The Relations Between Authors and Their Characters
— Most writers of fiction care more for the characters they have produced than for their skill in devising effective incidents, or in building elaborate and formidable plots. The machinery of construction may interest them while a work is in progress, but after its completion their chief pleasure is naturally and necessarily with the beings they have brought forth, and whose immortality they fondly hope for. Scott acknowledged himself well satisfied with many of the children of his imagination, notwithstanding his general habit of disparaging the framework in which he had set them. Dickens never lost sight of a single one of his multitudinous offspring. Nothing delighted him more than to recall them on all possible occasions, and when surrounded by intimates to insist upon their supposititious admission to the society of the hour. If at a loss to sustain himself in some whimsical argument, he would invoke Mr. Micawber’s coöperation ; and if desirous to escape from a disputatious antagonist, he would leave him to settle affairs with Mr. Bumble or Old Willett. I have seen him pledge Dick Swiveller in a cup of “the rosy,” with an air of sincerity which would have imposed upon any listener not acquainted with the identity of that amiable scapegrace; and, the next moment, heard him chaff Sam Weller to the point of downright altercation. The personality of all his people was definitely established in his mind, and he vehemently resented the liberties often taken with them upon the stage. “ I have been to Sadler’s Wells, to see a piece with my name attached to it,” he said, referring to The Golden Dustman, a dramatic version of Our Mutual Friend, “ but I recognized nothing as my own except a part of the language.” For the impersonation of his characters, he desired to have it understood, something more was needed than the recital of the dialogue he had put into their mouths. He wondered why the players did not come to his readings, and get a distinct idea of how their parts should be represented. On one occasion he changed the programme of an entertainment in order that an actor, who had vexed his temper by a fantastic interpretation of Mr. Toots, might have the opportunity of seeing how that simple gentleman ought really to carry himself and deliver the speeches set down for him.
It is not every writer who has Dickens’s host of familiar spirits to respond to his summons, but all who put their soul into their labor have a retinue of visionary companions whom they love and cherish. Even the elder Dumas, whose stories were made up of adventure and intrigue, with only here and there an attempt at portraiture, would shed tears over the memory of his genial giant, Porthos. Thackeray held many of the men and women he had created, including some who were not up to the highest mark of respectability, in the warmest corner of his heart. He knew them intimately, and could not conceal his annoyance when an artist, appointed to illustrate a certain book, produced a picture inconsistent with the objects which existed in his fancy. But of all modern authors, probably the most singular in his mental attitude toward the personages of his romances was Charles Reade. In speaking of the characters he had drawn he always appeared unconscious of their artificial origin, and referred to them as if their reality were an established fact. He did not recognize any particular connection between them and himself. I have repeatedly heard him discuss the idiosyncrasies of this or that member of Iris ideal family in precisely the tone he would have employed if they had been independent of him in every sense. When a friend remarked upon what he supposed to be the motives that impelled the heroine of Griffith Gaunt to a certain course of action, Reade exclaimed hastily and somewhat warmly, “ I don’t believe Kate Gaunt ever thought of such a thing.” Then he became abstracted, and a few minutes after added, “ It does n’t seem credible that Kate Gaunt could be influenced in that way ; but after all, who can tell ? ” Something was said to him about the ingenuity of one of Mrs. Ryder’s schemes in the same novel. “ Yes,” answered Reade, “ was n’t it clever ? You would n’t imagine a woman like Ryder up to a dodge of that sort. Ryder had more brains than people gave her credit for.” There was no apparent recollection that her cleverness, whatever it might have been, was his own invention.
In Love Me Little, Love Me Long it is related that Lucy Fountain, when expecting to be drowned by the upsetting of a pleasure-boat, whispered to David Dodd that if she must die she would have something to say to him just before they went down. Reade was asked what it was she intended to tell him. “ I don’t know,” he replied, dreamily; “ how should I know ? ” And, a little later, “ What do you think she meant to say ? Nothing important, perhaps. Ah, well, Dodd may know ; she probably told him some time.” There was not a particle of affectation in this. Reade was the last man to attempt that kind of pretense, and if he had attempted it he could no more have succeeded than he could have flown to the moon. He was the embodiment of intellectual candor. Throughout his life he could hardly bear the sight of a little book called A Good Fight, the first version of the story afterward entitled The Cloister and the Hearth. The circumstances which led to its publication in the abbreviated shape are not generally known. The tale began to appear in Once a Week, the editor of which periodical excited Reade’s displeasure by making sundry alterations in the text. In response to an emphatic protest, this editor insisted upon his right to introduce such changes as he thought proper, stating, however, that it was not his purpose to vary or interpolate without good cause. Whereupon the serial was speedily brought to a close, in a manner totally at variance with the original design. The proper development was impracticable in the space to which the author confined himself. But he could not rest until he had completed the work according to the first conception, and it was published under the new name with the least possible loss of time, the single slender volume being multiplied by four. There was no English issue of A Good Fight in book form, and the American edition is probably now extinct. For many a month the forced denouement weighed heavily on Reade’s mind, and he never ceased to regret the diverting Gerard and Margaret from their true career, and representing them in a light which he felt to be false and unnatural.
In A Terrible Temptation it suited Reade’s humor to give a counterfeit presentment of himself. The individual brought forward as Mr. Rolfe was intended to be a minute delineation of the novelist, and in many respects it was thoroughly accurate and true. But he was reminded, as the story progressed, that this character was pursuing a line of conduct not in accordance with the Sentiments of its prototype. “ It can’t be helped,” was the response ; “ Reade might not take such a course, but Rolfe must.” The figure which he had proposed to fashion after a distinct model had slipped out of his grasp. Something of the same kind happened with his portrayal of Peg Woffington, although in this instance he purposely allowed himself to take liberties with history and tradition. But the visionary Peggy of his fabrication, not the Peggy of record and fame, was the one he knew and treasured. I was with him the last time he saw her in theatrical guise, at the Haymarket. It was in 1881, when he was aged and feeble, but his delight in the fitting representation of his “ darling ” — as he invariably called her — was as keen as ever. At one point of the performance Marian Terry, who played Mabel Vane, was seen to be shedding tears. “ I expected this,” he said ; “the Terrys always cry. Kate did, Ellen does, and now Marian follows suit.” As the action advanced, Mrs. Bancroft, the Woffington of the evening, became similarly discomposed. “ This is more than I bargained for,” said Reade, querulous in accent, but by no means ill-pleased. “ Wilton [Mrs. Bancroft] is an old stager, and ought to keep herself in hand.” Before the curtain fell the contagion had spread to the entire dramatis personœ, and the audience was moved, as audiences usually are, by the tender and pathetic closing scene. The venerable author was very happy. “ Why, all your eyes are wet! ” he exclaimed to those beside him. Being informed that he was not superior to the prevailing weakness, he remarked, looking vaguely into the distance before him, with an expression his countenance often assumed, “Well, well; Woffington has made many an old fellow weep, bless the baggage ! ” He seemed quite unaware that he had been under a spell of his own weaving. Nor was it the exquisite interpretation that touched him most nearly. His thoughts were not with the skill of the dramatist, nor with the art of the accomplished actress, but, stretching back to another century, with his dear and lovely Peggy.