Rediscovering Thackeray

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    In November 1869, during the long sea voyage out to Calcutta where he would take up a senior legal appointment, James Fitzjames Stephen pondered on what awaited him by bringing to mind one of William Makepeace Thackeray’s most absurd comic realisations, Josiah Sedley, the Collector of Boggley Wallah, in Vanity Fair. Writing to Thackeray’s two daughters, the younger of whom was married to his brother, Leslie Stephen, he observed that ‘there must be a considerable shade of pathos in Indian life. Everyone who is engaged in it has made more or less of a sacrifice in coming out, & has something of a sore place about him. I think your Father had more or less of a notion of this in his later novels, though certainly Jos. Sedley is not a pathetic figure, in the least degree – very far from it. I always thought he was not a very fair representative of civilians, but I suppose he was not intended to be.’

    We are fast approaching Thackeray’s bicentenary, for he was born in Calcutta on 18 July 1811, the only son of a successful East India Company official. He was sent ‘home’ to England at the age of five to be schooled – a normal practice for the sons of the Anglo-Indian community – and never returned to the country of his birth, though it would be recalled and reimagined in several works of his adult life. This special place from his earliest childhood memories continued to haunt Thackeray, and in the years after his death in 1863 there were those, like Stephen, who accepted that these frequent allusions to British India represented a particular kind of authenticity and sympathy.

    Unlike Stephen, who, as a contributor to the Cornhill Magazine, had known Thackeray during the time he was its first editor, the novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie was too young to have met the man whose works he came later to revere. As he told Annie, Thackeray’s elder daughter, Barrie regretted being a generation too late for that encounter to have been possible, noting nonetheless the happy coincidence that in 1860 both heand the Cornhill were born. ‘How I wish those had been my days, so that I might have followed a certain tall figure thro’ the streets and touched him at the crossings’, and then, indulging himself in characteristic whimsy, Barrie sees himself communicating as a day-old baby with the famous editor, offering articles to make up for those which inexplicably have ‘nothing about Thrums in them’. He even imagines the kindly letter that Thackeray might have sent in reply.

    This is a nice story, suggesting a view of Thackeray that is almost certainly justified. It was not simply that at his death his reputation was secure, but that there was also something distinctly attractive about his personality that people willingly recalled and preserved, or, as in Barrie’s case, were prepared to construct for themselves. They loved the man, and not just the writer. For our generation, for whom his works are largely unknown, this ought to be intriguing. Vanity Fair may be the honourable exception to this unfamiliarity, but who now reads Pendennis, The Newcomes or Henry Esmond, all significant successes when they first appeared, worthy to be set by the side of the Dickens works which were appearing contemporaneously? Even less familiar today are Thackeray’s later novels, The Virginians, Philip and the fragmentary Denis Duval, left incomplete at his death. Only Henry Esmond did not follow Thackeray’s standard serial form, being conceived from the outset as a three-decker novel in the format favoured by the circulating libraries, published in 1852 just as he was leaving for America to undertake the first of his two lecture tours. All of his other major works were published in monthly numbers, sometimes, as in Vanity Fair (1847-8) and Pendennis (1848-50), illustrated by the author himself. It meant that each month he was working to frantically tight deadlines, and there are many complaints in his letters of ‘the printer’s devil’ standing impatiently in the hall, ready to carry the ink-wet manuscript away.

    To some extent, it is not hard to conclude that although the present-day neglect of Thackeray seems harsh, it is understandable. He is difficult reading for modern readers. That Vanity Fair remains uniquely satisfying amongst the novels rests not simply on its faultlessly-targeted social ironies – for that is to be found in all of his best work – but is located also in the strength of its plotting and delicate characterisation, not true of all of the novels, as well as in its self-containedness, something not obvious until one is familiar with the other works. One does not need to have read any other Thackeray novel for this one to succeed properly, and that is partly a function of its being the earliest of his full-length works. To anyone coming fresh to him, the best advice is to read the major novels in the order in which they were written. This has the added advantage that one encounters Vanity Fair first, but as the sequence unfolds, from the heavily autobiographical Pendennis onwards, the reader quickly becomes alert to the writer’s fondness for self-reference, found in a tendency to reuse characters from earlier works and in passing allusions to those previous fictional lives. It meant that Thackeray’s loyal contemporary readership, eagerly following his current novel through its monthly episodes, sensed that they were being invited as knowing intimates to pick up at least some of the often teasing asides, for it must have seemed that these were intended just for them. So in The Newcomes (1853-5) the former eponymous hero of Pendennis becomes the first-person narrator of the story of his younger friend, Clive Newcome, and returns also to narrate the late work, Philip (1861-2), whilst in The Virginians (1857-9) more of the family history of the Esmond family is uncovered, as is that of Pendennis’s friend, George Warrington. This often makes the writing densely textured, but there is a risk too that it can be opaque, certainly for the innocent reader who picks up a novel unaware of its possible prehistory.

    And yet, despite the author’s winning intimacies, coupled with his refusal to moralise or to judge, there are many sleights of hands and concealments. It is not coincidental that, in his early writings, Thackeray tended to situate himself behind a nom de plume, variously ‘Michael Angelo Titmarsh’, or ‘The Fat Contributor’, before comfortably inhabiting the persona of Arthur Pendennis. It was a mechanism through which he could choose alternately to conceal and reveal himself. Although a great deal of the writing is autobiographical, Thackeray holds much back, and only with some knowledge of the private man can a fuller sympathy and admiration emerge. The fashionable society of London’s club-land which he undoubtedly enjoyed and which features so convincingly and entertainingly in the fiction is only part of the personal story, and not even the main part.

    One event had been central to the young writer’s life, and everything that followed was coloured by it. In 1836, despite the spoiling tactics of her mother he married an Irish woman whom he met in Paris, Isabella Shawe, enchanted by her freshness and her musicality. His determination to marry her, although it must have seemed to onlookers an oddly-matched union, was the fulfilment of a destiny that he had declared in letters to his own mother three years earlier: ‘I shall go back to Paris, I think, & marry somebody … I want now to settle … going to Church regularly … walking in the Park with Mrs. T. & the children’. There would be three daughters, though the middle one, Jane, only lived for a year; she was buried in the new Kensal Green cemetery, close to the plot which Thackeray himself would occupy twenty-five years later. Despite this sadness, the early years of the marriage were surprisingly happy as the jobbing writer struggled to provide for his young family. When, in the last years of his life, however, he fictionalised some of its events in Philip he told his friend and publisher George Smith that it represented the time of his ‘ruin and absurdly imprudent marriage’.

    The crisis came after the birth in 1840 of his final child, Harriet Marian, always called Minny. Isabella sank into a severe form of what modern clinicians would doubtless have diagnosed and treated as postpartum or puerperal psychosis, but the Victorians did not recognise post-natal depression. She was deeply affected, to the extent that during the boat trip to Ireland, where Thackeray took his wife and daughters in the hope that she would benefit from seeing her mother, Isabella threw herself from a porthole and was only discovered ten minutes later floating in the sea. For some nights afterwards he would tie himself with a cord to Isabella, so that she could not get up without waking him. For months he devoted himself to searching for a cure, including the use of alternative therapies. Time was spent at a clinic near Paris and then in trying the water therapies in a sanatorium on the Rhine, until he settled Isabella in another Parisian clinic where she remained for nearly three years.

    There would be short respites, followed by relapses, but Thackeray eventually had to accept that Isabella would not be able to return to the family home. He took her back to London and placed her in care. From this time onwards the tag ‘Thackeray’s mad wife’ was often attached to her, a description which survived well into the last century, despite the fact that he never countenanced placing her in an asylum, the normal Victorian depository for those with mental illness. Isabella would outlive her husband by thirty years, and as the years passed she seems to have recovered a contented happiness and sweetness of temperament, though clearly she would never be in a position to live unassisted. Her surviving daughter, Annie, would visit her regularly until the end, and once, as she listened to her mother playing the piano as she had done in her childhood, she ‘felt like a child again & all unlocked & I cried & cried’. In January 1894 Isabella died quietly in the Leigh-on-Sea home of the elderly couple who cared for her and had loved her.

    It seems that Thackeray ceased visiting his wife some years before his own death, the experience having become altogether too painful for him, and he relied on others to keep him informed of her condition. He clung instead ever more closely to his daughters – his ‘dearest women’ – who, having spent some of their earliest childhood years in Paris living with Thackeray’s mother and stepfather, came to join him in 1846 in the house in Young Street, Kensington which he had taken for them. They were aged just nine and six, and yet they slotted easily into the new home which Annie described later as being ‘more or less a bachelor’s establishment’. She and Minny were the privileged witnesses to their father’s feverish industry as one after another the major novels emerged, and on more than one occasion they also served as models for his illustrations. Their grandmother wrote regularly to them from Paris where, like others in the Anglo-Parisian community, she followed her son’s works as they appeared in their monthly numbers. As the girls grew older they became Thackeray’s devoted companions, and he would proudly take them out into society with him. After some years the Young Street house was changed for one in Onslow Square in Brompton before Thackeray made his final move, erecting a house in Kensington’s Palace Green in his favourite Queen Anne style: the surviving building is now the Israeli Embassy. He hoped that there he might write the history of the reign of Queen Anne that he had long contemplated, but it was not to be. Thackeray died suddenly from a stroke in the early hours of 24 December 1863, aged fifty-two, and his daughters and widowed mother who had come to live with them in Kensington were left broken.

    This family environment supplies a prism through which the writer’s working life may be freshly viewed, and the available materials are rich indeed. Thackeray’s own correspondence must of course remain the starting point, but to that may be added the letters of the immediate family circle – not just his mother’s letters, but also those of his daughters, including their reflections and reminiscences so frequently touched upon in the years after his death. In addition, Annie compiled a journal in the late 1890s, drawing upon the year diaries which she had kept throughout her adult life. ‘Papa’ was never far from her thoughts, and she would dream about him in moments of personal crisis, as if seeking his assurance and direction. But she had been placed by him under a particular duty of care, for he had made clear to both of his daughters that after his death there should be no biography, no raking over the private difficulties of his personal life. It is clear that he wanted particularly to keep the details of Isabella’s illness from the kind of prurient speculation which Alfred Tennyson predicted in his own case would come from ‘the ghouls’.

    A writer herself, her first novel having appeared whilst her father was still alive, Annie became sole guardian of the family legacy after Minny’s death in 1875. Between them they had carefully preserved their father’s surviving manuscripts and drawings, as well as the large cache of family letters. Minny’s share of the manuscripts went to Leslie Stephen, but Annie retained all of his letters, refusing during her lifetime to release any of them. When Trollope worked on his 1879 Thackeray volume for Macmillan’s English Men of Letters series she supplied him with little in the way of information, but still managed to object to what he wrote. To friends who might have been tempted to use letters in their possession she repeated the mantra: ‘I have always been obliged to refuse to have anything to do with any republication of letters’.

    But as the years passed, it became increasingly evident even to Annie that her attempts to keep a rein on the release of biographical material could only last so long, and that after her own death the constraints would inevitably lift. During her mother’s lifetime she maintained her vigil, wanting to protect her from discussion of the distressing years of the marriage and the details surrounding Isabella’s fragile mental health. In November 1892 she shared with Hallam Tennyson some of these frustrations as he began to gather materials to be used in the Memoir of his own father. ‘I often wish I had been older & more matured when my dearest Daddy spoke to me abt his life: & that I had asked him to leave it to our discretion. In his case there were so many complications – not the least my Mother’s illness & possible recovery even then – To write a true life was alas impossible & a make up one omitting all that was most real was no good.’ But she was already contemplating how it might be done, and was devising a scheme for a new Thackeray edition accompanied by her own introductory essays drawing on family letters and other original materials in her possession. It took her some years to complete, but in 1898-9 she published this thirteen- volume edition ‘with Biographical Introductions by his Daughter’. It won Annie considerable critical acclaim as well as gratitude from Thackeray’s friends and readers, who understood that nobody else could have done it better.

    The Biographical Edition formed the basis of the Centenary Biographical Edition of 1911, Annie revising and extending her prefaces by incorporating additional material. A hundred years down the line it is legitimate to hope that the bicentenary will prompt the interest of a new readership in this most humane and sympathetic of Victorian writers and most generous of friends.

    Two major new projects by John Aplin (from which the above extracts from letters are taken) celebrate the Thackeray bicentenary, and both draw on significant new primary materials drawn from public collections as well as from private family holdings made available to him. His two-volume study, A Thackeray Family Biography, 1798-1919 is published by The Lutterworth Press, and his five-volume edited collection The Correspondence and Journals of the Thackeray Family forms part of The Pickering Masters series published by Pickering & Chatto.