Swinburne and Thackeray's the Newcomes

Article excerpt

In The Home Life of Swinburne (1922), Clara Watts-Dunton, widow of Swinburne's close friend and latter-day guardian Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton, details the domestic habits and routine of the poet as she observed them at The Pines, Putney, after her marriage in November 1905. Clara Watts-Dunton's biography is sometimes mocked for its banality, but nonetheless remains a valuable record of Swinburne's last years, providing useful information about his writing habits, friendships, literary and other tastes. Moreover, Clara's seemingly artless chatty style belies the fact that she was almost aware of certain chapters in the poet's private history--something she hints at obliquely in the following comment:

   He was, I remember, extremely fond of Thackeray. "The Newcomes" was
   one of his favourite novels, and Ethel Newcome was his favourite
   heroine in fiction. Ethel, I have always thought, must have
   appealed to him as resembling some member of his own family,
   perhaps one of his sisters. (1)

When Swinburne first read Thackeray's The Newcomes is not clear. He was sixteen when the first monthly number of the novel came out in serial form in October 1853, with the last number appearing in August 1855. He was from a child a voracious reader and had already formed an enduring passion for Dickens whose novels were being published in serial form during his schooldays. (2) Swinburne's future friend, Edward Burne-Jones wrote an earnest essay on the The Newcomes in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, the journal he founded with William Morris, which was published in January 1856, the month Swinburne entered Balliol College. Swinburne had certainly read the novel by February 25, 1860, because we find him alluding to one of its characters, Sir Barnes Newcome, in a letter to William Bell Scott (Letters, 1:32). Three years later he would meet Thackeray himself along with his two daughters during Easter (April) 1863, at Fryston, the home of Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton. Thackeray's daughter, the author Annie Thackeray Ritchie, who would remain a lifelong friend of Swinburne's, famously described her first impressions of the poet for his biographer Edmund Gosse, noting her father's sympathetic liking for the young man. (3) Unfortunately there was no chance for a deeper relationship to develop as Thackeray died on December 24 that same year.

The Newcomes, which for Henry James ranked among the novels he described as "large loose baggy monsters," does not appeal as much to modern tastes as Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847-8), but was, with Henry Esmond (1852), considered by the Victorians to be one of his two most important books. (4) Burne-Jones wrote that "this last and greatest work of Mr Thackeray" had "done a good work for society in giving us this story of our manner of life so faithfully and tenderly," and offering "a wonderfully faithful picture of the great world as it passes daily before us, many-sided, deeply intricate." (5) Set in the 1830s and 1840s, The Newcomes, is nonetheless for modern readers an illuminating, often satirical guide to the period, documenting the manners and morals, the triumphs and crises that constitute what the subtitle of the novel somewhat sardonically refers to as The History of a Most Respectable Family.

Of that family the figure who most won favor with Victorian readers was Colonel Thomas Newcome, simple, sincere, an exemplum of the benevolent gentleman. His fortunes and disappointments are contrasted with those of his more worldly-wise and aspirant twin half-brothers Hobson and Brian (later Sir Brian) Newcome. Though not without flaw and capable of woeful misjudgement, Colonel Newcome emerges as the epitome of noble, upright behavior in adversity, his eventual demise entailing one of Victorian literature's most celebrated and edifying deathbed scenes. Swinburne, although he liked the character of the Colonel--and cherished an engraving of him--was not an uncritical admirer, commenting judiciously in his short monograph A Note on Charlotte Bronte (1877) that "our sense of his intellectual infirmity and imperfection is never quite overcome or transfigured by our sense of his moral and chivalrous excellence. …