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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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.