The Magazine

Writer’s Progress

Behind the scenes of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novelistic life.

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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n 1853, when William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) made his first lecture tour of America, Boston particularly pleased him because, as he said, its “vast amount of toryism and donnishness” reminded him of Edinburgh. Today, there may be precious little toryism or donnishness left in Boston, but there remains a sturdy affection for Thackeray—and one proof of this was the superb exhibition that Harvard’s Houghton Library mounted to commemorate the bicentenary of the great novelist’s birth.

Photo of William Thackeray

Thackeray ca. 1855

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Heather Cole, curator of the exhibition, captured the witty charm and ebullience of her subject by assembling a catalogue full of the abiding appeal of his life and work. She included the famous bust of Thack-
eray as a boy; the portrait of him with his parents, sitting atop a pile of folios and gazing out at the viewer with preternatural zest; and his wonderfully funny Punch drawings. She also included many of his letters to his female confidantes, his exquisite sketches of his daughters, Annie and Minny, pages from his manuscripts, the bright yellow installments of Vanity Fair (1848), and a copy of The Adventures of Philip (1862), his penultimate novel, printed during the Civil War by a Confederate publisher, complete with advertisements for military merchandise.

That a Confederate publisher should have printed the novel has a special aptness, for Philip is a paean to precisely the ideal of gentlemanliness that so many Confederate soldiers prized. (That was, after all, what distinguished them from Yankees.)

Thackeray has been blessed with exceptional biographers and critics. Although Gordon Ray wrote the definitive two-volume biography over 50 years ago, and produced a magnificent edition of the novelist’s letters and private papers, D. J. Taylor and Peter Shillingsburg have written lively biographies since, and there is a wealth of good critical work on Thackeray from Geoffrey Tillotson, John Sutherland, and Lord David Cecil to Joan Stevens, Ann Monsarrat, and Edgar Harden. To this illustrious body of work may now be added John Aplin’s five-volume edition of the Thackeray family letters and his two-volume family biography, both of which constitute a major contribution to Thackeray scholarship, packed as they are with fresh material and incisive commentary.

No appreciation of Thackeray’s genius is possible without some understanding of the flawed, goodhearted, supremely clubbable man. He was born in Calcutta in 1811, the son of Richmond Thackeray, an official in the East India Company, and Anne Becher, the daughter of another Company official. He had an amusing augury of his future profession when his father unwittingly invited a handsome young Bengal Engineer to dinner, who had been in love with his wife before she went out to India. When Anne and the dashing Carmichael-Smyth finally met in private on that fatal night, they discovered their mutual misapprehensions: She had been told that he had died of fever, and he that she no longer cared for him. After Richmond obligingly died in 1815, the reunited lovers married and settled in Paris. Thus, it was at home, not from novels, that Thackeray learned the rudiments of romance.

Educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge, which he left in 1830 without a degree, Thackeray entered the Middle Temple in 1831, but soon gave up law for journalism. In 1833, he bought the National Standard, where he was proprietor, contributor, and illustrator. After the paper folded, he went to study art in Paris where, at a masked ball, he met the adventuress on whom he would base his most brilliant heroine, Becky Sharp. On a later trip to the city, in a boardinghouse in the Faubourg-St-Honoré, he met a 17-year-old Irish girl from Cork named Isabella Shawe, with whom he fell in love at the proverbial first sight. In 1836, they were married at the British embassy. Once settled in London, the couple went on to have three daughters, though the second died at eight months. Included in the Houghton show is a droll drawing by Thackeray showing how he towered over his tiny wife.

After the birth of the third daughter, Isabella began to show signs of schizophrenia. In 1840, while traveling from England to Ireland, she jumped overboard and was only rescued after being 20 minutes in the sea. When no cure could be found, Thackeray arranged for her to live with a nurse in Camberwell, where she would outlive him by 30 years. He later told a friend, “Though my marriage was a wreck, I would do it over again, for behold love is the crown and completion of all earthly good.”

Thackeray immersed himself in journalism not only to escape the guilt he felt over his wife’s derangement but to pay his abounding debts. (Before marrying, he had lost his fortune to an Indian bank failure.) He was also an extravagant gambler. To keep the bailiffs at bay, he contributed regularly to Punch, Fraser’s Magazine, the Morning Chronicle, the New Monthly Magazine, and the Times. And from this honorable scribbling he produced some of the funniest jeux d’esprit ever penned, including The Memoirs of Mr. C. J. Yellowplush (1837), A Shabby Genteel Story (1840), The Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841), and The Book of Snobs (1842). If Charles Dickens was more inventive, Thackeray had a better sense of humor. When Henry James met him in Paris in 1857, he recalled the great man turning to his eight-year-old sister, Alice, who was dressed in the fashionable flounces of the day, and exclaiming: “Crinoline?—I was suspecting it! So young and so depraved!” 

Vanity Fair (1848), the culmination of all that Thackeray had done as a comic journalist, is an unsparing portrait of the unregenerate world from a man who knew its follies and sorrows inside out. Nowhere else does one get a better sense of the fierce social insecurity that gripped early 19th-century England, or its ruthlessness. “In this vast town one has not the time to go and seek one’s friends,” the narrator observes; “if they drop out of the rank they disappear, and we march on without them. Who is ever missed in Vanity Fair?” The Victorians liked to imagine that Thackeray exposed their vices too unsparingly. Yet he exhibited toward those culpable of folly an almost paternal indulgence: No other Victorian novelist would have shown the incorrigible Becky Sharp anything like the sympathy that Thackeray showed her. 

At the same time, to a journalist who had taken exception to what he thought the satirical severity of Vanity Fair, Thackeray explained that the book’s object was

to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people “desperately wicked” and all eager for vanities. .  .  . Good God don’t I see (in that may-be cracked and warped looking glass in which I am always looking) my own weaknesses lusts follies shortcomings? .  .  . We must lift up our voices about these and howl to a congregation of fools. .  .  . You have all of you taken my misanthropy to task—I wish I could myself: but take the world by a certain standard .  .  . and who dares talk of having any virtue at all.

Thackeray followed the success of Vanity Fair with several other novels, which the English critic John Carey claimed constitute a “history of capitulation” in which the novelist succumbed to the very snobbery that he had written his earlier work to mock: “The novels after Vanity Fair,” Carey argues, “are full of people not only of a higher class but nicer—noble fellows, angelic ladies. It is a condition of their insipidity.”

This is not altogether just. Although The Newcomes (1855) and The Virginians (1859) may be dull reads, Pendennis (1850) and The History of Henry Esmond (1852) are undeservedly neglected. Trollope judged the latter “the greatest novel in the language,” citing “the excellence of its language,” the “clear individuality of its characters,” the faithfulness of its Queen Anne setting, and “its great pathos.” If Vanity Fair is about what happens to people when they lose love, Henry Esmond is about what happens to them when they regain it—for as the Thackerayan narrator reminds his readers, “love vincit omnia; is immeasurably above all ambition, more precious than wealth, more noble than name. He knows not life who knows not that.”

This may not be as entertaining as reading about how Becky and Rawdon contrive to live on nothing a year, but it proves how deeply autobiographical Thackeray’s fiction is, even his historical fiction.

Another late book worth reading is The Roundabout Papers (published posthumously in 1864), which includes the immortal “Mississippi Bubble,” in which Thackeray recalls going down the great river on a steamboat and meeting the Bearded Lady of Kentucky: “You would have fancied that, as after all we were only some half-dozen on board, she might have dispensed with her red handkerchief, and talked, and eaten her dinner in comfort: but in covering her chin there was a kind of modesty.”

That beard was her profession: that beard brought the public to see her: out of her business she wished to put that beard aside .  .  . as a barrister would wish to put off his wig. I know some who carry theirs into private life, and who mistake you and me for jury-boxes when they address us: but these are not your modest barristers, not your true gentlemen. Well, I own I respected the lady for the modesty with which, her public business over, she retired into private life. She respected her life, and her beard. .  .  . All public men and women of good sense, I should think, have this modesty.

After Isabella lost her reason, Thack-
eray became infatuated with the literary hostess Jane Octavia Brookfield, the wife of one of his old Cambridge friends, with whom he entered into a strenuously chaste ménage à trois. “However much I may love her & bless her and admire her, I can’t forgive her for doing her duty,” he confessed, before putting a stop to what he called his “uncouth raptures.”

In all events, Thackeray was fortunate not to see the Brookfield–Thackeray triangle reproduced in Mrs. Brookfield’s novels, Only George (1866) and Not Too Late (1868). On December 23, 1863, he returned home from dining, suffered a stroke, and dropped dead.

Throughout his life, Thackeray was an ambivalent clubman, drawn to the confidential comfort of clubs but convinced that men without the civilizing society of women became boors. “The greatest good that comes to a man from woman’s society,” he once observed, “is that he has to think of somebody besides himself—somebody to whom he is bound to be constantly attentive and respectful.” Here was a truth that only his treacherous egotism could teach him, and it made him not only a brilliant satirist but a grateful family man, and on the three women who meant most to him—his wife, his mother, and his daughter Annie—Aplin’s volumes are revelatory.

Apropos Isabella’s mental illness, Aplin argues that most modern clinicians would probably diagnose it as “puerperal psychosis, affecting about one in a thousand women after childbirth with symptoms which may include depression, delusional behavior, hallucinations, and paranoia.” At the same time, he shows that Isabella, towards the end of her life, enjoyed an unexpected serenity. Certainly, her delight in music never waned. Often Annie would visit her simply to hear her play Gluck and Handel: “I was really floored one day with worry & nerves when I went to Mama’s & lay on the sofa there while she played sweet hymn tunes & I felt like a child again & all unlocked & cried & cried.” In these encounters, as Aplin observes, family tradition was renewed, for 50 years before it had been Isabella’s deep love of music that first endeared her to Thackeray.

Aplin also gives a more rounded portrait of Thackeray’s mother, whom many have misrepresented as a religious zealot. By bringing her letters to light, Aplin reveals what an intelligent, witty, solicitous woman she was. He also shows how keenly perceptive she was about the deep love that Thackeray’s daughters had for their father. When Thackeray remonstrated with her for trying (as he saw it) to inculcate in them her own passionate Calvinism, the old woman fired back: “I have one thing to say by which you may free yourself from any apprehension of yr children thinking, or believing otherwise than as you do; they have but one creed & that is ‘Papa.’ ”

The star of Aplin’s volumes is Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), whom her father once described as “a fat lump of pure gold, the kindest, dearest creature as well as a wag of the first order.” After Thackeray’s death, she married a handsome cousin 17 years her junior and became the keeper of her father’s flame, producing the biographical Centenary Edition of his work, as well as novels of her own. George Eliot once said that her fiction was the only modern fiction she cared to read. Lord Bryce was taken with more than her novels: “Never have I known any one with quite the same charm, inexhaustible kindliness and sympathy with a freshness and genuineness which made everyone feel wiser & better than themselves when they were in her company.”

This was an estimate of her character shared by many of those eminent Victorians with whom she was friendly, including Henry James, Leslie Stephen (who married her sister Minny), Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson, Charles Eliot Norton, Henry Cole (who mounted the Great Exhibition), Sir John Millais, G. F. Watts, and the great kitchen-table novelist Mrs. Oliphant, to whom Annie once wrote: “as I read your letter I somehow felt for the moment—blessed feeling—all one’s life remains, things don’t go, we fade, not they, it is all there.” Thanks to this wonderful correspondence, and Aplin’s heroic labors, we can now share Annie’s delight in this rich recollected past.

When I was leaving the Thackeray exhibition at Harvard, the curator Heather Cole turned to me and said that she had come to love Thackeray because he was so full of love himself—love and endless jokes. John Aplin has done a fine job of showing how that love and wit bound together not only Thackeray’s daughters and their families, but a much larger extended family, whose members will only grow with the publication of these marvelous volumes.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.