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.