Thackeray's Memorials of Defeat

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Thackeray's Memorials of Defeat

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

'HE did not invent much, I fancy,' wrote Thackeray in his brief but admiring account of Smollett.(1) The same may be supposed of William Makepeace Thackeray himself, who resembled Smollett both in his minuteness of observation and in his scorn for fiction of an improbably romantic sort. In Pendennis Thackeray describes the descent of Mr. Wagg, the fashionable novelist, upon the country house of his rival, Arthur Pendennis. Mr. Wagg observes the signs of shabby gentility about the place, such as the old gardener who doubles as footman; speculates on the clothes hung out to dry on the gooseberry-bushes; assesses the umbrellas and the ladies' clogs in the hall, and draws conclusions from Mrs. Pendennis's worn gloves: 'Mr. Wagg noted everything that he saw ... Such minutiae attracted Wagg instinctively; he seized them in spite of himself' (Pendennis, ch. 26). So much, at least, Mr. Wagg had in common with Thackeray, a sharpshooter of Victorian social detail. Thackeray trains his sights on Emily Fotheringay's 'pair of ex-white satin shoes' and on Mr. Wenham's 'usual demure look, and stealthy smile with which he commonly surveyed the tips of his neat little shining boots' (Pendennis, chs. 12 & 26). He measures Lady Kew's handshake, which consists of 'the momentary loan of two knuckly old fingers' (The Newcomes, ch. 30). He contemplates the footman on Lady Ann Newcome's travels, who 'beholds Rhine and Neckar, mountain and valley, village and ruin, with a like dismal composure' (Newcomes, ch. 27). He marvels at the knick-knacks with which, within an hour of entering her lodgings in Brighton, Lady Ann heaps the tables: the workboxes, wondrous inkstands, portfolios, perpetual calendars, scissor-cases and miniature gilt easels to hold family-portraits (Newcomes, ch. 9). Thackeray depicts circumstance better than incident, which is why Barry Lyndon, a novel of nearly bare incident, is so much slighter than his later novels. Steadily Thackeray observed, deftly he selected, and most intently of all Thackeray, who once defined novels as 'thinking about oneself', observed Thackeray.(2)

Thackeray's fiction is his spiritual autobiography, although one must beware of the notion cited by Flaubert in his dictionary of hackneyed ideas: 'It is pointless to admire genius: it is just a neurosis'.(3) Whilst writing Pendennis Thackeray fell sick of a fever, so likewise Pendennis goes down with a fever in chapter 52. Pendennis is largely Thackeray himself; as are, in their pride, their sarcasm, their generosity and their exact personal honour, his heroes Clive Newcome, Philip Firmin and, as Thackeray admitted to his mother, Henry Esmond himself (Ray II, p. 181). Whenever Arthur Pendennis meets Philip Firmin in The Adventures of Philip, the Thackeray of 1854 is confronted with the Thackeray of 1834, which is why Pendennis is so patient with his overbearing junior: Thackeray is looking back on himself. Most of Thackeray's heroes attend Charterhouse School, where he was himself educated. Through all his novels he trails his dislike of his Irish mother-in-law, so that scarcely a mother-in-law and scarcely an Irishwoman escape his quips. He was unlucky enough to fall in love with the wife of his friend, William Brookfield. Two years after Thackeray's enforced separation from Jane Brookfield he started The Newcomes, one of the main topics of which is Colonel Newcome's pathetic constancy to another man's wife. Having persuaded himself that Jane Brookfield had been dragged into a marriage of convenience, in which she was badly treated, Thackeray introduces no fewer than five marriages of convenience in The Newcomes. His friend, Anthony Trollope once remarked that Thackeray carried his heart-strings in a crystal case (Ray II, p.420). That crystal case was his fiction. Just as he seldom wrote of a locality which he had not thoroughly explored, so he rarely wrote of an experience which he had not shared. He builds his stories on a vividly felt actuality, and rightly claims, at the beginning of Lovel the Widower, that although there is not a word of truth in his story, it is all true (Lovel, ch. …

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