Charles Reade was born ten years earlier than Wilkie Collins, the writer with whom he is most closely associated, on 8 June 1814, near Ipsden, Oxfordshire, England, and he died five years before Collins, on 11 April 1884, in London. Thus, he was in fact a near-contemporary of Charles Dickens (1812-1870). The Encyclopaedia Britannica online describes him as an

English author whose novels expose, with passionate indignation, the social injustices of his times. His greatest work, however, The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), a brilliant historical romance, relates the adventures of the father of Erasmus.

As a young man Reade was an active partner in a Soho violin business and was himself a fair performer on that instrument. In 1843 he was called to the bar but never practiced law. In 1851 Reade became vice president of Magdalen College, Oxford, but treated the position as a sinecure. A loyal friend of Reade's, Laura Seymour, an actress, became his housekeeper from 1854 until her death in 1879.

Like Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins was critical of the institution of marriage, and never in fact married, but had two mistresses. Whereas Collins divided his time between Caroline Graves, except for a two-year separation, and his common-law wife Martha Rudd (with whom he had three children), Reade had no children by Laura, whom he introduced as a friend and his housekeeper. However, upon her death his health began to fail, and he spent his final four years alone and ill.

Although Reade spent a great deal of time and money in writing and staging plays (he wrote 40), they are crippled by crude characterizations and melodrama. Reade's fourteen novels reveal his humanitarianism and concern with social issues. It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1856) attacked conditions in prisons, and Hard Cash (1863) exposed the ill-treatment of mental patients, especially in private asylums; Put Yourself in His Place (1870) dealt with the terrorist activities of trade unionists; and the melodramatic Foul Play (1868), written with Dion Boucicault, revealed the frauds of "coffin ships" and helped to sway public opinion in favour of the safety measures proposed later by Samuel Plimsoll. —

According to Catherine Peters, many people refused to believe that Laura Seymour and Charles Reade's relationship was purely business. "George Smith would not have Reade to his house, because of the irregularity of his life [Reade had an illegitimate son by an earlier liaison], and also refused to entertain George Eliot. But Wilkie was accepted, probably because he was prepared to leave Caroline [Graves, his mistress] at home, while Reade and Eliot insisted on having their partners recognized" (281). An old friend of Wilkie's, Reade was the inventor of "Fiction with a Purpose" (generally, social reform), advised and took advice from Wilkie on his fiction, and with Wilkie campaigned for improvements in the copyright laws.

His family's moonstone is possibly the inspiration for Collins's sacred gem:

Wilkie acknowledges in the Preface that he was in part inspired by stories of two famous gems, the Koh-i-nor and the stone that adorned the Russian Imperial sceptre. There may have been other sources, however. Lady Russell records that he used to be a frequent guest of Sir George Russell at Swallowfields and that the idea of The Moonstone arose from stories he heard there of the family heirloom, the famous Pitt diamond. Walter de la Mare, on the other hand, in a footnote to his essay on Collins' Early Novels, claims that the story was suggested by a moonstone which used to belong to [Wilkie's fellow contributor to All the Year Round] Charles Reade, having been brought from India by his brother, and which is still in the possession of the Reade family. — Robinson, p. 219.

Related Materials


Peters, Catherine. The King of the Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Minerva, 1991.

Robinson, Kenneth. "Chapter 12: 'The Moonstone'." Wilkie Collins: A Biography London: The Bodley Head, 1951. Pp. 200-224.

Stewart, J. I. M. "A Note on Sources." Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966, rpt. 1973. Pp. 527-8.

Last modified 16 August 2016

Portrait added 19 July 2021