The literary world is gearing up for a wild orgy of Dickensiana to celebrate the bicentenary of Boz’s birth on 7 February 2012, and the Cambridge Library Collection will be laying a modest contribution before the public in due course – watch this space! – but we couldn’t let the bicentenary of the birth of Thackeray, which falls today, go unremarked. Thackeray was one of the ‘recently dead’ authors whose lives and works were tackled in the first series of ‘English Men of Letters’, which we will be reissuing in November. Thirty-nine volumes were published between 1878 and 1892, and of these the almost-contemporary subjects apart from Thackeray (died 1863) were Dickens (1870), Hawthorne (1864), Macaulay (1859), De Quincey (1859), and Landor (1864). Thackeray was written by his friend Anthony Trollope (and the book was printed by none other than the Crystal Palace Press, proprietors ‘Charles Dickens and Evans’). Thackeray is (I believe) the only author in the first series whose biographer knew him well, albeit for a short time. He is also the only ‘subject’ whose ‘author’ is as well know today as he is (except perhaps for Hawthorne and Henry James).
Trollope states at the outset that sixteen years after Thackeray’s death, there had been no biography: this was because Thackeray himself, disgusted by some three-volume eulogy, had ‘begged of his girls [his two daughters, Annie and Minnie] that when he had gone there should nothing of the sort be done with his name’. The girls having ‘carried out the order which has appeared to them to be sacred’, it was not Trollope’s ‘purpose now to write what may be called a life of Thackeray’, but ‘ in this preliminary chapter I will give such incidents and anecdotes of his life as will tell the reader perhaps all about him that a reader is entitled to ask’. This sounds forbidding, but in fact Trollope produces a straightforward factual account of Thackeray’s life, including a tactful reference to the tragic story of his marriage: his wife became ill (probably from post-natal depression), ‘and her mind failed her . . . and he became as it were a widower till the end of his days’.
One of the many things I didn’t know about Thackeray was that he was (relatively) well off at the beginning of his career: but his inheritance was lost in a succession of failed literary endeavours (he was also an incorrigible gambler), and he ended up effectively writing for his life, to support his wife (in comfortable ‘nursing homes’ first in France and then in England) the girls, his parents (who came with their own debts) and various other family hangers-on. He wrote journalism by the yard, using over twenty pseudonyms (including the one at the head of this post, a complicated in-joke involving broken noses, apparently), and novels, of which undoubtedly the greatest was Vanity Fair: the others I have found rather more of a struggle and a duty, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Another thing is that he was 6 foot 3 inches tall (Dickens was 5 foot 8); I had assumed from the round face so familiar from caricatures (his own and others) that his body was also round. And the most startling thing (simple maths, but I’d never done it) was that he died at the age of 52, completely unexpectedly, of a stroke, two days before Christmas.
What Trollope’s measured narrative fails to evoke of Thackeray the man is made up for by a lively account by the artist Eyre Crowe (1824–1910) who was scooped up by Thackeray in 1852 to act as his ‘factotum and amanuensis’ during a six-month lecture tour of America, and published a description of the jaunt (as he makes it sound) forty years later. (With Thackeray in America is dedicated to Annie Thackeray Ritchie, the elder daughter, and herself an author; Minnie, the younger, married Sir Leslie Stephen, the Victorian polymath and author of Samuel Johnson in the ‘English Men of Letters’.)
Crowe was chosen, we are told, because ‘Six months tumbling about the world will do you no harm.’ And he first had six months to accustom himself to his duties, while Thackeray finished writing The History of Henry Esmond (there is an interesting insight into Thackeray’s writing methods when Crowe is sent to the British Museum to check the official accounts of battles in the War of the Spanish Succession). The lectures, which Thackeray had proposed himself, were to be on ‘the English humorous writers of Queen Anne’s reign’(!). There was a trial run in Manchester and Liverpool (the Liverpool sessions being markedly badly attended), and in October 1852 the pair set off again for Liverpool to embark on the royal mail steamer Canada. (A pleasant incident at the actual point of departure was the arrival on the landing stage of a messenger from London carrying the first copies of Esmond.)
Crowe’s account of the visit is light and entertaining – done in imitation of his master’s style, one assumes, but lacking his bite. It is further enlivened by dozens of line drawings (many of them executed, we are assured, using Thackeray’s own talismanic Golden Pen) of people and scenes observed as they travelled from Boston to New York, back to Boston, back to New York, to Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, to Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia, to Savannah and Charleston, and finally back to New York. (A plan to extend the tour to Canada had been given up.) Thackeray left the United States with his customary impetuosity: ‘I see there’s a Cunarder going this morning – I’ll go down to Wall Street to see whether I can secure berths in her; meanwhile, try and see all the traps packed up and ready.’
This is a rattling good read: Thackeray himself and the literary giants of America whom they encountered; the Charleston slave market and the session of the United States Congress; the half-built hotels and the luxurious homes of Thackeray’s hosts; the unemployed ‘dock-loafer’ and the small boy who attempted to sell ‘Thackeray’s Works!’ to their author in a park – a kind, none-too-critical view of antebellum America. And to give them their due, unlike the Liverpudlians, the Americans flocked to hear the lectures.