He was the son of a country gentleman, the lord of a manor which had been held by his family before the Wars of the Boses. His ancestors had been noted for their services in warfare, in Parliament, and upon the bench. Reade, therefore, was in feeling very much of an aristocrat. Sometimes he pushed his ancestral pride to a whimsical excess, very much as did his own creation, Squire Raby, in Put Yourself in His Place.
At the same time he might very well have been called a Tory democrat. His grandfather had married the daughter of a village blacksmith, and Reade was quite as proud of this as he was of the fact that another ancestor had been lord chief justice of England. From the sturdy strain which came to him from the blacksmith he, perhaps, derived that sledge-hammer power with which he wrote many of his most famous chapters, and which he used in newspaper controversies with his critics. From his legal ancestors there may have come to him the love of litigation, which kept him often in hot water. From those who had figured in the life of royal courts, he inherited a romantic nature, a love of art, and a very delicate perception of the niceties of cultivated usage. Such was Charles Reade—keen observer, scholar, Bohemian—a man who could be both rough and tender, and whose boisterous ways never concealed his warm heart.
Reade’s school-days were Spartan in their severity. A teacher with the appropriate name of Slatter set him hard tasks and caned him unmercifully for every shortcoming. A weaker nature would have been crushed. Reade’s was toughened, and he learned to resist pain and to resent wrong, so that hatred of injustice has been called his dominating trait.
In preparing himself for college he was singularly fortunate in his tutors. One of them was Samuel Wilberforce, afterward Bishop of Oxford, nicknamed, from his suavity of manner, “Soapy Sam”; and afterward, when Reade was studying law, his instructor was Samuel Warren, the author of that once famous novel, Ten Thousand a Year, and the creator of “Tittlebat Titmouse.”
For his college at Oxford, Reade selected one of the most beautiful and ancient—Magdalen—which he entered, securing what is known as a demyship. Reade won his demyship by an extraordinary accident. Always an original youth, his reading was varied and valuable; but in his studies he had never tried to be minutely accurate in small matters. At that time every candidate was supposed to be able to repeat, by heart, the “Thirty-Nine Articles.” Reade had no taste for memorizing; and out of the whole thirty-nine he had learned but three. His general examination was good, though not brilliant. When he came to be questioned orally, the examiner, by a chance that would not occur once in a million times, asked the candidate to repeat these very articles. Reade rattled them off with the greatest glibness, and produced so favorable an impression that he was let go without any further questioning.