Wife Overboard

John Sutherland

  • Thackeray by D.J. Taylor
    Chatto, 494 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 7011 6231 7

All Thackeray biographers should feel a pang of guilt. Disgusted by Victorian whitewash memorials, he instructed his daughters: ‘Mind, no biography ... consider it my last testament and desire.’ He believed that biography – insofar as it presumed to explain another human being – was futile in any case. ‘Ah, sir,’ he observed (with that cynicism which so vexed his contemporaries), ‘a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine ... you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow islands a little more or less near to us.’ Above all, though, Thackeray was averse to having his skeletons rattled by any intruding hand. What were they? He contracted venereal disease at Cambridge, failed to get a degree, lost his patrimony gambling, married injudiciously a wife who went mad, fell in love with his best friend’s wife (probably unadulterously), got involved in a series of bad-tempered rows with Dickens and his bohemian hangers-on. Many authors’ cupboards contain worse.

His daughter honoured his last testament as best she could. But in the biographical vacuum gossip festered into slander. Letters came onto the market, some of them detailing Thackeray’s illicit passion for Mrs Brookfield. His daughter Annie, now Lady Ritchie, did her best to counter this with a series of ‘biographical introductions’ attached to the Centenary Memorial Edition of her father’s work. The paternal prohibition was breached.

In 1931, a particularly venomous attack was launched on Thackeray by Bulwer Lytton’s biographer, Michael Sadleir. Bulwer had been mercilessly satirised by the young Thackeray. It was payback time. The family decided in 1939 to authorise a Life based on the literary remains Annie had preserved (with a little dutiful pruning of the naughty bits) and chose as their appointed biographer a 24-year-old American, Gordon Ray, who had just finished a doctorate on ‘Thackeray and France’. It was an eccentric choice: they could have had their pick of British biographers. But they wanted someone as remote from London’s gossip circuits as possible. Ray – as was standard practice for academic biographers – intended to lay the foundations for his Life of Thackeray by editing the letters.

The family chose well. Ray was the best academic biographer of his time. A literary stylist of near-Thackerayan quality, he was formidably energetic and perceptive. Unfortunately, only a couple of years after he started work, America entered the war. Ray saw active service as a naval officer on aircraft-carriers in the Pacific but still managed to complete in 1946 a four-volume Letters and Private Papers which substantially revised (for the better) Thackeray’s image. After the war Ray applied himself to the completion of the letters – he needed to add those in Britain which had been unavailable to him – and set to work on the long-deferred ‘authorised biography’. A first massive volume (Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity) came out in 1955 and the concluding half (Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom) three years later.

The second volume showed clear signs of slackening energy. Ray had, by now, taken up a senior position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went on to head the Guggenheim Foundation. His promotions were scholarship’s loss. He didn’t complete the editing and publication of Thackeray’s letters (nor did he deliver a promised Life of H.G. Wells – whose archive he had acquired, at vast cost, for Urbana). It was left to Edgar Harden to bring out the supplementary two volumes of the letters in 1994, after Ray’s death.

With Gordon Haight and Edgar Johnson, Ray belonged to the heroic age of American Victorianists. Travel, good fortune, daunting labour and many decades were necessary for the completion of their tasks. Ray’s biography is founded on a set of prominently declared theses. The first was that Thackeray used fiction to ‘redefine the gentlemanly ideal to fit a middle-class rather than an aristocratic context’ (‘bourgeois’ was not, for Ray, a pejorative term). Ray believed that Thackeray had experienced a transforming ‘change of heart’ and concurrent growth in moral responsibility in early 1847, as he was writing the opening chapters of Vanity Fair. The corollary was that this novel, and its successors, represent the author’s greatest achievement. Ray’s reading of Thackeray’s fiction was based on what he called ‘the buried life’ to be found in them; and in his view even the late novels, written when Thackeray was chronically sick, were works of genius. Thackeray was undervalued by posterity because, unlike Dickens, his fiction was less amenable to ‘modern theories’ – Ray meant psychologising approaches, of the Edmund Wilson kind.

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