Thackeray: Man of Letters

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Thackeray: Man of Letters


Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review


'Of what use keeping letters? I say, Burn, burn. No heart-pangs. No reproaches. No yesterday. Was it happy or miserable? To think of it is always melancholy.' This is what Thackeray tells us in his last completed - and most autobiographical - novel, The Adventures of Philip. Fortunately many of Thackeray"s friends and relations paid no attention to this oft-repeated advice and they preserved his marvellous letters.

It is just half a century since the late Professor Gordon Ray published the first two volumes of The Letters and Private Papers of William Make-peace Thackeray. Two further volumes followed in 1946 and since then these four large volumes have been one of the most frequently read, or at least frequently cited, sources for an understanding of the Victorian world. For many years it was known that more Thackeray letters were now available in manuscript libraries. This presented a potential editor and his publisher with a problem. Should they produce an entirely new collection of letters or some form of a supplement? Naturally the size of the previous edition will be the crucial factor with any new collection of an author's correspondence. Thus in 1983, when Professor N. John Hall produced his superb edition in two volumes of The Letters of Anthony Trollope he and his publishers (Stanford University Press) found it feasible to include all of Trollope's then known letters and this totally replaces Bradford Booth's one-volume Oxford edition of 1951. However such a course was impossible with Thackeray, given both the size of the previous edition and the number of new letters.

To compile an edition of the letters of a great author is no easy task and an editor opens himself to all sorts of criticism from mis-reading a scribbled word or neglecting to include a brief note or making a minor mistake in some footnote. It is an even harder chore when an editor has to merge his edition with an earlier one, particularly if that one has enjoyed wide acclaim. Professor Edgar Harden of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia faced all these problems but he has surmounted them with great energy and outstanding scholarship and has produced a two-volume Supplement to the Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray. Anyone with the slightest interest in Thackeray or in Victorian literature will be for ever in Edgar Harden's debt for this splendid edition.

The only criticism that I could make is that Professor Harden's use of the term 'Supplement' does not indicate the amazing extent of his achievement. Not only has he tracked down and recorded hundreds of new Thackeray letters, but he has given complete texts of letters that were only available in parts to Gordon Ray. In many cases Ray - who did his work in the days before the outbreak of war and during his own time in the US Navy - was dependent on printed sources, in many cases not wholly accurate, for some of his texts. In many of these cases the original manuscripts have now been found by Edgar Harden and he includes these corrected letters in his Supplement.

The letters discovered or included by Edgar Harden range from short social notes about dinner invitations to long letters revealing much about the deepest sorrow of Thackeray's life. There is one letter without a word in the text: all it contains is a large question mark. Even Edgar Harden's scholarship has not yet explained what that meant. Someone only glancing through volumes like this may wonder what is the purpose of including a short sentence about the time of a dinner. However this type of letter can sometimes show a pattern of friendships or date a meeting between people. In Thackeray's case it also gives clues to his health, which was so precarious in his last decade. ('I am 1/2 dead in bed with spasms' says one typical letter.) That is why an editor like Edgar Harden searches through scores of libraries and mounds of manuscripts to find even such a small scrap of information. …

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