Charles Reade Essay - Critical Essays

Reade, Charles


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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope] (drama) 1872

Cremona Fiddles (essays) 1872

The Wandering Heir (short story) 1872

A Simpleton (novel) 1873

The Rights and Wrongs of Authors (letters) 1875

A Woman-Hater (novel) 1877

Drink [adaptor; from the novel L'assomoir by Emile Zola] (drama) 1879

Love and Money [with Henry Pettitt] (drama) 1882

Singleheart and Double Face (novel) 1884

A Perilous Secret (novel) 1885

*Written circa 1834 and published in 1851.


Oscar Wilde (essay date 1889)

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...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

E. W. Hornung (essay date 1921)

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...

(The entire section is 7868 words.)

Emerson Grant Sutcliffe (essay date 1931)

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...

(The entire section is 8600 words.)

Emerson Grant Sutcliffe (essay date 1945)

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...

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Wayne Burns (essay date 1945)

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...

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Wayne Burns and Emerson Grant Sutcliffe (essay date 1946)

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...

(The entire section is 6059 words.)

Sheila M. Smith (essay date 1960)

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...

(The entire section is 6200 words.)

Wayne Burns (essay date 1961)

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...

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Wayne Burns (essay date 1961)

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...

(The entire section is 11909 words.)

C. H. Muller (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 5697 words.)

Elton E. Smith (essay date 1976)

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...

(The entire section is 4114 words.)

Dianna Vitanza (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

Daniel Barrett (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 7601 words.)

Michael Hays (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 5481 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 365 words.)