Personal Characteristics of Charles Reade
FRIENDS of Charles Reade find little to satisfy them in the Memoir recently published under the nominal responsibility of Mr. Charles L. Reade and the Rev. Compton Reade. No man of letters has ever needed a more delicate, sympathetic, and above all discreet treatment at the hands of biographers than the author of The Cloister and the Hearth and The Eighth Commandment. It was his misfortune, throughout his public career, to draw upon himself an amount of harsh personal criticism, quite apart from that applied to his works, such as few writers of his generation have been compelled to endure. Those who knew him in the truest sense of intimacy had, and still have, reason to believe that the adverse impressions created by his frequent errors of judgment, and especially by the reckless and defiant spirit of self-assertion which he never was able to control, might have been greatly modified, if not entirely effaced, by a record in which all the conditions of his changeful life were accurately and faithfully kept in view, and the peculiarities of his character permitted to appear without distortion or exaggeration. Charles Reade’s existence was of itself so turbulent and erratic that the employment of additional extravagance in its portrayal cannot easily be pardoned. His story should be told temperately, tenderly, and with the guarded composure which would be most respectful to his memory. In the narrative put forth by his kinsmen there is scarcely a trace of the qualities required for the just performance of their task. That the intention is good, no one will probably care to deny. If torrents of vehement declamation could avail, the Rev. Compton Reade might flatter himself that he had transformed his uncle into a demigod. From beginning to end, the subject of this panegyric is represented as endowed with more than mortal properties, and the course of his intellectual life is depicted as almost supernatural, albeit somewhat lurid, in its splendor. The biographer appears to have acted upon a conviction that no shadow to the imagined brilliancy could exist, — certainly that none could be detected, — and that the freest disclosures, no matter what invasions of privacy they might entail, could result only in the increased glorification of his hero. From his point of observation, whatever Charles Reade was was right ; and not right alone, but unexampled in nobleness, purity, and moral majesty. All of these excesses are attributable, in the first place, to Mr. Compton Reade’s ungoverned admiration for his distinguished relative ; but their injurious effect is in a large measure due to the boisterous coarseness which seems inseparable from his style of writing. No fault of this description can be laid to the account of Mr. Charles L. Reade, who takes pains, in a preface, to disclaim the “responsibility of authorship,” together with the “ opinions hazarded on men and things.” This gentleman’s share in the book is confined to sundry selections from the novelist’s manuscripts. If he had exercised the authority which no member of the family could have disputed, but which his lack of practical literary experience may have prevented him from asserting ; if, indeed, he had assumed complete control, and suffered nothing to be published that conflicted with his finer feeling and more sober judgment, the Memoir would have worn a very different aspect, and would have far better served the purpose which he, at least, must have had at heart.
Notwithstanding the confusion of detail produced by Mr. Compton Reade’s incessant blaze of adulation, and the obstacles which he throws in the way of those who would wish to form a correct estimate of the popular and powerful author, there was really nothing difficult of comprehension in Charles Reade’s nature. Those whose intercourse with him was closest were quick to discern the idiosyncrasies which lay at the bottom of his wild flights of temper, his fierce aversions, and his belligerent demeanor toward all whom he conceived to be his enemies. His most striking characteristic was an utter inability to conceal his emotions, or restrain himself from the commission of any act to which these emotions prompted him. He could not, in fact, be brought to see the need of concealment or repression. He totally failed to understand that any feeling required to be hidden, any thought left unspoken, or any impulse held in check. In these respects he remained a froward child to the end of his days. The censures to which he consequently exposed himself were inevitable, though often unjust. He was stigmatized as the embodiment of morbid and fatuous vanity. In truth, he was not a particle more vain than men of his position are apt to be. Reputations for modesty and humility may be conveniently earned by keeping one’s self-esteem in careful suppression. Reade had positive opinions as to his own merits, and did not hesitate to proclaim them. If other people’s views clashed with his, it generally seemed desirable to him that they should be put down. But his vanity was by no means inordinate. His idea of the rank to which he was entitled was not materially different from that of the literary world at large. He took more than common pleasure in extolling those whom he recognized as his masters or his peers. He never dreamed of placing himself on a level with Dickens, to whom he accorded higher honors than later authorities are disposed to grant; and while he was opposed to Thackeray’s processes, which he declared were not those of the true story-teller, his esteem for the author of Vanity Fair was profound and outspoken. The writer of these pages stood beside him, in the common room at Magdalen College, on the morning when Thackeray’s death was announced. Reade was deeply moved, although there had been virtually no acquaintance between the two men. “Now,” he exclaimed, “I shall never be able to tell him what I thought of him.” Not long after, in the Garrick Club, he pointed out the place where Thackeray had been accustomed to sit, of evenings. “ I fancy he had a poor opinion of my work,” said the younger novelist, “ but no matter. I half made up my mind, more than once, to go over and tell him what I felt and what we all owed him. But it would not have been understood. You can do such things in America; we can’t here, — worse luck ! ” It must be admitted that he could not tolerate any comparison between himself — much less Dickens or Thackeray— and George Eliot, and that he invariably contested her right to even the third or fourth place among romancewriters ; but his dislike was primarily owing to what he considered her systematic violation of the laws of fiction. He insisted that whoever had a tale to tell should tell it with straightforward directness, and with strict avoidance of didactic digression. He held the purely narrative faculty in such favor that he was inclined to overrate many who had no other possession to boast of. In his estimation Wilkie Collins was without a rival as a weaver of plots, and his voice was loud in laudation of Bulwer’s constructive ingenuity. He expressed the conviction that one or two of Miss Braddon’s earliest works were thoroughly worthy to be classed with his own, — a declaration which ought, by itself alone, to relieve him from the imputation of overweening conceit. No one could fairly accuse him of seeking to exalt himself at the expense of others, — not even when he remonstrated against the galling suggestions of George Eliot’s superiority, — but any attempt to depreciate him, or to eject him from the place he had fought for and conquered, stung him to fury.
Reade’s efforts to secure recognition as a writer of plays, besides bringing upon him incalculable loss and tribulation, subjected him to similar accusations of vainglorious assumption ; but it would be easy to demonstrate that his pretensions in this field of labor were fairly warranted. Undoubtedly his broad claim to the designation of dramatist, with all that the term conveys, was a mistake. His persistence in retaining it with unabated confidence, after the discouraging failures he had to endure, was one of the strongest evidences of his determination to submit to no guidance but that of his inclinations. The theatre was his passion. He would willingly have surrendered all his fame as a novelist in exchange for a single unqualified triumph upon the stage. His first literary attempts were in this direction, and it was with reluctance that he ever turned aside to the labors by which he attained eminence and comparative prosperity. All that he gained by his romances he regarded as merely accessory to the more congenial pursuit. Much of the money which they brought him was squandered upon theatrical speculations, by which he hoped to establish an unassailable position as a dramatic author. This, however, was not in his power. His name was, and is, associated with a few standard plays, and some of his productions were largely profitable, but he never once achieved what could legitimately be called an independent success, such as his heart yearned for. In fact, he never ventured to stand entirely alone. Sometimes he worked in coöperation with writers whose acquaintance with stage-craft was superior to his own. Sometimes he adapted French pieces, or compressed his novels into acts and scenes. But he never vindicated himself as a purely original dramatist. It is a curious circumstance that he was thought, by many friends, to have most nearly reached his aim in a little comedy written in the French language, and intended for representation on the French boards. This was an unpretending sketch of Parisian society and character, extremely pleasant in fancy and light sentiment, and entirely his own. No reference to it appears in the Memoir, but it is to be hoped that Mr. Charles L. Reade will not allow it to pass out of sight. It was not, to be sure, highly valued by its author, who felt that it would not materially assist him to the renown he especially coveted.1 That was the balance in which he weighed all of his theatrical compositions. Regarding them as a whole, he undoubtedly believed he had done enough to justify him in assuming the desired title, and by his order he is thus denominated in the inscription upon his tomb.2 But he knew that he had no place in the highest grade of dramatists. As with respect to novel-writers, he frankly admitted that others — Mr. Boucicault in particular — occupied a much more elevated position, and was content to struggle on, trusting in time to reach the level to which he aspired. In the course of his adventures he allowed himself to be ensnared into countless contentions with unworthy antagonists, but these quarrels had nothing to do with his standing as a producer of plays, good or bad. They grew out of his endeavors to punish infringements of his legal rights, any invasion of which made him quite as angry as when his literary sensibilities were wounded. And, as has been intimated, when once his wrath began to flow, no consideration of prudence, hardly of propriety or self-respect, could keep it within bounds.
This incapacity to impose upon himself restrictions which most men recognize as expedient and necessary was almost the sole cause of his many griefs. Opposition in any shape was intolerable to him. However contemptible it might be in the eyes of other people, he could not pass it unheeded, but was compelled by an uncontrollable impulse to confront and, if possible, to overthrow it. He would forsake important occupations to engage in unbecoming and fruitless warfare with individuals beneath his serious notice. One of his favorite quotations was a couplet from Molière: —
L’honnête homme trompé s’éloigne et ne dit mot.”
This he held up as an admirable text for the rest of mankind, but could not see its applicability to his own concerns. He was always making a noise, and forever complaining; and he never withdrew from strife, nor held his tongue. These propensities not only gave his antagonists the opportunity of reviling him as the common scold of letters, to the annoyance and pain of all who cared for him, but made him petulant and morose, deprived him of the power of executing some of his greatest designs, and destroyed his chances of acquiring material fortune. In his last years his regular annual income was about seven thousand dollars, nearly one third of which was derived from a source entirely disconnected with his literary productions. It should have been at least thrice as large. The time and labor wasted on volumes like The Eighth Commandment might, if more wisely directed, have produced parallels to Hard Cash and The Cloister and the Hearth. It must not be supposed, however, that all his battles were fought in unworthy causes. Excepting those in which he sought to defend himself from what he considered malicious attacks, or to maintain his property rights, — most of which were superfluous, many pecuniarily wasteful, and some actually damaging to his reputation, — they were provoked mainly by offenses against his sense of honor and humanity. The long litigation of which the incidents are outlined in Hard Cash grew out of his indignation at the wrongs of a sufferer from illegal detention in a lunatic asylum. From this conflict, into which he threw himself with the utmost fervor, and with a magnanimity for which he never received the credit that belonged to him, Reade emerged victorious to the extent of relieving his protégé from persecution ; but it cost him large sums of money, which he had not the practical sagacity to recover, except by the indirect plan of founding a stirring romance upon the subject. For many years it was his untiring endeavor to secure the enforcement of the laws protecting French as well as English dramatic rights in Great Britain. Incensed at the wholesale robberies practiced upon foreign authors by his own countrymen, he constituted himself their avenger, and set himself vigorously at work to insure them immunity from further spoliation. In one or two instances he was successful, but, being far in advance of his time, his motives were misinterpreted, and his struggles brought no substantial advantage to the cause he upheld, while their effect upon him was well-nigh disastrous. But no amount of failure could stay his chivalrous flights. Whenever the combative humor seized him, he flung discretion to the winds, hardened himself to moderate counsel, and, regardless of the odds against him, even in the face of moral certainty of defeat, rushed to the encounter, which rarely terminated in anything but his discomfiture and exhaustion.
These weaknesses of Charles Reade should have been understood and taken into account by a biographer whose design was to do him justice. They need not have been forced into prominence, but if brought to light at all should have been recognized as unhappy failings, — certainly not vaunted as crowning virtues. That he was capable of errors and follies, like other men, might have been judiciously admitted to consideration, even if it were deemed undesirable publicly to acknowledge the fact. Many details of his domestic life are set forth, or half set forth, by his nephew with an almost inconceivable misconception of the effect they necessarily produce. The virtual denial of all faults makes certain obvious faults much more conspicuous than they would otherwise seem, and tends to create a suspicion that others, perhaps greater, have been kept in reserve. Such a suspicion would be unfounded. Reade was not a worse but a much better man than he is allowed to appear in the Memoir. His fine qualities overwhelmingly outweighed his defects, and made all but the gravest of them seem insignificant to those who approached him nearly. No one could really know him without loving him. He was naturally the soul of gentleness and amiability, in spite of all infirmities of temper. His tenderness was like a woman’s, and, indeed, a very large and assuredly not the worst part of his character was essentially feminine. His generosity was unbounded, not in the sense of profuse liberality alone, but extending over a broader and nobler range; and his hospitality, in large ways as in small, was something that could not be measured by the ordinary English standard. Many of his countrymen would have laughed at it, if they had known the extent to which it was practiced, and would have attributed it to a disposition to regulate his conduct by what he believed to be the best American usages. There is no doubt that his habits were often more thoroughly American than he was himself aware. He could open conversation with strangers in railway carriages. He could pay the whole of a cab fare, or allow a companion to do so, without raising a debate upon the question of respective indebtedness. He could step out of his way and run around a corner, to point out the road to a foreigner who had gone astray. He could absent himself from a large company, five minutes before dinner was served, and change his dress coat for a frock, simply because one of his guests had, for reasons of necessity, presented himself without the conventional claw-hammer. He could and did interest himself directly, not abstractly, in the welfare of what are called the lower classes, even of the servants in his own employ, — the last persons, as a rule, to receive attention from the British gentry. His political faith was strongly democratic, in spite of the Tory influences by which he was forever surrounded. By voting to retain Mr. Gladstone as member for Oxford, after the eminent statesman had drawn upon himself the rancor of that centre of conservatism, he risked the loss of many old friendships ; and in declaring his approval of universal suffrage and the secret ballot he sacrificed associations which were very dear to him.
But if these signs and tokens were indicative of American proclivities, he was scarcely conscious of the fact. He was, however, abundantly conscious of an immense liking for American men and women. They were always sure to interest him, he said, and that was more than he could reckon upon with his own people. He knew that they appreciated him more highly, as an author, than the English reading public, and that his name was cherished in this country with an affection which was never vouchsafed him at home. Although he received only a trifling remuneration for the performance of his plays here, it gratified him to learn of their repeated production, long after they had been laid aside and forgotten by British managers, and of the cordial, not to say enthusiastic, favor bestowed upon some elaborate works for which he could not himself obtain a respectful hearing in any English theatre. The name of America served always as a passport to his presence and his kindly attention. He could hardly persuade himself to insist upon proper credentials, when visitors from this side of the Atlantic came to his door. If they happened to be writers or actors, the greeting he gave them was the more cordial. His hand was ever ready to contribute to their comfort and pleasure, and to assist their enterprises, if assistance were needed. Theatrical aspirants never sought his counsel in vain. He lost no opportunity of encouraging their hopes, and he celebrated their successes with hearty rejoicing. When John S. Clarke, in 1869, tempted fate at the St. James’s, and it was supposed that Tom Taylor, serving temporarily as critic of The Times, intended to satisfy an ancient grudge at the newcomer’s expense, Reade posted himself in Taylor’s box, on the opening night, and did his best to soften the impending blow ; and when Clarke was subsequently rehabilitated by John Oxenford, in the " leading journal,” no one rejoiced more heartily than the co-author of Masks and Faces. During the bitter winter of 1881-82, when he was suffering from an illness from which he never fully recovered, he several times made his way, at no slight risk, to the house where Edwin Booth was performing ; and although it chanced that he witnessed none of the impersonations in which it is conceded that the tragedian touches his highest mark, he found quite enough to reward him. Of Booth’s Shylock he was pleased to say that it was the finest piece of acting he had seen “ since the days of the giants, forty years before.” These are instances taken at random from many that might be recalled. It was not only to players of distinction that his good-will was shown. Humbler American followers of the craft often had to thank him for the opportunity of showing what was, or was not, in them. If he could not aid them in the way they desired, he would try to do so in another. As an illustration of the lavish profusion with which he would sometimes answer appeals to his charity, it may be mentioned that during the latter half of the year 1867 he brought serious pecuniary embarrassment upon himself by giving away sums amounting in the aggregate to nearly twice his fixed income for the period spoken of, — a large proportion of which went to Americans who had been left stranded in Europe by the subsidence of one of the " Exposition ” tidal waves.
It must be acknowledged that the confidence he was so ready to accord was occasionally abused, but he showed less resentment than usual at these particular betrayals of trust. “ I get a deal more from good Yankees than I have ever lost by the bad,” he was wont to remark. In all cases, it may incidentally be noted, his animosities soon burned themselves out. One of the fiercest, though not one of the most demonstrative, quarrels of his life was with the dramatist whose name is appended to his own on the title-page of Foul Play; but the enmity was at an end on his side when he heard that misfortune had befallen the other disputant, and an immediate reconciliation ensued. Several years ago a violent and totally unprovoked assault was directed against him in a London periodical by an obscure journalist and his wife. Reade retorted with equal and, as may be supposed, more crushing violence, not knowing that one of his assailants was a woman. Learning by chance, some time later, that the husband had died, leaving his widow in straitened circumstances, the open-handed author took measures, without the lady’s knowledge, to relieve her immediate wants, although no application on her behalf had been or reasonably could have been made. It is pleasant to remember that he had few disputes with Americans, — only one of magnitude, and that not worthy to be recorded. For his steadfast devotion to the stars and stripes, especially on occasions of national rivalry, he was often taken to task, not altogether playfully, by members of his own circle. He was unaffectedly chagrined at the result of the first Harvard and Oxford boat-race, having fervently hoped that the pluck and enterprise of the New England contestants would carry the day. His vexation at their defeat, and at some of the circumstances by which it was brought about, was so keen that he would not carry out his original intention of writing a description of the race. There were times when he wished it were possible for him to abandon his native land, and build a new career in the western republic. He would undoubtedly have found here an easy path to prosperity, and a social distinction infinitely above that which he was able to win on his own ground; but he could not have been permanently contented, and it was better and more satisfactory, all things considered, that he should know the United States through his intercourse with the admiring devotees who carried him yearly tribute than through actual contact with the various products of the American soil.
The most genial and captivating features of Reade’s character were visible only to persons who possessed his undivided confidence, and the number of these was limited. It is doubtful if any one now living is qualified to unveil, for public view, the interior details of his domestic life. Mr. Compton Reade’s inability to deal with them becomingly is shown in his treatment of the most delicate subject to which he lays his hand, namely, his uncle’s relations with the friend and companion of a quarter of a century, Laura Seymour. If this alliance called for scrutiny and formal justification, which is by no means clear, it should have been described with greater fidelity to literal facts, with abundant and conclusive evidence of its true nature, and with watchful regard to its bearing upon a woman’s reputation, — which last requirement does not appear to have received adequate attention. The only testimony admitted as to the blamelessness of the connection is that of Mr. Winwood Reade, whom the biographer goes out of his way to discredit, on general grounds, to an extent that can hardly fail to impair his credibility as a witness on the particular point. The story is told, not with injurious intent, — manifestly the reverse, so far as Charles Reade is concerned, — but with a roughness and a narrowness of perception calculated not only to mislead, but to render false surmises and unjust conclusions inevitable. Under the circumstances, it may be advantageous to present, with a little more accuracy than seems necessary to Mr. Compton Reade, the incidents which first brought the undeveloped author and the popular actress together, and to explain the conditions upon which they saw fit to pass the remainder of their lives under the same roof.
Reade was nearly forty years old before his first positive success in any form of literature was obtained. He had speculated in various eccentric directions, — such as herring - fishing in Scotland, and violin-manufacturing on a small scale in London, — in all of which he lost a little money with indifference, his livelihood being secure through a couple of Oxford fellowships which yielded him some fifteen hundred dollars a year. To this small income, afterward somewhat increased, he clung with singular persistence, although it may well be questioned whether it was not a hindrance to his advancement from the beginning, as it certainly was a barrier to the proper fulfillment of his destiny at a later period. However this may be, it kept his head above water while he vainly struggled to gain a footing at the theatres. Mrs. Seymour, whose real name was Samo, was a clever and highly esteemed member of the Haymarket company, with a range of acquaintance much more valuable and influential than ladies of her calling are apt to enjoy in England. Reade sought her assistance in the prosecution of some of his theatrical schemes. At the outset she could not help him forward in the desired direction, though she presently put him in communication with the publisher by whom his earliest tales were issued. In their first interview he left upon her mind an impression which happened to be incorrect, but which was the origin of their long association. From his appearance, especially the worn and frayed condition of his clothes, she judged that he was in want, and as she could never see a human being in trouble without devising means for his relief, she immediately set her wits at work on his behalf. Small gifts, disguised as loans, he naturally refused point-blank ; whereupon she offered him lodging at an infinitesimal rate in a vacant part of her house in Piccadilly. This was precisely to his mind, and for a long while he occupied these quarters, quite unaware that he was paying merely a nominal rental, but fully alive to the more substantial benefits he derived from his practical and experienced new friend. In the course of time it became necessary to give up the Piccadilly residence, and Mrs. Seymour, always with an eye to business, conceived the idea of taking a large house in Bolton Row, and letting a number of apartments. She hesitated upon the question of making herself liable for an unusually heavy rent, and it was proposed that this burden be divided among two or three parties, of whom Reade was not one. He was excluded from the calculation, because none of those concerned supposed him to have any resources. Learning what was in debate, he declared himself willing to coöperate to any required extent, and when it was found that he was able to make good his words the plan was at once put into execution. The undertaking was wholly Mrs. Seymour’s, but her name was not allowed to appear, in consequence of the debts with which her shiftless husband was saddled. Several persons lived in the Bolton Row mansion, but the enterprise did not prosper, most of the inmates being of Samo’s stamp, and familiar with no pecuniary transactions except borrowing and spending. The lodgers gradually disappeared, and Mrs. Seymour grew shy of taking fresh ones. And then her husband died.
When this event occurred, she was urged to make her home with her sister, the wife of a clergyman in Scotland, and she contemplated doing so, for a time. After her years of activity and excitement she could not have been longcontent apart from the bustle of the great city. But what influenced her more strongly in her refusal to retire into permanent seclusion was the effect produced upon Reade by the prospect of the separation. In many senses he had become almost absolutely dependent upon her. She had relieved him of all the little miseries of household care ; he relied implicitly upon her counsel in many business transactions, particularly those connected with the theatre ; her fine dramatic and literary instincts were invaluable to him when engaged in composition her bounteous sympathy sustained him in every trouble, and her buoyant, cheerful temper counteracted the sluggishness of disposition which he would often have been unable to overcome without that stimulant. Her companionship was essential not only to the comfort of his private life, but to the success of all his public endeavors. At that period, certainly, she was much more necessary to him than he to her. In money matters she was independent of him and everybody, and always remained so. She told him of her sister’s proposal, and inquired as to his own intentions. He was stricken with consternation at the thought of being left alone, but offered no objection, — which, obviously, would have been beyond his privilege. His evident disturbance, however, affected her more than argument or protestation could have done. She announced her determination to pursue the course to which her generous feeling prompted her, and to make no change in the position she had held for several years past. She sacrificed many things which a self-respecting woman holds dear, and the sacrifice was accepted.
It seems incredible that any person possessing the slightest knowledge of the circumstances should fail to see what Reade’s duty was in that plain situation. He should have made her his wife without delay. It is true that there was no passionate attachment on either side, but the affection was at least as deep and sincere as is commonly found in mature wedlock. Mr. Compton Reade endeavors to make it appear that she would not have married him if she had been asked, and cites a statement of hers to that effect, made several years later and under widely different conditions. It is useless to spend words in demonstrating that she would most assuredly have married him. She was as proud and sensitive a woman as ever lived, and she fully comprehended that nothing could save her from cruel scandal unless she legitimately bore the name of the man in whose house she dwelt. Only her intimate associates were aware that the house was as much hers as his, and if it had been entirely hers the difficulty would have been in no degree lessened. A few friends, and no others, knew what she suffered during the first years of the irregular connection. It may be taken as a certainty that no word of complaint or remonstrance ever reached Reade; and, in fact, she held him in a measure excusable, on grounds which can scarcely be comprehended, much less admitted to tolerant consideration, in this country, although in England they would doubtless be taken into calculation by everybody to whom the question might be submitted. The revenues of his two fellowships, amounting to a trifle more than fifteen hundred dollars, were conditional upon his remaining a bachelor, and rather than surrender this wretched pittance he was willing to place the woman who was like a sister to him in a false position, and to keep her there for the rest of her days. It is certain that at the time he did not realize the situation, nor did he weigh it conscientiously until the opportunity — possibly the vital necessity — for reparation had long gone by. To speak the truth, he did not care to weigh it as he should have done. No reader of his books needs to be told how he would have dealt with such a complication in fiction. In his ideal world manly rectitude could never go hand in hand with blind selfishness. And in actual life his instincts never led him into devious paths, when he gave them a chance to assert themselves. On more than one occasion he radically changed a course which conventionality seemed to dictate, on being reminded that he was guilty of injustice, — to himself morally, and to others materially. Had he been persuaded to give this subject the honest investigation which it demanded, he would have speedily discovered the wrong he was committing. It is not safe to say positively that he would have remedied the wrong; but if he had neglected to do so, he would never have ceased to be one of the unhappiest of men.
Mr. Compton Reade, however, looks upon his uncle’s conduct as a matter of course. “ Had Charles Reade married,” he remarks, in his customary vein of extravagance, “ he would have starved. Two thirds of his life had passed before he could dream of dispensing with what he often termed his prop, namely, his fellowship at Magdalen.” . . . “ Marriage would have deprived him of that small competence he valued so dearly.” . . . " His dependence on the college interposed a barrier between him and the one lady whom in the best days of his manhood he idealized,” etc. The assertion that Reade would have starved for the lack of fifteen hundred dollars a year is too ridiculous for refutation. He had only to abandon a few of his unremunerative theatrical experiments, and devote himself steadily to romancewriting, as Mrs. Seymour urgently advised him, to secure an income more than sufficient for his needs. In any view his action was indefensible, and the attempt to justify or applaud it as a masterly manifestation of worldly wisdom inevitably transforms itself into the severest possible accusation against the object of the mistaken eulogy. In almost everything he has to say concerning this passage of Reade’s history, the biographer is singularly at fault. He insists with great emphasis that nothing in the relations between Gerard and Margaret Brandt, as depicted in The Cloister and the Hearth, was suggested by the novelist’s attitude toward Mrs. Seymour. “ The notion,” he declares, “ would be too preposterous.” It was not too preposterous for Charles Reade to acknowledge as the simple truth, which he did to many, though possibly not to his nephew. Even without direct assurance on the subject, the identity of the circumstances ought to be apparent to any one familiar with events at the Bolton Row residence. Mrs. Seymour was not without suitors, and on more than one occasion she could have made what is commonly called an advantageous marriage. She laid these proposals before her friend, exactly in the spirit and manner of Margaret Brandt, when that brave but tender-hearted creature consulted with Gerard as to her future; and, also like Margaret, she shrank from inflicting the pain and desolation which would have resulted from a separation. Reade thoroughly appreciated her magnanimity, as is shown by his touching portrayal of the scene in the story. His failure to respond to it in the only upright way was the gravest error of his life.
As regards the true basis of their connection, it can do no harm to say a word in support of the single piece of testimony which Mr. Compton Reade presents ; although, if the theme had been properly treated in the Memoir, such support would undoubtedly have been superfluous. It was the fortune of the writer of this paper to reside with Reade and Mrs. Seymour at various times, from 1863 to 1873, often for months together, in each of the houses which they successively occupied, — in Mayfair and at Knightsbridge. There were no mysteries about the establishment. Everything was open and unconcealed, and, as has been remarked, Reade could not have deliberately hidden any circumstance relating to himself if his existence had depended upon it. Had there been an ugly secret to discover, the whole world would have known it. But there was none. They were to one another as if they had been brother and sister, and no man in his senses could have imagined that relations of another sort were possible. For nearly twenty years after Samo’s death they continued to dwell together, bound by mutual confidence, esteem, and affection which steadily increased until the lady’s death. She grew to forget the humiliation she had suffered in the beginning, and forgiveness of injury was as natural to her as the breath she drew. Being an uncommonly thrifty soul, she was, indeed, disposed to acknowledge a degree of validity in the paltry argument that the fellowships should not have been forfeited. Her last years were thoroughly contented and happy, and during her fatal illness Reade’s devotion to her was such as the utmost ardor of youthful attachment could not have surpassed. When he lost her he felt for a time that he had lost all that made life dear to him. His grief was beyond consolation, for his deepest feelings had been concentrated upon her, and there was no one to take her place in his heart. The sentiment with which he held her in memory to the end is shown in the following passage from a letter written not long before his own death. All who read it will understand how he regarded the tie which united him to the friend he loved best:—
“ I do believe that affection without passion is the divinest boon heaven bestows on man in this our terrestrial state : and, indeed, our one foretaste of heaven, if all is true that we learned and believed in infancy. For what is the joy that heaven promises? A thousand affections without one passion.”
It does not seem necessary to refer to the numerous errors of statement into which Mr. Compton Reade’s carelessness has led him, excepting in one or two instances where the novelist’s actions or opinions are flagrantly misrepresented. Readers of the Memoir are repeatedly assured, for example, that he looked upon The Cloister and the Hearth as an inferior piece of work ; that when he was “complimented” upon it his “eye flashed indignation,” — and more of the same sort. As a matter of fact he constantly spoke of it as his best production. Upon its publication, in 1863, he handed the four volumes to a friend, with the remark, “I shall never go beyond this; ” and in 1881, when his writings were brought up before him for judgment, he unhesitatingly gave the precedence to this marvelous combination of industrious research and glowing imagination. Another mistake, not especially injurious but extremely misleading, appears in the assertion that the collaboration with Mr. Boucicault, in Foul Play, “ gratified Charles Reade more thoroughly than any during his lifetime.” In truth it was the direful spring of dissensions which resulted in a prolonged estrangement. But the most unfortunate of all the biographer’s vagaries is his refusal to recognize any foundation for the charge that Reade sometimes availed himself of the inventions of other writers. It is doubly unfortunate, because by forcing attention to the subject he makes it impossible for those who follow him to avoid examining it more truthfully. A single case will illustrate the looseness of his methods. Referring to the novel, White Lies, he says : “ Certain wiseacres discovered that the story was a plagiarism from the French, and then proceeded to slaughter the author on that hypothesis. They were wrong in their premises, if not in their conclusions, but as usual had not the honesty to confess their error.” This extraordinary declaration can be attributed to nothing less than sheer ignorance. It would never have been hazarded if Mr. Compton Reade were acquainted with the contents of The Eighth Commandment. He is evidently unaware, moreover, that White Lies was founded upon a drama by Auguste Maquet, the privilege of reproducing which was purchased by the English author. He alludes to this drama, but with such indifference to its bearing upon the question and such hasty disregard of its identity that he does not even transcribe the title correctly, calling it The English Right of Reproduction, which, of course, is merely a memorandum, explaining what Reade legally acquired from the French play-writer. The entire transaction, with all that grew out of it, is narrated in the clearest conceivable language in a volume which no biographer can be excused for overlooking, however unattractive it may be to the multitude. Nothing can be gained by attempting to deny that in this, as in other instances, Charles Reade did plagiarize. The wonder is that a man of his fastidious integrity on most points could not properly realize the fault of which he was guilty, nor the discredit which he brought upon his literary reputation. He was incapable of looking at such practices with the eyes of the world at large. He made no particular effort to conceal them, and even declared them justifiable on the ground that he paid living authors liberally for what he used of their work, and that what he took from the dead was common property. In fact, he proceeded upon the theory that ideas were to be bought and sold precisely like merchandise. Having given Maquet a specified sum for the “English rights ” of Le Château de Grantier, he considered himself free to turn everything in that piece to account, without acknowledging the origin. He could not, or would not, comprehend that the legal right of property carried with it no moral right to claim authorship, directly or tacitly. Nor could he be convinced that he harmed himself whenever he introduced extracts from old authors into his compositions. The best thing that can be said for him, in explanation, is that as many persons are color-blind, so he lacked perception of certain principles which men of letters generally agree to accept as axioms. It may be remarked, not as affecting the position he assumed, but as a matter of record, that his finest productions — those in which he may fairly be said to stand without a peer in English fiction — are entirely unmixed with material from outside sources. He needed no adventitious aid to prove that he was a master in his vocation ; but in this, as in too many things, he never rightly knew himself.
The question whether the private lives and characters of eminent men shall be exposed to view in the absolute nakedness of truth, or be inspected only through a veil woven by kindly and charitable hands, has been discussed with considerable warmth in late years, without any definite point having been reached upon which the public is willing to agree. But the narrower inquiry suggested by the Memoir of Charles Reade is not likely to provoke controversy. If it be decided that the minutest fragments of an individual’s history must be laid bare, and that no angle or corner shall escape the glare of notoriety, it may at least be demanded that the task be performed with scrupulous and undeviating probity, and that the portraiture be not disfigured by careless or neglectful workmanship, nor distorted in any degree by prejudice or partiality. Strictly judged, a biography drawn upon this line would be equally open to condemnation whether its subject were unduly exalted or unfairly degraded. Under most circumstances, however, the former fault might be condoned, while the latter, even if unwittingly committed, could not pass without severe rebuke. It is certainly not pleasant to say that Mr. Compton Reade has so completely missed his mark as to make it appear a matter of obligation for one of his uncle’s old friends to attempt to ward off, in this country, the evil effect of his production. Nor has it been anything but painful to recall the frailties of a nature which in almost every aspect was gracious and lovable. But in the Memoir the frailties are so inextricably entangled with the virtues, and the least satisfactory incidents of a stormy career are presented with such apparent determination to stamp them with approval, that the impression left upon the general reader cannot be other than harsh and injurious. It is only by frankly avowing Reade’s errors, and setting them in contrast to his brighter and loftier characteristics, that the mischief can now be repaired. To strive to do this faithfully is simply the fulfillment of a duty to his memory. From the foregoing recital it may be estimated to what extent the imperfections which he never disguised, and from which he was always the worst sufferer, are likely to affect his lasting repute. But what is needed for the establishment of his fame on the rightful plane is a new and true history of his life by some member of the literary brotherhood whose eye is capable of discerning the breadth and significance of the theme, whose heart can respond to its appeals, and whose hand can grasp it with force and courage, and impart, as well, the delicacy essential to its just manipulation. A writer like Walter Besant — Reade’s worthiest successor in the class of fiction which aims at the elevation of humanity and the extinction of great social wrongs — working conjointly with Mr. Charles L. Reade, the custodian of the mass of manuscript left by the novelist, might yet produce a memorial the readers of which would not be constrained to ask, " Can such a man have been the author we blindly honored ? ” but would unite in the acknowledgment that only such a man could have added to the treasures of modern romance that series of splendid gifts of which The Cloister and the Hearth is but a single, though doubtless the most brilliant example.
E. H. House.
- In 1864 Auguste Maquet undertook to make arrangements for its representation in Paris, but the modifications which he suggested were not altogether approved by the author, and the project fell through. Reade’s indifference, however, rather than his objection to the proposed changes, was the cause of its abandonment.↩
- Reade’s novels are full of incidents and observations which seem to have been cut out of his own individuality. His instructions with respect to the tombstone were exactly foreshadowed in Love Me Little, Love Me Long, where the inscription for a young lady’s grave is made to defy the truth by a willful and perverse relative, who writes her name as he wishes to see it, not as it really was. “ He drew up the record of her virtues himself, and spelled her ‘ Fontaine,’ and so settled that question by brute force. Oh, you may giggle, but men are not most sincere when they are most reasonable, nor most reasonable when most sincere. When a man’s heart is in a thing it is in it, — wise or nonsensical, it is all one; so it is no use talking.” What is this but a literal presentment of the author’s mind by his own hand ?↩