In This Article Charles Reade

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Reference Works
  • Editions and Anthologies
  • Situating Reade in Victorian Literary Culture
  • The Cloister and the Hearth
  • Hard Cash
  • It Is Never Too Late to Mend
  • Griffith Gaunt
  • Other Novels
  • The Plays
  • Legal Reform
  • Medical Reform and Lunacy Debates
  • Sensationalism
  • Empire and Race
  • Journalism
  • Reception
  • Literary Relationships

Victorian Literature Charles Reade
by
Beth Palmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0046

Introduction

Charles Reade (b. 1814–d. 1884) entered into the Victorian cultural scene through theatrical adaptations, original dramatic writing, and magazine contributions as well as his best-selling novels. While his historical novel The Cloister and the Hearth (1861) was his most widely respected work in his lifetime, his more sensational contemporary fiction such as Hard Cash (1863) or It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1856) have recently received significant scholarly interest. His first novels were fictional reworkings of stage plays and throughout his career Reade moved back and forth between these forms, each influencing the other. Reade prided himself on his method of fiction writing, which involved extensive research—mostly in the form of cutting out articles that interested him from daily newspapers. This method was important to his “matter-of-fact” romances in which he stressed the significance of factuality in fiction. For much of his life he moved back and forth between Oxford (where he held a fellowship at Magdalen College) and a more bustling and bohemian career in London. An antagonistic figure unafraid to cultivate hostilities with publishers in particular, he nonetheless enjoyed friendships with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, the actress Ellen Terry, and his dramatic collaborator Tom Taylor. While his Magdalen fellowship precluded the possibility of marriage, he lived for many years with the actress Laura Seymour. Reade found considerable critical esteem in his own lifetime, but he received little scholarly attention during the 20th century. However, the recent interest in popular, middlebrow, and sensational literature has brought Reade greater standing in the field of Victorian studies. His ardent polemics on significant social issues of the day (such as the treatment of prisoners or the medical definition of lunacy) make Reade a significant figure for historians of medicine and law as well as for literary scholars.

Biography

No biography has been published on Reade in the last forty years and the four titles written in the 1930s (Elwin 1931), 1940s (Rives 1941), 1960s (Burns 1961), and 1970s (Smith 1976) all need to be read as products of their time. All make the case that Reade has been unjustly neglected and highlight The Cloister and the Hearth or Griffith Gaunt as comparable with the best-known works of the period. Reade is frequently presented as an eccentric character struggling with the forces of Victorian respectability: Burns adds a psychoanalytic element to this interpretation by suggesting that he was forced to repress the free run of his imagination ultimately leading to his artistic defeat. The entry on Reade in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Edwards 2004), although relatively brief, takes a more measured approach and provides a useful starting point covering the main elements of his childhood, life at Oxford, and entry into literary and theatrical work. Reade and Reade 1887 is not an autobiography but collects some of Reade’s correspondence with commentary from his son. The accumulation of archival material available to scholars, particularly in American university libraries, makes it surprising that his life has not been tackled more recently.

  • Burns, Wayne. Charles Reade: A Study in Victorian Authorship. New York: Bookman Associates, 1961.

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    Argues that Reade’s life is a tragic story of artistic defeat and that his failures are typical of Victorian novelists whose imaginations Burns sees as constrained by their social and cultural circumstances. The interest in Reade’s psychology is foregrounded in four chapters discussing his early life. These are followed by chapters devoted to each of his main works.

  • Edwards, P. D. “Charles Reade (1814–1884).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Howard Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    A useful account summarizing Reade’s life and work.

  • Elwin, Malcolm. Charles Reade: A Biography. London: Jonathan Cape, 1931.

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    Covers Reade’s dramatic and fiction works and also describes his interest in a number of legal and social reform issues. The useful appendices contain a bibliography.

  • Reade, Charles L., and Compton Reade. Charles Reade, Dramatist, Novelist, Journalist: A Memoir Compiled Chiefly from His Literary Remains. London: Chapman & Hall, 1887.

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    A weighty account of Reade’s life. Some of the dates given, however, are not reliable and the text is most usefully read in conjunction with other biographies.

  • Rives, Léone. Charles Reade: Sa Vie, Ses Romans. Toulouse, France: Imprimerie Toulousaine (Lion et Fils), 1941.

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    An appreciative biography that also provides a family tree and bibliographies of Reade’s work including his journalism (although this is not exhaustive). The author had greater access to family papers than Elwin.

  • Smith, Elton. Charles Reade. Twayne’s English Authors Series. London: Twayne, 1976.

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    Perhaps the most useful and even-handed of the 20th-century biographies.

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