The Maniac in the Cellar: Charles Reade and the Breakdown of Melodrama

Fun biographical note: Reade was called “Mad Charles” at Oxford, where, Hughes writes, “he endured his undergraduate career in the 1830s, cutting lectures, dressing flamboyantly, and playing the fiddle” (73). Yep. Sounds about right. Apparently, he had the requisite puritanical mother who “disapproved of writing as a career” (73). At the age of 21, however, he got a lifetime fellowship at Magdalen College (score!), which technically required celibacy (ugh, never mind). He had lots of mistresses, though, so he had that going for him. He sounds like he was one crazy dude, getting into all kinds of lawsuits and “undignified squabbles with his publishers” (73). He was obsessed with George Eliot, who he called “a writer of the second class… adroit enough to disavow the sensational, yet to use it as far as her feeble powers would let her” and saying that “her greatest quality of all is living with an anonymous writer, who has bought the English press for a time and puffed her into a condition she cannot maintain” (69). Too far, Charles Reade. Too damn far. He also feuded with Trollope, who describes Reade in his Autobiography as “endowed almost with genius, but as one who has not been gifted by nature with ordinary powers of reasoning” (qtd. in Hughes 74). I’m no Trollope fan, but it DOES sound like Reade was a handful, to say the least.

Reade’s “Notebooks and Notecards”: “a voluminous pastiche of newspaper clippings, plot ideas, New Year’s resolutions, and factual curios of human behavior, all meticulously labeled and ingeniously cross-indexed” (74). Wow. This is a guy who would have loved Facebook. This is the part that’s important for my argument, though:

Reade valued the Notebooks as “a steam engine for truth,” as a systematic digest of Baconian logic and induction by means of which he attempted to “apply the modes of Physical investigation to letters.” He prided himself on their rigorous organization and borrowing of methodology from the “science of sciences, statistic.” […] The favorite subjects […] include every sort of crime and disaster, medical oddities, “Lunatica,” examples of androgynism…” (74)

Essentially, Reade distrusts fiction, and believes that all fiction should be grounded in facts. This is his brand of realism, or detailism–whichever word makes the most sense.

This chapter, however, is focused around Reade’s place in the breakdown of traditional melodramatic plots. Hughes says of melodrama:

The whole appeal of popular melodrama depends on its harrowing or titillation with perfect safety. Any excess of emotion or terror is effectively contained within predetermined bounds; the danger is only temporary, if not perfunctory, and the ultimate triumph of right and justice is comfortably assured. (76)

Reade, on the other hand, “was obsessed with order because, ultimately, he was obsessed with chaos, with the ever-present threat of the protagonist’s loss of control, whether over external circumstances or over his own internal processes” (77). “In his best novels,” Hughes continues, “he alternates between pure formula and frenzied outburst; either he has lost touch with the depths of his own psyche or he lets them loose willy-nilly and indiscriminately” (99). And according to Hughes, this is why he only approaches, rather than attains, “the level of genuine art” (99). For Hughes, Reade “remains generally incapable of uniting the two basic elements of any literary art: authentic, highly-charged experience and appropriate congenerous form” (99). His “ultimate artistic failure,” as Hughes sees it, “stems from his inability to invent a new form to contain his unprecedented content” (101).

On Reade’s characters: “In the ‘immortal parts’ of his work, Reade is always less interested in action for its own sake than in emotional implications and psychological excitement or pathology. His characters are less apt to fit the traditional molds of grandiose villain or fatal temptress than to establish the more modern roles of petty sadist […] and sexually aggressive woman. […] These changes are typical of the new understanding of human character, as less monolithic and more subconsciously motivated, that was already beginning to appear in literature by the 1860s” (100-101).


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