1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Reade

Charles Reade
English novelist

CHARLES READE (1814-1884) holds a high and distinctive place among the English novelists of the third quarter of the 19th century. The son of an Oxfordshire squire, he was born at Ipsden in 1814, and was educated for the bar. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford, proceeded B.A. in 1835, with a third class in classics, was elected Vinerian Beader in 1842, and was called to the bar (Lincoln's Inn) in 1843. It was comparatively late in his life that he made his first appearance as an author, but he showed at once that he had subjected himself to a laborious apprenticeship to the study of life and literature.

He began as a dramatist, and this his first ambition shaped and coloured his work to the end. It was his own wish that the word "dramatist" should stand first in the de-scription of his occupations on his tombstone. He was dramatist first and novelist afterwards, not merely chrono-logically but in his aims as an author, always having an eye to stage-effect in scene and situation as well as in dialogue. Gold, his first play (1850), was but a moderate success. He did not achieve popularity till 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. The prosecution of his moral purpose carried him too far for most of his readers; he described prison life with a minuteness and fidelity— the result of laborious studies of blue-books and newspapers and personal inquiries—which become at times tedious and revolting; but the power of the descriptions was undeni-able, and the interest of the story, in spite of all over-elaboration of painful details, was profound and thrilling. The truth of some of his details was challenged, and the novelist showed himself a pungent controversialist. From first to last he defended himself with vigour and great strength of language against all attempts to rebut his con-tentions or damage his literary property. It's Never Too Late to Mend was his first great success, but before this he had gained the respect of critics with two shorter novels, Peg Woffington (1852), a close study of life and character behind the scenes, and Christie Johnstone (1853), an equally close study of Scotch fisher folk, an extraordi-nary 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. He had also established his position as a dramatist by writing (in combination with Mr Tom Taylor) a stage version of Peg Woffington under the title of Masks and Faces (1854), the most successful and the most frequently reproduced of his plays, besides three that were less successful, The Courier of Lyons (a powerful melodrama), Two Loves and a Life, and The King's Rivals (1854). From 1856 onwards he kept his position in the foremost rank of contemporary novelists. 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), The Double Marriage, or White Lies (1860). Then appeared, in 1861, what most critics regard as his masterpiece, The Cloister and the Hearth. He had dealt with the subject two years before in a short story in Once a Week, but, seeing its capabilities, he returned to it and expanded it into its present form. As a picture of manners it is broad and full; yet amply as the novelist illustrates the times he very rarely becomes tedious or allows the thrilling interest of the story to lapse. 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 rapid flow of thrilling incident, were afterwards undertaken,— Foul Play (1869), in which he exposed the iniquities of ship-knackers, and paved the way for the labours of Mr 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 gave a helping hand to the advocates of woman's rights. 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 that might be classified as psychological, inasmuch as they were elaborate studies of character,—Griffith Gaunt (f 866), A Terrible Temptation (1871), A Simpleton (1873). Tha 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 en-gaging 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 ver-sion 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 adapta-tion of Zola's L'Assommoir, produced in 1879. At his death in 1884 (11th April) Reade left behind him a com-pleted novel, A Perilous Secret, which showed no falling off in the art of weaving a complicated plot and devising thrilling situations.

It was characteristic of Reade's open and combative nature that he admitted the public freely to the secrets of his method of com- position. He spoke about his method in his prefaces ; he intro- duced himself into one of his novels—"Dr Rolfe" in A Terrible Temptation ; and by his will he left his workshop and his accumu- lation of materials open for inspection for two years after his death. It appears that he had collected an enormous mass of materials for his study of human nature, from personal observation, from news- papers, books of travel, blue-books of commissions of inquiry, from miscellaneous reading. This vast collection of notes, cuttings, extracts, gathered together week by week and year by year, is classified and arranged in huge ledgers and note-books duly paged and indexed. 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 lie found the materials very useful as a store of incidents and suggestions. A collector of the kind was bound to he systematic, otherwise his collection would have fallen into inextricable confusion, and Reade's collection contains many re- markable 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 strenuously 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 note-books 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 quick- ened 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 and unmatchable 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 move- ment was perhaps partly the result of his dramatic studies ; it was probably in writing for the stage that he learned the value of keep- ing the attention of his readers incessantly on the alert. The hankering after stage effect, while it saved him from dulness, 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 harsh, almost brutal; his knowledge of frailties and vices is obtruded with repel- lent force ; and he cannot, with all his skill and power 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 and castigator, which was the function he professed over and above that of a story-teller, he undoubtedly did good service, both indirectly in his novels and directly in his own name. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: Prof. W. Minto, M.A., University of Aberdeen, author of English Prose Literature.

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