (novel) 1871
Shilly-Shally [adaptor; from the novel...
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SOURCE: "The Decay of Lying," in De Profundis and Other Writings, edited by Hesketh Pearson, Penguin, 1973, pp. 55-87.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1889 and reprinted in 1973, Wilde laments Reade's decision to abandon his sense of beauty in order to write realistic social-problem novels.]
I do not know anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as is above Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over.
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SOURCE: "Charles Reade," in London Mercury, Vol. 4, June, 1921, pp. 150-63.
[In the following excerpt, Hornung surveys Reade's novels.]
Charles Reade was the youngest son of a country gentleman, one of the Reades of Ipsden, in Oxfordshire, where he was born twelve months before Waterloo. His schooling was private and ferocious; but at seventeen, thanks to an English Essay well above the average, he gained a Demyship at Magdalen, and four years later was elected a Fellow of the college. From that moment he considered himself condemned to perpetual celibacy, and observed the letter of an oppressive law inflexibly; yet the other celibates did not altogether approve of him.
In truth there never can have been a Don less donnish, or one less in sympathy with the accepted type. Did he not depict himself, in A Terrible Temptation, as "looking like a great fat country farmer" and "walking like a sailor"? Had not his colleagues of the high-table "some of the thickest skulls I have ever encountered"? Not that he saw much of them, unless it was in the year 1851, when Charles Reade was Vice-President of Magdalen. Thereafter his chief use for Oxford was to go down and shut himself up in his rooms to write his book or ransack the Bodleian for the facts on which his books were built. In earlier days he would absent himself altogether on alien enterprises, some of them the reverse of academic. He...
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SOURCE: "Fœmina Vera in Charles Reade's Novels," in PMLA, Vol. 46, Autumn, 1931, pp. 1260-79.
[In the following excerpt, Sutcliffe discusses Reade's often negative portrayal of women and his depiction of women characters who disguise themselves as men or act in traditionally masculine ways.]
One of the commonest headings in the notebooks on which Charles Reade founded his novels1 is fœmina vera. He considered himself an authority on woman. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette he calls himself "a patient drudge, who has studied that sex profoundly in various walks of life."2 Certainly his women are more memorable, and the subject of more comment and criticism, than his men. To them W. D. Howells devoted a long essay in his Heroines of Fiction. Though, like his men, they fall into easily recognizable, frequently repeated types, they are more alive, more real, less subordinate to the demands of story structure. The result of more study and more enthusiasm, they are less romanticized, less melodramatized than his heroes and villains.
The idiosyncrasies of his own sex (except under feminine influence) concerned him as little as they concern most men. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he was as blind to characteristically male fatuity and foible as most men are. Though, as his villains show, he recognized and warmed to indignation at...
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SOURCE: "Unique and Repeated Situations and Themes in Reade's Fiction," in PMLA, Vol. 60, March, 1945, pp. 221-30.
[In the following excerpt, Sutcliffe discusses plot devices in Reade's novels.]
Charles Reade had the romancer's fondness for startling and rare, even unparalleled incidents, and heaped up thousands of such incidents in his thoroughly documented notebooks.1 Yet throughout his fiction he utilized the same formulas and situations over and over again. Here is an anomaly which demands analysis and explanation.
The melodrama and the romance (and to some degree the epic) must be made up of swift successions of startling incident. Under the heading of "Striking and Pictorial Incidents" Reade collected in his notebooks the materials which made his novels "sensational," the "matter-of-fact romances" that he desired them to be.2 Wrecks of vessels,3 and explosions of a forge,4 of a grindstone,5 of a chimney,6 and in a mine,7 are matched by such headings as "Accidents," "Disasters," "Wrecks," "Fire," "Burst," in his notebooks. Life-and-death physical encounters are another type of violent incident that forms a necessary part of the plot of any Reade novel. "Pen in hand," he confesses, "I am fond of hot passions and pictorial incidents."8
Though he could...
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SOURCE: "Pre-Raphaelitism in Charles Reade's Early Fiction" in PMLA, Vol. 60, December, 1945, pp. 1149-64.
[In the following excerpt, Burns considers Reade's theories of art and the influence of those theories on his novel Christie Johnstone.]
That Charles Reade was interested in art, along with Cremona violins, Scottish herring fisheries, and other such hobbies, has long been known. Coleman listed some of the paintings in Reade's private collection and declared him a connoisseur;1 Elwin pointed out that he had a genuine taste in art and was the best sort of collector;2 and Rives added still further information of much the same type.3 One of Rives' quotations is particularly interesting.
1. There is a woman stooping in rather an absurd attitude with her hand touching her foot. Insert at her foot a rose which I could do so that Etty could not tell it from Etty and put a curtain in her left hand, and the absurdity vanishes. We have a woman stealing from behind a curtain, and picking up a gage d'amour which one has thrown at her feet…
6. Diana waiting for Endymion. Paint out her night cap. Confine her hair by a band glittering in the moonlight, and let this band be surmounted by a crescent as in the picture you sold Mr. Hart…4
Reade, it would seem, was quite sure of...
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SOURCE: "Uncle Tom and Charles Reade," in American Literature, Vol. 17, January, 1946, pp. 334-47.
[In the following excerpt, Burns and Sutcliffe suggest that Reade's style of documentary realism was influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.]
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) achieved an unparalleled popularity, both in America and Europe. That we all know. What is not so well known is the extent to which the novel, and the accompanying "Key" (The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1853) influenced the thinking and writing of European novelists—among others Charles Reade.
Several scholars have noted a relationship between the work of Mrs. Stowe and that of Reade. Léone Rives, Reade's latest biographer, recognizes similarities in method:
Mrs. Beecher Stowe utilise également une méthode analogue, fondée entièrement sur l'observation. Encore à la manière de Reade, elle fait part au lecteur de son procédé, dans La case de l'Oncle Tom:
Les divers incidents que composent ce récit sont en grande partie authentiques; beaucoup d'entre eux ont été observés soit directement par l'auteur, soit par ses amis intimes … et la plupart des propos sont retranscrits mot à mot, tels qu'elle les a entendus ou qu'on les lui a rapportés.1
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SOURCE: "Propaganda and Hard Facts in Charles Reade's Didactic Novels: A Study of It Is Never Too Late to Mend and Hard Cash, " in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. 4, 1960, pp. 135-49.
[In the following excerpt, Smith contends that although Reade drew on factual sources for his didactic novels, he exaggerated and introduced melodramatic elements in the tradition of the sensation novel.]
'Eccentric fact makes improbable fiction, and improbable fiction is not impressive.'
The Times, 2 Jan. 1864, reviewing Hard Cash.
'All fiction, worth a button, is founded on facts,' wrote Charles Reade in the preface to his novel A Simpleton (1873). To help him write his novels he evolved a'system', which can be summed up as the use of a great deal of fact and of a little imagination. The novel was not his favourite medium, so it was convenient for him to have a rule-of-thumb to work by. For him a good plot was essential in a novel. He found invention difficult, and his imagination needed a ground plan of facts to work upon, so he made a virtue of necessity and insisted that good fiction is founded on fact.
In Reade's fourteen novels the proportion and kind of 'hard fact' vary considerably. Sometimes he used factual evidence to substantiate social criticism which is only subsidiary to the...
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SOURCE: " It Is Never Too Late to Mend: The Immortal Part of the Work," in Charles Reade: A Study in Victorian Authorship, Bookman Associates, 1961, pp. 155-71.
[In the following excerpt, Burns discusses the epic qualities of the novel version of It Is Never Too Late to Mend.]
In a letter to The Times (August 26, 1871) Reade wrote: "A noble passage in The Times of September 7 or 8, 1853, touched my heart, inflamed my imagination, and was the germ of my first important work."2 Taken literally—the way it has so often been taken—this statement implies that Reade had never thought of prisons or prison reform as a subject for a novel before September 7 or 8 (actually September 12) when he encountered the noble passage in The Times detailing atrocities in Birmingham Gaol. But this is not the way Reade intended the statement, or at least it is not the way, in all honesty, he should have intended it, for the Diary shows that he had begun his prison researches in 1852, in connection with his play Gold, "August 10,—I have sketched the plot of an original drama; I am studying for it a little. One of my characters is to be a thief. I have the entrée of Durham Gaol, and I am studying thieves. I have got lots of their letters, and one or two autobiographies from the chaplain. But the other subject, the gold-diggings, makes me very uneasy. I feel my...
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SOURCE: "Griffith Gaunt: 'The Great Passions that Poets Have Sung,'" in Charles Reade: A Study in Victorian Authorship, Bookman Associates, 1961, pp. 231-67.
[In the following excerpt, Burns discusses Reade's portrayal of feminine psychology and sexuality in Griffith Gaunt.]
In the midst of this turmoil [over the stage version of It Is Never Too Late to Mend] Reade still managed to keep up his Notebooks, and to start work on a new novel, although, duplicating the practice he had followed after completing his prison epic, he did not immediately attempt another matter-of-fact romance. After Hard Cash and The Cloister that would have been too strenuous. Instead he essayed another and to his way of thinking less demanding type of novel. "It is a tale of the heart," he wrote Fields (Oct. 13, 1865), "and does not straggle into any eccentric topics. Need I say I shall make it as exciting and interesting as I can."
The outlines of this tale Reade seems to have drawn primarily from the two sources first identified in The Round Table (Dec. 1, 1867): 1) a fifty page story in Wilkie Collins' Queen of Hearts (1859) entitled "Brother Griffith's Story of a Plot in Private Life," and 2) "The Frenchman of Two Wives," an article in Household Words (Dec. 6, 1856) that was seemingly Collins' own immediate source for "Brother...
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SOURCE: "Charles Reade and The Cloister and the Hearth: A Survey of the Novel's Literary Reception and Its Historic Fidelity," in Unisa English Studies, Vol. IX, No. 1, March, 1971, pp. 18-26.
[In the following excerpt, Muller explores the reasons for the popularity of The Cloister and the Hearth.]
Numerous reasons can be put forward to explain why nineteenth-century critics declined to place Charles Reade in the foremost rank of novelists; but there are three main and obvious reasons: his polemical purpose was frequently injurious to, and incompatible with, his artistic purpose, his reliance on documentary sources like law reports and prison blue-books persuaded critics that he lacked true imagination, or genius, and his invective spirit, apart from damaging his art, made enemies of numerous critics. Never too late to Mend—the most characteristic of Reade's didactic works—was one of the most popular novels of the Victorian era, and the novel by which the author first secured his reputation in the eyes of a vast reading public; but to a large number of critics the novel was not welcome, and on its publication (in 1856) a great outcry arose. The author was accused of having indulged in wilful exaggeration of facts concerning the penal system; notwithstanding the heated defence of the author, who showed by Government reports and by the evidence of prison...
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SOURCE: "Novels: On Social Issues," in Charles Reade, Twayne, 1976, pp. 104-34.
[In the following excerpt. Smith discusses Reade's general approach to writing novels about social issues and discusses specific aspects of It Is Never Too Late to Mend.]
The last sentence of Put Yourself in His Place reveals Charles Reade's intention for his novels about current social issues: " … I have taken a few undeniable truths out of many, and have laboured to make my readers realize those appalling facts of the day which most men know, but not one in a thousand comprehends, and not one in a hundred thousand realizes, until fiction—which, whatever you may have been told to the contrary, is the highest, widest, noblest, and greatest of all the arts—comes to his aid, studies, penetrates, digests the hard facts of chronicles and bluebooks, and makes their dry bones live." Reade's friend Wilkie Collins collected all the remarkable police cases and judicial narratives he could find; and, out of the vast accumulation of bizarre criminal facts, he chose the bricks to go into the solid fabric of his mystery stories. As the author of Woman in White and The Moonstone, Collins was ever on the alert for perplexing criminal oddities; but the author of It Is Never Too Late to Mend, Hard Cash, and Put Yourself in His Place cast himself in the pleasing romantic role of knight-errant who went...
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SOURCE: "The Cloister and the Hearth: A Popular Response to the Oxford Movement," in Religion and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 71-88.
[In the following excerpt, Vitanza observes that The Cloister and the Hearth not only faults the enforced celibacy but also the isolation from worldly concerns associated with the Oxford Movement.]
Charles Reade, the nineteenth-century novelist whom the young Henry James called "to our mind the most readable of living English novelists and … a distant kinsman of Shakespeare" (207) and who, in the estimation of many of his contemporaries, "after the death of Thackeray and of Dickens … divided with George Eliot the reputation of being the greatest living novelist" (Phillips 20), is all but ignored in literary criticism today. Except for passing comment in literary histories, Reade is the subject of only an occasional article or dissertation. This current neglect leads one to forget the strength of Reade's reputation at the height of his career. William Dean Howells, who observed first hand the rise and decline of Reade's reputation, testifies to Reade's popularity with his contemporary audience. Recalling in My Literary Passions the writers who had most influenced him, Howells writes,
I ought not to omit from the list of the favorites an author who was then beginning to have his greatest vogue, and...
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SOURCE: "It is Never Too Late to Mend and Prison Conditions in Nineteenth-Century England," in Theatre Research International, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1993, pp. 4-15.
[In the following excerpt, Barrett discusses the controversial premiere of Reade's play It is Never Too Late to Mend.]
The première of It Is Never Too Late to Mend at the Princess's Theatre on 4 October 1865 marked the appropriately tumultuous return of Charles Reade to the London stage after an absence of nine years. That night, one of the most memorable disturbances in the nineteenth-century theatre occurred when the drama critics in attendance, led by Frederick Guest Tomlins of the Morning Advertiser, demanded that the play be halted because of its offensive subject matter and one particularly shocking scene. The dispute became a cause célèbre among critics, dramatists, and the general public and was recalled (with varying degrees of accuracy) years later by its participants, witnesses, and other interested parties.
Today the incident raises several questions. Why did Reade decide to return to stage writing after his self-imposed hiatus, since he had long criticized the inability of playwrights to receive proper compensation for their work and to protect it through inadequate copyright laws? Why was Reade's dramatization of his novel so much more provocative than the novel itself, published in...
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SOURCE: "Representing Empire: Class, Culture, and the Popular Theatre in the Nineteenth Century," in Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre, Drama, and Performance, edited by J. Ellen Gainor, Routledge, 1995, pp. 132-47.
[In the following excerpt. Hays discusses the way Reade 's play It is Never Too Late to Mend reflects the newly developing ideology of harmony between the social classes in England based on exploitation of the colonies.]
[If] we turn to the melodrama of the early 1860s, we can do so with the sense that the discursive unity [Edward] Said discovers in the age of Conrad had not only not (yet) prevailed earlier in the century, but that it was held in abeyance by an active struggle for cultural dominance, both in the public realm (forcefully manifest in the Chartist and Corn Law conflicts) and in the "aesthetic" realm. Indeed it is only with the plays of Robertson, Pinero and Jones, and the "modernist" preoccupations of Shaw, that what might be called "aestheticized" dramatic culture and imperialism are functionally integrated as fully as in Conrad's novels.5 Prior to this, the project of political enclosure and cultural submersion suggested in [Jane Austen's] Mansfield Park had yet to be completed. To get to that point, both the popular drama and its audience had to be reconfigured, included fully within the cultural politics legitimated by Austen's...
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Parrish, M. L. Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade. London: Constable, 1940.
Descriptive bibliography of the first editions of Reade's works.
Sadleir, Michael. "Charles Reade: Note and Bibliography." In Excursions in Victorian Bibliography, pp. 159-79. London: Chaundy & Cox, 1922.
Lists first editions of Reade's novels and plays.
Booth, Bradford A. "Trollope, Reade, and 'Shilly-Shally'." Trollopian 1, No. 4 (1947): 43-54; 2, No. 1 (1947): 43-51.
Examines the dispute between Trollope and Reade over Reade's dramatization of Trollope's novel Ralph the Heir.
Coleman, John. Charles Reade as I Knew Him. London: Traherne, 1903.
Based on the memoir by Reade's relatives (see below).
Elwin, Malcolm. Charles Reade. London: Cape, 1931.
Focuses on details of Reade's career and includes bibliographies of Reade's novels and plays.
Reade, Charles L., and Compton Reade. Charles Reade … A Memoir. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887.
A discreet and...
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