Famous Affinities of History (Complete)
Part 8 out of 8
A few evenings later I saw Miss Teman at the Haymarket Theatre,
playing with Buckstone and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mathews. She
seemed rather a small cause for such a serious result--passably
pretty, and not much of an actress.
Here in one passage we have an intimation that Mrs. Dickens had a
temper that was easily roused, that Dickens himself was interested
in an actress, and that Miss Hogarth "had always been in love with
him, and was jealous of Miss Teman."
Some years before this time, however, there had been growing in
the mind of Dickens a certain formless discontent--something to
which he could not give a name, yet which, cast over him the
shadow of disappointment. He expressed the same feeling in David
Copperfield, when he spoke of David's life with Dora. It seemed to
come from the fact that he had grown to be a man, while his wife
had still remained a child.
A passage or two may be quoted from the novel, so that we may set
them beside passages in Dickens's own life, which we know to have
referred to his own wife, and not to any such nebulous person as
The shadow I have mentioned that was not to be between us any
more, but was to rest wholly on my heart--how did that fall? The
old unhappy feeling pervaded my life. It was deepened, if it were
changed at all; but it was as undefined as ever, and addressed me
like a strain of sorrowful music faintly heard in the night. I
loved my wife dearly; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated,
once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, AND THERE WAS ALWAYS
What I missed I still regarded as something that had been a dream
of my youthful fancy; that was incapable of realization; that I
was now discovering to be so, with some natural pain, as all men
did. But that it would have been better for me if my wife could
have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had
no partner, and that this might have been I knew.
What I am describing slumbered and half awoke and slept again in
the innermost recesses of my mind. There was no evidence of it to
me; I knew of no influence it had in anything I said or did. I
bore the weight of all our little cares and all my projects.
"There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind
and purpose." These words I remembered. I had endeavored to adapt
Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to
adapt myself to Dora; to share with her what I could, and be
happy; to bear on my own shoulders what I must, and be still
Thus wrote Dickens in his fictitious character, and of his
fictitious wife. Let us see how he wrote and how he acted in his
own person, and of his real wife.
As early as 1856, he showed a curious and restless activity, as of
one who was trying to rid himself of unpleasant thoughts. Mr.
Forster says that he began to feel a strain upon his invention, a
certain disquietude, and a necessity for jotting down memoranda in
note-books, so as to assist his memory and his imagination. He
began to long for solitude. He would take long, aimless rambles
into the country, returning at no particular time or season. He
once wrote to Forster:
I have had dreadful thoughts of getting away somewhere altogether
by myself. If I could have managed it, I think I might have gone
to the Pyrenees for six months. I have visions of living for half
a year or so in all sorts of inaccessible places, and of opening a
new book therein. A floating idea of going up above the snow-line,
and living in some astonishing convent, hovers over me.
What do these cryptic utterances mean? At first, both in his novel
and in his letters, they are obscure; but before long, in each,
they become very definite. In 1856, we find these sentences among
The old days--the old days! Shall I ever, I wonder, get the frame
of mind back as it used to be then? Something of it, perhaps, but
never quite as it used to be.
I find that the skeleton in my domestic closet is becoming a
pretty big one.
His next letter draws the veil and shows plainly what he means:
Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no
help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy,
but that I make her so, too--and much more so. We are strangely
ill-assorted for the bond that exists between us.
Then he goes on to say that she would have been a thousand times
happier if she had been married to another man. He speaks of
"incompatibility," and a "difference of temperaments." In fact, it
is the same old story with which we have become so familiar, and
which is both as old as the hills and as new as this morning's
Naturally, also, things grow worse, rather than better. Dickens
comes to speak half jocularly of "the plunge," and calculates as
to what effect it will have on his public readings. He kept back
the announcement of "the plunge" until after he had given several
readings; then, on April 29, 1858, Mrs. Dickens left his home. His
eldest son went to live with the mother, but the rest of the
children remained with their father, while his daughter Mary
nominally presided over the house. In the background, however,
Georgina Hogarth, who seemed all through her life to have cared
for Dickens more than for her sister, remained as a sort of guide
and guardian for his children.
This arrangement was a private matter, and should not have been
brought to public attention; but it was impossible to suppress all
gossip about so prominent a man. Much of the gossip was
exaggerated; and when it came to the notice of Dickens it stung
him so severely as to lead him into issuing a public justification
of his course. He published a statement in Household Words, which
led to many other letters in other periodicals, and finally a long
one from him, which was printed in the New York Tribune, addressed
to his friend Mr. Arthur Smith.
Dickens afterward declared that he had written this letter as a
strictly personal and private one, in order to correct false
rumors and scandals. Mr. Smith naturally thought that the
statement was intended for publication, but Dickens always spoke
of it as "the violated letter."
By his allusions to a difference of temperament and to
incompatibility, Dickens no doubt meant that his wife had ceased
to be to him the same companion that she had been in days gone by.
As in so many cases, she had not changed, while he had. He had
grown out of the sphere in which he had been born, "associated
with blacking-boys and quilt-printers," and had become one of the
great men of his time, whose genius was universally admired.
Mr. Bigelow saw Mrs. Dickens as she really was--a commonplace
woman endowed with the temper of a vixen, and disposed to
outbursts of actual violence when her jealousy was roused.
It was impossible that the two could have remained together, when
in intellect and sympathy they were so far apart. There is nothing
strange about their separation, except the exceedingly bad taste
with which Dickens made it a public affair. It is safe to assume
that he felt the need of a different mate; and that he found one
is evident enough from the hints and bits of innuendo that are
found in the writings of his contemporaries.
He became a pleasure-lover; but more than that, he needed one who
could understand his moods and match them, one who could please
his tastes, and one who could give him that admiration which he
felt to be his due; for he was always anxious to be praised, and
his letters are full of anecdotes relating to his love of praise.
One does not wish to follow out these clues too closely. It is
certain that neither Miss Beadnell as a girl nor Mrs. Winter as a
matron made any serious appeal to him. The actresses who have been
often mentioned in connection with his name were, for the most
part, mere passing favorites. The woman who in life was Dora made
him feel the same incompleteness that he has described in his
best-known book. The companion to whom he clung in his later years
was neither a light-minded creature like Miss Beadnell, nor an
undeveloped, high-tempered woman like the one he married, nor a
mere domestic, friendly creature like Georgina Hogarth.
Ought we to venture upon a quest which shall solve this mystery in
the life of Charles Dickens! In his last will and testament, drawn
up and signed by him about a year before his death, the first
paragraph reads as follows:
I, Charles Dickens, of Gadshill Place, Higham, in the county of
Kent, hereby revoke all my former wills and codicils and declare
this to be my last will and testament. I give the sum of one
thousand pounds, free of legacy duty, to Miss Ellen Lawless
Ternan, late of Houghton Place, Ampthill Square, in the county of
In connection with this, read Mr. John Bigelow's careless jottings
made some fifteen years before. Remember the Miss "Teman," about
whose name he was not quite certain; the Hogarth sisters' dislike
of her; and the mysterious figure in the background of the
novelist's later life. Then consider the first bequest in his
will, which leaves a substantial sum to one who was neither a
relative nor a subordinate, but--may we assume--more than an
HONORE DE BALZAC AND EVELINA HANSKA
I remember once, when editing an elaborate work on literature,
that the publisher called me into his private office. After the
door was closed, he spoke in tones of suppressed emotion.
"Why is it," said he, "that you have such a lack of proportion? In
the selection you have made I find that only two pages are given
to George P. Morris, while you haven't given E. P. Roe any space
at all! Yet, look here--you've blocked out fifty pages for Balzac,
who was nothing but an immoral Frenchman!"
I adjusted this difficulty, somehow or other--I do not just
remember how--and began to think that, after all, this publisher's
view of things was probably that of the English and American
public. It is strange that so many biographies and so many
appreciations of the greatest novelist who ever lived should still
have left him, in the eyes of the reading public, little more than
"an immoral Frenchman."
"In Balzac," said Taine, "there was a money-broker, an
archeologist, an architect, an upholsterer, a tailor, an old-
clothes dealer, a journeyman apprentice, a physician, and a
notary." Balzac was also a mystic, a supernaturalist, and, above
all, a consummate artist. No one who is all these things in high
measure, and who has raised himself by his genius above his
countrymen, deserves the censure of my former publisher.
Still less is Balzac to be dismissed as "immoral," for his life
was one of singular self-sacrifice in spite of much temptation.
His face was strongly sensual, his look and bearing denoted almost
savage power; he led a free life in a country which allowed much
freedom; and yet his story is almost mystic in its fineness of
thought, and in its detachment, which was often that of another
Balzac was born in 1799, at Tours, with all the traits of the
people of his native province--fond of eating and drinking, and
with plenty of humor. His father was fairly well off. Of four
children, our Balzac was the eldest. The third was his sister
Laure, who throughout his life was the most intimate friend he
had, and to whom we owe his rescue from much scandalous and untrue
gossip. From her we learn that their father was a combination of
Montaigne, Rabelais, and "Uncle Toby."
Young Balzac went to a clerical school at seven, and stayed there
for seven years. Then he was brought home, apparently much
prostrated, although the good fathers could find nothing
physically amiss with him, and nothing in his studies to account
for his agitation. No one ever did discover just what was the
matter, for he seemed well enough in the next few years, basking
on the riverside, watching the activities of his native town, and
thoroughly studying the rustic types that he was afterward to make
familiar to the world. In fact, in Louis Lambert he has set before
us a picture of his own boyish life, very much as Dickens did of
his in David Copperfield.
For some reason, when these years were over, the boy began to have
what is so often known as "a call"--a sort of instinct that he was
to attain renown. Unfortunately it happened that about this time
(1814) he and his parents removed to Paris, which was his home by
choice, until his death in 1850. He studied here under famous
teachers, and gave three years to the pursuit of law, of which he
was very fond as literary material, though he refused to practise.
This was the more grievous, since a great part of the family
property had been lost. The Balzacs were afflicted by actual
poverty, and Honore endeavored, with his pen, to beat the wolf
back from the door. He earned a little money with pamphlets and
occasional stories, but his thirst for fame was far from
satisfied. He was sure that he was called to literature, and yet
he was not sure that he had the power to succeed. In one of his
letters to his sister, he wrote:
I am young and hungry, and there is nothing on my plate. Oh,
Laure, Laure, my two boundless desires, my only ones--to be
famous, and to be loved--they ever be satisfied?
For the next ten years he was learning his trade, and the artistic
use of the fiction writer's tools. What is more to the point, is
the fact that he began to dream of a series of great novels, which
should give a true and panoramic picture of the whole of human
life. This was the first intimation of his "Human Comedy," which
was so daringly undertaken and so nearly completed in his after
years. In his early days of obscurity, he said to his readers:
Note well the characters that I introduce, since you will have to
follow their fortunes through thirty novels that are to come.
Here we see how little he had been daunted by ill success, and how
his prodigious imagination had not been overcome by sorrow and
evil fortune. Meantime, writing almost savagely, and with a
feeling combined of ambition and despair, he had begun, very
slowly indeed, to create a public. These ten years, however, had
loaded him with debts; and his struggle to keep himself afloat
only plunged him deeper in the mire. His thirty unsigned novels
began to pay him a few hundred francs, not in cash, but in
promissory notes; so that he had to go still deeper into debt.
In 1827 he was toiling on his first successful novel, and indeed
one of the best historic novels in French literature--The Chouans.
He speaks of his labor as "done with a tired brain and an anxious
mind," and of the eight or ten business letters that he had to
write each day before he could begin his literary work.
"Postage and an omnibus are extravagances that I cannot allow
myself," he writes. "I stay at home so as not to wear out my
clothes. Is that clear to you?"
At the end of the next year, though he was already popular as a
novelist, and much sought out by people of distinction, he was at
the very climax of his poverty. He had written thirty-five books,
and was in debt to the amount of a hundred and twenty-four
thousand francs. He was saved from bankruptcy only by the aid of
Mme. de Berny, a woman of high character, and one whose moral
influence was very strong with Balzac until her early death.
The relation between these two has a sweetness and a purity which
are seldom found. Mme. de Berny gave Balzac money as she would
have given it to a son, and thereby she saved a great soul for
literature. But there was no sickly sentiment between them, and
Balzac regarded her with a noble love which he has expressed in
the character of Mme. Firmiani.
It was immediately after she had lightened his burdens that the
real Balzac comes before us in certain stories which have no
equal, and which are among the most famous that he ever wrote.
What could be more wonderful than his El Verdugo, which gives us a
brief horror while compelling our admiration? What, outside of
Balzac himself, could be more terrible than Gobseck, a frightful
study of avarice, containing a deathbed scene which surpasses in
dreadfulness almost anything in literature? Add to these A Passion
in the Desert, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, The Droll Stories,
The Red Inn, and The Magic Skin, and you have a cluster of
masterpieces not to be surpassed.
In the year 1829, when he was just beginning to attain a slight
success, Balzac received a long letter written in a woman's hand.
As he read it, there came to him something very like an
inspiration, so full of understanding were the written words, so
full of appreciation and of sympathy with the best that he had
done. This anonymous note pointed out here and there such defects
as are apt to become chronic with a young author. Balzac was
greatly stirred by its keen and sympathetic criticism. No one
before had read his soul so clearly. No one--not even his devoted
sister, Laure de Surville--had judged his work so wisely, had come
so closely to his deepest feeling.
He read the letter over and over, and presently another came, full
of critical appreciation, and of wholesome, tonic, frank, friendly
words of cheer. It was very largely the effect of these letters
that roused Balzac's full powers and made him sure of winning the
two great objects of his first ambition--love and fame--the ideals
of the chivalrous, romantic Frenchman from Caesar's time down to
the present day.
Other letters followed, and after a while their authorship was
made known to Balzac. He learned that they had been written by a
young Polish lady, Mme. Evelina Hanska, the wife of a Polish
count, whose health was feeble, and who spent much time in
Switzerland because the climate there agreed with him.
He met her first at Neuchatel, and found her all that he had
imagined. It is said that she had no sooner raised her face, and
looked him fully in the eyes, than she fell fainting to the floor,
overcome by her emotion. Balzac himself was deeply moved. From
that day until their final meeting he wrote to her daily.
The woman who had become his second soul was not beautiful.
Nevertheless, her face was intensely spiritual, and there was a
mystic quality about it which made a strong appeal to Balzac's
innermost nature. Those who saw him in Paris knocking about the
streets at night with his boon companions, hobnobbing with the
elder Dumas, or rejecting the frank advances of George Sand, would
never have dreamed of this mysticism.
Balzac was heavy and broad of figure. His face was suggestive only
of what was sensuous and sensual. At the same time, those few who
looked into his heart and mind found there many a sign of the fine
inner strain which purified the grosser elements of his nature. He
who wrote the roaring Rabelaisian Contes Drolatiques was likewise
the author of Seraphita.
This mysticism showed itself in many things that Balzac did. One
little incident will perhaps be sufficiently characteristic of
many others. He had a belief that names had a sort of esoteric
appropriateness. So, in selecting them for his novels, he gathered
them with infinite pains from many sources, and then weighed them
anxiously in the balance. A writer on the subject of names and
their significance has given the following account of this trait:
The great novelist once spent an entire day tramping about in the
remotest quarters of Paris in search of a fitting name for a
character just conceived by him. Every sign-board, every door-
plate, every affiche upon the walls, was scrutinized. Thousands of
names were considered and rejected, and it was only after his
companion, utterly worn out by fatigue, had flatly refused to drag
his weary limbs through more than one additional street, that
Balzac suddenly saw upon a sign the name "Marcas," and gave a
shout of joy at having finally secured what he was seeking.
Marcas it was, from that moment; and Balzac gradually evolved a
Christian name for him. First he considered what initial was most
appropriate; and then, having decided upon Z, he went on to expand
this into Zepherin, explaining minutely just why the whole name
Zepherin Marcas, was the only possible one for the character in
In many ways Balzac and Evelina Hanska were mated by nature.
Whether they were fully mated the facts of their lives must
demonstrate. For the present, the novelist plunged into a whirl of
literary labor, toiling as few ever toiled--constructing several
novels at the same time, visiting all the haunts of the French
capital, so that he might observe and understand every type of
human being, and then hurling himself like a giant at his work.
He had a curious practise of reading proofs. These would come to
him in enormous sheets, printed on special paper, and with wide
margins for his corrections. An immense table stood in the midst
of his study, and upon the top he would spread out the proofs as
if they were vast maps. Then, removing most of his outer garments,
he would lie, face down, upon the proof-sheets, with a gigantic
pencil, such as Bismarck subsequently used to wield. Thus
disposed, he would go over the proofs.
Hardly anything that he had written seemed to suit him when he saw
it in print. He changed and kept changing, obliterating what he
disliked, writing in new sentences, revising others, and adding
whole pages in the margins, until perhaps he had practically made
a new book. This process was repeated several times; and how
expensive it was may be judged from the fact that his bill for
"author's proof corrections" was sometimes more than the
publishers had agreed to pay him for the completed volume.
Sometimes, again, he would begin writing in the afternoon, and
continue until dawn. Then, weary, aching in every bone, and with
throbbing head, he would rise and turn to fall upon his couch
after his eighteen hours of steady toil. But the memory of Evelina
Hanska always came to him; and with half-numbed fingers he would
seize his pen, and forget his weariness in the pleasure of writing
to the dark-eyed woman who drew him to her like a magnet.
These are very curious letters that Balzac wrote to Mme. Hanska.
He literally told her everything about himself. Not only were
there long passages instinct with tenderness, and with his love
for her; but he also gave her the most minute account of
everything that occurred, and that might interest her. Thus he
detailed at length his mode of living, the clothes he wore, the
people whom he met, his trouble with his creditors, the accounts
of his income and outgo. One might think that this was egotism on
his part; but it was more than that. It was a strong belief that
everything which concerned him must concern her; and he begged her
in turn to write as freely and as fully.
Mme. Hanska was not the only woman who became his friend and
comrade, and to whom he often wrote. He made many acquaintances in
the fashionable world through the good offices of the Duchesse de
Castries. By her favor, he studied with his microscopic gaze the
beau monde of Louis Philippe's rather unimpressive court.
In a dozen books he scourged the court of the citizen king--its
pretensions, its commonness, and its assemblage of nouveaux
riches. Yet in it he found many friends--Victor Hugo, the
Girardins--and among them women who were of the world. George Sand
he knew very well, and she made ardent love to him; but he laughed
her off very much as the elder Dumas did.
Then there was the pretty, dainty Mme. Carraud, who read and
revised his manuscripts, and who perhaps took a more intimate
interest in him than did the other ladies whom he came to know so
well. Besides Mme. Hanska, he had another correspondent who signed
herself "Louise," but who never let him know her name, though she
wrote him many piquant, sunny letters, which he so sadly needed.
For though Honore de Balzac was now one of the most famous writers
of his time, his home was still a den of suffering. His debts kept
pressing on him, loading him down, and almost quenching hope. He
acted toward his creditors like a man of honor, and his physical
strength was still that of a giant. To Mme. Carraud he once wrote
the half pathetic, half humorous plaint:
Poor pen! It must be diamond, not because one would wish to wear
it, but because it has had so much use!
Here I am, owing a hundred thousand francs. And I am forty!
Balzac and Mme. Hanska met many times after that first eventful
episode at Neuchatel. It was at this time that he gave utterance
to the poignant cry:
Love for me is life, and to-day I feel it more than ever!
In like manner he wrote, on leaving her, that famous epigram:
It is only the last love of a woman that can satisfy the first
love of a man.
In 1842 Mme. Hanska's husband died. Balzac naturally expected that
an immediate marriage with the countess would take place; but the
woman who had loved him mystically for twelve years, and with a
touch of the physical for nine, suddenly draws back. She will not
promise anything. She talks of delays, owing to the legal
arrangements for her children. She seems almost a prude. An
American critic has contrasted her attitude with his:
Every one knows how utterly and absolutely Balzac devoted to this
one woman all his genius, his aspiration, the thought of his every
moment; how every day, after he had labored like a slave for
eighteen hours, he would take his pen and pour out to her the most
intimate details of his daily life; how at her call he would leave
everything and rush across the continent to Poland or to Italy,
being radiantly happy if he could but see her face and be for a
few days by her side. The very thought of meeting her thrilled him
to the very depths of his nature, and made him, for weeks and even
months beforehand, restless, uneasy, and agitated, with an almost
It is the most startling proof of his immense vitality, both
physical and mental, that so tremendous an emotional strain could
be endured by him for years without exhausting his fecundity or
blighting his creativeness.
With Balzac, however, it was the period of his most brilliant
work; and this was true in spite of the anguish of long
separations, and the complaints excited by what appears to be
caprice or boldness or a faint indifference. Even in Balzac one
notices toward the last a certain sense of strain underlying what
he wrote, a certain lack of elasticity and facility, if of nothing
more; yet on the whole it is likely that without this friendship
Balzac would have been less great than he actually became, as it
is certain that had it been broken off he would have ceased to
write or to care for anything whatever in the world.
And yet, when they were free to marry, Mme. Hanska shrank away.
Not until 1846, four years after her husband's death, did she
finally give her promise to the eager Balzac. Then, in the
overflow of his happiness, his creative genius blazed up into a
most wonderful flame; but he soon discovered that the promise was
not to be at once fulfilled. The shock impaired that marvelous
vitality which had carried him through debt, and want, and endless
It was at this moment, by the irony of fate, that his country
hailed him as one of the greatest of its men of genius. A golden
stream poured into his lap. His debts were not all extinguished,
but his income was so large that they burdened him no longer.
But his one long dream was the only thing for which he cared; and
though in an exoteric sense this dream came true, its truth was
but a mockery. Evelina Hanska summoned him to Poland, and Balzac
went to her at once. There was another long delay, and for more
than a year he lived as a guest in the countess's mansion at
Wierzchownia; but finally, in March, 1850, the two were married. A
few weeks later they came back to France together, and occupied
the little country house, Les Jardies, in which, some decades
later, occurred Gambetta's mysterious death.
What is the secret of this strange love, which in the woman seems
to be not precisely love, but something else? Balzac was always
eager for her presence. She, on the other hand, seems to have been
mentally more at ease when he was absent. Perhaps the explanation,
if we may venture upon one, is based upon a well-known
Love in its completeness is made up of two great elements--first,
the element that is wholly spiritual, that is capable of sympathy,
and tenderness, and deep emotion. The other element is the
physical, the source of passion, of creative energy, and of the
truly virile qualities, whether it be in man or woman. Now, let
either of these elements be lacking, and love itself cannot fully
and utterly exist. The spiritual nature in one may find its mate
in the spiritual nature of another; and the physical nature of one
may find its mate in the physical nature of another. But into
unions such as these, love does not enter in its completeness. If
there is any element lacking in either of those who think that
they can mate, their mating will be a sad and pitiful failure.
It is evident enough that Mme. Hanska was almost wholly spiritual,
and her long years of waiting had made her understand the
difference between Balzac and herself. Therefore, she shrank from
his proximity, and from his physical contact, and it was perhaps
better for them both that their union was so quickly broken off by
death; for the great novelist died of heart disease only five
months after the marriage.
If we wish to understand the mystery of Balzac's life--or, more
truly, the mystery of the life of the woman whom he married--take
up and read once more the pages of Seraphita, one of his poorest
novels and yet a singularly illuminating story, shedding light
upon a secret of the soul.
CHARLES READE AND LAURA SEYMOUR
The instances of distinguished men, or of notable women, who have
broken through convention in order to find a fitting mate, are
very numerous. A few of these instances may, perhaps, represent
what is usually called a Platonic union. But the evidence is
always doubtful. The world is not possessed of abundant charity,
nor does human experience lead one to believe that intimate
relations between a man and a woman are compatible with Platonic
Perhaps no case is more puzzling than that which is found in the
life-history of Charles Reade and Laura Seymour.
Charles Reade belongs to that brilliant group of English writers
and artists which included Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins,
Tom Taylor, George Eliot, Swinburne, Sir Walter Besant, Maclise,
and Goldwin Smith. In my opinion, he ranks next to Dickens in
originality and power. His books are little read to-day; yet he
gave to the English stage the comedy "Masks and Faces," which is
now as much a classic as Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer" or
Sheridan's "School for Scandal." His power as a novelist was
marvelous. Who can forget the madhouse episodes in Hard Cash, or
the great trial scene in Griffith Gaunt, or that wonderful
picture, in The Cloister and the Hearth, of Germany and Rome at
the end of the Middle Ages? Here genius has touched the dead past
and made it glow again with an intense reality.
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
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
It must be added that his English essay was original, and this
also helped him; but had it not been for the other great piece of
luck he would, in Oxford phrase, have been "completely gulfed." As
it was, however, he was placed as highly as the young men who were
afterward known as Cardinal Newman and Sir Robert Lowe (Lord
At the age of twenty-one, Reade obtained a fellowship, which
entitled him to an income so long as he remained unmarried. It is
necessary to consider the significance of this when we look at his
subsequent career. The fellowship at Magdalen was worth, at the
outset, about twelve hundred dollars annually, and it gave him
possession of a suite of rooms free of any charge. He likewise
secured a Vinerian fellowship in law, to which was attached an
income of four hundred dollars. As time went on, the value of the
first fellowship increased until it was worth twenty-five hundred
dollars. Therefore, as with many Oxford men of his time, Charles
Reade, who had no other fortune, was placed in this position--if he
refrained from marrying, he had a home and a moderate income for
life, without any duties whatsoever. If he married, he must give
up his income and his comfortable apartments, and go out into the
world and struggle for existence.
There was the further temptation that the possession of his
fellowship did not even necessitate his living at Oxford. He might
spend his time in London, or even outside of England, knowing that
his chambers at Magdalen were kept in order for him, as a resting-
place to which he might return whenever he chose.
Reade remained a while at Oxford, studying books and men--
especially the latter. He was a great favorite with the
undergraduates, though less so with the dons. He loved the boat-
races on the river; he was a prodigious cricket-player, and one of
the best bowlers of his time. He utterly refused to put on any of
the academic dignity which his associates affected. He wore loud
clothes. His flaring scarfs were viewed as being almost
scandalous, very much as Longfellow's parti-colored waistcoats
were regarded when he first came to Harvard as a professor.
Charles Reade pushed originality to eccentricity. He had a passion
for violins, and ran himself into debt because he bought so many
and such good ones. Once, when visiting his father's house at
Ipsden, he shocked the punctilious old gentleman by dancing on the
dining-table to the accompaniment of a fiddle, which he scraped
delightedly. Dancing, indeed, was another of his diversions, and,
in spite of the fact that he was a fellow of Magdalen and a D.C.L.
of Oxford, he was always ready to caper and to display the new
In the course of time, he went up to London; and at once plunged
into the seething tide of the metropolis. He made friends far and
wide, and in every class and station--among authors and
politicians, bishops and bargees, artists and musicians. Charles
Reade learned much from all of them, and all of them were fond of
But it was the theater that interested him most. Nothing else
seemed to him quite so fine as to be a successful writer for the
stage. He viewed the drama with all the reverence of an ancient
Greek. On his tombstone he caused himself to be described as
"Dramatist, novelist, journalist."
"Dramatist" he put first of all, even after long experience had
shown him that his greatest power lay in writing novels. But in
this early period he still hoped for fame upon the stage.
It was not a fortunate moment for dramatic writers. Plays were
bought outright by the managers, who were afraid to risk any
considerable sum, and were very shy about risking anything at all.
The system had not yet been established according to which an
author receives a share of the money taken at the box-office.
Consequently, Reade had little or no financial success. He adapted
several pieces from the French, for which he was paid a few bank-
notes. "Masks and Faces" got a hearing, and drew large audiences,
but Reade had sold it for a paltry sum; and he shared the honors
of its authorship with Tom Taylor, who was then much better known.
Such was the situation. Reade was personally liked, but his plays
were almost all rejected. He lived somewhat extravagantly and ran
into debt, though not very deeply. He had a play entitled
"Christie Johnstone," which he believed to be a great one, though
no manager would venture to produce it. Reade, brooding, grew thin
and melancholy. Finally, he decided that he would go to a leading
actress at one of the principal theaters and try to interest her
in his rejected play. The actress he had in mind was Laura
Seymour, then appearing at the Haymarket under the management of
Buckstone; and this visit proved to be the turning-point in
Reade's whole life.
Laura Seymour was the daughter of a surgeon at Bath--a man in
large practise and with a good income, every penny of which he
spent. His family lived in lavish style; but one morning, after he
had sat up all night playing cards, his little daughter found him
in the dining-room, stone dead. After his funeral it appeared that
he had left no provision for his family. A friend of his--a Jewish
gentleman of Portuguese extraction--showed much kindness to the
children, settling their affairs and leaving them with some money
in the bank; but, of course, something must be done.
The two daughters removed to London, and at a very early age Laura
had made for herself a place in the dramatic world, taking small
parts at first, but rising so rapidly that in her fifteenth year
she was cast for the part of Juliet. As an actress she led a life
of strange vicissitudes. At one time she would be pinched by
poverty, and at another time she would be well supplied with
money, which slipped through her fingers like water. She was a
true Bohemian, a happy-go-lucky type of the actors of her time.
From all accounts, she was never very beautiful; but she had an
instinct for strange, yet effective, costumes, which attracted
much attention. She has been described as "a fluttering, buoyant,
gorgeous little butterfly." Many were drawn to her. She was
careless of what she did, and her name was not untouched with
scandal. But she lived through it all, and emerged a clever,
sympathetic woman of wide experience, both on the stage and off
One of her admirers--an elderly gentleman named Seymour--came to
her one day when she was in much need of money, and told her that
he had just deposited a thousand pounds to her credit at the bank.
Having said this, he left the room precipitately. It was the
beginning of a sort of courtship; and after a while she married
him. Her feeling toward him was one of gratitude. There was no
sentiment about it; but she made him a good wife, and gave no
further cause for gossip.
Such was the woman whom Charles Reade now approached with the
request that she would let him read to her a portion of his play.
He had seen her act, and he honestly believed her to be a dramatic
genius of the first order. Few others shared this belief; but she
was generally thought of as a competent, though by no means
brilliant, actress. Reade admired her extremely, so that at the
very thought of speaking with her his emotions almost choked him.
In answer to a note, she sent word that he might call at her
house. He was at this time (1849) in his thirty-eighth year. The
lady was a little older, and had lost something of her youthful
charm; yet, when Reade was ushered into her drawing-room, she
seemed to him the most graceful and accomplished woman whom he had
She took his measure, or she thought she took it, at a glance.
Here was one of those would-be playwrights who live only to
torment managers and actresses. His face was thin, from which she
inferred that he was probably half starved. His bashfulness led
her to suppose that he was an inexperienced youth. Little did she
imagine that he was the son of a landed proprietor, a fellow of
one of Oxford's noblest colleges, and one with friends far higher
in the world than herself. Though she thought so little of him,
and quite expected to be bored, she settled herself in a soft
armchair to listen. The unsuccessful playwright read to her a
scene or two from his still unfinished drama. She heard him
patiently, noting the cultivated accent of his voice, which proved
to her that he was at least a gentleman. When he had finished, she
"Yes, that's good! The plot is excellent." Then she laughed a sort
of stage laugh, and remarked lightly: "Why don't you turn it into
Reade was stung to the quick. Nothing that she could have said
would have hurt him more. Novels he despised; and here was this
woman, the queen of the English stage, as he regarded her,
laughing at his drama and telling him to make a novel of it. He
rose and bowed.
"I am trespassing on your time," he said; and, after barely
touching the fingers of her outstretched hand, he left the room
The woman knew men very well, though she scarcely knew Charles
Reade. Something in his melancholy and something in his manner
stirred her heart. It was not a heart that responded to emotions
readily, but it was a very good-natured heart. Her explanation of
Reade's appearance led her to think that he was very poor. If she
had not much tact, she had an abundant store of sympathy; and so
she sat down and wrote a very blundering but kindly letter, in
which she enclosed a five-pound note.
Reade subsequently described his feelings on receiving this letter
with its bank-note. He said:
"I, who had been vice-president of Magdalen--I, who flattered
myself I was coming to the fore as a dramatist--to have a five-
pound note flung at my head, like a ticket for soup to a pauper,
or a bone to a dog, and by an actress, too! Yet she said my
reading was admirable; and, after all, there is much virtue in a
five-pound note. Anyhow, it showed the writer had a good heart."
The more he thought of her and of the incident, the more comforted
he was. He called on her the next day without making an
appointment; and when she received him, he had the five-pound note
fluttering in his hand.
She started to speak, but he interrupted her.
"No," he said, "that is not what I wanted from you. I wanted
sympathy, and you have unintentionally supplied it."
Then this man, whom she had regarded as half starved, presented
her with an enormous bunch of hothouse grapes, and the two sat
down and ate them together, thus beginning a friendship which
ended only with Laura Seymour's death.
Oddly enough, Mrs. Seymour's suggestion that Reade should make a
story of his play was a suggestion which he actually followed. It
was to her guidance and sympathy that the world owes the great
novels which he afterward composed. If he succeeded on the stage
at all, it was not merely in "Masks and Faces," but in his
powerful dramatization of Zola's novel, L'Assommoir, under the
title "Drink," in which the late Charles Warner thrilled and
horrified great audiences all over the English-speaking world. Had
Reade never known Laura Seymour, he might never have written so
strong a drama.
The mystery of Reade's relations with this woman can never be
definitely cleared up. Her husband, Mr. Seymour, died not long
after she and Reade became acquainted. Then Reade and several
friends, both men and women, took a house together; and Laura
Seymour, now a clever manager and amiable hostess, looked after
all the practical affairs of the establishment. One by one, the
others fell away, through death or by removal, until at last these
two were left alone. Then Reade, unable to give up the
companionship which meant so much to him, vowed that she must
still remain and care for him. He leased a house in Sloane Street,
which he has himself described in his novel A Terrible Temptation.
It is the chapter wherein Reade also draws his own portrait in the
character of Francis Bolfe:
The room was rather long, low, and nondescript; scarlet flock
paper; curtains and sofas, green Utrecht velvet; woodwork and
pillars, white and gold; two windows looking on the street; at the
other end folding-doors, with scarcely any woodwork, all plate
glass, but partly hidden by heavy curtains of the same color and
material as the others.
At last a bell rang; the maid came in and invited Lady Bassett to
follow her. She opened the glass folding-doors and took them into
a small conservatory, walled like a grotto, with ferns sprouting
out of rocky fissures, and spars sparkling, water dripping. Then
she opened two more glass folding-doors, and ushered them into an
empty room, the like of which Lady Bassett had never seen; it was
large in itself, and multiplied tenfold by great mirrors from
floor to ceiling, with no frames but a narrow oak beading;
opposite her, on entering, was a bay window, all plate glass, the
central panes of which opened, like doors, upon a pretty little
garden that glowed with color, and was backed by fine trees
belonging to the nation; for this garden ran up to the wall of
The numerous and large mirrors all down to the ground laid hold of
the garden and the flowers, and by double and treble reflection
filled the room with delightful nooks of verdure and color.
Here are the words in which Reade describes himself as he looked
when between fifty and sixty years of age:
He looked neither like a poet nor a drudge, but a great fat
country farmer. He was rather tall, very portly, smallish head,
commonplace features, mild brown eye not very bright, short beard,
and wore a suit of tweed all one color.
Such was the house and such was the man over both of which Laura
Seymour held sway until her death in 1879. What must be thought of
their relations? She herself once said to Mr. John Coleman:
"As for our positions--his and mine--we are partners, nothing
more. He has his bank-account, and I have mine. He is master of
his fellowship and his rooms at Oxford, and I am mistress of this
house, but not his mistress! Oh, dear, no!"
At another time, long after Mr. Seymour's death, she said to an
"I hope Mr. Reade will never ask me to marry him, for I should
certainly refuse the offer."
There was no reason why he should not have made this offer,
because his Oxford fellowship ceased to be important to him after
he had won fame as a novelist. Publishers paid him large sums for
everything he wrote. His debts were all paid off, and his income
was assured. Yet he never spoke of marriage, and he always
introduced his friend as "the lady who keeps my house for me."
As such, he invited his friends to meet her, and as such, she even
accompanied him to Oxford. There was no concealment, and
apparently there was nothing to conceal. Their manner toward each
other was that of congenial friends. Mrs. Seymour, in fact, might
well have been described as "a good fellow." Sometimes she
referred to him as "the doctor," and sometimes by the nickname
"Charlie." He, on his side, often spoke of her by her last name as
"Seymour," precisely as if she had been a man. One of his
relatives rather acutely remarked about her that she was not a
woman of sentiment at all, but had a genius for friendship; and
that she probably could not have really loved any man at all.
This is, perhaps, the explanation of their intimacy. If so, it is
a very remarkable instance of Platonic friendship. It is certain
that, after she met Reade, Mrs. Seymour never cared for any other
man. It is no less certain that he never cared for any other
woman. When she died, five years before his death, his life became
a burden to him. It was then that he used to speak of her as "my
lost darling" and "my dove." He directed that they should be
buried side by side in Willesden churchyard. Over the monument
which commemorates them both, he caused to be inscribed, in
addition to an epitaph for himself, the following tribute to his
friend. One should read it and accept the touching words as
answering every question that may be asked:
Here lies the great heart of Laura Seymour, a brilliant artist, a
humble Christian, a charitable woman, a loving daughter, sister,
and friend, who lived for others from her childhood. Tenderly
pitiful to all God's creatures--even to some that are frequently
destroyed or neglected--she wiped away the tears from many faces,
helping the poor with her savings and the sorrowful with her
earnest pity. When the eye saw her it blessed her, for her face
was sunshine, her voice was melody, and her heart was sympathy.
This grave was made for her and for himself by Charles Reade,
whose wise counselor, loyal ally, and bosom friend she was for
twenty-four years, and who mourns her all his days.
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