Charles Reade And Laura Seymour
The instances of distinguished men, or of notable women, who have
broken through convention in order to find a fitting mate, are
very numerous. A few of these instances may, perhaps, represent
what is usually called a Platonic union. But the evidence is
always doubtful. The world is not possessed of abundant charity,
nor does human experience lead one to believe that intimate
relations between a man and a woman are compatible with Platonic
Perhaps no case is more puzzling than that which is found in the
life-history of Charles Reade and Laura Seymour.
Charles Reade belongs to that brilliant group of English writers
and artists which included Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins,
Tom Taylor, George Eliot, Swinburne, Sir Walter Besant, Maclise,
and Goldwin Smith. In my opinion, he ranks next to Dickens in
originality and power. His books are little read to-day; yet he
gave to the English stage the comedy "Masks and Faces," which is
now as much a classic as Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer" or
Sheridan's "School for Scandal." His power as a novelist was
marvelous. Who can forget the madhouse episodes in Hard Cash, or
the great trial scene in Griffith Gaunt, or that wonderful
picture, in The Cloister and the Hearth, of Germany and Rome at
the end of the Middle Ages? Here genius has touched the dead past
and made it glow again with an intense reality.
He was the son of a country gentleman, the lord of a manor which
had been held by his family before the Wars of the Boses. His
ancestors had been noted for their services in warfare, in
Parliament, and upon the bench. Reade, therefore, was in feeling
very much of an aristocrat. Sometimes he pushed his ancestral
pride to a whimsical excess, very much as did his own creation,
Squire Raby, in Put Yourself in His Place.
At the same time he might very well have been called a Tory
democrat. His grandfather had married the daughter of a village
blacksmith, and Reade was quite as proud of this as he was of the
fact that another ancestor had been lord chief justice of England.
From the sturdy strain which came to him from the blacksmith he,
perhaps, derived that sledge-hammer power with which he wrote many
of his most famous chapters, and which he used in newspaper
controversies with his critics. From his legal ancestors there may
have come to him the love of litigation, which kept him often in
hot water. From those who had figured in the life of royal courts,
he inherited a romantic nature, a love of art, and a very delicate
perception of the niceties of cultivated usage. Such was Charles
Reade--keen observer, scholar, Bohemian--a man who could be both
rough and tender, and whose boisterous ways never concealed his
Reade's school-days were Spartan in their severity. A teacher with
the appropriate name of Slatter set him hard tasks and caned him
unmercifully for every shortcoming. A weaker nature would have
been crushed. Reade's was toughened, and he learned to resist pain
and to resent wrong, so that hatred of injustice has been called
his dominating trait.
In preparing himself for college he was singularly fortunate in
his tutors. One of them was Samuel Wilberforce, afterward Bishop
of Oxford, nicknamed, from his suavity of manner, "Soapy Sam"; and
afterward, when Reade was studying law, his instructor was Samuel
Warren, the author of that once famous novel, Ten Thousand a Year,
and the creator of "Tittlebat Titmouse."
For his college at Oxford, Reade selected one of the most
beautiful and ancient--Magdalen--which he entered, securing what
is known as a demyship. Reade won his demyship by an extraordinary
accident. Always an original youth, his reading was varied and
valuable; but in his studies he had never tried to be minutely
accurate in small matters. At that time every candidate was
supposed to be able to repeat, by heart, the "Thirty-Nine
Articles." Reade had no taste for memorizing; and out of the whole
thirty-nine he had learned but three. His general examination was
good, though not brilliant. When he came to be questioned orally,
the examiner, by a chance that would not occur once in a million
times, asked the candidate to repeat these very articles. Reade
rattled them off with the greatest glibness, and produced so
favorable an impression that he was let go without any further
It must be added that his English essay was original, and this
also helped him; but had it not been for the other great piece of
luck he would, in Oxford phrase, have been "completely gulfed." As
it was, however, he was placed as highly as the young men who were
afterward known as Cardinal Newman and Sir Robert Lowe (Lord
At the age of twenty-one, Reade obtained a fellowship, which
entitled him to an income so long as he remained unmarried. It is
necessary to consider the significance of this when we look at his
subsequent career. The fellowship at Magdalen was worth, at the
outset, about twelve hundred dollars annually, and it gave him
possession of a suite of rooms free of any charge. He likewise
secured a Vinerian fellowship in law, to which was attached an
income of four hundred dollars. As time went on, the value of the
first fellowship increased until it was worth twenty-five hundred
dollars. Therefore, as with many Oxford men of his time, Charles
Reade, who had no other fortune, was placed in this position--if he
refrained from marrying, he had a home and a moderate income for
life, without any duties whatsoever. If he married, he must give
up his income and his comfortable apartments, and go out into the
world and struggle for existence.
There was the further temptation that the possession of his
fellowship did not even necessitate his living at Oxford. He might
spend his time in London, or even outside of England, knowing that
his chambers at Magdalen were kept in order for him, as a resting-
place to which he might return whenever he chose.
Reade remained a while at Oxford, studying books and men--
especially the latter. He was a great favorite with the
undergraduates, though less so with the dons. He loved the boat-
races on the river; he was a prodigious cricket-player, and one of
the best bowlers of his time. He utterly refused to put on any of
the academic dignity which his associates affected. He wore loud
clothes. His flaring scarfs were viewed as being almost
scandalous, very much as Longfellow's parti-colored waistcoats
were regarded when he first came to Harvard as a professor.
Charles Reade pushed originality to eccentricity. He had a passion
for violins, and ran himself into debt because he bought so many
and such good ones. Once, when visiting his father's house at
Ipsden, he shocked the punctilious old gentleman by dancing on the
dining-table to the accompaniment of a fiddle, which he scraped
delightedly. Dancing, indeed, was another of his diversions, and,
in spite of the fact that he was a fellow of Magdalen and a D.C.L.
of Oxford, he was always ready to caper and to display the new
In the course of time, he went up to London; and at once plunged
into the seething tide of the metropolis. He made friends far and
wide, and in every class and station--among authors and
politicians, bishops and bargees, artists and musicians. Charles
Reade learned much from all of them, and all of them were fond of
But it was the theater that interested him most. Nothing else
seemed to him quite so fine as to be a successful writer for the
stage. He viewed the drama with all the reverence of an ancient
Greek. On his tombstone he caused himself to be described as
"Dramatist, novelist, journalist."
"Dramatist" he put first of all, even after long experience had
shown him that his greatest power lay in writing novels. But in
this early period he still hoped for fame upon the stage.
It was not a fortunate moment for dramatic writers. Plays were
bought outright by the managers, who were afraid to risk any
considerable sum, and were very shy about risking anything at all.
The system had not yet been established according to which an
author receives a share of the money taken at the box-office.
Consequently, Reade had little or no financial success. He adapted
several pieces from the French, for which he was paid a few bank-
notes. "Masks and Faces" got a hearing, and drew large audiences,
but Reade had sold it for a paltry sum; and he shared the honors
of its authorship with Tom Taylor, who was then much better known.
Such was the situation. Reade was personally liked, but his plays
were almost all rejected. He lived somewhat extravagantly and ran
into debt, though not very deeply. He had a play entitled
"Christie Johnstone," which he believed to be a great one, though
no manager would venture to produce it. Reade, brooding, grew thin
and melancholy. Finally, he decided that he would go to a leading
actress at one of the principal theaters and try to interest her
in his rejected play. The actress he had in mind was Laura
Seymour, then appearing at the Haymarket under the management of
Buckstone; and this visit proved to be the turning-point in
Reade's whole life.
Laura Seymour was the daughter of a surgeon at Bath--a man in
large practise and with a good income, every penny of which he
spent. His family lived in lavish style; but one morning, after he
had sat up all night playing cards, his little daughter found him
in the dining-room, stone dead. After his funeral it appeared that
he had left no provision for his family. A friend of his--a Jewish
gentleman of Portuguese extraction--showed much kindness to the
children, settling their affairs and leaving them with some money
in the bank; but, of course, something must be done.
The two daughters removed to London, and at a very early age Laura
had made for herself a place in the dramatic world, taking small
parts at first, but rising so rapidly that in her fifteenth year
she was cast for the part of Juliet. As an actress she led a life
of strange vicissitudes. At one time she would be pinched by
poverty, and at another time she would be well supplied with
money, which slipped through her fingers like water. She was a
true Bohemian, a happy-go-lucky type of the actors of her time.
From all accounts, she was never very beautiful; but she had an
instinct for strange, yet effective, costumes, which attracted
much attention. She has been described as "a fluttering, buoyant,
gorgeous little butterfly." Many were drawn to her. She was
careless of what she did, and her name was not untouched with
scandal. But she lived through it all, and emerged a clever,
sympathetic woman of wide experience, both on the stage and off
One of her admirers--an elderly gentleman named Seymour--came to
her one day when she was in much need of money, and told her that
he had just deposited a thousand pounds to her credit at the bank.
Having said this, he left the room precipitately. It was the
beginning of a sort of courtship; and after a while she married
him. Her feeling toward him was one of gratitude. There was no
sentiment about it; but she made him a good wife, and gave no
further cause for gossip.
Such was the woman whom Charles Reade now approached with the
request that she would let him read to her a portion of his play.
He had seen her act, and he honestly believed her to be a dramatic
genius of the first order. Few others shared this belief; but she
was generally thought of as a competent, though by no means
brilliant, actress. Reade admired her extremely, so that at the
very thought of speaking with her his emotions almost choked him.
In answer to a note, she sent word that he might call at her
house. He was at this time (1849) in his thirty-eighth year. The
lady was a little older, and had lost something of her youthful
charm; yet, when Reade was ushered into her drawing-room, she
seemed to him the most graceful and accomplished woman whom he had
She took his measure, or she thought she took it, at a glance.
Here was one of those would-be playwrights who live only to
torment managers and actresses. His face was thin, from which she
inferred that he was probably half starved. His bashfulness led
her to suppose that he was an inexperienced youth. Little did she
imagine that he was the son of a landed proprietor, a fellow of
one of Oxford's noblest colleges, and one with friends far higher
in the world than herself. Though she thought so little of him,
and quite expected to be bored, she settled herself in a soft
armchair to listen. The unsuccessful playwright read to her a
scene or two from his still unfinished drama. She heard him
patiently, noting the cultivated accent of his voice, which proved
to her that he was at least a gentleman. When he had finished, she
"Yes, that's good! The plot is excellent." Then she laughed a sort
of stage laugh, and remarked lightly: "Why don't you turn it into
Reade was stung to the quick. Nothing that she could have said
would have hurt him more. Novels he despised; and here was this
woman, the queen of the English stage, as he regarded her,
laughing at his drama and telling him to make a novel of it. He
rose and bowed.
"I am trespassing on your time," he said; and, after barely
touching the fingers of her outstretched hand, he left the room
The woman knew men very well, though she scarcely knew Charles
Reade. Something in his melancholy and something in his manner
stirred her heart. It was not a heart that responded to emotions
readily, but it was a very good-natured heart. Her explanation of
Reade's appearance led her to think that he was very poor. If she
had not much tact, she had an abundant store of sympathy; and so
she sat down and wrote a very blundering but kindly letter, in
which she enclosed a five-pound note.
Reade subsequently described his feelings on receiving this letter
with its bank-note. He said:
"I, who had been vice-president of Magdalen--I, who flattered
myself I was coming to the fore as a dramatist--to have a five-
pound note flung at my head, like a ticket for soup to a pauper,
or a bone to a dog, and by an actress, too! Yet she said my
reading was admirable; and, after all, there is much virtue in a
five-pound note. Anyhow, it showed the writer had a good heart."
The more he thought of her and of the incident, the more comforted
he was. He called on her the next day without making an
appointment; and when she received him, he had the five-pound note
fluttering in his hand.
She started to speak, but he interrupted her.
"No," he said, "that is not what I wanted from you. I wanted
sympathy, and you have unintentionally supplied it."
Then this man, whom she had regarded as half starved, presented
her with an enormous bunch of hothouse grapes, and the two sat
down and ate them together, thus beginning a friendship which
ended only with Laura Seymour's death.
Oddly enough, Mrs. Seymour's suggestion that Reade should make a
story of his play was a suggestion which he actually followed. It
was to her guidance and sympathy that the world owes the great
novels which he afterward composed. If he succeeded on the stage
at all, it was not merely in "Masks and Faces," but in his
powerful dramatization of Zola's novel, L'Assommoir, under the
title "Drink," in which the late Charles Warner thrilled and
horrified great audiences all over the English-speaking world. Had
Reade never known Laura Seymour, he might never have written so
strong a drama.
The mystery of Reade's relations with this woman can never be
definitely cleared up. Her husband, Mr. Seymour, died not long
after she and Reade became acquainted. Then Reade and several
friends, both men and women, took a house together; and Laura
Seymour, now a clever manager and amiable hostess, looked after
all the practical affairs of the establishment. One by one, the
others fell away, through death or by removal, until at last these
two were left alone. Then Reade, unable to give up the
companionship which meant so much to him, vowed that she must
still remain and care for him. He leased a house in Sloane Street,
which he has himself described in his novel A Terrible Temptation.
It is the chapter wherein Reade also draws his own portrait in the
character of Francis Bolfe:
The room was rather long, low, and nondescript; scarlet flock
paper; curtains and sofas, green Utrecht velvet; woodwork and
pillars, white and gold; two windows looking on the street; at the
other end folding-doors, with scarcely any woodwork, all plate
glass, but partly hidden by heavy curtains of the same color and
material as the others.
At last a bell rang; the maid came in and invited Lady Bassett to
follow her. She opened the glass folding-doors and took them into
a small conservatory, walled like a grotto, with ferns sprouting
out of rocky fissures, and spars sparkling, water dripping. Then
she opened two more glass folding-doors, and ushered them into an
empty room, the like of which Lady Bassett had never seen; it was
large in itself, and multiplied tenfold by great mirrors from
floor to ceiling, with no frames but a narrow oak beading;
opposite her, on entering, was a bay window, all plate glass, the
central panes of which opened, like doors, upon a pretty little
garden that glowed with color, and was backed by fine trees
belonging to the nation; for this garden ran up to the wall of
The numerous and large mirrors all down to the ground laid hold of
the garden and the flowers, and by double and treble reflection
filled the room with delightful nooks of verdure and color.
Here are the words in which Reade describes himself as he looked
when between fifty and sixty years of age:
He looked neither like a poet nor a drudge, but a great fat
country farmer. He was rather tall, very portly, smallish head,
commonplace features, mild brown eye not very bright, short beard,
and wore a suit of tweed all one color.
Such was the house and such was the man over both of which Laura
Seymour held sway until her death in 1879. What must be thought of
their relations? She herself once said to Mr. John Coleman:
"As for our positions--his and mine--we are partners, nothing
more. He has his bank-account, and I have mine. He is master of
his fellowship and his rooms at Oxford, and I am mistress of this
house, but not his mistress! Oh, dear, no!"
At another time, long after Mr. Seymour's death, she said to an
"I hope Mr. Reade will never ask me to marry him, for I should
certainly refuse the offer."
There was no reason why he should not have made this offer,
because his Oxford fellowship ceased to be important to him after
he had won fame as a novelist. Publishers paid him large sums for
everything he wrote. His debts were all paid off, and his income
was assured. Yet he never spoke of marriage, and he always
introduced his friend as "the lady who keeps my house for me."
As such, he invited his friends to meet her, and as such, she even
accompanied him to Oxford. There was no concealment, and
apparently there was nothing to conceal. Their manner toward each
other was that of congenial friends. Mrs. Seymour, in fact, might
well have been described as "a good fellow." Sometimes she
referred to him as "the doctor," and sometimes by the nickname
"Charlie." He, on his side, often spoke of her by her last name as
"Seymour," precisely as if she had been a man. One of his
relatives rather acutely remarked about her that she was not a
woman of sentiment at all, but had a genius for friendship; and
that she probably could not have really loved any man at all.
This is, perhaps, the explanation of their intimacy. If so, it is
a very remarkable instance of Platonic friendship. It is certain
that, after she met Reade, Mrs. Seymour never cared for any other
man. It is no less certain that he never cared for any other
woman. When she died, five years before his death, his life became
a burden to him. It was then that he used to speak of her as "my
lost darling" and "my dove." He directed that they should be
buried side by side in Willesden churchyard. Over the monument
which commemorates them both, he caused to be inscribed, in
addition to an epitaph for himself, the following tribute to his
friend. One should read it and accept the touching words as
answering every question that may be asked:
Here lies the great heart of Laura Seymour, a brilliant artist, a
humble Christian, a charitable woman, a loving daughter, sister,
and friend, who lived for others from her childhood. Tenderly
pitiful to all God's creatures--even to some that are frequently
destroyed or neglected--she wiped away the tears from many faces,
helping the poor with her savings and the sorrowful with her
earnest pity. When the eye saw her it blessed her, for her face
was sunshine, her voice was melody, and her heart was sympathy.
This grave was made for her and for himself by Charles Reade,
whose wise counselor, loyal ally, and bosom friend she was for
twenty-four years, and who mourns her all his days.