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 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.