Reade, Charles (DNB00)

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READE, CHARLES (1814–1884), novelist and dramatist, born at Ipsden House in Oxfordshire on 8 June 1814, was the seventh son and eleventh and youngest child of John Reade (d. 1849) of Ipsden, by his wife Anna Maria, eldest daughter of John Scott-Waring, M.P. for Stockbridge in Hampshire. His mother, who died on 9 Aug. 1863, aged 90, was the friend of Thurlow the lord-chancellor, Grote the historian of Greece, and Bishop Wilberforce. Faber, the oratorian was her nephew. ‘I owe the larger half of what I am to my mother,’ Reade said of her. His elder brother, Edward Anderdon Reade [q. v.], is separately noticed. Between the age of eight and thirteen he was under the care at Rose Hill, near Iffley, of a clergyman named Slatter, who subjected him to severe discipline. Two subsequent years were more profitably spent at the private school of the Rev. Mr. Hearn at Staines. From 1829 to 1831 he was at home with his father, and while spending much time in athletic sports, in which he excelled, pursued unaided a systematic course of study.

In 1831 he was elected to a demyship at Magdalen College, Oxford. While an undergraduate, he read privately with Robert Lowe, afterwards Viscount Sherbrooke. After obtaining a third class in literis humanioribus he graduated B.A. on 18 June 1835 (M.A. 1838), and on 22 July 1835 was elected fellow of his college. He was chosen Vinerian scholar in the same year. In 1844 he became bursar, and was re-elected in 1849. He was made dean of arts at Magdalen in 1845, when he scared the more sedate members of the university by flaunting about in a green coat and brass buttons. On 1 July 1847 he proceeded to the degree of D.C.L. In 1851 he was chosen vice-president of his college, and duly wrote the Latin record of his year of office. His suite of five rooms in the college, at 2 New Buildings, was beautifully situated, looking southwards on the cloisters and tower. But while he retained his fellowship and his rooms in college till his death, he spent much time, after taking his degree, in London, where he had permanent lodgings in Leicester Square, and he gradually withdrew from university life. He had originally contemplated a legal career. In November 1836 he had entered his name at Lincoln's Inn as a law student. His first instructor in law was Samuel Warren [q. v.], the novelist. In 1842 he gained the Vinerian fellowship, and on 16 Jan. 1843 was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn. But his interest in law was evanescent, and he sought more congenial occupation in the study of music and literature. Besides playing the fiddle with exceptional feeling and dexterity, he became a noted connoisseur in regard to the value and structure of Cremona instruments. Finally determining to seek fame as a novelist and dramatist, he began laboriously and systematically to accumulate materials which might be of use in such directions. He classified and arranged in ledgers extracts and cuttings from an enormous range of books (especially of travel), from newspapers and reports of royal commissions. ‘I am a painstaking man,’ he remarked towards the end of his career, ‘and I owe my success to it.’

His first incursion into literature was as a dramatist. On 7 May 1851 his maiden work, a three-act comedy, ‘The Ladies' Battle’ (a version of Scribe and Legouvé's ‘Duel en Amour’), was produced at the Olympic Theatre. There followed on 11 Aug. 1851, again at the Olympic, a four-act tragedy, ‘Angelo;’ on 12 April 1852 ‘A Village Tale,’ at the Strand; on 26 April 1852 ‘The Lost Husband,’ in four acts, at the Strand; and on 10 Jan. 1853, at Drury Lane, a five-act melodrama, ‘Gold,’ illustrative of the earliest gold-digger's life in Australia, which for many months poured the precious metal abundantly into the coffers of the theatre. But his chief success as a dramatist was achieved by the brilliant comedy, in two acts, ‘Masks and Faces,’ which he wrote in collaboration with Tom Taylor. It was triumphantly received on its first performance on 20 Nov. 1852 at the Haymarket, when Triplet and Peg Woffington were impersonated respectively by Benjamin Webster and Mrs. Stirling. Expanded into three acts, it was revived on 6 Nov. 1875 at the same house, under the Bancrofts' management. The play, which still holds the stage, is brightly written and cleverly constructed.

While ‘Masks and Faces’ was in rehearsal, Reade made the acquaintance of an actress at the Haymarket, Mrs. Laura Seymour, who was many years his intimate friend, and it was she who, after reading the manuscript of ‘Masks and Faces,’ first urged him to put to the test his capabilities as a novelist. Acting upon her advice, he turned his comedy into a prose narrative, and thus came to realise his true vocation. By 3 Aug. 1852 Reade's first novel was completed; on 15 Dec. he dedicated it to his brother-dramatist, and early in the following year it was published under the title of ‘Peg Woffington.’ Later on, in 1853, he produced as a companion volume another charming little fiction, entitled ‘Christie Johnstone,’ part of which he had sketched at an earlier period. Each volume had an instant and immense success. But Reade was through life of a litigious and somewhat vain disposition, and, convinced that he was receiving inadequate remuneration alike from his plays and his two novels, he embarked on a series of lawsuits, which proved very disastrous to his pecuniary position. From Bentley, the publisher of his two novels, he received only 30l. apiece. An action at law resulted in his being mulcted in costs to the amount of 220l. No more successful were six suits which he brought 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 historical novel in the language. According to Mr. Swinburne, ‘a story better conceived, better constructed, or better related, it would be difficult to find anywhere.’

Shortly after the completion of this masterpiece Reade designed a sequel to his comparatively trivial tale ‘Love me little, love me long.’ Entitling it ‘Very Hard Cash,’ he contributed it serially to ‘All the Year Round,’ for whose editor, Charles Dickens, he had unbounded admiration. Although the circulation of the periodical decreased while the story was in progress in its pages, it achieved, on its separate publication as ‘Hard Cash’ in 1863 (3 vols. 8vo), a well-merited popularity. It is an enthralling record of hairbreadth escapes on sea and land, concluding with revelations of the iniquities of private lunatic asylums, and somewhat extravagant strictures on the medical profession. Descriptions of the university boat-race in the first chapter, of a fire at a madhouse, and of a trial at law are prominent features of the narrative.

His next novel, ‘Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy,’ was written in 1865 as a serial story for the newly launched ‘Argosy,’ a magazine which was founded and edited by Mrs. Henry Wood [q. v.] The appearance of this novel in 1866 (3 vols. 8vo; 5th edit. 1868), for which Reade received 1,500l., marked the culminating point in his career. He had then paid off his debts, saved money, and earned fame. But the story, which in intensity of interest and pathos deserves a place next to ‘The Cloister and the Hearth,’ was violently attacked by the critics as demoralising, and the novelist retaliated by denouncing his assailants as the ‘prurient prudes.’ To a hostile notice in an American paper, the ‘Round Table,’ on 13 Oct. 1866, Reade replied with warmth in a letter to the ‘New York Times,’ and, in accordance with a threat there launched against his detractor, took legal proceedings against the publisher of the ‘Round Table,’ with the result that an American jury awarded him damages to the amount of six cents (March 1869). Meanwhile, ‘Griffith Gaunt,’ dramatised by Augustin Daly, was produced at the New York Theatre in November 1866; a popular parody, called ‘Liffith Lank,’ by Charles H. Webb, was simultaneously published in New York. Reade subsequently dramatised the work as ‘Kate Peyton's Lovers,’ for performance at the Queen's Theatre on 1 Oct. 1875, and this was revived as ‘Jealousy’ at the Olympic, in four acts, on 22 April 1878.

In 1867 Reade returned to dramatic work, and produced a theatrical version of Tennyson's ‘Dora’ at the Adelphi on 1 June 1867. In his ‘greatly daring’ romance, ‘Foul Play’ (3 vols., 1869), Reade found a congenial collaborator in Dion Boucicault. Part of the scene passes among the convicts in Australia and on an uninhabited tropical island in the Pacific, which is realistically represented, but much of the machinery of the extravagant plot is unreal and mechanical. The publishers paid Reade 2,000l. for ‘Foul Play.’ Its popularity led Mr. Burnand to send to ‘Punch’ a highly comic skit, entitled ‘Chicken Hazard.’ The tale was twice dramatised, first, without much success, in 1868 by the collaborators, in six acts, for the Holborn Theatre, and afterwards, in 1877, by Reade alone, for the Olympic, under the title of ‘The Scuttled Ship,’ in five acts.

‘Put Yourself in his Place’ ran as a serial story through the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ in 1869–70. It was an impressive denunciation of that organised terrorism of trades unions known as ‘rattening,’ which especially infected Sheffield (called in the novel Hillborough). It is in many respects tedious, but it contains a singularly effective description of the bursting of a reservoir. Before the separate publication of the work in 1870 (3 vols.) Reade prepared a dramatic version, which was entitled ‘Free Labour,’ and was produced in May 1870. Mr. Henry Neville proved an effective impersonator of the hero, Henry Little. ‘A Terrible Temptation, a story of the day,’ Reade's next work of fiction, he contributed as a serial to ‘Cassell's Magazine,’ and published in 1871 (3 vols.) In Rolfe, the man of letters, the author described himself. ‘A Terrible Temptation’ was reviled by the reviewers, as demoralising, more fiercely even than ‘Griffith Gaunt,’ and the American press denounced it as ‘carrion literature.’ His later novels, in which the defects of his methods and style were more conspicuous than their merits, were: ‘A Simpleton,’ first contributed to ‘London Society’ (3 vols.), 1873; ‘The Wandering Heir,’ a tale suggested by the Tichborne trial, which formed the Christmas number of the ‘Graphic’ for 1872, and achieved a circulation of upwards of half a million, being subsequently dramatised; and ‘A Woman Hater’ (3 vols.), 1877, in which he depicted the insanitary conditions of village life at ‘Hill Stoke,’ the disguised name of Stoke Row, a hamlet on his brother's estate of Ipsden. He also contributed in later life to the ‘Pall Mall Gazette,’ and other newspapers, articles on a variety of topics which proved the versatility of his interests. He zealously advocated ‘ambidexterity.’ Some of these articles he collected in a volume called ‘Readiana: Comments on Current Events’ (1882). On 2 June 1879 there was produced at the Princess's Theatre a play called ‘Drink,’ which he had dramatised from Zola's ‘L'Assommoir,’ and in 1882 he joined Henry Pettitt [q. v.] in writing a sensational drama called ‘Love and Money,’ which was brought out at the Adelphi on 18 Nov. 1882. On it Reade based his novel ‘The Perilous Secret,’ which was issued in 1884, in 3 vols., after his death. Another play by him, ‘Single Heart and Double Face,’ was produced at the Edinburgh Theatre in November 1883, and a novel based on it was issued under the same title next year. Shorter tales were collected in two posthumous volumes in 1884, called respectively ‘The Jilt and other Tales,’ and ‘Good Stories of Man and other Animals.’

In middle life Reade's London house was at 6 Bolton Row, Mayfair, whence he subsequently removed to No. 2 (now No. 19) Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge, immediately opposite Sloane Street. This residence he described in ‘A Terrible Temptation.’ There he found room for a whole menagerie of dogs, hares, and gazelles. His studies of social problems were largely prompted by the instincts of philanthropy, and he was accessible at all hours when in town to the poor and unfortunate, to any one with a grievance, and especially to any waif or stray who had escaped from a lunatic asylum. He was always especially anxious to relieve cases of distress in the middle class, and frequently supplied necessitous persons with surgical attendance at his own cost. In a large room on the ground floor, looking into Hyde Park, which he called his workshop, he laboured until the end of his life for at least one hour every afternoon at ponderous ledgers, which he filled with notes or cuttings from books or newspapers on topics that appealed to his interest.

On 27 Sept. 1879 Reade's friend Laura Seymour died. He never recovered the blow. His health gradually failed, and he died on 11 April 1884 at 3 Blomfield Villas, Shepherd's Bush. On 15 April he was buried in Willesden churchyard, beside the remains of Mrs. Seymour. He caused to be engraved on his tombstone some sentences entitled ‘His Last Words to Mankind,’ in which he declared an ardent faith in Christianity.

At his best Reade was an admirable storyteller, full of resource and capacity to excite terror and pity; but his ambition to excel as a dramatist militated against his success as a novelist, and nearly all his work is disfigured by a striving after theatrical effect. This tendency is very apparent even in ‘Griffith Gaunt,’ which in intensity of interest stands first among his books. ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ is most free from the defect, and the ripe scholarship and keen invention which are there blended with artistic delicacy and reserve constitute his best title to rank with the great novelists. Mr. Swinburne (who associates Reade with Victor Hugo as an abhorrer of cruelty and foul play) is disposed to place Reade's novels between those of Eugène Sue and the elder Dumas; the former he resembles by his power of sensational description, the latter in his instinct for dramatic narration. His systematic dependence on documentary information, and his ability to vivify the results of his researches, also closely connect him with the category of realistic novelists, of whom Defoe and M. Zola are familiar types.

Reade's personal appearance was striking; he was over six feet in height, and was of athletic and vigorous build. His genial countenance, boisterous manner, impatience of criticism, and impulsive generosity, all helped to make his personality attractive. A lifelike portrait is in the possession of his namesake, godson, executor, and residuary legatee, Mr. C. L. Reade, of Oakfield in Sussex. The best photograph of the novelist is that taken by Lombardi of Pall Mall. A reproduction is in the Dublin ‘University Magazine’ for June 1878, accompanied by a sketch of his career. Another portrait is prefixed to ‘Readiana’ (1882).

Besides the dramas mentioned, Reade was responsible for the ‘First Printer,’ three acts, Princess's, 3 March 1856, with Tom Taylor; ‘Poverty and Pride,’ five acts, Surrey, and also at Victoria, at both houses piratically performed; ‘The Robust Invalid,’ from Molière's ‘Malade Imaginaire,’ three acts, Adelphi, 15 June 1870; and ‘Shilly Shally,’ three acts, Gaiety, 1 April 1872. In addition to the miscellaneous works already noticed, Reade wrote: 1. ‘A Lost Art Revived: Cremona Violins and Varnish,’ 1873. 2. ‘A Hero and Martyr,’ 1874. 3. ‘Trade Malice,’ 1875. 4. ‘Bible Characters—namely, Nehemiah, Jonah, David, and Paul,’ 1888.

[Personal recollections; Compton Reade's Memoir of his Uncle, Charles Reade, 2 vols. 1887 (a very inefficient biography); Bloxam's Magdalen College Register, vol. vii.; Mr. A. C. Swinburne's Miscellanies (1886), pp. 271–302; Times, 12 and 16 April 1884; Athenæum, 19 April 1884; Illustrated London News, 26 April 1884; Fortnightly Review, October 1884; Encycl. Brit. 9th edit.]

C. K.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.231
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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355 ii 9 Reade, Charles: for 1831 read 1851