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Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity

When William Makepeace Thackeray died at 52 almost a century ago he left behind the injunction, “Mind, no biography.” This is easy to understand. His wife had been locked away, hopelessly insane; he had formed friendships with other women, notably Mrs. Brookfield; and in his satirical exploration of the “vanity fair” of early Victorian England he had stepped on sensitive toes. Victorian reticence and tact, as distinct from Victorian prudery, dictated his wish—if not the feeling of many artists that one should read their works rather than their lives. But literary lives and reputations have a way of resisting the wishes of their subjects; and where truth—however painful—is not told, legend more often than not takes over.

In the case of Thackeray, the novelist’s six-foot figure had walked through too many drawing-rooms and been the center of too much controversy to be able to elude the extravagance of gossip or the embroidery of rumor and anecdote. Letters began to get into print; unauthorized biographies were written, and over the decades a picture of Thackeray emerged compounded of shreds and patches.

It was not until Gordon N. Ray, then but recently out of Harvard, published between 1945 and 1947 his monumental four-volume edition of the Letters and Private Papers of the novelist (with the blessings of the Thackeray descendants) that we began to see the author of Vanity Fair in fuller perspective. What emerged in the letters more clearly than ever before was the evolution of Thackeray from a kind of gentleman-about-town to the accomplished deeply-feeling ironist, the writer who was never able to bring the impulse of his simple heart into proper beat with a society that was heartless. As a steppingstone between the editing of the letters and the biography, Mr. Ray published his Lowell lectures, The Buried Life, an engrossing study of some of the individuals in Thackeray’s world who became characters in his fiction.

Professor Ray has now reached the all-but-final stage in this process of literary restoration. The first volume of this first authorized biography of Thackeray takes the novelist from his birth in India in 1811 to the writing and publication of Vanity Fair in 1846—the first 35 years of his career. The second volume will deal with the remaining 17 years. Coming so soon after Edgar Johnson’s substantial life of Dickens, this book reminds us of the slowness of the entire biographical process, of how many decades must elapse before we can possess all of a creative personality, the mind that nourished the work.

Even if we allow for Forster’s Dickens and Lewis Melville’s Thackeray, it is only now, in the middle of the century, that we are being given palpable figures of the two novelists who, more than any other writers of their time, dominated the first half of the Victorian era (in the field of fiction) and threw their formidable shadows across the rest of it into our own time.

We are nevertheless led to the reflection that if in England during the past 50 years there has been a tendency to see the eminent Victorians in a somewhat fading and patronizing after-glow (as we tended for a time to see some of our writers of the New England flowering), it is in America that a more objective picture can emerge. What is remarkable in Mr. Ray’s study is not only his deep saturation in the life of his subject but the way in which he bestrides Victorian London and introduces us to many of its figures as if he had personally known them. We meet not only the dramatis personae of Thackeray’s childhood in India and England, but encounter the shadowy men of Grub Street, and the little band of writers who made Punch the institution it became, and remains, in England. Mr. Ray observes that “Victorian society at its best surely had a dignity and maturity unmatched in our own time.”

There is perhaps less overt drama in the life of Thackeray than in the life of Dickens; Dickens rose rapidly out of his poverty to heights of wealth and public adulation. Thackeray’s life during the first thirty-five years at least has an almost plodding character. Born in India, an only son who lost his father at five, he was formed during boyhood and adolescence in the schools of England. His doting mother re-married and Thackeray was deeply attached to the reconstructed household. Mr. Ray tells us how the young man came to life as a sharp contrast between the warmth and trust of a happy home circle and the selfish indifference of the outside world. (One is tempted to suggest that Becky Sharp symbolized the latter, Amelia the former.) It took three generations to fashion a gentleman, Thackeray observed, and Mr. Ray shows us the generations that fashioned the young man who decorated London drawing-rooms, dabbled in art, and gambled away much of his inheritance while still a student in Cambridge. Thereafter, by degrees, “the horrible glazed eyes of Necessity” turned him to ungentlemanly tasks to support a melancholic wife and two young daughters. Where other gentlemen are overwhelmed by such responsibilities, Thackeray’s vision of life grew even sharper. The gentleman became a hack writer; the writer acquired a finished style; ultimately he became an accomplished novelist. To such uses did he put adversity.

From Mr. Ray’s documentation one gets the picture of a man of transcendent literary gifts, with a penchant for high bohemia, amiable, sentimental, romantic, who was forced too abruptly to say farewell to a rather boisterous youth and the cheerful ways of a seemingly benign world—and yet had the courage to face that reality. Indeed his strength lay in his gradually grasping and reflecting the society which he had found so smiling, and which he knew to be both powerful and petty, hard and evil. As a truthful man he sought to express this reality and it shines with a clear hard light in the pages of Vanity Fair. But truth and reality are often cruel and endured with difficulty by the mind. Some anodyne is needed; and so in Thackeray’s writings truth now and again is bathed in gentle illusion, or clothed in the graceful garments of the novelist’s wit and geniality. As he grew older a strong nostalgia for his earlier years suffused his writing and softened the sharp edges of his pictures.

It is this which leads me to wonder whether Mr. Ray, in his otherwise judicial appraisal of the novelist’s formation, is not splitting hairs when he observes that Thackeray represented in his mature art “the classic moment of English realism.”

Where exactly are we to place such a moment in a century that was to give us such works of realism as Middlemarch or The Portrait of a Lady? Indeed it can be argued that in deciding to walk upon the stage and mingle with his own puppets, Thackeray forsook realism, and looked to the past and not to the future of the novel.

In making this modest claim for Thackeray as realist, Mr. Ray also points out that as a moralist the writer has been placed on a plane with Carlyle and Dickens. He earned this place, the biographer believes, by re-defining the gentlemanly ideal, “to fit a middle-class rather than an aristocratic context.” But the realist has been criticized for watering his reality; and the moralist has been judged deficient—as Bernard Shaw did—in his egalitarianism. The present volume places the dual character of Thackeray before us. In the process of revaluating him it is well to remind ourselves that we should withhold final judgment; that his was a constantly-maturing personality; and that a second volume is to bring us further light.