cover image: Foul Play by Charles Reade

“She says she hates reptiles. Yet she marries Arthur Wardlaw.”

If you are in the market for a splendidly cheesy novel, look no further. Foul Play gives us a man convicted of a crime he did not commit, transported to Australia, and finally shipwrecked on a tropical island with the woman he secretly loves—who happens to be engaged to the man who framed him. Back in England, it falls to her to prove his innocence. What more could anyone want?

Volume I

Volume II

We have previously met Charles Reade (1814–1884) as the author of A Woman-Hater, on this site under Lady Doctresses. Here, as there, believable characters are thin on the ground. It is better to read for plot, and waste no time thinking about what would happen if anyone involved had had connected brain cells.

For added sensationalism, there is a co-author. Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (1820?–1890) was born Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot; he lived much of his life in the US, settling there for good in 1872.

Foul Play was originally serialized in Once a Week from 4 January through 20 June 1868, with illustrations by George Du Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather). The book version eliminated a few chapter breaks, reducing the count from LXIX to LXVI. I also found one place where about half a page of dialogue was cut; there may have been more that I didn’t happen to notice.


Merrill signature

The Grolier Society edition used as the basis for this ebook was illustrated by Frank Thayer Merrill, seen elsewhere on this site as illustrator of Little Women and A Woman-Hater.

I have added illustrations from two overlapping sources. The Chatto & Windus edition (1896) used the Du Maurier illustrations from Once a Week—minus the artist’s initials, plus further credit to the engraver, Swain. Four illustrations were left out; I’ve restored them from the periodical. The cover (above) is also from this edition.

Maurier signature

Finally, I have included the initial decorative words from each installment in Once a Week. In all but one case, these correspond to the beginnings of chapters in the book.


The last convict ship left England in 1867, reaching Australia in January 1868—the very month Foul Play began serial publication. Coincidentally, I looked this up last year in connection with another Reade title.

At the time of Foul Play, there was no telegraphic connection between England and Australia. The Suez Canal was under construction; the Panama Canal was half a century in the future. And, although steamers had been around for decades—the Peninsular and Oriental (P & O) steamship line was established way back in 1834—almost everyone in the book prefers to sail. These factors, in combination, meant that anyone in transit between hemispheres would be out of contact for months at a time, even when everything was going well.

Juan Fernandez, the book’s favorite geographic reference point, is not a single island but a group. One of them was occupied early in the 1700s by Alexander Selkirk, after whom the smaller island is named. (The larger one is Robinson Crusoe.) The islands were occasionally used as prison colonies—but they can’t have been all that important, or the authors would not have been able to invent a whole different use for them.

Nautical trivia: Several times in the book, ships meet at sea and begin by hoisting their colors. This might seem redundant; aren’t they flying their flags already? No, as it turns out: a ship in international waters isn’t expected to show its national flag all the time. (This makes practical sense, especially in 1868: a flag hoisted all day, every day, would soon fade to unrecognizability, making it look as if every vessel on the high seas was only looking for someone to surrender to.) The flag is only hoisted when you enter a foreign port, and under certain other circumstances—such as when meeting another ship, as happens surprisingly often in the course of Foul Play.

While we are at sea: The Oxford English Dictionary observes that “bail”, in the sense of scooping water, is often but “less correctly” spelled “bale”. The authors of Foul Play are among those incorrect spellers. Predictably, they also think nautical speed is measured in “knots per hour”.


Conclusion: The authors couldn’t add, and didn’t own a calendar or almanac.


This ebook is based on the undated Grolier Society edition. (The Society must have liked Charles Reade; they also published his A Woman-Hater.) The two volumes are continuously paginated: Volume I (pages 3-260, Chapters I-XXIX); Volume II (pages 261-540, Chapters XXX-LXVI). Additional illustrations, as described above, are from the also undated Chatto & Windus edition, and from Once a Week (first half of 1868).

Illustrations from the two book editions are shown as close as practicable to their original location; those from Once a Week are shown near the text they illustrate. Page numbers in [brackets] indicate full-page illustrations that have been moved to the nearest paragraph break.

Typographical errors are marked with mouse-hover popups and are listed again at the end of each chapter. “Corrected from Once a Week” means that I had doubts, so I checked the book’s reading against the serial version.

Foul Play on Stage

Many editions of Foul Play—although not the Grolier Society edition—have a preliminary caution, printed on a page by itself:


A Drama entitled “Foul Play” has been written by the Authors of the Story, and produced at the Theatre Royal, Leeds. So that no other person can legally dramatise the Story.

(Punctuation unchanged.) In fact there ended up being two stage versions: alongside Foul Play by Boucicault and Reade, there was also The Scuttled Ship by Reade alone. There is probably a juicy story behind this duplication, but I don’t know it.

The first version of the play premiered on 28 May 1868—before the last four installments of the serialized novel. I suppose that means readers had to spend four weeks clapping their hands over their play-going friends’ mouths, exclaiming Don’t spoil it! Don’t tell me how it ends! (You can safely read the rest of this page even if you haven’t finished the book; there are no significant spoilers.)

The play was published fairly soon after the book—at least in the U.S., where international copyright was still a few decades away. The Chicago edition includes details of set design and costuming.

Acts and Scenes

Almost the entire first volume of the book is compressed into a single act—in fact, a single scene. The second volume spreads itself out over the remaining three acts, totaling a further ten scenes. As printed:


The shipboard scenes from Volume I are simply gone, leaving Wylie as the only named sailor. The Undercliffs, mother and son, are also omitted, which is a sad loss.

I am tickled by the implication that “Chambermaid” is a type of actress, parallel to “Leading Juvenile Comedy” or “Character Comedy”.