in vindication of what he alleged to be his rights in his dramatic work. In 1860 he attacked in a pamphlet called ‘The Eighth Commandment’ such thefts of the products of the brain as those from which he imagined himself to be a sufferer. In the same work he advocated a wider scheme of international copyright, and denounced the system of wholesale piratical ‘adaptation’ from the French dramatists.
But his financial disappointments did not blunt his energies. No fewer than five new dramas by him were produced on the London stage in 1854. These were: ‘Two Loves and a Life,’ four acts, at the Adelphi, 20 March 1854, in collaboration with Tom Taylor; ‘The Courier of Lyons,’ three acts, at the Princess's, 26 June 1854 (afterwards renamed ‘The Lyons Mail,’ and often produced by Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre); ‘The King's Rival,’ five acts, at the St. James's, 1 Oct. 1854, with Tom Taylor; ‘Honour before Titles,’ three acts, at the St. James's, 3 Oct. 1854; and ‘Peregrine Pickle,’ five acts, at the St. James's, November 1854. Next year witnessed the production of ‘Art,’ in one act, at the St. James's, 17 April 1855, which was rechristened ‘Nance Oldfield,’ at the Olympic, 3 March 1883.
At length, in 1856, Reade marked a distinct epoch in his literary career by completing a largely planned novel, ‘It is Never Too Late to Mend’ (London, 3 vols. 12mo). Thenceforth he chiefly devoted himself to the enhancement of his reputation as a novelist, but he made it a leading aim of his works of fiction to expose notorious social abuses. ‘It is never too late to mend,’ which was accurately described on its title-page as ‘a matter-of-fact romance,’ illustrated with extraordinary power the abuses of prison discipline both in England and Australia. The trial in August 1855 of William Austin for cruelties inflicted by him, as governor of Birmingham gaol, upon the convicts under his charge first drew Reade's attention to the topic, and in the following months he carefully studied it in the gaols of Durham, Oxford, and Reading. The novel favourably exhibits Reade's powers and his limitations. The most remarkable features are the descriptions of nature and of gold-digging life in Australia, knowledge of which (apart from a few hints from John Henderson, a fellow of Magdalen, who had taken out a shipload of convicts to Australia) Reade owed entirely to literary research. A passage in the sixty-third chapter delineative of an English lark's song listened to with tears by a band of rough gold-diggers, and a sketch of an Australian daybreak in chapter sixty-five, prove him to have possessed imaginative capacity of exceptional force. But in the plot, which is melodramatic, and in the characterisation, which is jejune, he sinks to lower levels. The author's passionate philanthropy often rode roughshod over artistic propriety and truth. The personages are mere embodiments of virtues or vices, insufficiently shaded, and consequently failing to convince the reader of their vitality. His descriptions of the brutalities of the prison-house, although vigorous, were grossly exaggerated, and mainly on this score the book met with an unfavourable reception from the reviewers. Reade replied to them by a paper of ‘Proofs of its Prison Revelations.’ The novel had, however, an immense circulation. In 1862 George Conquest produced at the Grecian Theatre an unauthorised dramatic version, which Reade succeeded in inhibiting. A dramatic version by himself, which was first performed on 4 Oct. 1865 at the Princess's, although damned by the critics, ran for 148 nights, bringing him a profit of 2,000l. In 1873 the play was produced at six London theatres. Reade did not add conspicuously to his fame by his five succeeding novels. ‘The Course of True Love never did run smooth,’ appeared in 1857; ‘Jack of all Trades,’ in 1858; ‘Autobiography of a Thief,’ in 1858 (a powerful monodrama dealing with the career of Thomas Robinson, the hero of ‘Never too late to mend’); ‘Love me little, love me long’ (2 vols.), 1859; and ‘White Lies’ (3 vols.), 1860. The last was contributed as a serial story to the ‘London Journal’ in 1856–7. Reade dramatised it, under the title of the ‘Double Marriage,’ for the Queen's Theatre, 24 Oct. 1867.
Reade's greatest novel, the mediæval romance, in four volumes, entitled ‘The Cloister and the Hearth,’ was published in 1861. About one-fifth had originally appeared in 1859 under the title of ‘A good Fight’ in ‘Once a Week,’ and the circulation of the periodical was consequently increased by twenty thousand. The tale was gradually expanded in the two following years. The scene is laid in Holland, Germany, France, and Italy of the fifteenth century, and the manners, customs, politics, and familiar conversation of the epoch are successfully realised. There are incidentally introduced, along with the imaginary characters, historical personages like Froissart, Gringoire, Villon, Deschamps, Coquillart, Luther, and Erasmus, the last being portrayed as a fascinating child. Sir Walter Besant, in his introduction to the cheap edition of 1894, characterised the work as the greatest his-