1902 Encyclopedia > William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray
English novelist

WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY (1811-1863), one of the greatest of English authors and novelists, son of Richmond Thackeray (Mrs Richmond Thackeray was born Miss Becher), and grandson of W. R. Thackeray of Hadley, Middlesex, was born at Calcutta on July 18, 1811. Both his father and grandfather had been Indian civil servants. His mother, who was only nineteen at the date of his birth, was left a widow in 1816, and afterwards married Major Henry Carmichael Smyth. Thackeray himself was sent home to England from India as a child, and went to Charterhouse, since his time removed to Godalming from its ancient site near Smithfield. Anthony Trollope, in his book on Thackeray in the English Men of Letters series, quotes a letter written to him about Thackeray’s school-days by Mr G. S. Venables. "He came to school young," Mr Venables wrote, "a pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy." This accords with the fact that all through Thackeray’s writings the student may find traces of the sensitiveness which often belongs to the creative mind, and which, in the boy who does not understand its meaning and its possible power is apt to assume the guise of a shy disposition. To this very matter Mr Venables tersely refers in a later passage of the letter quoted by Trollope : "When I knew him better, in later years, I thought I could recognize the sensitive nature which he had as a boy." Another illustration is found in the statement, which will be recognized as exact by all readers of Thackeray, that "his change of retrospective feeling about his school-days was very characteristic. In his earlier books he always spoke of the Charterhouse as Slaughter House and Smith-field. As he became famous and prosperous his memory softened, and Slaughter House was changed into Grey Friars, where Colonel Newcome ended his life." Even in the earlier references the bitterness which has often been so falsely read into Thackeray is not to be found. In "Mr and Mrs Frank Berry" (Men’s Wives) there is a description of a Slaughter-House fight, following on an incident almost identical with that used in Vanity Fair for the fight between Dobbin and Cuff. In both cases the brutality of school life, as it then was, is very fully recognized and described, but not to the exclusion of the chivalry which goes alongside with it. In the first chapter of "Mr and Mrs Frank Berry," Berry himself and Old Hawkins both have a touch of the heroic. In the story which forms part of Men’s Wives the bully whom Berry gallantly challenges is beaten, and one hears no more of him. In Vanity Fair Cuff the swaggerer is beaten in a similar way, but regains his popularity by one well-timed stroke of magnanimity, and afterwards shows the truest kindness to his conqueror.

William Makepeace Thackeray image

William Makepeace Thackeray

In February 1829 Thackeray went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and in that year contributed some engaging lines on Timbuctoo, the subject for the prize poem, to a little university paper called The Snob, the title of which he afterwards utilized in the famous Snob Papers. The first stanza has become tolerably well known, but is worth quot-ing as an early instance of the direct comic force afterwards employed by the author in verse and prose burlesques:—

In Africa—a quarter of the world—
Men’s skins are black; their hair is crisp and curled;
And somewhere there, unknown to public view,
A mighty city lies, called Timbuctoo.

One other passage at least in The Snob, in the form of a skit on a paragraph of fashionable intelligence, seems to bear traces of Thackeray’s handiwork. At Cambridge James Spedding, Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), Edward Fitzgerald, W. H. Thompson (afterwards master of Trinity), and other distinguished persons were among- his friends. In 1830 he left Cambridge without taking a degree, and went to Weimar and to Paris. His visit to Weimar bore fruit in the sketches of life at a small German court which appear in Fitz-Boodle’s Confessions and in Vanity Fair. In 1832 he came of age, and inherited a sum which Trollope’s book describes as amounting to about five hundred a year. The money was soon lost,—-some in an Indian bank, some in two newspapers which in Lovel the Widower are referred to under one name as The Museum, in connexion with which out friends Honeyman and Sherrick of The Newcomes are briefly brought in. His first regular literary employment after the loss of his patrimony was on Fraser’s Magazine, in which in 1837-38 appeared The History of Mr Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond, a work filled with instances of the wit, humour, satire, pathos, which found a more ordered if not a fresher expression in his later and longer works. For freshness, indeed, and for a fine perception which enables the author to perform among other feats that of keeping up throughout the story the curious simplicity of its supposed narrator’s character, the Great Hoggarty Diamond can scarce be surpassed. The characters, from Lady Drum, Lady Fanny, Lady Jane, and Edmund Preston down to Brough, his daughter, Mrs Roundhand, Gus Hoskins, and, by no means least, Samuel Titmarsh’s pious aunt with her store of "Rosolio," are living; the book is crammed with honest fun; and, for pure pathos, the death of the child, and the meeting of the husband and wife over the empty cradle (a scene illustrated by the author himself with that suggestion of truth which no shortcoming in drawing could spoil), stands, if not alone in its own line, at least in the company of very few such scenes in English fiction. The Great Hoggarty Diamond, oddly enough, met with the fate that afterwards befell one of Lever’s best stories which appeared in a periodical week by week,—it had to be cut short at the bidding of the editor. In the same year in which it appeared Thackeray married Isabella, daughter of Colonel Matthew Shawe. Of the daughters born of the marriage, one, Mrs Richmond Ritchie, has earned distinction as a novelist. Mrs Thackeray, to quote Trollope, "became ill and her mind failed her," and Thackeray thereupon "became as it were a widower till the end of his days." In 1840 came out The Paris Sketch Book. Much of it had been written and published at an earlier date, and in the earlier writings there are some very curious divagations in criticism. The book contains also a striking story of card-sharping, afterwards worked up and put into Altamont’s mouth inPendennis, and a very powerful sketch of a gambler’s death and obsequies. Three years before, in 1837, Thackeray had begun, in Fraser, the Yellowplush Papers, with their strange touches of humour, satire, tragedy (in one scene, the closing one of the history of Mr Deuceace), and their sublimation of fantastic bad spelling (M’Arony for macaroni is one of the typical touches of this); and this was followed by Catherine, a strong story, and too disagreeable perhaps for its purpose, founded closely on the actual career of a criminal named Catherine Hayes, and intended to counteract the then growing prac-tice of making ruffians and harlots prominent characters in fiction. There soon followed Fitz-Boodle’s Confessions and Professions, including the series Men’s Wives, already referred to; and, slightly before these, The Shabby Genteel Story, a work interrupted by Thackeray’s domestic affliction and afterwards republished as an introduction to The Ad-ventures of Philip, which took up the course of the original story many years after the supposed date of its catastrophe. In 1843, and for some ten years onwards according to Trollope, Thackeray was writing for Punch, and the list of his contributions included among many others the cele-brated Snob Papers and the Ballads of Policeman X. In 1843 also came out the Irish Sketch Book, and in 1844 the account of the journey From Cornhill to Grand Cairo, in which was published the excellent poem of The White Squall. In 1814 there began in Fraser the Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, called in the magazine The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a Romance of the Last Century. Barry Lyndon has, with a very great difference in treatment, some resemblance to Smollett’s Count Fathom:—the hero, that is to say, is or becomes a most intolerable scoundrel, who is magnificently unconscious of his own iniquity. The age and pressure of the time depicted are caught with amazing verisimilitude, and in the boyish career of Barry Lyndon there are fine touches of a wild chivalry, simplicity, and generosity, which mingle naturally with the worse qualities that, under the influence of abominable training, afterwards corrupt his whole mind and career. The man is so infatuated with and so blind to his own roguery, he has so much dash and daring, and is on occasions so infamously treated, that it is not easy to look upon him as an entirely detestable villain until, towards the end of his course, he becomes wholly lost in brutish debauchery and cruelty. His latter career is founded on that of Andrew Robinson Stoney Bowes, who married the widow of John, ninth earl of Strathmore. There is also no doubt a touch of Casanova in Barry Lyndon’s character. Besides the contributions to Punch specially referred to, there should be noticed Punch’s Prize Novelists, containing some brilliant parodies of Edward Lytton Bulwer, Lever, Mr D’Israeli (in Codlingsby, perhaps the most perfect of the series), and others. Among minor but admirable works of the same period are found A Legend of the Rhine (a burlesque of the great Dumas’s Othon l’Archer), brought out in a periodical of George Cruikshank’s, Cox’s Diary (on which has been founded a well-known Dutch comedy, Janus Tulp), and the Fatal Boots. This is the most fitting moment for mentioning also Rebecca and Rowena, which towers, not only over Thackeray’s other burlesques, excellent as they are, but over every other burlesque of the kind ever written. Its taste, its wit, its pathos, its humour, are unmatchable; and it contains some of the best songs of a particular kind ever written—songs worthy indeed to rank with Peacock’s best. In 1846 was published, by Messrs Bradbury and Evans, the first of twenty-four numbers of Vanity Fair, the work which first placed Thackeray in his proper position before the public as a novelist and writer of the first rank. It was completed in 1848, when Thackeray was thirty-seven years old; and in the same year Abraham Hayward paid a tribute to the author’s powers in the Edinburgh Review. It is probable that on Vanity Fair has been largely based the foolish cry, now heard less and less frequently, about Thackeray’s cynicism, a cry which he himself, with his keen knowledge of men, foresaw and provided against, amply enough as one might have thought, at the end of the eighth chapter, in a passage which is perhaps the best commentary ever written on the author’s method. He has explained how he wishes to describe men and women as they actually are, good, bad, and indifferent, and to claim a privilege—

"Occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love and shake them by the hand; if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve; if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms politeness admits of. Otherwise you might fancy it was I who was sneering at the practice of devotion, which Miss Sharp finds so ridiculous; that it was I who laughed good--humouredly at the railing old Silenus of a baronet—whereas the laughter comes from one who has no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success. Such people there are living and flourishing in the world—Faithless, Hopeless, Charity-less: let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main. Some there are, and very successful too, mere quacks and fools: and it was to combat and expose such as those, no doubt, that laughter was made."

As to another accusation which was brought against the book when it first came out, that the colours were laid on too thick, in the sense that the villains were too villainous, the good people too goody-goody, the best and completest answer to that can be found by any one who chooses to read the work with care. Osborne is, and is meant to be, a poor enough creature, but he is an eminently human being, and one whose poorness of character is developed as be allows bad influences to tell upon his vanity and folly. The good in him is fully recognized, and comes out in the beautiful passage describing his farewell to Amelia on the eve of Waterloo, in which passage may be also found a sufficient enough answer to the statement that Amelia is absolutely insipid and uninteresting. So with the com-panion picture of Rawdon Crawley’s farewell to Becky: who that reads it can resist sympathy, in spite of Rawdon’s vices and shady shifts for a living, with his simple bravery and devotion to his wife? As for Becky, a character that has since been imitated a host of times, there is certainly not much to be said in her defence. We know of her, to be sure, that she thought she would have found it easy to be good if she had been rich, and we know also what happened when Rawdon, released without her knowledge from a spunging-house, surprised her alone with and singing to Lord Steyne in the house in May Fair. After a gross insult from Steyne, "Rawdon Crawley, springing out, seized him by the neckeloth, until Steyne, almost strangled, writhed and bent under his arm. ‘You lie, you dog,’ said Rawdon; ‘you lie, you coward and villain!’ And he struck the peer twice over the face with his open hand, and flung him bleeding to the ground. It was all done before Rebecca could interpose. She stood there trembling before him. She admired her husband, strong, brave, and victorious." This admiration is, as Thackeray himself thought it, the capital touch in a scene which is as powerful as any Thackeray ever wrote—as powerful, indeed, as any in English fiction. Its full merit, it may be noted in passing, has been curiously accented by an imita-tion of it in M. Daudet’s Fromont Jeune et Risler Aîné. As to the extent of the miserable Becky’s guilt in the Steyne matter, on that Thackeray leaves it practically open to the reader to form what conclusion he will. There is, it should be added, a distinct touch of good in Becky’s conduct to Amelia at Ostend in the last chapter of the book, and those who think that too little punishment is meted out to the brilliant adventuress in the end may remember this to her credit. It is supreme art in the treatment of her character that makes the reader understand and feel her attrac-tiveness, though he knows her extraordinarily evil qualities; and in this no writer subsequent to Thackeray who has tried to depict one of the genus Becky Sharp has even faintly succeeded. Among the minor characters there is not one—and this is not always the case even with Thackeray’s chief figures—who is incompletely or inconsistently de-picted; and no one who wishes to fully understand and appreciate the book can afford to miss a word of it.

Vanity Fair was followed by Pendennis, Esmond, and The Newcomes, which appeared respectively in 1850, 1852, and 1854. It might be more easy to pick holes critically in Pendennis than in Vanity Fair. Pendennis himself, after his boyish passion and university escapades, has dis-agreeable touches of flabbiness and worldliness; and the important episode of his relations with Fanny Bolton, which Thackeray could never have treated otherwise than delicately, is so lightly and tersely handled that it is a little vague even to those who read between the lines; the final announcement that those relations have been innocent can scarcely be said to be led up to, and one can hardly see why it should have been so long delayed. This does not of course affect the value of the book as a picture of middle and upper class life of the time, the time when Vauxhall still existed, and the haunt for suppers and songs which Thackeray in this book called the Back Kitchen, and it is a picture filled with striking figures. In some of these, notably in that of Foker, Thackeray went, it is supposed, very close to actual life for his material, and in that particular case with a most agreeable result. As for the two umbrae of the marquis of Steyne, it is difficult to believe that they were intended as caricatures from two well-known persons. If they were, for once Thackeray’s hand forgot its cunning. Here, as in Vanity Fair, the heroism has been found a little insipid; and there may be good ground for finding Laura Pendennis dull, though she has a spirit of her own. In later books she becomes, what Thackeray’s people very seldom are, a tiresome as well as an uninviting person. Costigan is unique, and so is Major Pendennis, a type which, allowing for differences of period and manners, will exist as long as society does, and which has been seized and depicted by Thackeray as by no other novelist. His two encounters, from both of which he comes out victorious, one with Costigan in the first, the other with Morgan in the second volume, are admirable touches of genius. In opposition to the worldliness of the major, with which Pendennis does not escape being tainted, we have Warrington, whose nobility of nature has come unscathed through a severe trial, and who, a thorough gentleman if a rough one, is really the guardian of Pen-dennis’s career. There is, it should be noted, a character-istic and acknowledged confusion in the plot of Pendennis, which will not spoil any intelligent reader’s pleasure.

Probably most readers of The Newcomes (1854) to whom the book is mentioned think first of the grand, chivalrous, and simple figure of Colonel Newcome, who stands out in the relief of almost ideal beauty of character against the crowd of more or less imperfect and more or less base personages who move through the novel. At the same time, to say, as has been said, that this book "is full of satire from the first to the last page" is to convey an impression which is by no means just. There is plenty of kindliness in the treatment of the young men who, like Clive Newcome himself and Lord Kew, possess no very shining virtue beyond that of being honourable gentlemen; in the character of J. J. Ridley there is much tenderness and pathos; and no one can help liking the Bohemian F. B., and looking tolerantly on his failings. It may be that both the fiendish temper of Mrs Mackenzie and the sufferings she inflicts on the Colonel are too closely insisted on ; but it must be remembered that this heightens the singular pathos of the closing scenes of the Colonel’s life. It has seemed convenient to take The Newcomes after Pendennis, because Pendennis and his wife reappear in this book as in the Adventures of Philip; but Esmond (1852) was written and published before The Newcomes. To some students Esmond seems and will seem Thackeray’s capital work. It has not been rivalled, and only a few times approached by Mr Besant, as a romance reproducing with unfailing interest and accuracy the figures, manners, and phrases of a past time, and it is full of beautiful touches of character. But Beatrix, upon whom so much hinges, is an unpleasing character, although one understands fully why men were captivated by her insolent beauty and brilliancy; and there is some truth in Thackeray’s own saying, that "Esmond was a prig." Apart from this, the story is, like the illusion of a past time in the narrative, so complete in all its details, so harmoniously worked out, that there is little room for criticism. As to Esmond’s marriage with the lady whom he has served and loved as a boy, that is a matter for individual judgment. Beatrix, it has been indicated above, is wonderfully drawn; and not the least wonderful thing about her is her reappearance as the jaded, battered, worldly, not altogether unkindly, Baroness in The Virginians. It was just what Beatrix must have come to, and the degradation is handled with the lightest and finest touch.

In 1851 Thackeray had written The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, delivered as a series of lectures at Willis’s Rooms in the same year, and re-delivered in the United States in 1852 and 1853, as was afterwards the series called The Four Georges. Both sets were written for the purposes of lecturing. In 1857 Thackeray stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Oxford against Mr Cardwell, and in the same year appeared the first num-ber of The Virginians, a sequel to Esmond. This is a most unequal work—inferior, as sequels are apt to be, to Esmond as an historical romance, less compact and coherent, prone to divagation and desultoriness, yet charming enough in its lifelikeness , in the wit and wisdom of its reflexions, and, as has been said, in its portrait of Beatrix grown old. The last number of The Virginians came out in 1859, and in the same year Thackeray undertook the editorship of the Cornhill Magazine. This was a task which, as readers of his Roundabout paper "Thorns in the Cushion" will re-member, the kindliness and sensitiveness of his disposition made irksome to him, and he resigned the editorship in April 1862, though he continued to write for the magazine until he died. In the Cornhill appeared from his pen Lovel the Widower, previously written, with different names for some of the personages, in dramatic form; The Adventures of Philip; the Roundabout Papers; and the story, unhappily never finished, called Denis Duval. Lovel the Widower, changed from the dramatic to the narrative form, remains a piece of high comedy in which the characters are indicated rather than fully worked out, with a bold and practised touch. It contains some references to Thackeray’s early and unfortunate newspaper speculations, and it was pro-vided by the author with illustrations which as in others of his books have a value which is entirely their own in furnishing, as it were, a far completer commentary on the letterpress than could have been given by any draughtsman, however perspicacious and finished, who approached the pictorial representation of the characters from the outside. To the general statement thus indicated an exception should be made in the case of Doyle’s illustra-tions to The Newcomes and to Rebecca and Rowena. On the other hand, not even Doyle could have matched the fun and spirit of Thackeray’s own illustrations to another burlesque story, one of his best, The Rose and the Ring. The Roundabout Papers, a small storehouse of some of Thackeray’s best qualities as an essayist, came out in the Cornhill Magazine simultaneously with Lovel the Widower and with The Adventures of Philip. Among them is one differing in form from the rest, called The Notch on the Axe—a Story à la Mode. It is an almost perfect specimen of the author’s genius for burlesque story-telling; but it contains an odd instance, which a careful reader will not fail to discover, of the odd habit of inaccuracy of which Thackeray himself was conscious. The Adventures of Philip is, as has been before said, in the nature of a sequel to or a completion of A Shabby Genteel Story. As with the other direct sequel, it is a work of great in-equality. It contains scenes of humour, pathos, satire, which rank with Thackeray’s best work; some old friends from others of the novels make brief but pleasant reappear-ances in its pages ; there are fine sketches of journalistic, artistic, and diplomatic life, and the scene from the last--named in Paris is inimitable. The Little Sister is altogether delightful; the Twysden family are terribly true and vastly diverting; the minor characters, among whom old Ridley, J. J.’s father, should be mentioned, are wonder-fully hit off ; nor did Thackeray ever write a better scene than that of the quarrel between Bunch, Baynes, and M’Whirter in the Paris pension. Philip himself is impossible; one cannot say that the character is ill-drawn—it is not drawn at all. It is an entirely different personage in different chapters; and it has here and there a very unpleasant touch which must have come of rapid writing. Yet so admirable are many parts of the book that it cannot be left out of the list of Thackeray’s most considerable works. Denis Duval, which reached only three numbers, promised to be a first-rate work, more or less in the Esmond manner. The author died while it was in progress, on the day before Christmas day 1863. He was buried in Kensal Green, and a bust by Marochetti was put up to his memory in Westminster Abbey.

Little has yet been said of Thackeray’s performances in poetry. They formed a small but not the least significant part of his life’s work. The grace and the apparent spontaneity of his versification are beyond question. Some of the more serious efforts, such as The Chronicle of the Drum (1841), are full of power, and instinct with true poetic feeling. Both the half-humorous half-pathetic ballads and the wholly extravagant ones must be classed with the best work in that kind; and the translations from Béranger are as good as verse translations can be. He had the true poetic instinct, and proved it by writing poetry which equalled his prose in grace and feeling.

It is not necessary to discuss the precise place which Thackeray will in future hold, in respect to his immediate contemporaries. What seems absolutely certain is that the force and variety of his genius and art will always hold for him a place as one of the greatest of English novelists and essayists, and, it should be added, as by no means the least of English critics. (W. H. P.)

The above article was written by Walter Herries Pollock, M.A.; Barrister; formerly editor of the Saturday Review; author of The Modern French Theatre, Verse, Old and New, Mémoires inédits du Marquis de ___, and Jane Austen: her Contemporaries and Herself.

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