William Makepeace Thackeray

Portret van William Makepeace Thackeray

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over William Makepeace Thackeray.


Letter While Dickens was in the blaze of his early fame, another master of English fiction, dealing with the realities of life and the various aspects of English society, was gradually making way in public favour, and attaining the full measure of his intellectual strength. William Makepeace Thackeray – the legimate successor of Henry Fielding – was a native of Calcutta, born in the year 1811.

His family was originally from Yorkshire, but his great-grandfather, Dr.Thomas Thackeray, became Master of Harrow School. The youngest son of this Dr.Thackeray, William Makepeace, obtained an appointment in the East India Company’s service; and his son, Richmond Thackeray, father of the novelist, followed the same career, filling, at the time of his death in 1816 (at the early age of thirty), the office of Secretary to the board of Revenue at Calcutta. The son, with his widowed mother, left India, and arrived in England in 1817.

„When I first saw England,” he said in one of his lectures, „she was in mourning for the young Princess Charlotte, the hope of the empire. I came from India as a child, and our ship touched at an island on the way home, where my black servant took me a walk over the rocks and hills, till we passed a garden where we saw a man walking. „That is he,” said the black man; „that is Bonaparte; he eats three sheep every day, and all the children he can lay hands on!” There were people in the British dominions besides that poor black who had an equal terror and horror of the Corsican ogre.”

Young Thackeray was placed in the Charterhouse School of London, which had formerly received as gown-boys or scholars the melodious poet Crashaw, Addison, Steele, and John Wesley. Thackeray has affectionately commemorated the old Carthusian establishment in several of his writings, and gas invested it with a strong pathetic interest by making it the last refuge and death-scene of one of the finest of his characters, Colonel Newcome.

From the Charterhouse, Thackeray went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and whilst resident there in 1829 he made his first appearance as an author. In conjunction with a college friend (Mr.Lettsom), he carried on for a short time a light humorous weekly miscellany entitled The Snob. In 1830-31, he was on of „at least a score of young English lads who used to live at Weimar for study, or sport, or society; all of which were to be had in the friendly little Saxon capital,” and who were received with the kindliest hospitality by the Grand Duke and Duchess. He did not remain at college to take his degree. His great ambition was to be an artitst, and for this purpose the studied at Rome and Paris.

On attaining his majority he became possessed of a considerable fortune, but some losses and speculations reduced his patrymony. At one time he lent, or rather gave, £500 to Dr.Maginn, and many other instances of his liberality might be recorded. Thackeray first became known through Fraser’s Magazine, to which he was for several years a regular contributor, under the names of „Michael Angelo Titmarsh”, „George Fitz-Boodle, Esquire,” „Charles Yellowplush,” &c. – names typical of his artistic and satirical predilections. Tales, criticism, descriptive sketches, and poetry were all dashed off by his ready pen. They were of unequal merit, and for some time attracted little attention; but John Sterling, among others, recognised the genius of Thackeray in his tale of The Hoggarty Diamond, and ranked its author with Fielding and Goldsmith.

His style was that of the scholar combined with theshrewdness and knowledge of a man of the world. „Titmarsh” had both seen and read much. His school and college life, his foreign travels and residence abroad, his artistic and literary experiences, even his „losses,” supplied a wide field for observation, reflection and satire.

He was thirty years of age or more ere he made any bold push for fame. By this time his mind was fully stored and matured. Thackeray never, we suspect, paid much attention to what Burke called the „mechanical part of literature” – the mere collocation of words and constructions of sentences; but, of course, greater facility as well as more perfect art would be acquired by repeated efforts. The great regulators – taste, knowledge of the world, and gentlemanly feeling – he possessed ere he began to write.

In 1836, as he has himself related, he offered Dickens to undertake the task of illustrating one of his works – Pickwick – but his drawings were considered unsuitable. In the same year he joined with his step-father, Major Carmichael Smyth, and others in starting a daily newspaper, The Constitutional, which was continued for about a twelvemonth, but proved a loss to all concerned. Thackeray entered himself of the Middle Temple, and was called to the bar (May 1848), but apparently without any intention of following the profession of the law.

Under his pseudonym of Titmarsh, literary Cockney and sketcher, he had published several works – The Paris Sketch-book, two volumes, 1840; The Second Funeral of Napoleon, The Chronicle of the Drum, 1841; and The Irish Sketchbook, 1843. None of these became popular, though the Irish sketches are highly amusing, and contain some of Thackeray’s happiest touches. The pencil of Titmarsh, in this and some other of his works comes admirably in aid of his pen; and the Irish themselves confessed that their people, cabins and costume had never been more faithfully depicted.

About the time that these Irish sketches appeared, their author was contributing, under his alter ego of Fitz-Boodle to Fraser’s Magazine, his tale of Barry Lyndon, which appears to us the best of his short stories. It is a relation of the adventures of an Irish picaroon, or gambler and fortune-hunter, and abounds in racy humour and striking incidents. The commencement of Punch – the wittiest of periodicals – in 1841 opened up a new field for Thackeray, and his papers, signed „The Fat Contributor,” soon became famous. These were followed by James’s Diary and the Snob papers, distinguished by their inimitable vein of irony and wit; and he also made various contributions in verse.

A journey to the East next led to Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by way of Lisbon, Athens, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, by M.A.Titmarsh. This volume appeared in 1846; and in the following year he issued a small Christmas book, Mrs.Perkin’s Ball.

But before this time Thackeray had commenced, in monthly parts, his story of Vanity Fair, a Novel without a Hero, illustrated by himself, or, to use his own expression, „illuminated with the author’s own candles.” The first number appeared in February 1847. Every month added to the popularity of this work; and ere it was concluded it was obvious that Thackeray’s probationary period was past – that Michael Angelo Titmarsh and George Fitz-Boodle would disappear from Fraser, and their author take his place in his own rpoper name and person as one of the first of English novelists, and the greatest social satirist of his age.

In regularity of story and consistency of detail – thought these by no means constitute Thackeray’s strength – Vanity Fair greatly excels any of his previous works, while in delineation of character it stands pre-eminent. Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley – one recognised as the „impersonation of intellect without virtue, and the other as that of virtue without intellect” – are not only perfectly original characters, but are drawn with so much dramatic power, knowledge of life, and shrewd observation, as to render them studies in human nature and moral anatomy.

Amidst all her selfishness, Becky preserves a portion of the reader’s sympathy, and we follow her with unabated interest through her vicissitudes as French teacher, governess, the wife of the heavy dragoon, the lady of fashion, and even the desperate and degraded swindler. From part of this demoralisation we could have wished that Becky had been spared by her historian, and the story would have been complete, morally and artistically, without it. But there are few scenes, even the most cynical and humiliating, that the reader desires to strike out: all have such an air of truth, and are lively, biting, and humorous. The novelist had soared far beyond the region of mere town-life and snobbism. He had also greatly heightened the interest felt in his characters by connecting them with historical events and places. We have a picture of Brussels in 1815; and as Fielding in Tom Jones glanced at some of the incidents of the Jacobite rising in ’45, Thackeray reproduced, as it were, the terrors and anxieties felt by thousands as to the issue of the great struggles at Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

Having completed Vanity Fair, Thackeray published another Christmas volume, Our Street, 1848, to which a companion-volume, Dr.Birch and his young Friends, was added next year.

He also entered upon another monthly serial – his second great work – The History of Pendennis (1849 – 1850). This was an attempt to describe the gentlemen of the present age – „no better nor worse than most educated men.” And even these educated men, according to the satirist, cannot be painted as they are, with the notorious foibles and selfishness of their education.

„Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost powers a man. We must drape him, and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the natural in our art.”

This is rather too broadly stated, but society, no doubt, considers that it would not be benefited by such toleration. Thackeray, however, has done more than most men to strip off conventional disguises and hypocrisies, and he affords glimpses of the interdicted region – too near at imes, but without seeking to render evil attractive. His hero, Pendennis, is scarcely a higher model of humanity than Tom Jones, though the difference in national manners and feelings, brought about during a hundred years, has saved him from some of the descents into which Jones was almost perforce drawn.

Thackeray’s hero falls in love at sixteen, his juvenile flame being a young actress, who jilts him on finding that his fortune is not what she believed it to be. This boyish passion, contrasted with the character of the actress and that of her father – a drunken Irish captain – is forcibly delineated. Pendennis is sent to the university, gets into debt, is plucked, and returns home to his widowed mother, who is ever kond, gentle, and forgiving, but without any strong sense of firmness – another favourite type od character with Thackeray.
The youth then becomes a law student, but tires of the profession, and adopts that of literature. In this he is ultimately successful, and by means of his novels and poetry, aided by the services of his uncle, Major Pendennis, he obtains an introduction into fashionable society.

A varied career of this kind affords scope for the author’s powers of description, and for the introduction of characters of all grades and pretensions. Major Pendennis – an antiquated beau, a military Will Honeycomb, and a determined tuft-hunter – is a finished portrait. The sketches of literary life – professional writers – may be compared with a similar description in Humphry Clinker; and the domestic scenes in the novel are true to nature, both in their satirical views of life and in incidents of a tender and pathetic nature.

Pendennis was concluded in 1850. In the Christmas of that year Thackeray republished one of his Titmarsh contributions to Fraser, 1846, a mock continuation of Scott’s Ivanhoe, entitled Rebecca and Rowena. This piece was certainly not worthy of resuscitation. An original Christmas tale was ready next winter – The Kickleburys on the Rhine, in which Mr.M.A.Titmarsh was revived, in order to conduct and satirise the Kicklebury family – mother, daughter, courier, and footman, in all their worldly pride, vulgarity, and grandeur, as they cross the Channel, and proceed to their destination at „Rougetnoirburg.” This is a clever little satire – faithful though bitter, as all continental travellers admit; but it was seized upon by the Times newspaper as illustrating that propensity charged upon the novelist of representing only the dark side of human nature – its failings and vices – as if no real goodness or virtue existed in the world. The accusation thus brought against Thackeray he repelled, or rather ridiculed, in a reply entitled An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer, prefixed to a second edition of the Christmas volume.

In the summer of 1851 Thackeray appeared as a lecturer. His subject was The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century; and all the rank and fashion, with no small portion of the men of letters of London, flocked to Willis’s Rooms to hear the popular novelist descant on the lives and works of his great predecessors in fiction from Swift to Golssmith. The lectures were afterwards repeated in Scotland and in America; and they are now published, forming one of the most delightful little books in the language. Ten thousand copies of the cheap edition of this volume were sold in one week.

To Swift, Thackeray was perhaps too severe – to Fielding, too indulgent; Steele is painted en beau in cordial love, and with little shadow; yet we know not where the reader will find in the same limited compass so much just and discriminating criticism, or so many fine thoughts and amusing anecdotes, as those which this loving brother of the craft has treasured up regarding his „fellows” of the last century.

The Queen Anne period touched upon in these lectures formed the subject of Thackeray’s next novel, Esmond, published in three volumes, 1852. The work is in the form of an autobiography. The hero, Colonel Henry Esmond, is a Cavalier and Jacobite, who, after serving his country abroad, mingles with its wits and courtiers at home; plots for the restoration of the Chevalier St.George; and finally retires to Virginia, where in his old age, he writes this memoir of himself and of the noble family of Castlewood, of which he is a member.
Historical events and characters are freely introduced. Edmond serves under Marlborough at Belnheim and Ramilies, and we have a portrait of the great general as darkly coloured as the portrait of him by Macaulay.

The Chevalier is also brought upon the stage; and Swift, Congreve, Addison, and Steele are among the interlocators. But the chief interest of the work centres in a few characters – in Esmond himself, the pure, disinterested, and high-minded Chevalier; in Lady Castlewood; and in Lady Castlewood’s daughter, Beatrix, a haughty and spoiled, yet fascinating beauty. Esmond woos Beatrix – a hopeless pursuit of many years; but he is finally rejected; and in the end he is united to Lady Castlewood – to the mother instead of the daughter – for whom he had secretly cherished from his boyhood an affection amounting to veneration.

It required all Thackeray’s art and genius to keep such a plot from revolting the reader, and we cannot say that he has wholly triumphed over the difficulty. The boyish passion is true to nature. At that period of life the mature beauty is more overpowering to the youthful imagination than any charmer of sixteen. But when Esmond marries he is forty, and the lady is ten years his senior. The romance of life is over. The style od the Queen Anne period is admirably copied in thought, sentiment, and diction, and many striking and eloquent passages occur troughout the work. It is a grand and melancholy story, standing in the same relation to Thackeray’s other works that Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor does to the Waverley group.

The next work of Thackeray is considered his masterpiece. It is in the old vein – a transcript of real life in the present day, with all its faults and follies, hypocrisy and injustice. The work came recommended by the familiar and inviting title of The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family. Edited by Arthur Pendennis, Esq.. It was issued in the monthly form, and was completed in 1855. The leading theme or moral of the story is the midery occasioned by forced and ill-assorted marriages. That unhallowed traffic of the great and worldly is denounced with all the author’s moral indignation and caustic severity, and its results are developed in incidents of the most striking and affecting description.

The real hero of the novel is Colonel Newcome – a counterpart to Fielding’s Allworthy. The old officer’s high sense of honour, his simplicity, his never-failing kondness of heart, his antique courtesy – as engaging as that of Sir Roger de Coverley – his misfortunes and ruin through the knavery of others – and his death as a „poor brother” in the Charterhouse, form altogether so noble, so affecting a picture, and one so perfectly natural and life-like, that it can scarcely be even recalled without tears. The author, it was said, might have given a less painful end to the good Colonel, to soothe him after the buffetings of the world. The same remark was made on Scott’s treatment of his Jewess Rebecca, and we have no doubt Thackeray’s answer would be that of Scott – „A character of a highly virtuous and lofty stamp is degraded rather than exalted by an attempt to reward virtue with worldly prosperity. Such is not the recompense which Providence has deemed worthy of suffering merit.”

The best of Thackeray’s female portraits – his highest compliment to the sex – is in this novel. Ethel Newcome, in her pride and sensibility – the former balancing, and at last overcoming, the weaknesses induced by the latter – is drawn with great dilecacy and truth; while in the French characters, the family of De Florac and others, we have an entirely new creation – a cluster of originals. The gay roué, Paul de Florac – who plays the Englisman in top-boots and buckskins – could only be hit off by one equally at home in French and in English society. Of course there are in The newcomes many other personages and classes – as the sanctimonious fop, the coarse and covetous trader, the parasite, the schemer, &c. – who are drawn with the novelists’s usual keen insight and minute detail, though possessing fewer features of novelty or interest.

Recurring to the pleasant and profitable occupation of lecturing, Thackeray crossed the Atlantic, taking with him four more lectures – The Four Georges – which, after being delivered in the United States in 1855-56, were, on his return repeated in London, and in most of the large towns in England and Scotland. The Hanoverian monarchs afforded but little room for eulogistic writing or fine moral painting; and the dark shades – the coarseness, immorality, and heartlessness that pervaded the courts of at least the First, Second, and Fourth of the Georges – were exhibited without any relief or softening. George III., as the better man, fared better with the lecturer; and the closing scene, when, old, blind, and bereft of reason, the monarch sank to rest, was described with great pathos and picturesque effect. The society, literature, manners, and fashion of the different periods were briefly touched upon – somewhat in the style of Horace Walpole; and we believe Thackeray contemplated, among his future tasks, expanding these lectures into memoirs of the different reigns.

The novelist now aimed at a different sort of public distinction. The representation of the city of Oxford becoming vacant, he offered himself as a candidate – the advocate of all liberal measures – but was defeated by Mr.Cardwell (July 1857), the numbers being 1085 to 1018. Before the close of the year Thacjeray was at the more appropriate occupation of another serial. The Castlewood family was revived, and in The Virginians we had a tale of the days of George II. – of Chesterfield, Queensberry, Garrick, and Johnson – the gaming-table, coffee-house, and theatre, but with Washington, Wolfe, and the American war in the background.

As a story, The Virginians is defective. The incidents hang loosely together, and want progressive interest, but the work abounds in passages of fine philosophic humour and satire. The author frequently stops to moralise and preach sotto voce to his readers, and in these digressions we have some of his choisest and most racy sentences. Youth and love are his favourite themes. There is a healthy natural world both within and without the world of fashion – particularly without. Mere wealth and ton go for nothing in the composition of happiness, and genuine, manly love is independent of the sunshine of prosperity.

For two years (1860-62) Thackeray conducted The Cornhill Magazine, and in the pages of this popular miscellany appeared his Roundabout Papers – a series of light graceful essays and sketches; also two novels, Lovel the Widower, and Philip on his Way through the World, which were scarcely worthy of his reputation. He had commenced another story, Dennis Duval, of which four monthly portions were published; and he contemplated Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Anne, as a continuation of Macaulay’s History.

All his schemes, however, were frustrated by his sudden and lamentable death. His health had long been precarious, and on the day preceding to his death he had been in great suffering. Still he moved about; „he was out several times,” said Shirley Brooks, „and was seen in Palace Gardens, Kensington, reading a book. Before the dawn on Thursday (December 24, 1863) he was where where is no night.” „Never more,” said the Times, „shall the fine head of Mr.Thackeray, with its mass of silvery hair, be seen towering among us.”

He had died in bed alone and unseen, struggling, as it appeared, with a violent spasmodic attack, which had caused the effusion on the brain of which he died. The medical attendants who conducted the post-mortem examination stated that the brain was of great size, weighing 58½ ounces. Non omnis mortuus est. „He will be remembered,” says James Hannay, „for ages to come, as long as the hymn of praise rises in the ol Abbey of Westminster, and wherever the English tongue is native to men, from the banks of the Ganges to those of the Mississippi.”