Authors: Charles Reade

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and playwright.

June 8, 1814

Ipsden House, Oxfordshire, England

April 11, 1884

London, England


A dramatist and novelist who enjoyed great popular acclaim in his lifetime, Charles Reade was born at Ipsden House in Oxfordshire on June 8, 1814. He was the youngest of the eleven children born to a wealthy family of landed gentry. Unlike his brothers, who received the usual public school (that is, private school) education, Reade was educated at home by tutors; as a result, he was faced with difficulties, personal and academic, when he entered Oxford at seventeen. He had not learned to get along with people, nor had he acquired the academic knowledge he should have had. During his years at Oxford, from 1832 to 1835, Reade received honors—apparently more by luck than ability, and in one case by absolute chicanery. In 1835 he was elected a fellow of the college. Later he went to London and studied law, and in 1843 he was admitted to the bar, although he never actively practiced law. He also tried medicine at Edinburgh and considered a church calling, experiences that later found expression in his novels.

Charles Reade.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From 1837 to 1848 Reade traveled around Europe, adding to his collection of violins. Around 1840 he fell in love with a woman in Scotland whom he wanted to marry, but the match was suddenly broken off. When he went back to Scotland years later to search for her, she was dead. The marriage would in any case have been difficult for Reade, because he was dependent on his don’s salary, which he had to remain celibate to keep. Moreover, his family may have been opposed to his marrying a woman of lower social rank. The experience later worked its way into The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), Reade’s best-known work.

Returning to London in 1849, Reade began to write plays. His first successful dramatic production was a three-act comedy, The Ladies’ Battle, which was staged at the Royal Olympic Theatre in 1851. Within two years, Reade produced five other plays and made many friends among theatrical people, among them Laura Seymour, a well-known actress, who was his mistress and adviser until her death in 1879.

It was at Seymour’s suggestion that Reade first turned to fiction. She recommended that he transform one of his plays into a novel, and so Masks and Faces (1852) became Peg Woffington (1853). In 1856 Reade’s first long novel, It Is Never Too Late to Mend, was published; thereafter, Reade turned his efforts almost exclusively to fiction. Reade’s greatest novel, The Cloister and the Hearth, appeared in October of 1861; an early, much shorter version had been published earlier under the title A Good Fight in the magazine Once a Week.

The Cloister and the Hearth deals with the manners, customs, politics, and economics of life in fifteenth century Europe. Its title concerns the novel’s central dualism: Holland is the hearth, a place that offers hope to the tale’s lovers, Gerard and Margaret. Italy is the cloister, the place where Gerard becomes Brother Clement of the Dominican Order and fails to find domestic bliss with Margaret, who has located him after a period of separation only to have to live apart from him. Depicting the dangers, discomforts, and glories of the Middle Ages, The Cloister and the Hearth was based on Desiderus Erasmus’s 1607 account of his life. Reade’s novel contains, as do his other works, exciting incidents and depictions of social inequity; the bulk of its chapters are devoted to the heroism of common folk. Notably, the novel has an antiheroic thesis: Ordinary men and women do great deeds and suffer noble sorrows daily. The plot hinges on the central characters’ picaresque journey from Holland to Rome to Holland. The story ends with Gerard and Margaret’s son still a youth in school; he would grow up to become Erasmus, the great theologian and humanist of the Reformation.

Probably under the influence of his friend Charles Dickens, Reade turned from historical romances to problem novels such as Hard Cash (1863), Griffith Gaunt (1866), and Foul Play (1868). During his long career, Reade wrote nearly forty novels and plays, most of which are now forgotten. The plays are all melodramas, while the novels tend to be pieces of sensational fiction. In both, his plots turn on such melodramatic formulas as the hairbreadth escape and the sentimental solution; only The Cloister and the Hearth continues to attract readers.

Reade thought that his dramatic work was more important than his fiction. Ironically, his love of drama did not add much to his literary reputation or financial success; as a novelist, however, he made a considerable amount of money. He died on Good Friday, April 11, 1884, at 3 Blomfield Villas, London, and was buried in Willesden Churchyard beside Laura Seymour.

Author Works Long Fiction: Peg Woffington, 1853 Christie Johnstone, 1853 Propria quae maribus: A jeu d’esprit; and, The Box Tunnel: A Fact, 1853 (magazine), 1857 (book) Art: A Dramatic Tale, 1853–54 (serial), 1855 (book) Clouds and Sunshine, 1854 (serial), 1855 (book) It Is Never Too Late to Mend, 1856 (3 volumes) The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, 1857 (contains The Bloomer [also known as Propria quae maribus: A jeu dʹesprit], Art: A Dramatic Tale, and Clouds and Sunshine) White Lies: A Story, 1857 (3 volumes) Cream, 1858 (contains Jack of All Trades and The Autobiography of a Thief) A Good Fight and Other Tales, 1859 (contains The Autobiography of a Thief, Jack of All Trades, and A Good Fight) Love Me Little, Love Me Long, 1859 (2 volumes) The Cloister and the Hearth: A Tale of the Middle Ages, 1861 (4 volumes) Hard Cash, 1863 (3 volumes) Griffith Gaunt; or, Jealousy, 1865–66 (serial), 1866 (book; 3 volumes)) Foul Play, 1868 (3 volumes; with Dion Boucicault) Put Yourself in His Place. 1869–70 (serial), 1870 (book; 3 volumes) A Terrible Temptation, 1871 (3 volumes) The Wandering Heir, 1872 A Simpleton, 1872–73 (serial), 1873 (book; 3 volumes) A Woman-Hater, 1876–77 (serial), 1877 (book; 3 volumes) The Jilt, 1877 Singleheart and Doubleface, 1882 Good Stories of Man and Other Animals, 1884 A Perilous Secrtet, 1884 (2 volumes) The Picture, 1884 Drama: The Ladies’ Battle; or, Un duel en amour, pr., pb. 1851 Angelo, pr., pb. 1851 Peregrine Pickle, pb. 1851, pr. 1854 (adaptation of Tobias Smollett’s novel) The Lost Husband, pr., pb. 1852 Masks and Faces; or, Before and Behind the Curtain, pr. 1852, pb. 1854 (with Tom Taylor) A Village Tale, pr. 1852 Gold!, pr., pb. 1853 The Courier of Lyons; or, The Attack upon the Mail, pr., pb. 1854 (also known as The Lyons Mail; translation of Eugène Moreau, Paul Siraudin, and Alfred Delacour’s Le courrier de Lyon, ou L'attaque de la malle-poste) Honour before Titles; or, Nobs and Snobs, pr. 1854 The King’s Rival, pr., pb. 1854 (with Tom Taylor) Two Loves and a Life, pr., pb. 1854 (with Tom Taylor) Art, pr. 1855, pb. ca. 1884 (as Nance Oldfield; also known as An Actress of Daylight) The First Printer, pr. 1856 (with Tom Taylor) Poverty and Pride, pb. 1856 (translation of Édouard Brisebarre and Eugène Nus’s Les pauvres de Paris) The Hypochondriac, pb. 1857, pr. 1858 (also known as The Robust Invalid; adaptation of Molière’s Le malade imaginaire) Le faubourg Saint-Germain, pb. 1859 Dora, pr. 1867, pb. 1869 It Is Never Too Late to Mend, pr., pb. 1865 The Double Marriage, pr., pb. 1867 (with August Maquet) Kate Peyton; or, Jealousy, pr. 1867, pb. 1872 Foul Play, pr., pb. 1868 (with Dion Boucicault) Free Labour, pr. 1870 Rachel the Reaper, pb. 1871, pr. 1874 (revision of A Village Tale) Shilly-Shally, pr. 1872 The Wandering Heir, pr. 1873 Griffith Gaunt, pr. 1874 Our Seaman, pr. 1874 (also known as The Scuttled Ship) Jealousy, pr. 1878 (adaptation of Victorien Sardou’s Andrée) Joan, pr. 1878 The Well-Born Workman; or, A Man of the Day, pb. 1878 Drink, pr. 1879, pb. 1991 (with Charles Warner; adaptation of Émile Zola’s L’assommoir) Singleheart and Doubleface, pr. 1882 The Countess and the Dancer; or, High Life in Vienna, pb. 1883 Love and Money, pb. 1883 (with Henry Pettitt) Nonfiction: The Eighth Commandment, 1860 Cremona Violins: Four Letters Descriptive of Those Exhibited in 1873 at the South Kensington Museum, 1873 Trade Malice: A Personal Narrative, 1875 (includes reprint of The Wandering Heir) The Coming Man: Letters Contributed to Harper’s Weekly, 1878 Dora; or, The History of a Play, 1878 Readiana: Comments on Current Events, 1883 Bible Characters, 1888 Bibliography Burns, Wayne. Charles Reade: A Study in Victorian Authorship. Bookman Associates, 1961. Draws on Reade’s notebooks and other primary documents. Elwin, Malcolm. Charles Reade. 1931. Russell & Russell, 1969. A biography containing critical commentary on Reade’s works. Notes that Reade was uniformly respected by his peers. Frierson, William C. The English Novel in Transition, 1885–1940. 1942. Cooper Square Publishers, 1965. Includes the chapter “Some Remarks on Representative Late Victorians,” which regards Reade as having a dime-novel temperament that satisfied his reading public’s preferences. Smith, Elton E. Charles Reade. Twayne Publishers, 1976. Includes chapters on Reade’s dramas and novels and a selected bibliography. Sutcliffe, Emerson Grant. “Plotting in Reade’s Novels.” PMLA, vol. 47, no. 3, 1932, pp. 834–63. Argues that Reade had a natural bent toward compact narrative but nevertheless produced lengthy novels.

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