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William Makepeace Thackeray at 200: Why Don’t We Know Him Better?

William Makepeace ThackerayA big, fierce, weeping, hungry man, not a strong one.

— Thomas Carlyle,
in a letter to Emerson

Carlyle was attempting to describe William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), whose bicentenary has received little notice while the celebratory drums are already beating for Dickens 2012. The shelves of the Princeton Public Library are teeming with Dickens while Thackeray is represented by two paperback copies of Vanity Fair (1848) with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp on the cover, one battered, yellowed Penguin paperback of The History of Pendennis (1850), and a two-volume Everyman edition of The Virginians (1859); one copy of The Rose and the Ring (1855) is available in the children’s collection. As for biographical or critical works, I had to order Ann Monsarrat’s An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man (Dodd, Mead 1980) through interlibrary loan.

By now we should have had a BBC dramatization of the triumphs and travails of the author of one of the world’s great novels and the creator of one of literature’s great characters, Becky Sharp. Why don’t we know him better? Why isn’t he regularly taught and quoted? Surely his face deserves to hang in the Barnes and Noble-Starbucks cafe life pantheon next to Dickens and George Eliot, who thought him “on the whole the most powerful of living novelists.”

Thackeray’s first biographer was his colleague Anthony Trollope, who clearly shared George Eliot’s opinion of a writer who, in Trollope’s words, “sees his characters, both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s” and who “dissects with a knife and also with a needle.” Contemplating Dickens, on the other hand, Trollope found “the sale of his books … so great as almost to induce a belief that Pickwicks and Oliver Twists are consumed in families like legs of mutton.” While Dickens was “a literary hero bound to be worshipped by all literary grades of men, down to the ‘devils’ of the printing-office,” Thackeray, “the older man [by a year], was still doubting, still hesitating, still struggling.”

Thackeray and Brontë

Writing under the cover of her pen name Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray, giving him the lion’s share of a long, lavish preface, “a man whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears,” who “comes before the great ones of society” speaking “truth” with “a power … prophet-like,” the “satirist of Vanity Fair” hurling “the Greek fire of his sarcasm.” She “sees in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised.” After dismissing the commentaries comparing him to Fielding” (“he resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture”), she writes: “His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summer cloud, does to the electric death-spark hidden in its womb.”

Best to step back from that one. Give it space. No wonder Brontë was let down when she met the eagle in person. Instead of the prophet’s “Greek fire” and “sheet-lightning,” she found “an unwilling idol.” According to a witness in Monsarrat’s biography, “The more intense she became, the more mundane were his responses.” Still recuperating from a near-fatal illness, Thackeray saw “the trembling little frame, the great honest eyes” of “a little austere Joan of Arc marching in upon us and rebuking our easy lives and morals.” Brontë was looking for the man possessed of the audacity to conceive the heroine of Vanity Fair, whose first act is to toss the gift of Johnson’s Dictionary out the window of a coach at the feet of a Dickensian caricature of sentimental goodheartedness. In the words of the same observer of the Brontë-Thackeray conversation, Thackeray, “with characteristic contrarity of nature … insisted on discussing his books very much as a clerk in a bank would discuss the ledgers he had to keep for a salary.” Brontë was looking for a man with a mission while Thackeray, “with many wicked jests refused to recognize the mission.”

Had the big man (he was 6’4) assumed the Promethean dimensions of his “serious genius,” however, Brontë might have faulted him for arrogance, which seems to have been the case on another occasion, described by the same witness, when she treated him to a face-to-a-face litany of his shortcomings, against which he defended himself, as she puts it, “like a great Turk and heathen — that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself.”

You don’t have to read far in any account of Thackeray’s life before you once again wonder why Andrew Davies or some other BBC mainstay hasn’t written it up for a miniseries. The Brontë episode alone would make for fascinating theater, as would young William’s embattled school days, his adventures in Paris, and the poignance of his marriage to a woman who descended into madness after bearing their third child. (The coincidental resemblance of Thackeray’s doomed marriage to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre led to spurious gossip about a Bronte-Thackeray affair.)

Thackeray’s Doubts

In his preface to Pendennis (1850), the novel that followed Vanity Fair, Thackeray celebrated Brontë’s “vulture,” Henry Fielding: “Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our art. Many ladies have remonstrated and subscribers left me because, in the course of the story [Pendennis having appeared first in monthly parts] I described a young man resisting and affected by temptation.” The curious thing about Thackeray’s preface is that it anticipates opposition at the outset, alerting the reader, “I tell you how a man really does act, — as did Fielding with Tom Jones, — but it does not satisfy you. You will not sympathise with this young man of mine, this Pendennis, because he is neither angel nor imp. If it be so, let it be so. I will not paint for you angels or imps, because I do not see them. The young man of the day, whom I do see, and of whom I know the inside and the out thoroughly, him I have painted for you; and here he is, whether you like the picture or not.”

If Dickens was everyman’s idea of the forthcoming, ever-agreeable novelist, Thackeray would seem to have been a more demanding alternative, if not strictly speaking an anti-novelist. Trollope’s biography begins by discussing Thackeray’s indeterminate relation to his work and his audience: “He doubted the appreciation of the world; he doubted his fitness for turning his intellect to valuable account; he doubted his physical capacity, — dreading his own lack of industry; he doubted his luck; he doubted the continual absence of some of those misfortunes on which the works of literary men are shipwrecked. Though he was aware of his own power, he always, to the last, was afraid that his own deficiencies should be too strong against him.”

Like Becky Sharp, Pendennis is an anti-hero, but without Becky’s wicked allure. As Trollope observes, he is “weak, and selfish, and untrustworthy,” and Pendennis, along with Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-59), among others, has been ignored both by contemporary readers and the producers of programs like Masterpiece Theatre. Meanwhile adaptations of Vanity Fair have been staged numerous times in London and New York over the years (we may yet see Bad Becky, the musical), filmed seven times since 1911, most recently in 2004 when Mira Nair directed a heavily Indian flavored version starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky. The 1935 version, titled Becky Sharp and starring Miriam Hopkins, was the first Hollywood film shot in technicolor. The BBC has produced various miniseries, beginning in 1956 (with Joyce Redman as Becky) 1967, 1987, and 1998. In 1975 Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the adventures of another anti-hero, a sort of male Becky Sharp, and one of Kubrick’s most admired films.

Neither the 1998 nor the 2004 versions of Vanity Fair, which I watched this past week, explore the source as satisfactorily as numerous recent adaptations of Dickens, Austen, and Trollope, not to mention the BBC presentations of works by lesser authors like Mrs. Gaskell and Laura Riding. One day perhaps some digital magician will follow Thackeray’s lead by making an animated film based on his witty illustrations, which would at least produce something closer in scale and spirit to the puppet show cited in the Vanity Fair’s closing sentence, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

A Game of Authors

Speaking of children, I first encountered William Makepeace Thackeray while playing the card game called Authors. My early fondness for him had little to do with the stern image of his face on the cards. It was his name. Of all the three-part names of authors the rules said had to be pronounced in full when you were asking for cards from your opponent’s hand — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott — none felt as nice to say as William Makepeace Thackeray, who was, all the better, the author of what I felt to be the most intriguing and thus coveted card in the deck. Besides having a title I found fascinating in itself without really having any idea why, the Vanity Fair card sported the oddest image. Most of the small title illustrations in the upper left hand corner of the cards made sense — a knight on horseback for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulder for A Christmas Carol — but what was the point of the Vanity Fair card’s image of a woman and three air-borne books? Was she dropping them? Recoiling from them? Or had they just fallen upon her out of nowhere?

My parents never explained the “flying books” to my satisfaction, though they must have known the famous opening chapter of Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp unceremoniously disposes of the kindly meant gift of Johnson’s Dictionary. But why three books? You have to give the creators of the game credit. The extra books put a special spin on what was a defining moment for the character, and gave a touch of residual mystery to the stern looking author in the granny glasses — “a stout, healthful broad-shouldered specimen of a man,” according to someone present at one of Thackeray’s wildly successful American readings, “with cropped greyish hair and bluish grey eyes, peering very strongly through a pair of spectacles that have a very satiric focus.”

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