Thackeray the Sentimental Sceptic

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, June 1993 | Go to article overview
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Thackeray the Sentimental Sceptic


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


OPPRESSED as he was by his sense of a lost past and a solitary present spent in either defeat or disillusion, W. M. Thackeray was readily attracted by whatever was stable in an age of uncertainty. Although there is little distinct landscape in his novels, and even in his travel books his response to scenery is largely anecdotal, his heart warms to the substantially unchanging streets, each having its own social tradition, of such places as London, Brighton and Paris. Like his cockney excursionist in Vanity Fair, Thackeray is 'a lover of human nature rather than of prospects of any kind'.(1) In spite of that, Thackeray remains a poet and a scholar of the urban scene. He is acute in the distinctions implied by different London addresses: between Becky Sharp's Brompton and Amelia Sedley's Fulham, geographically adjoining suburbs, but socially quite disparate. Nobody understood better than Thackeray the dividing line drawn through London by Regent Street and its continuations. To the west of the line lived the four or five hundred people who constituted fashionable society in 1847.(2)

The opposition of western to eastern London is as marked in Thackeray's novels as it is in Restoration Comedy. Like the hero of a play by Congreve, Rawdon Crawley exclaims of George Osborne, whom he is modishly bilking at cards, 'Hang these City fellows, they must bleed; and I've not done with him yet, I can tell you' (Vanity Fair, chapter 14). Major Pendennis, although he has lived in London for much of his life, cannot find his way to a district so unfashionable as the Temple and, when he is forced to go there, sends his manservant to plot a route for him (Pendennis, chapter 29).

Thackeray never moved into patrician Mayfair, although he did reside immediately north of it in Albion Street and a little south of it in Jermyn Street; which is appropriate to his position as a social commentator. He observes Mayfair from a distance, not as an admirer but as a spy. He belongs to neither high life nor to low. As he claims, he 'is just as familiar with Newgate as with the palaces of our revered aristocracy, and has seen the outside of both' (Vanity Fair, chapter 6). He settled in the remote purlieus of Kensington, haunted as it was by the ghosts of the late Stuarts who had cast such a spell over him. It is true that he is more in sympathy, although it is a teasing sympathy, with Major Pendennis and Rawdon Crawley than with James Yellowplush or the Mosses of Wardour Street. He identifies himself with Henry Esmond and Arthur Pendennis, certainly; but also with the humbly born artist John James Ridley, in whose person he once planned to write a novel (Ray II,p.265). Thackeray's mightiest aristocrat, the Marquis of Steyne, also lives outside Mayfair, in one of the squares north of Oxford Street, as if as scornful as Thackeray himself of such foolish demarcations. He and Thackeray are wilful outsiders in their contempt for mere fashion.

London was important to Thackeray as providing a firm setting, at least, for his flitting mutabilities: London as Colonel Newcome witnessed it between two disappointed retreats to India, where he was supporting London's opulence, on a summer evening at five o'clock:

Horses under the charge of men in red jackets are pacing up and down St. James's Street. Cabmen on the stand are regaling with beer. Gentlemen with grooms behind them pass towards the Park (Newcomes, chapter 6).

Mere place-names become evocative. The impoverished paterfamilias vacates his house in Harley Street and subsides into lodgings in Pentonville or Kensington, yet finds that his neighbours respect him more in those outlying districts: 'If I cannot be first in Piccadilly, let me try Hatton Garden, and see whether I cannot lead the ton there' (Newcomes, chapter 9). But these traditions and associations do not last forever. Certain districts become fashionable or unfashionable. Thackeray contemplates the decline, in Victorian times, of such quarters as Portland Place and Bedford Square, and compares their downfall to that of conquered cities in India -- Agra, Benares and Lucknow -- where shahs and sultans once ruled (Newcomes, chapter 8).

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