Charles Reade (1814-84); Biography and famous works

Charles Reade (1814-84) was a famous playwright, short story writer, journalist, and novelist. He was born in Oxfordshire. In 1831,  he won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, beginning a long association that brought him a fellowship and various college offices over the years. He traveled abroad, then in 1842 began to study for the bar. In 1846, Reade tried studying medicine in Edinburgh; and in 1847, he began to deal in violins.

After publishing a stage version of Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle in 1851, he entered his long career as a theatre manager and dramatist.  Then he produced successfully Masks and Faces that year. His first novel Peg Woffington was published in 1853. In that year he also published Christie Johnstone, urging the reform of prisons and the treatment of criminals, which was followed in 1856 by It Is Never Too Late to Mend, a highly successful work in the same reforming genre, which was later dramatized. Gold!, a play converted in 1869 into the novel Foul Play, also appeared in this prolific year. At the same time, Reade was writing short stories, working as a journalist, and writing plays. In 1854 he met the actress Laura Seymour, with whom lived until her death in 1879.

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The Autobiography of a Thief and Jack of All Trades appeared in 1858; Love Me Little, Love Me Long in 1859. He is chiefly remembered for his book The Cloister and the Hearth which was published in 1861. Hard Cash, a sensation novel exposing the scandal of lunatic asylums (which Reade considered ‘my best production’), appeared in 1863, and in 1866 Griffith Gaunt, but its sexual frankness provoked litigation, in which Reade pugnaciously defended himself against ‘the Prurient Prudes’. For much of the rest of his life, he was engaged in various personal and legal controversies.

A long collaboration with Boucicault, a highly successful adapter of plays and novels, began in 1867, and the last of Reade’s major novels, Put Yourself in his Place, attacking the trade union practice of ‘rattening’ or enforcing membership, appeared in 1870. In 1871 he published another novel, A Terrible Temptation, and in 1872 quarreled with Anthony Trollope over Shilly-Shally, his unauthorized dramatic version of Trollope’s Ralph the Heir (1871), following this with a libel action in 1873 over his own new novel, Simpleton, The Wandering Heir (1873), suggested by the Tichborne trial, was again both novel and play. Reade persuaded Ellen Terry to emerge from retirement to perform in the stage version. He continued to produce short stories, journalistic work and plays for his touring company. By the time he published A Woman Hater (1877) he had lost his determination to present honestly the problems of sex in society and meekly agreed to all Blackwood’s objections. After the death of Laura Seymour in 1879 he wrote little, turned to religion, and in 1882 gave up theatrical management. A Perilous Secret appeared posthumously in 1884.

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