1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Reade, Charles
READE, CHARLES (1814–1884), English novelist and dramatist, the son of an Oxfordshire squire, was born at Ipsden, Oxfordshire, on the 8th of June 1814. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford, proceeded B.A. in 1835, and became a fellow of his college. He was subsequently dean of arts, and vice president of Magdalen College, taking his degree of D.C.L. in 1847. His name was entered at Lincoln's Inn in 1836; he was elected Vinerian Fellow in 1842, and was called to the bar in 1843. He kept his fellowship at Magdalen all his life, but after taking his degree he spent the greater part of his time in London. He began his literary career as a dramatist, and it was his own wish that the word “dramatist” should stand first in the description of his occupations on his tombstone. He was dramatist first and novelist afterwards, not merely chronologically but in his aims as an author, always having an eye to stage-effect in scene and situation as well as in dialogue. His first comedy, The Ladies' Battle, appeared at the Olympic Theatre in May 1851. It was followed by Angelo (1851), A Village Tale (1852), The Lost Husband (1852), and Gold (1853). But Reade's reputation was made by the two-act comedy, Masks and Faces, in which he collaborated with Tom Taylor. It was produced in November 1852, and later was expanded into three acts. By the advice of the actress, Laura Seymour, he turned the play into a prose story which appeared in 1853 as Peg Woffington. He followed this up in the same year with Christie Johnstone, a close study of Scottish fisher folk, an extraordinary tour de force for the son of an English squire, whether we consider the dialect or the skill with which he enters into alien habits of thought. In 1854 he produced, in conjunction with Tom Taylor, Two Loves and a Life, and The King's Rival; and, unaided, The Courier of Lyons—well known under its later title, The Lyons Mail—and Peregrine Pickle. In the next year appeared Art, afterwards known as Nance Oldfield.
He made his name as a novelist in 1856, when he produced It's Never Too Late to Mend, a novel written with the purpose of reforming abuses in prison discipline and the treatment of criminals. He described prison life with a fidelity which becomes at times tedious and revolting; but the power of the descriptions was undeniable, and the interest was profound. The truth of some of his details was challenged, and the novelist defended himself with vigour against attempts to rebut his contentions. Five minor novels followed in quick succession,—The Course of True Love never did run Smooth (1857), Jack of all Trades (1858), The Autobiography of a Thief (1858), Love Me Little, Love Me Long (1859), and White Lies (1860), dramatized as The Double Marriage. Then appeared, in 1861, his masterpiece, The Cloister and the Hearth, relating. the adventures of the father of Erasmus. He had dealt with the subject two years before in a short story in Once a Week, but, seeing its capabilities, expanded it; and the work is now recognized as one of the finest historical novels in existence. Returning from the 15th century to modern English life, he next produced another startling novel with a purpose, Hard Cash (1863), in which he strove to direct attention to the abuses of private lunatic asylums. Three more such novels, in two of which at least the moral purpose, though fully kept in view, was not allowed to obstruct the flow of incident, were afterwards undertaken,—Foul Play (1869), in which he exposed the iniquities of ship-knackers, and paved the way for the labours of Samuel Plimsoll; Put Yourself in his Place (1870), in which he grappled with the tyrannous outrages of trades-unions; and A Woman-Hater (1877), in which he exposed the degrading conditions of village life. The Wandering Heir (1875), of which he also wrote a version for the stage, was suggested by the Tichborne trial. Outside the line of these moral and occasional works Reade produced three elaborate studies of character,—Griffith Gaunt (1866), A Terrible Temptation (1871), A Simpleton (1873). The first of these was in his own opinion the best of his novels, and his own opinion was probably right. He was wrong, however, in his own conception of his powers as a dramatist. At intervals throughout his literary career he sought to gratify his dramatic ambition, hiring a theatre and engaging a company for the representation of his own plays. An example of his persistency was seen in the case of Foul Play. He wrote this in 1869 in combination with Mr Dion Boucicault with a view to stage adaptation. The play was more or less a failure; but he produced another version alone in 1877, under the title of A Scuttled Ship, and the failure was pronounced. His greatest success as a dramatist attended his last attempt—Drink—an adaptation of Zola's L'Assommoir, produced in 1879. In that year his friend Laura Seymour, who had kept house for him since 1854, died. Reade's health failed from that time, and he died on the 11th of April 1884, leaving behind him a completed novel, A Perilous Secret, which showed no falling off in the arts of weaving a complicated plot and devising thrilling situations. Reade was an amateur of the violin, and among his works is an essay on Cremona violins with the title, A Lost Art Revised.
It was characteristic of Reade's open and combative nature that he admitted the public freely to the secrets of his method of composition. He spoke about his method in his prefaces; he introduced himself into one of his novels—“ Dr Rolfe ” in A Terrible Temptation; and by his will he left his workshop and his accumulation of materials open for inspection for two years after his death. He had collected an enormous mass of materials for his study of human nature, from personal observation, from newspapers, books of travel, blue-books of commissions of inquiry, from miscellaneous reading. This vast collection was classified and arranged in huge ledgers and notebooks. He had planned a great work on “ the wisdom and folly of nations,” dealing with social, political and domestic details, and it was chiefly for this that his collection was destined, but in passing he found the materials useful as a store of incidents and suggestions. A collector of the kind was bound to be systematic, otherwise his collection would have fallen into confusion, and Reade's collection contains many curiosities in classification and tabulation. On the value of this method for his art there has been much discussion, the prevalent opinion being that his imagination was overwhelmed and stifled by it. He himself maintained the contrary; and it must be admitted that a priori critics have not rightly understood the use that he made of his laboriously collected facts. He did not merely shovel the contents of his notebooks into his novels; they served rather as an atmosphere of reality in which he worked, so that his novels were like pictures painted in the open air. His imagination worked freely among them and was quickened rather than impeded by their suggestions of things suited to the purpose in hand; and it is probably to his close and constant contact with facts, acting on an imagination naturally fertile, that we owe his marvellous abundance of incident. Even in his novels of character there is no meditative and analytic stagnation; the development of character is shown through a rapid unceasing progression of significant facts. This rapidity of movement was perhaps partly the result of his dramatic studies; it was probably in writing for the stage that he learned the value of keeping the attention of his readers incessantly on the alert. The hankering after stage effect, while it saved him from dullness, often betrayed him into rough exaggeration, especially in his comic scenes. But the gravest defect in his work is a defect of temper. His view of human life, especially of the life of women, is almost brutal; his knowledge of frailties and vices is obtruded with repellent force; and he cannot, with all his skill as a story-teller, be numbered among the great artists who warm the heart and help to improve the conduct. But as a moral satirist, which was the function he professed over and above that of a story-teller, he did good service, both indirectly in his novels and directly in his own name.
See Charles L. Reade and Compton Reade, Charles Reade, a Memoir (2 vols., 1837); A. C. Swinburne, Miscellanies (1886); and some recollections by John Coleman, Charles Reade as I knew him (1903).