Thoughts on Reade Visit

Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on last week’s visit to the Charles Reade Collection at Princeton:

My biggest surprise at encountering the Charles Reade’s notecards was how personalized and novel-centric they were. By that, I mean that I was anticipating a more generic and factual system and, instead, discovered notes that seemed almost entirely tied-up in the actual production and layout of Hard Cash. The first few cards in the series (~A-D) were much more factual in nature. These cards reaffirmed my expectation from the Sutcliffe article and various class discussions that the notecards would resemble something along the lines of an encyclopedia or an early library catalog.

However, as the cards progress, they mention the actual characters and dialogue of Hard Cash more and more. For instance, I referred to card J.1 thinking I would find, as the Bankson transcript seems to suggest, Reade’s abstract musings on “Romance and Religion.” I was anticipating philosophical articles and biblical quotations. Instead, I found early snippets  of Hard Cash’s plot, where Reade reminds himself to “Let Alfred, somehow, have a Bible Julia has given him. Bible sustain my by magic texts.” Thus, in this card, the “Romance of Religion” is not abstracted from the text in some academic discussion of the ways in which love and literature factor into literature. It is quite literally a layout for a chapter Reade is planning in which the sharing of a Bible will propel the plot.

At first, I was disappointed by the presence of such dialogue in the notecards. My initial reaction was that it corrupted the purity of Reade’s commitment to objective facts. After all, if Reade meant for these notecards to offer an archival purpose for other researchers, how is the specific conversation between Julia and Alfred relavent to anyone but him? I still don’t have the answer to that, but I can say that Reade’s note-taking makes intuitive sense when I think about the way I actually conduct my own writing. For instance, if I’m writing a thesis paper, my notes on sources start off very general–as I take down dates, names, and broad concepts. Quickly, however, those otherwise general “facts” become wound-up in my personal project. I’ll underline a passage about Emerson and write alongside it, “tie this to argument about New England exceptionalism.” That marginalia, though comprehensible to others, is furthering my own paper, not the formation of a generalized encyclopedia for other eyes. Similarly, Reade  jots down a thought about religion and then launches into a chapter in Hard Cash. The factual becomes fictional. The generalized becomes the personal.

With this in mind, I would suggest that the Reade notecards are not a system of showcasing facts so much as a process by which Reade synthesizes his own ideas for the novel. Because Reade loved facts, it’s tempting to want to separate his notes from his fiction. But these notecards are inextricably tied up in Reade’s personal writing endeavor. Others can observe the notecards, but there function is to serve Reade and Reade alone.

On another note, Reade’s strange attempt at classifying women was certainly evident in his Miscell. Femina notebook. As we see in a brief conversation between Julia and her mother in Hard Cash, Reade was fascinated yet disturbed by the notion of women practicing medicine. He took notes on Elizabeth Blackwell and a handful of other female doctors he’d heard of. In one amusing passage, Reade sounds like a biologist attempting to track down a rare species for observation. He writes, “Try and know a Doctress. See whether it unsexes her.”

Why did Reade interpret women as so foreign? What explains Reade’s obsession with the “female traits”? I’m curious if this is indicative of the Victorians and their attitude toward gender in general (particularly as Darwin entered the mix) or if this treatment of women as a biological curiosity is specific to Reade. Perhaps Reade was intimidated by other female novelists and the notion that so many of his readers were women?