IN a letter to a friend, twenty years ago, Charles Reade thus responded to a suggestion that he should prepare an autobiography : —
“ I should like nothing better than to contribute to such a work. I have told a great deal about myself, at one time and another, and shall more, for nobody else can get at the root of my feelings or explain my acts. But I foresee many obstacles. I must draw lines which another might disregard. One might do worse than take a hint from Cæsar, and write his own history in the third person. . . . Autobiography opens great opportunities, but if it sets out to be complete the temptation to be dull is overwhelming. I have never run the risk of making myself unreadable, and never will. So the only true and correct life of Reade will probably not appear. . . . What I should like best would be to get a mass of anecdotes about me, written in good faith by -, and -, and -; by everybody, in fact. Smallest favors thankfully welcomed. Then edit them myself. That is one way to get at the truth. I suspect I should learn vastly more about your humble servant than I know now. Anecdotes are genuine photographs of character. Vivid or dim, they can’t help reflecting some features of the original.”
Whatever value there may be in the idea thus hastily thrown out, it is certain that the experiment would not have been successful in Reade’s case. No matter how ample the supply of material, the process of “editing by himself” would have left it meagre and barren. He was not the man to see himself as others saw him, and his sensitiveness was apt to be offended by any view which differed from his own. But it is, nevertheless, gratifying to believe that faithful records of authentic incidents in his life will prolong his memory, and in some degree impart to it his own peculiar personal charm. In England the store of anecdotes is doubtless already abundant, but there may yet be room for a few recollections from a comrade who was in close intimacy with him during several years of the most active part of his career. They must, of course, be accepted with a liberal recognition of the fact that anecdotes do not always illustrate a man’s heroic qualities, and that in many instances, like ripples on the surface of a lake, they afford no positive indications of the depths beneath.
My first interview with the eminent author, in 1863, left upon me an impression of breadth and amplitude which, though in a measure due to accident and artificial circumstances, remained undisturbed throughout the course of a long and unbroken friendship. The house he lived in, No. 6 Bolton Row, was of unusual magnitude, and the room in which he received his guests was of corresponding dimensions. A table which in point of size might have served for billiards was strewn with enormous sheets of tinted paper, upon which he was writing, in a bold and heavy hand, a forthcoming installment of Hard Cash. His portly frame completely filled an exceptionally spacious armchair, and as he rose to give greeting he was easily able to look down upon the visitors, though one of them was above the average stature. His manner, dignified, gracious, and extremely gentle, was in thorough harmony with the largeness of the surroundings, and in the conversation which ensued there was certainly nothing that indicated a narrow side to his character.
The novel upon which he was engaged naturally became the topic of discussion. He was eager to know how the opening chapters had been accepted in America, and gratified to learn that the connection between this work and Love Me Little, Love Me Long had been promptly recognized, and had awakened fresh interest in the earlier tale. “That is my true public,” he exclaimed, enthusiastically. “ Nobody here sees the connection ; how could they ? Love Me Little, Love Me Long is an unknown book in England.” Turning presently to the gentleman who had brought me to him, he added, “ I don’t see how you ever left that country, Boucicault.” At the moment it seemed that these pleasant speeches might be merely complimentary to the stranger, but the evidence of hearty sincerity in every expression of good will toward America was not wanting in after intercourse.
“ And how does my Yankee, Fullalove, stand the test over there ? ” he next asked. “ I suppose your sharp eyes have found him out.” It was a satisfaction to inform him that all Americans regarded that personage with high favor, and were rejoiced to encounter in an English romance a fellow countryman fairly, not to say generously, conceived, instead of the conventional caricature. “ Why, then, we will bring him back again, if he is welcome. To tell you the truth, I have had my doubts. There is no precedent in the books for a real Yankee ; at least, the Yankees I meet are nothing like the Yankees I read about. I have been obliged to build one for myself.” I told him he was much nearer the truth than any of his predecessors, and that everybody in America would be delighted to renew acquaintance with Fullalove. “ Well, we must find a way to have him in again.” He did so, not only in the third volume of Hard Cash, but, later, in other situations.
Literary society in London was just then on the alert for an outbreak of hostilities between Charles Reade and his senior in authorship, the conductor of All the Year Round. The fraternal relations of Dickens and John Forster were well known. The latter was one of the Commissioners in Lunacy, against whom, as a body, Reade was bitterly inveighing in Dickens’s own paper. Dickens made no concealment of his dissent from Reade’s views, and it was understood that a protest of some sort was likely to appear in All the Year Round while the novel was still in progress. The effect of this, it was believed, would be to elicit one of the outbursts of wrath for which Reade was, unfortunately, notorious. The subject happened to be freely debated on the occasion of which I am speaking, and the utter absence of irritability on Reade’s part was so singularly at variance with his reputation in this particular that I took pains to preserve a recollection of his language as well as his demeanor. He remarked, first, that there were few things he would be unwilling to yield at Dickens’s desire. He had consented to a temporary change of title to please him, allowing the word Very to precede those which he had himself fixed upon, — Hard Cash. The elder novelist objected to a title so nearly resembling that of one of his own tales, previously published in the same periodical. Moreover, he thought the extra adverb would give the name a certain piquancy and intensity. Consequently, it was Very Hard Cash in the serial issue, but became Hard Cash again in book form.
But in the more serious matter of the Commissioners in Lunacy, it was impossible for Reade to set aside his own convictions. He could not destroy the purpose of his work. He had, however, especially endeavored to exonerate one member of the board (Forster), and he hoped that would be sufficient to satisfy Dickens. If not, Dickens would probably publish a note, as was expected, disclaiming responsibility for the opinions expressed in the romance. “ That ought to be the end of it. Anybody who thinks I shall pursue the subject, or attempt to retaliate, makes a great mistake. What! quarrel with Dickens, the chief of us all ? Not for any consideration. Besides, it is not conceivable that he would give me cause to be offended.” And so it proved. The card of disavowal eventually appeared, but no belligerent rejoinder followed it. The scandal-lovers, happily, had failed in their reckoning.
If Reade could have had his way, he would always have dwelt in houses of similar proportions to those of the Bolton Row mansion, which so comfortably accommodated itself to his expansive nature. He hated to be cramped, and one of the principal charms of his Oxford quarters was the space at his disposal in Magdalen New College. Private habitations in London are mostly of a pinched and narrow pattern. But No. 6 Bolton Row was much too large for his needs, if not for his inclinations. He removed successively to Curzon Street, to St. George’s Road, and to Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge, and was dissatisfied with every change. His migratory habit would have been inconveniently expensive but for the speculative use to which he turned it. Finding himself burdened with long leases of houses not to his taste, he conceived the idea of altering and refitting them upon novel plans, making them attractive in ways which the original designers never dreamed of, and sub-letting them at a profit. The experiment was so successful that he presently enlarged the sphere of his operations, and rented houses in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, and Belgravia with the express purpose of putting a fresh face upon them, and disposing of them to desirable tenants. In course of time he became so much interested in this business as to undertake with his own hands the more delicate work of decoration, rearranging the upholstery, hanging the pictures anew, and brightening the furniture with lively colors. His operations in one instance were thus described by himself: " As the future occupants are married people, and of some distinction, I embellished the drawing room with new curtains, amber-colored satin and lace, and Land I painted all the frames of pictures and mirrors white and gold. I also covered my favorite chairs with gilding, even to the straw seats, and the effect is superb, I do assure you. I am so pleased with this new method of ornamenting that I believe I should gild the whole front of the house, if I had time. The place looks so pretty that I hate to leave it, small and incommodious as it is. But it would stifle me to stay another quarter.” It was not until he established himself near Hyde Park that he found it possible to satisfy, even partially, his longing for elbow-room. He had employed several devices, such as filling his rooms with gigantic mirrors, and tearing away partitions ; but the first of these remedies lacked reality, and by the second he lost in one place what he gained in another. At Albert Terrace (afterward Albert Gate), however, he had the unusual advantage of a garden, extending from the rear of his residence to the wall of the great park. This open space he might occupy as he chose, and he did, in fact, build an addition to the house which he last occupied in that locality, giving himself a working-room much more extensive than any he had found ready to his hand. Then he was contented, — so well contented that he rarely left his pleasant abode excepting to visit Oxford, or to engage in provincial theatrical enterprises, or to undertake what he was pleased to call “voyages of discovery.”
Upon many of these excursions it was my fortune to accompany him. In the voyages of discovery he did not seek recreation, but material for work. Every few years he would scour the country in pursuit of a literary or dramatic subject, but he seldom found precisely what he wanted. His best themes came from unexpected sources. In 1867, when Griffith Gaunt was finished, and he was free to explore new fields, he summoned me to start with him upon an expedition through North Wales. The region was unknown to him, and he thought it might be fertile in suggestions. Upon arriving at Llangollen, on a gloomy and unpropitious evening, he began to generalize. The provision at supper was scanty. “Meanness of Welsh taverns,” said Reade. Then, addressing a waitress, “ Bring another cake, my dear, unless you think we shall devastate the principality.” The chambermaids at the first inn were not personally alluring. “ Welsh women hideous,” said Reade; and in this particular forecast he was not so far wrong. The next day we walked to Corwen, taking a villager to guide us. Reade endeavored to seduce him into companionable conversation, but his advances met with no response. “ He won’t speak to me because I am an Englishman. Welsh hatred of the Saxon. You try him, H-; tell him where you come from.” But it turned out that the descendant of the Cymri was capable of no dialect but his own. “ What is the good of personal investigation in a country where nobody can answer your questions ? I wish we had n’t come.”
Reade’s tongue was quick at faultfinding, but he did not mean to be taken seriously in all that he said. When we reached Llanberis, at the foot of Mount Snowdon, it did indeed seem for several days that the trip would be a failure. The rain was incessant, and so violent as to keep us from stirring abroad. “ No matter,” he said, cheerfully, “ I will get up my Welsh novel in-doors.” To facilitate this task, he extracted from his portmanteau an immense collection of French dramas, certainly not less than a hundred, which he read diligently as long as the weather held us prisoners. It was his cherished conviction that the Théâtre Contemporain contained a never-ending supply of plots, characters, and incidents ; but, excepting in the conspicuous case of White Lies, and in one or two of his early and unimportant tales, he made no use of what he found there. His theories of composition were often widely contradicted by his practice.
After a fortnight of wandering, generally in the rain, he concluded that modern Wales would not furnish him the inspiration he required; and nothing in the ancient ruins with which the land is crowded appealed to his imagination. “ I have forsworn mediæval subjects,” he declared ; “ The Cloister and the Hearth settled that.” But he found enough to interest him in other ways, for a considerable time. He was passionately fond of simple music, and listened with delight for hours together to the old Welsh lays. Immediately after settling himself in the hotel of each new town he would send for a “ bard.” Bards, it appeared, were always on hire, for the entertainment of travelers æsthetically inclined. There was seldom anything mysterious or legendary in their appearance, though they always wore long beards and brought with them specimens of the old-fashioned harp. Reade was very particular about their artistic rank and title. “ Are you a bard ? ” was his first inquiry. If the harper had not been through the special training which enabled him to assume that designation, he was dismissed without a hearing. But as almost every player in Wales is a bard, few went away disappointed. Reade’s enjoyment of such graceful airs as The Rising of the Lark, and of the more vigorous national songs, of which The Men of Harlech was his favorite example, could not be dulled by any amount of repetition.
For some reason which he never chose to reveal, he was exceedingly desirous to get sight of a specimen of the tall, conical hats formerly worn by the Welsh women, but latterly displaced by a more comfortable, if less picturesque, headgear. Wherever we went, he astonished the women folk by the persistency of his questions on this point. But no one could satisfy him. In Bangor we were told that a few of these relics still existed in Carnarvon; and in Carnarvon we were assured that if we really wanted to see them we must go back to Bangor. Everybody was confident that there were hats preserved in Wales, but nobody could help us to find them. As the search went on, I grew even more excited than my companion, though I never knew the object of his quest, and I doubt if it were anything more than a passing whim. Finally, while I was sauntering alone, one afternoon, through a fair at Aberystwith, I encountered an old peasant woman, wearing the longdesired article. I ran to the hotel for Reade, and dragged him to the spot; but the aged dame had disappeared, like the witches in Macbeth, and we could not trace her, though we ransacked the streets for the rest of the day. “ It is fated that I am not to get anything I want in Wales,” said Reade, not choosing to remember the music that enchanted him. “ Let us go back to London — and civilization. I renounce the hats, and I long for a decent bed.”
At the risk of descending to trivialities, I must mention that with respect to the arrangement of beds he held extreme views. I have heard them called not only extreme, but fanatical. Before going to rest for the first time in any place he visited, he generally gave the chambermaid, or the landlady, a bad quarter of an hour. Among other eccentricities, he insisted upon having the lower as well as the upper part of the mattress bolstered up, so that his feet should be raised nearly as high as his head, while his body sank gently into the valley between. He could not bear to sleep upon anything but feathers, and would rather change his lodgings than reconcile himself to hair or springs. Above all, his sheets must be free from the faintest suspicion of dampness; and if he saw any reason to doubt that they had been thoroughly aired, he would have a fire lighted, no matter how late the hour or what the time of year might be, and wait till the linen had been dried and warmed to his satisfaction. There was never any objection to the alterations he wished for, but he would in most cases try to extort an acknowledgment that all methods of bed-making except his own were vicious, unnatural, and abominable. Here he undertook too much. As a rule, his ideas were controverted with the obstinacy of sacred conviction, and he was left to such satisfaction as he could obtain through the medium of invective.
He brought from Wales no agreeable recollection excepting of the music, which was always afterward dear to him. His taste was primitive, and he would listen to none but the plainest melodies. In these, however, he reveled with a delight which often rose to ecstasy. It was inexpressibly touching to see him sing the old-time songs which he loved best. I speak intentionally of “ seeing ” him sing them, for he had only the ghost of a voice, in which there was no musical quality whatever; and the charm was in the rapt expression of his countenance, which became strangely radiant and beautiful when he abandoned himself to the influence of sweet sounds. There was a look of perfect happiness upon his face when seated at the piano, and accompanying himself in a tender English ballad, or some rustic ditty which reminded him of pleasant days and nights at Ipsden. But he could not go beyond the simplest strains, and the slightest approach to complicated harmonies put him out of humor. He liked to join in an easy bass movement, and at Christmas time, in the chapel of Magdalen College, took part in the hymns with great relish. One year the choir-master prepared a new arrangement of the well-known Adeste Fidelis. Reade took it extremely ill, and, stanza after stanza, persisted in singing the old familiar bass, with all the force of which he was master. This was his way of protesting against the innovation, and it is necessary to have some acquaintance with music, as well as with his personal peculiarities, to understand how ludicrous was the effect of the one discordant voice, contending vainly against the united tones of the choir and the bulk of the congregation.
It was not his habit to admit that there could be two sides to any question in which he was interested, and he would allow no virtue in any music that did not appeal to his own senses. Yet so curiously limited were his perceptions that he could not distinguish between a genuine lyric of the style that pleased him and a caricature of the same. The refrain of one of the concerted pieces in Pinafore, which is nothing more than an imitation of the Rule Britannia order of composition, gave him as much gratification as the original, and was praised by him with equal effusion. His appreciation of paintings was likewise confined to a restricted range. He was fervent in admiration of the artists he approved, and at one time owned many of their pictures, but he had not a word of favor for other works. Poetry, in its ordinary forms, he held in very slight esteem. Rhyme he regarded as a superfluous jingle. He admired Scott, because that author told spirited stories in verse. Tennyson attracted him by his mastery of strong emotion, as revealed, for example, in Dora, which Reade dramatized. He was much struck by Walt Whitman’s description of one of Paul Jones’s naval battles, because of the vigor and boldness of the language ; but he was scarcely less pleased with a highly colored report, in the Times, of a prize-fight between two noted pugilists.
Once, in 1873, it occurred to him to try his own hand at versification. He was at Liverpool, superintending the production of his theatrical adaptation of The Wandering Heir. He had an idea that a “popular ballad,” modeled upon those which are hawked about the streets, and embodying the leading incidents of his play, would serve well as an advertisement, and he set himself to the task of producing one with an earnestness which no person unacquainted with him could have believed to be sincere. For several days it occupied the greater part of his attention, and his delight in the work was like that of a child. “ I never attempted anything of this sort before,” he said, “ but, do you know, I think I have a knack at it. Now listen,” and he would read a dozen or more lines of the most rickety metre and barbarous rhyme that ever were put together. He actually thought it was a capital thing in its way, and was as proud of it, when it was finished and printed, as of the finest chapter he had written. It seems next to incredible that the author of The Cloister and the Hearth should get so fantastic a notion into his mind, but it is a still greater marvel that none of his intimate companions saw anything incongruous in the proceeding. In truth, the ordinary rules of human judgment were not rigorously applied to him. If other men of his stamp had taken to writing doggerel, their friends would have made great fun of it, but no one ever had the heart to ridicule Reade’s harmless diversions.
It was not because he cultivated Horace’s art of “ nil admrrari ” that he looked with indifference upon most poetic productions. One name would always kindle a flame in his soul, and, if intelligently brought forward, could change his customary taciturnity to an eloquence of which few knew him to be capable. Shakespeare was the idol before whom he bowed with reverence and devotion. Every line of the plays and poems had been fixed in his memory since boyhood. He could recite them all, from beginning to end, and I have heard him say that he thus carried about with him a library better than most men had in their studies. It is a pity that he left no complete record of his reflections upon Shakespeare’s life and works. There was no subject to which he gave deeper thought. When in the mood to discourse upon it he put away the reticence and immobility which usually characterized him, and became singularly animated and voluble. I remember, in particular, one night at Leeds, when he was excited by the successful production of his drama Foul Play, and at supper, in Manager Coleman’s house, showed himself ready to take the lead in conversation. He had recently visited Stratford-upon-Avon, and until early morning he held his listeners fascinated by descriptions of that town; not as he had seen it a couple of weeks before, but as it was in Shakespeare’s day, when the poet lived in the New Place, a flourishing citizen, free from all care but that of guarding his industriously earned prosperity. Turning his mind back two and a half centuries, Reade drew the living figures of that period with the same realistic power he had displayed in the portrayal of still earlier characters, in The Cloister and the Hearth. Shakespeare and his companions stood before us. We seemed to hear the testimony of an eye-witness, not the conjectures of a fanciful enthusiast. All that he told, indeed, was based upon thorough and accurate investigation, and the conclusions at which he arrived were supported by facts that helped to make them convincing. He carried us with him through many dark passages of Shakespeare’s progress, explaining much that is commonly set aside as difficult of comprehension, and throwing the light of his brilliant imagination upon various obscure problems of the poet’s career. We felt that we had no choice but to refuse to listen or to accept the picture he gave us, — and no one dreamed of refusing to listen. When we left him, there was little question in the mind of any auditor as to the literal truthfulness of every word he had spoken; and I believe that, with respect to all important details, the impression remains undimmed to this day.
Strictly speaking, it was not the poet, but the author of great plays, whom Reade honored in his pilgrimage to Stratford. The drama and its proper home, the theatre, were always foremost in his thoughts. Yet he never attained a perfect mastery of the dramatic art, and of the theatre, in every practical sense, he was as ignorant as an infant. Whenever he undertook management on his own account, he lost money, or at best merely cleared himself. When his most successful pieces were produced under the management of others, he received only a fraction of what was his due, not knowing how to protect himself against the rapacity of those with whom he dealt. I find, by a letter written in 1865, that the receipts of It Is Never Too Late To Mend, at the Princess’s Theatre, were larger than those of any other play brought out by Mr. George Vining up to that date, — exceeding even those of Arrah-na-Pogue. Reade contented himself, however, with one fourth of the net profits. As a general rule, though his terms of agreement may have entitled him to one fourth, or sometimes one third, of the profits, he received nothing approaching that proportion. He made no preparation against the manifold trickeries practiced by the majority of managers. If he took a theatre himself, he was like a lamb among jackals. But his passion for the stage was such that he would rather be fleeced out of the last farthing than abandon it. In bargaining with publishers he was sharp and shrewd, but in theatrical speculations he was at anybody’s mercy. He often allowed artistic feeling to stand in the way of his pecuniary interest. I have known him to withhold a play from a house in which success was morally certain, and give it to another, far less prosperous, in which he was sure of nothing but a faithful and sympathetic interpretation. In all theatrical enterprises he looked first to the stage itself for his reward. After that, his satisfaction was in the applause of the audience, and the financial results were considered last of all.
His dramatic experiences with Foul Play were peculiar. Mr. Compton Reade, in the biography of his uncle, entirely misrepresents the history of the novel thus designated, the origin and virtually the authorship of which he attributes to Mr. Dion Boucicault. The work was, in fact, laid out by Reade and Boucicault, with the understanding that the former should take charge of the story, while the latter should prepare the theatrical adaptation. Each party to the transaction being eminent in his own field, a double success was confidently hoped for. This natural expectation, however, was destroyed at an early stage of the serial publication in Once A Week. A misunderstanding arose, the grounds of which it is not necessary to specify, and the two authors separated, not to meet again until the results of their labors had been temporarily forgotten. Mr. Compton Reade, nevertheless, says that “ this collaboration gratified Charles Reade more thoroughly than any during his lifetime.” It was, in truth, one of the most unhappy episodes in his career. Mr. Boucicault’s criticisms, communicated by letter while the romance was in progress, caused his partner an amount of suffering which the approval of the public could not at the time alleviate. The intimation that the popular actor was largely concerned in the composition of the book is disposed of by the circumstance that the publishers distinctly declined to receive matter from him. They notified Reade that although they consented to the announcement of joint authorship, they looked exclusively to him for the narrative which was to appear in their periodical. Thus it turned out that the only remunerative part of the enterprise was that for which the novelist was responsible. Mr. Boucicault manifested so little interest in the business as to lead Reade to doubt whether he intended to carry through the principal task allotted to him. The doubt was not justified by the event, although the position of affairs was such that Reade thought it necessary to prepare a dramatization by himself alone. This piece was brought out at Leeds, and was received with great favor. It was defective in construction, like most of the writer’s theatrical work, but was so full of stirring incidents and striking situations as to create an unusual sensation in the Yorkshire capital. In London it would probably have rivaled the success of It Is Never Too Late To Mend, but in Leeds it had a short life, and if it drew any money the share delivered to Reade was infinitesimal.
Mr. Boucicault produced his version at a later date, in the metropolis. It is not to be supposed that a man who lives by the stage would hazard his reputation by deliberately presenting an inferior play, but it is quite possible that he was injuriously influenced, perhaps unconsciously to himself, and that his accustomed dexterity was blunted by the unfortunate complications of the case. Whatever may have been the cause, the drama was one of the weakest and dullest of the long collection to which his name is attached. “ Foul Play, a Drama by Dion Boucicault and Charles Reade ” was not to be compared to “ Foul Play, a Drama by Charles Reade and Dion Boucicault,” in spirit, vigor, or popular effectiveness. Under ordinary conditions, the opposite result should have been expected. Nobody knew better than Reade that his collaborator far excelled him in all the arts of theatrical manipulation.
Respecting another and more recent drama in which Reade was concerned as co-author, his ill-informed biographer is again at fault. Referring to Love and Money, performed at the Adelphi in 1882, Mr. Compton Reade states that “ whatever credit belongs to the play must be set down to the score of Mr. Pettit.” The following extract from a letter written in November of the same year will serve to correct this error : —
44 Messrs. Gatti and Warner (who virtually manages the Adelphi) took it into their heads that a piece by Henry Pettit and Charles Reade would combine melodrama and common sense, and fill the house. So Warner called on me three times to persuade me to this collaboration. I raised various objections, but at last succumbed. I agreed to sit on a very small egg provided by Pettit. It was a very bare outline, but Warner thought it a good nucleus. I went to work and wrote half the play. Pettit, distracted by rehearsals, had to be driven out of London to work. What he did produce, however, was melodramatic and good, — all but his last scene, which would have killed the play. We thinned everywhere, and altered each other’s work, and made a tolerable play, with a powerful part for Warner,” etc.
This piece, the last dramatic composition in which Reade was concerned, was 44 voted a great success by the journals,” and was eagerly sought for by speculators in various parts of the world. The American purchasers paid ten thousand dollars for it before it was produced in London. But as it too frequently happened, his lack of practical theatrical knowledge and his reluctance to busy himself with the minutiæ of management made him in the end a loser by the transaction. In spite of occasional and fitful gleams of fortune, the theatre and its associations were destined to bring him disappointment, not to say disaster, to the very close of his life.
Perhaps he would have said that the pleasure he derived from even his adverse experiences was ample compensation for all his losses. Certainly he was never so well contented as when mixed up in the bustle and turmoil of theatrical adventure. The solid dignity and honor which he enjoyed at Oxford had less attraction for him than the glitter and sparkle of the footlights. So slight a matter as the reading of a play to actors or managers was for him an occasion of festivity. He would get together the parties concerned, always including a pretty actress or two, possibly three or four, — the more the merrier, — and drive them to Richmond, or Greenwich, or some other attractive suburban resort, where an excellent dinner generally preceded the business of the day. He was not a good reader. His voice was too thin and he had little rhetorical grace, but his intelligence and earnestness made up for many deficiencies. The effect he produced was generally to to be measured by the understanding of his hearers. Clever men and women appreciated the value of his dialogue, and enjoyed it. On the other hand, I have seen a buxom burlesque actress — a manager’s daughter, who was seized with the fancy to appear in domestic drama, and who imagined she could shine in Rachel the Reaper — ogle herself in the glass, and survey with joyous abandon the image of her plenteous shape, while he was reciting, with true and tender feeling, one of his most pathetic scenes. 44 My dear,” said the offended author, 44 be kind enough to remember that you must exploit your brains, and not your body, in my play.” Needless to add that the part was not found suitable to the young woman’s requirements.
At rehearsals he was so much in the way as frequently to imperil the effect of his strongest situations. His ideas were always good, sometimes admirable, but he was totally incapable of putting them into form or communicating them to others. What Mr. Compton Reade says about “ his rare ability as a stage manager ” is sheer nonsense. When The Double Marriage was in preparation at the Queen’s Theatre, he became quite exasperated, one morning, because of his inability to arrange certain groups as he desired. Mrs. Wigan, the wife of the manager, a very stately person, whose authority was well understood to be supreme in the establishment, and who seldom permitted herself to be interested in the business of the stage, stepped forward, with an air of gracious condescension, to assist in unraveling the confusion. Her intention was excellent, and her coöperation would have been valuable, but Reade was not at all inclined to accept it. “ Madam,” he said, “ I beg you not to interfere with my actresses. If you do, I shall direct the prompter to request you to retire.” The company stood aghast, and no public performance in that house ever equaled the wonderful pantomime of Mrs. Wigan’s indignant withdrawal.
Actors were warmly welcomed at his home, and especially American actors, — partly because they were more familiar with his plays than their English brethren. Several of his minor pieces, which seldom lasted beyond a single season in his own country, have kept a place in the regular repertory of our theatres, and no one who had taken part in any of these needed to wait for an invitation from him. But his acquaintance with representatives of our stage dated back much farther than the time of his entrance into public life. He knew Charlotte Cushman and Forrest, and for the latter he retained a good deal of admiration, chiefly on account of the stalwart tragedian’s ingenuity in inventing suggestive “ business ” and byplay. Reade insisted that Macready, who affected to see nothing but what was contemptible in the boisterous competitor for popular favor, studied Forrest closely, and actually adopted many of his strong effects. This was especially noticeable, Reade declared, after the English actor had witnessed the American’s performance of Macbeth. To mention a single example, Forrest was the first, so far as Reade knew, to cover his face and avert his head when rushing upon the ghost of Banquo ; and the point was at once seized and always made use of by Macready. When Edwin Booth called at Albert Gate, in 1881, Reade took great pleasure in recalling his visitor’s father, whom he had seen in the days of ambitious rivalry between the elder Booth and Edmund Kean. Reade was too infirm to attend many of Edwin’s performances at the Princess’s Theatre, but he bore earnest testimony to the merit of what he did witness. His praises showed, in some particulars, a curious minuteness of observation. “ See Booth in Lear,” he remarked to certain friends, “ and be sure you call him before the curtain ; if you don’t, you will lose a fine sensation. There is nothing like his advance and retirement for dignity, and his salutation has the majesty of the old king in person.”
Reade’s desire that the title of “journalist ” should appear in the epitaph upon his tombstone was a surprise to many, but not to those who knew how often he had seriously contemplated engaging in newspaper work. It is not forgotten that he wrote upon various topics, in his later years, for the Pall Mall Gazette and other journals, but the fact that he more than once proposed establishing a daily or weekly of his own has escaped general notice. There are still remaining, I presume, some attachés of the Telegraph who can recall the negotiations which promised, at one time, to enlist him on the staff of that paper. It was in 1863, when the Telegraph had just started upon a career of independent energy which seemed destined to realize Reade’s conception of what modern journalism ought to be. A trifling circumstance made me acquainted with his willingness to put himself upon terms of more direct communication with the reading public than was possible in his capacity of novelist. He had witnessed the memorable prize-fight of Heenan and King, in company with Nicholas Woods, of the Times, and myself, and, on his return to London, had left us at my lodgings, where Woods was to prepare his description of the combat. But the fatigue of the journey and the numerous excitements of the day had completely exhausted the clever Irish reporter. After writing perhaps a column and a half, he declared himself totally unable to continue, and called upon me to finish the task. Perceiving that he was really prostrated, I proposed to send for Reade, who lived close at hand, and ask his coöperation. To this, however, Woods did not consent. He was ready to receive assistance from an old associate, but not from a comparative stranger.
When Reade heard of this, he said that he had not much inclination for reporting, but would have been pleased to write a leader upon the subject, and would not object to the opportunity of speaking his mind, in a daily paper, upon various matters in which he felt an interest. I repeated his statement to Mr. J. Prowse, who then supplied the Telegraph’s “ social ” leaders, and the result was that Mr. Thornton Hunt visited Reade on behalf of the proprietors, with a view to securing him as a regular contributor. But the arrangement was not carried out, principally because of Reade’s persistence in demanding a privilege which could not properly be conceded. He had been much irritated, not long before, by the alterations that Mr. Lucas, the editor of Once a Week, had made in the manuscript of A Good Fight; which novel Reade had brought to an abrupt close, rather than allow it to be disfigured by mutilations. Failing, or not choosing, to recognize the difference between a work of fiction published under his name and a series of anonymous articles for which the newspaper, and not himself, must be responsible, he stipulated that his “ copy ” for the Telegraph should be subject to no change or modification. He was assured that the editor’s rights would be exercised with discretion, and that there would probably be no occasion for ever varying a line of his matter ; and every effort was made to reconcile his susceptibilities with the necessity of submission, in a daily paper, to one central authority. He refused to be convinced, and a leader which he had prepared, and which had been put in type, was sent back to him, with expressions of more than formal regret. There was reason for regret. The article dealt with a subject which Reade was treating at the same time, under the guise of a serial romance, in All the Year Round ; namely, the abuses of lunatic asylums. It was in his best style, and the Telegraph could ill afford to lose it, and with it the prospect of publishing a succession of essays which would have been a striking feature in current journalism. But the point of dissension was one that could not be yielded, as Reade subsequently acknowledged. He never again came so near to direct connection with an established journal, although in 1881 the proprietors of a “ society ” weekly offered him something like six thousand dollars a year for nothing more than the bare use of his name as conductor.
I am aware that I have thus far recorded little in support of my early statement that the impression of breadth and loftiness produced by the first meeting with Reade was never obliterated ; and I fear that the evidence could not be given satisfactorily in any reminiscences of the kind that the public cares to read. The finer attributes of a man seldom reveal themselves in actions which can be lightly or briefly narrated. It is undoubtedly possible to explain how I know that Reade was rarely endowed with intense humanity, just principle, and generous magnanimity, but not very easy to illustrate those qualities by relating detached incidents. The details which make up a mass are not always imposing when inspected separately. My judgment is founded upon a long and continuous, but not necessarily eventful, experience. Yet I will endeavor to recall one or two instances of his readiness to set aside prejudices, both instinctive and cultivated, in obedience to his sense of justice or his impulses of sympathy and compassion.
He was accustomed to look at society through conventional glasses, and his careless indifference frequently made him appear illiberal and harsh. He accepted, rather than formed, a poor estimate of “ the lower orders,” whom he spoke of, comprehensively, as “ a bad lot.” This was entirely a matter of habit. A little reflection would sometimes cause him to change his attitude with amusing rapidity. He had adopted, without consideration, the English theory that servants are the natural enemies of their employers, and was content to keep them at the distance prescribed by common usage. On one occasion he was informed by his associate in housekeeping, Mrs. Seymour, a third party being present, that a maid had been detected in a grievous fault.
“ She reads, Charles ! ” said that lady, with the air of one who brings tidings of dire import.
“ That ’s a bad job,” answered Reade, perfunctorily, as if replying to a remark about the weather.
At first, the observation and the response conveyed no clear meaning to the American listener, but it was presently explained that the girl had been found, after her appointed bedtime, reading by candle-light a copy of It Is Never Too Late To Mend. Incredible as it may seem to persons unfamiliar with the insular idea of a servant’s duties, this was regarded as a grave misdemeanor. Nothing commendable was seen in the housemaid’s intelligence and ambition, nor in her willingness to give up an hour or more of her nightly rest to make herself acquainted with one of her master’s books. Mrs. Seymour was as kind-hearted a creature as ever lived, and would have grudged neither money nor toil to befriend a fellow-being ; but she was an Englishwoman, and could not be brought to acknowledge that this girl was honest. It was true that she read at a time when her work for the day was ended, and that the candle which she used was her own; but she deprived herself of some of the rest which was needed to enable her to start fairly upon her morning tasks, and her untrustworthiness was proved by her secret indulgence in a practice not befitting her station.
A somewhat lively discussion followed, in which Reade took no part, further than to say, when appealed to for confirmation or denial of sundry propositions, “ I think Seymour gives you the general opinion,” or, “ I believe that is our way of looking at it.” He sat and listened, biting his nails industriously, as was his habit when contemplating a trite subject from a new point of view. A day or two later he brought from his study a package of manuscript, which he threw down with the remark, “ There, perhaps that will suit your republican highness.” It was an elaborate argument on behalf of domestic servants, defining their position, defending their rights and privileges, and charitably extenuating their follies and weaknesses. Portions of this document were afterward introduced into his novel, A Simpleton. As for the aspiring housemaid, she underwent some sort of examination, and, being found capable of better things than kitchen drudgery, was suddenly translated, by her employer’s influence, to the position of an assistant nurse in a hospital, with the suggestion that she might be occupied, at odd times, in reading novels to the patients.
There was one class of humble public servants, as unpopular in London as elsewhere, for whom Reade had no toleration. These were the cab-drivers. He abominated them collectively, and he never took a long ride without detesting individually the man who drove him. Many a time he stopped his fourwheeler — he would not use a hansom if he could help it — in the middle of a course, and engaged another, for no reason but that the appearance of “ that beggar on the box ” had become offensive to him. One night I accompanied him to a dinner party in Half Moon Street. It rained violently, and the curbstone was slippery with mud. As our cab-driver opened the door of the vehicle, he missed his footing, and fell heavily between the wheels. “ Drunk,” said Reade, sententiously; but when he saw the man’s face he sprang out, and lifted him to a sitting position on the sidewalk. “ Are you hurt, my poor fellow ? ” he inquired ; but his poor fellow could only gasp for breath. Reade called a servant from the house we were about to enter, and asked her to bring a glass of spirits, — that being his notion of a panacea for all the woes of the populace. The woman hesitated, and seemed to think it was not quite in her line. There are gradations of caste in England, down to the bottom of the social ladder. Then Reade managed to get the injured man partly into the cab, with his feet resting upon the sidewalk, and after satisfying himself that the position was safe, and that the horse would not stir, ran to a bar-room on the corner of the street, ordered a shilling’s worth of brandy, hot, — a quantity sufficient to make any cabman delirious, — and carried it back to his protégé, whom he did not leave until the latter was able to mount his seat and move slowly away. That was the only time I ever knew Reade to conquer one of his most cherished antipathies so far as to go into a drink-shop. He told the driver to report, next day, at Albert Terrace. The driver did so, and I suppose I am bound to add that Reade would not see him. He was equal to any sudden demand upon his good feeling, but he could not face a cabman in cold blood. So he sent out a consolatory coin, and the four-wheeler went on its way rejoicing.
In the autumn of 1869, Reade was about to gather an unusually large number of friends and acquaintances, to celebrate an event of interest in literary and theatrical circles. Among the proposed guests was one, an editor of standing and influence, whose presence was undoubtedly desirable, but whom he had been extremely reluctant to invite. This individual’s son, a juvenile and immature journalist, had written, not long before, an anonymous satirical attack upon the sensitive author, wantonly abusive, and sufficiently pungent to give him great annoyance. Reade had positive information of this fact, but it was understood that the father knew nothing about it, — otherwise he would not have been included in the party. A few days previous to the entertainment, Reade was disturbed and angered by the receipt of a note from the editor, requesting as a special favor that an invitation be extended to the offending son. This seemed to call for decisive action. Arming himself with the evidence of what the young writer had done, Reade hastened to the father’s office, intending to unburden his mind freely, and quite prepared to revoke the invitation already given, even at the cost of incurring the hostility of an important newspaper. But before he could collect himself for the onset, the editor began explaining that he was conscious of having trespassed to an extent which nothing could wholly justify, but for which the peculiar circumstances might furnish a partial excuse. The son was on the point of embarking in an enterprise the fortune of which largely depended upon the good will of such men as Reade was about to bring together. If he could meet them once, the benefit would be unspeakable. With considerable feeling, the father pledged his word that he would not have asked this privilege if he did not know his son to be thoroughly worthy of it. The youth was the soul of courtesy, delicacy, honor, — all that a fond father could wish. No one who was acquainted with his merits would think that the liberty which had been taken was altogether unpardonable. This, and much more, was poured into the ears of the man who had in his pocket the proof of what he, at any rate, regarded as a gross and flagrant personal outrage, committed by the object of the paternal eulogy.
In the midst of the exhortation, the son came unexpectedly upon the scene. He showed embarrassment and agitation, but the father saw nothing amiss, and was delighted at the opportunity of presenting his paragon to the distinguished author. The sincerity and proud confidence of the elder journalist were too much for Reade, and the hostile purpose of his call was straightway forgotten. He could not shatter so happy an illusion. Lifting his hands and dropping them upon his knees, — a gesture which with him meant unconditional surrender, — he turned to the young man, spoke of what he had just heard concerning the projected enterprise, and told him that the best foundation for success was a resolution to deal fairly and uprightly with all men, to avoid the mean tricks of his profession, and to “ stick fast to the golden rule as a guide for life.” “ Do no writing with a dirty pen, my young friend,” he added. The father looked puzzled, but was relieved when Reade concluded by saying that the son would be welcome at the coming dinner. “ You will meet some gentlemen worth knowing, — some gentlemen of very high character. I will put you near them. A young man starting in your course cannot do better than to take them as models.” Again the editor opened his eyes, for Reade was not addicted to preaching, and this style of address was far away from his ordinary line. But the satisfaction of having obtained his desire blinded the father to the singularity of the conversation.
By the next morning’s mail a letter came to Reade from the young writer, frankly avowing his act, and stating that he did not feel warranted in accepting an invitation which he was sure would not have been offered if the truth had been known. He had been guilty of great folly and impertinence, but he would not add to the offense by imposing upon the kindness of a gentleman whom he had injured. He expressed a hope that his father might be kept in ignorance of his misdeed ; not that he wished to escape the consequences to himself, but because the exposure would give grief and pain to an innocent person, who was one of the novelist’s warmest admirers. Reade answered immediately, saying that all the facts had been for some time in his possession, as would appear from a document which he inclosed, and which he trusted would be destroyed, since its existence could now serve no good purpose ; that the invitation could not be canceled, and that he should be disappointed if it were disregarded. The young man presented himself at the designated time, in a state of mind which indicated a disposition to put his head under Reade’s foot, if that were required of him ; and from that day he was one of the author’s most devoted adherents and disciples.
I might recount an almost endless series of occurrences in which Reade was similarly concerned, and every aspect in which I think of him is brightened with the memory of his kindliness and generosity. A gracious charity shone through all the serious actions of his life. His hospitality was boundless, and his sympathy with suffering was as quick and tender as his hatred of injustice was fiery and uncontrollable. The armor of eccentricity in which he encased himself was easily penetrated, and a tale of sorrow or distress always found the way to his heart. If I give no further illustrations of his gentler traits, it is because they would soon begin to appear like repetitions of almost identical examples. My desire in offering these desultory anecdotes has been to represent him in the familiar and informal guise which, to my recollection, most naturally belongs to him. This could not be done without allowing his quaint and peculiar characteristics to appear more freely than if I were endeavoring to erect a memorial of massive and unreal proportions ; but there was little in his life that called for concealment, and I have no fear of evil results from the harmless disclosures which I have made. No one can possibly understand them to imply a lack of affection for the friend, or of respect for the man of letters.
E. H. House.