Famous Affinities of History: The Romance of Devotion


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 friendship.

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 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.

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 Sherbrooke).

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 steps.

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 him.

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 it.

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 ever met.

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 said:

"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 a novel?"

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 abruptly.

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 Hyde Park.

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 intimate friend:

"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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