Thackeray: The Life of a Literary Man

Thackeray: The Life of a Literary Man

by D. J. Taylor

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504015202
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/28/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 519
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

D. J. Taylor is the author of eleven novels, including Kept (2006), which was a Publishers Weekly Best Book, Derby Day (2011), longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and The Windsor Faction (2013), a joint winner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. His nonfiction includes a biography of Thackeray and Orwell: The Life (2003), which won the Whitbread Biography Award. His journalism appears in a variety of newspapers and periodicals, including the Independent, the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Wall Street Journal. Taylor lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, and their three sons.
D. J. Taylor was born in Norwich in 1960. He is a novelist, critic, and biographer. His Orwell: The Life won the Whitbread Biography of the Year in 2003. His novel Kept: A Victorian Mystery was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. He lives in England.

Read an Excerpt


The Life of a Literary Man

By D. J. Taylor


Copyright © 1999 D. J. Taylor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1520-2


The Road to Kensal Green

Writing many years after Thackeray's death, the Victorian man of letters George Hodder – who had known him towards the end of his life – sketched out some of the problems that awaited a future biographer. In effect, Hodder concluded, there was only one – the elusive, or even protean, nature of the subject: 'A hundred admirers of Thackeray might undertake to write a memoir of him, and yet the task of doing full justice to his career must necessarily await a chosen future historian, who shall zealously gather together all the bits and fragments to be found, scattered among books and men, and blend them into a substantial and permanent shape.' It had to be admitted, though, Hodder went on, that there was an exceptional difficulty in regard to Thackeray, 'in as much as there were few whom he allowed to know him, in the true sense of the phrase ...'

Certainly the various compartments of Thackeray's comparatively short life – he was only fifty-two when he fell dead of a stroke on Christmas Eve 1863 – the range of personae that he adopted, or had adopted for him, and the way in which a multitude of relatives and friends regarded him, abets this view. To his mother he was an adoring infant whose delight at her return from India gave rise to one of the great nineteenth-century evocations of maternal love. To his schoolfellows he was a lively, idle boy whose talents expressed themselves in scrawled caricatures rather than the antiquated Charterhouse curriculum. To his Cambridge contemporaries he was a genial, diffident companion who inspired great affection, and of whom 'much was made'. To the broken-down hacks and seedy financiers of 1830s' Grub Street he was a young man whose literary inclinations came backed by a substantial private fortune. To the magazine editors of the early1840s he was a struggling freelance, ashamed of his recent poverty but not afraid to use it as a bargaining tool. To Isabella Shawe, who married him at eighteen, he was 'William', a prematurely grey-haired husband to be predominantly loved, occasionally feared and eventually (and tragically) forgotten. To his elder daughter Annie he was a doting and doted-upon father, whose death awakened in her masochistic recollections of past unworthiness. To his aristocratic admirers of the 1850s he was the best kind of literary man, gentlemanly, courteous and the ornament of dinner tables from Holland House to Berkeley Square. To Jane Brookfield, who has some claim to be regarded as the love of his life, he was 'my dear brother William', a soulmate and confidential friend forever held at arm's length. To the gossipmongering society journalist Edmund Yates, who engaged him in one of the most famous literary rows of the Victorian age, he was a hypocrite who resented being judged by the standards that he applied to other people. To his cronies of the Punch table he was an avuncular drinking companion with a weakness for bad puns. He was much loved – Anthony Trollope kept a bust of Thackeray on his study desk until the day of his death – and, in his quarrels with Dickens, Forster and other Victorian notables, much disliked and misunderstood. When he died, the world of mid-Victorian London seemed diminished by his absence.

No doubt these varying perspectives are common to any life, Victorian, literary or otherwise. In Thackeray's case the contradictions are heightened by the way in which he regarded himself. Even by the standards of Victorian novelists, he was highly aware of his own temperamental shortcomings, and the vein of self-criticism in his writings frequently hardens into self-accusation. At the same time he was honest enough – sometimes laceratingly so – to try to separate out his emotions regarding the people and situations he came up against. Thus he loved his mother – their correspondence, begun in childhood, flared up whenever they happened to be apart – but disliked her notably severe version of Evangelical Christianity. He admired Dickens' writings, but thought the man himself deceitful and surrounded by flatterers. He relished 'good' society, and wrote many a respectful letter to a duke, but admitted that it often left him bored. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that a man who could muster half a dozen baronets on his side in the Garrick Club row with Dickens and Yates considered himself a Bohemian to the end.

Each of these finely judged positions lends something to the puzzle that surrounds Thackeray's life, and what was, in the last resort, his memorialists' inability to pin him down. As John Blackwood put it, when returning one of these manuscripts to an aspiring contributor to Blackwood's Magazine: 'None of the numerous sketches I have read give to me any real picture of the man with his fun and mixture of bitterness with warm good feeling ... I feel so truly about him I am frightened to give a wrong impression of him to one who did not know him.' These confusions were evident elsewhere. One obituarist praises him as a fluent and witty after-dinner speaker; another remembers only nerve-racked silences. Sir William Fraser thought that in no society where he saw Thackeray could he find 'anything to repay the interest which I took ...' Henry Silver's record of the Punch table talk shows Thackeray loquacious and mute by turns. Such lightning shifts of temperament, an ability to switch from cheery conviviality to remote self-possession almost between courses, were complicated by the ill health that afflicted the last decade of his life. Many an ambitious literary man, frostily received by the great novelist in some club smoking room – Trollope was a classic example – diagnosed haughtiness when the real culprit was physical discomfort.

Worse, perhaps, few of the conventional yardsticks used to measure early-Victorian lives are much help in Thackeray's case. Socially, he was born into a distinctive upper-middle-class stratum of Anglo-Indian administrators, and yet the loss of his patrimony forced him into a professional existence that, for all his Bohemian hankerings, was sometimes a little too low-class for his liking. Spiritually, he was a simple 'believer', as mistrustful of his mother's fanaticism as he was repelled by any kind of metaphysical speculation, whose religious pronouncements, such as they are, would have struck a late-Victorian free-thinker as laughable. Politically, he began life as a progressive Liberal and ended up a Whiggish conservative capable of commending a Cornhill article by James Fitzjames Stephen as 'a very moderate honest sensible plea for an aristocratic government, and shows the danger of a democracy quite fairly ... The politics of gentlemen are pretty much alike,' he concludes – a statement that even an amateur student of Victorian politics, with its spectacular faction fights and towering personal animosities, would have trouble in swallowing. Typically, when he stood for Parliament himself, at Oxford in 1857, it was as an independent. Rising above these imperfect attempts to make sense of the chaotic early Victorian landscape, and occasionally dominating them to the exclusion of all else, was a deep sense of insecurity: a lack of confidence not merely in his relationships with other people, but in his professional life. Even as a successful novelist he was forever on the lookout for a lucrative public appointment that would absolve him from having to work: as late as 1848 – the year he finished Vanity Fair – he contrived to get himself called to the Bar in the hope that it might improve his employability. There are times, in fact, particularly towards the end, when money worries began to press on him, when he seems to have been perfectly willing to sacrifice his career on the altar of the gentlemanly life.

No doubt these are false distinctions. To the hack-journalist of the early 1840s, with two children to bring up and doctors' bills to pay, money was money, whether it came from The Times or some government sinecure. Doubtless, too, the sinecure would have been preferable to the time-honoured journalist's obligation to ingratiate oneself with social inferiors. And yet somehow the professional insecurities are all of a piece with the other frailties and fractures of Thackeray's life. Even the portraits and photographs of him lack a prevailing pattern. Daniel Maclise's early sketch shows a burly and faintly arrogant young man with an eye-glass, sprawling over a chair; James B. Lambdin's 1855 painting depicts a rubicund but still slightly watchful middle-aged gentleman; the late-period photographs resemble a bad-tempered pug. Understandably, to set about penetrating this enigma was the delight of the mid-Victorian journalist. In the absence of any settled view of Thackeray, gossip-columnists and paragraph-mongers eagerly set about creating their own – often with bizarre results. As early as 1848, for example, he was being confidently proposed as the original of Mr Rochester. Posthumous speculation of this kind went on for as long as forty years, and there is a delightfully cross letter to Annie from Dickens' daughter Kate, written in 1905, complaining about Mrs Lynn Linton's memoirs ('How did she know who were our fathers' loves?' Kate wondered acidly. 'Of this I am certain, that neither of them ever loved her ...')

To the late-twentieth-century biographer, the challenge is that much more forbidding. Thackeray himself distrusted biography, famously instructing his daughters that none should be written. At the same time he believed very strongly that an author's personality is intimately revealed in the words he writes. 'All that I can remember of books generally is the impression I get of the author,' he wrote once. Here, perhaps, among the millions of words – the original Smith, Elder edition of his collected works runs to twenty-six volumes – words ground out on chop-house dining tables, in stage coaches, against deadlines with the printer's boy chafing in the hall, at leisure in the study at Palace Green, his true spirit resides.

One hundred and thirty-Six years after Thackeray's death, George Hodder's 'bits and fragments' lie scattered about. In an age that encouraged solid memorials – it is hardly possible to lift the volumes of Moneypenny's and Buckle's life of Disraeli unaided – his is one of the better-documented Victorian lives. There are six fat volumes of letters. Philip Collins' selection of the reminiscences of Thackeray's friends runs to 400 pages. Annie spent the rest of her long life – she died in 1919 – refining the memories of her upbringing in the house at Young Street, where Charlotte Brontë once came to dinner. What impresses is not so much the volume of the material – after all, the collected edition of Carlyle's correspondence has just reached its twenty-sixth volume – as its sheer variety. There are tributes in verse, ranging from Tom Taylor's Punch memorial to some execrable lines contributed by Austin Dobson to the 1911 Cornhill centenary number. Half a dozen novelists, from celebrities like Disraeli to relative unknowns such as James Hannay, produced recognisable fictional portraits. Assimilating this tide of representations – some good-natured; others, like the embittered critic St Barbe in Endymion, transparently malign – can drag the biographer onto the wilder shores of Victorian literature: tracking down obscurities such as Hannay's King Dobbs (1849), which features a race called the 'Somniatics', inhabitants of an imaginary Pacific island, whose chief ornament is a 'philosophical novelist' strongly reminiscent of the author of Vanity Fair.

In the end, though, these are side-shows to the main event. Essentially the materials for Thackeray's life boil down to four main categories: correspondence, his daughter Annie's recollections, reminiscences of friends and his own works. Like many another Victorian novelist he was a prolific letter writer, whose correspondence formed an integral part of his routine. In mid-1852, hard at work on Esmond, he supplied a thumb-nail sketch of his daily life to a female friend: 'I write all day at my book – I go into the world then wh. is a part of my vocation, and takes up a woeful quantity of my time. Many a day I find my only resource is to stay up in my bed-room, in bed, and go on working there with an amanuensis – and when quite tired and fagged have commonly eight or ten letters to write many of them upon business not my own. Hence I correspond with scarce anybody ...' Even given the Victorian tendency to insist that letters should be letters – George Gissing's communications to his intellectual friends almost demand separate volumes – this is a large understatement. Many of Thackeray's letters were narrowly reactive: business affairs, the inevitable invitations. At the same time, he kept up correspondences with a circle of close friends, which, in the case of confidantes such as Mrs Procter or the bonnes soeurs, Jane Elliot and Kate Perry, could extend over decades. His friendship with Mrs Brookfield – the key relationship of his middle years – was largely conducted in ink; the Brookfield correspondence, in particular, shows Thackeray staking out a distinct environment in which he could address the woman he loved, untrammelled (up to a point) by drawing-room convention or, more important perhaps, by the presence of her husband. The 3,000 or so surviving letters of this non-correspondent must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole.

The tortuous publishing history of Thackeray's letters since his death is largely down to Thackeray. The ban on biographical speculation, dutifully extended by Annie to cover correspondence, held for nearly a quarter of a century. The first substantial breach came in 1887 when Mrs Brookfield, hard up and divining that she sat on a hot property, published a selection in Scribner's Magazine, and subsequently in book form. A decade later Annie unbent sufficiently to include many extracts (mostly from family letters) in her prefaces to a new edition of her father's works. Revised and enlarged, these later introduced the Century Edition of 1910–11. Meanwhile, the field was becoming crowded. General James Grant Wilson's two-volume Thackeray in the United States (1904), which printed over a hundred letters from American sources, emerged in the same year as Lucy Baxter's Thackeray's Letters to an American Family. Further extracts from the Brookfield correspondence, which had come the way of a private collector, caused a minor sensation on their press publication in 1914. Subsequently Clement Shorter's edition of the letters exchanged with Edward Fitzgerald (1916) and the posthumous Letters of Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1924) filled in certain gaps while hinting at the range of unseen material in the hands of libraries and private collections.

Eventually, three-quarters of a century after Thackeray's death, Gordon N. Ray – then a promising young American academic in search of a post-doctoral subject – started work on a definitive edition. But the visits to England that Ray anticipated after his initial trip in 1939 to receive the Thackeray family's benediction were postponed by the war. The six-year stint on his monumental The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray (four volumes, 1945–6) consequently took place in America and was punctuated by war service, and apart from family correspondence and a few other letters from scattered sources, no English holdings are represented. Despite these omissions, Ray's edition is a landmark in Thackeray studies, not least for the series of biographical sketches that introduce the first volume. When the war ended, Ray returned to England – there is a wonderful account of him greeting the literary scholar Geoffrey Tillotson with a volley of questions about manuscript locations – to pick up the thread. Many of these discoveries were excerpted in his two-volume biography, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity (1955) and Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom (1958), and in the earlier study The Buried Life (1952). Others have turned up in Ann Monsarrat's Thackeray: Uneasy Victorian (1980), and in numerous studies of the nineteenth-century publishing scene (a good recent example is Peter Shillingsburg's Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and W.M. Thackeray, 1992). All of this material, and a great deal more, appears in Edgar F. Harden's equally monumental Supplement to Ray, published at vast expense on the farther side of the Atlantic in 1994. If nothing else, Harden gives an idea of the huge volume of Thackeray material that has emerged in the past half-century: 1,400 new letters, nearly 250 re-edited from newly available texts printed in Ray from inaccurate sources; a number of diaries and account books, and the 'Firebrand correspondence', a political spoof from 1841. This is a genuine supplement, too, in that new and revised letters fit exactly into Ray's sequence, thereby simplifying comparisons of newly edited versions with Ray's originals. Given the conditions under which he worked, Ray's editing was little short of miraculous, but there are errors. Some of these are simply trivial slips in punctuation – an area in which Thackeray himself was notoriously erratic. Others are more significant. There is a revealing correction, for instance, to the letter of 5 July 1840 to Richard Monckton-Milnes, planning a joint visit to the public execution of Courvoisier (the origin of one of his sharpest early sketches, 'Going to See a Man Hanged'). Ray's version runs: 'I must go to bed, that's the fact, or I never shall be able to attend to the work of to-morrow properly.' Harden has: 'I must go to bed that's the fact or I never shall be able to enjoy the fun of tomorrow properly' (my italics). The shift from sobriety to flippancy is marked, and the effect of 'Going to See a Man Hanged' and its stark conclusion – 'I fully confess that I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done' – that much more emphatic.


Excerpted from Thackeray by D. J. Taylor. Copyright © 1999 D. J. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
I The Road to Kensal Green,
II Eastern Child,
III The 370th Boy,
IV Alma Mater,
V Weimar Days,
VI London and Paris 1831–5,
VII 'The Gal of My Art',
VIII The Drowning Woman,
IX The Uncleared Table,
Interlude – Thackeray: The Pursuit,
X A Cockney in Ireland,
XI The Vagrant Heart,
XII Duty Kept,
XIII 'All but at the Top of the Tree',
Interlude – Why Thackeray Matters,
XIV The Angel at the Hearth,
XV Edged Tools,
XVI Stepping Westward,
XVII The Newcomes,
XVIII The Public Eye,
XIX The Garrick Club Affair,
XX The Editorial Chair,
XXI Ending Up,
XXII Afterwards,
Appendix: A Thackeray Scrapbook,
Image Gallery,
Notes and Further Reading,
About the Author,

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