Big Head

John Sutherland

  • Thackeray’s Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality by Catherine Peters
    Faber, 292 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 571 14711 9

Catherine Peters’s cosmically titled book is a popular biography. It is also the third popular biography of Thackeray we have had in the last nine years, taking its place alongside Anne Monsarrat’s Thackeray: Uneasy Victorian (1980) and Margaret Forster’s sprightly ‘autobiography’, Thackeray: Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman (1978). (Rather meanly, Peters leaves both competitors out of her ‘Select Bibliography’.) All three are, self-confessedly, dwarfed by the late Gordon Ray’s authoritative two-volume biography, Thackeray, The Uses of Adversity (1955) and Thackeray, The Age of Wisdom (1958).

Not to labour the point, the story of Thackeray’s life (one of the great Victorian closed books) is no longer much of a mystery. Nor can it be claimed that Peters brings much in the way of new information to the subject. As I calculate, she has found a dozen unpublished pieces of correspondence (there are, in fact, hundreds, since Gordon Ray never got round to finishing The Letters and Private Papers). And she has some corrective insights on Thackeray’s health problems and eating habits. Her text is prettily embellished with Thackerayan sketches. And she has a good eye for the telling quotation. Otherwise it’s the old story in nice new Faber covers.

In essence, Peters aims to do for the life what John Carey did for the works with his applauded Thackeray, Prodigal Genius (1977): that is to say: re-tread familiar ground with brisk, commonsensical illumination. This she does well. Thackeray’s Universe is attractively written and profits the reader with a number of sharply observed generalisations such as: ‘All Thackeray’s bad women and some of his heroines have a devouring quality.’ There are also a few dubious generalisations, such as ‘Thackeray never really portrays a child from the inside’ (what about Denis Duval?). And in the preface there is a comment about the forthcoming collected edition of Thackeray’s works so misinformed as to be virtually libellous. But all in all, Peters’s book offers a useful introduction for the newcomer and a useful refresher course for the knowledgeable reader. If there is nothing substantially new in Thackeray’s Universe there is little which is objectionably wrong, and it’s all presented from a fresh angle.

Peters’s main deviation from Ray-received orthodoxy (her ‘angle’) is a matter of the overall narrative shape discerned in Thackeray’s life. For Ray, Thackeray’s personal and literary careers described a triumphant curve: youthful ‘adversity’ (the loss of his patrimony, the mad wife) followed by a moral education culminating in a crisis and a ‘change of heart’ over the mid-life 1845-47 period. This crisis ushered in a mellowly productive ‘age of wisdom’ expressed in the great novels that Thackeray began writing at the unusually late age of 37. Ray lays symptomatic stress on his domestic reconciliation with his daughters in 1846 as marking symbolic re-entry from the bohemian cold to the warm decencies of bourgeois High Victorianism. Peters’s portrait is markedly different from Ray’s whitened Victorian. She has no difficulty with a warty Thackeray. Defiantly, she returns to the original Carlylean analysis: ‘a big mass of soul, but not strong in proportion’. She explains much of Thackeray’s disabled personality (as she sees it) by reference to the psychodrama of his childhood. At 15, Thackeray’s mother, Anne Becher, fell in love with a handsome but penniless young soldier, Lieutenant Henry Carmichael-Smyth. Her family falsely told the infatuated girl that her lover was dead of a sudden fever. Anne was shipped out as sexual cargo to India, where she married Thackeray’s more eligible father, who already had a daughter by his Indian concubine. William Makepeace, the only child, was born the following year, and the year after that, Carmichael-Smyth walked unexpectedly into Mrs Thackeray’s drawing-room. Two years after this reunion, Thackeray’s father died of a real fever. As soon as she was out of mourning, Mrs Thackeray married her lover, and at five young William was shipped home to the cruelties of an English boarding-school. In later life, he recorded his early misery: ‘We Indian children were consigned to a school of which our deluded parents had heard a favourable report, but which was governed by a horrible little tyrant, who made our young lives so miserable that I remember kneeling by my little bed of a night and saying, “Pray God, I may dream of my mother!” ’

Separation thereafter became Thackeray’s condition of life. His power and his incurable wretchedness are crystallised in the reflection on loneliness from Pendennis which Peters takes as her epigraph: ‘Ah sir – 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.’ For Peters, Thackeray’s achievement is less the triumphant recovery of a social birthright than the desperate adaptation to an appalling series of psychic, physical and financial traumas. Like Carey, and unlike recent American Thackerayans, she sees her author as a broken man by his early forties, his major achievements as a novelist clustering in the period immediately following his one undisputed masterpiece, Vanity Fair. After that, it was downhill all the way and fast.

The Thackeray story, like Dickens’s, bears retelling every few years. And Peters does the 1987 job not at all badly. But there is a staleness about the kind of questions her book sets up. The main issue for Peters is ‘what made Thackeray the novelist he was?’ Her answer is implied by the anecdote with which she opens: ‘When Thackeray was a little boy, his favourite aunt Ritchie was alarmed to discover that his uncle’s hat exactly fitted the five-year-old. She took him to the doctor, obviously fearing that the clever child had water on the brain. She was reassured to be told that the child had indeed a large head, but there was a great deal in it.’

The answer to the question ‘why was Thackeray a novelist?’ lay in his capacious head. The explanation would have satisfied many Victorians. When he died prematurely at 52, his brain was weighed (craniology being a fad of the time), and his cerebral organ was declared to be extraordinarily heavy: ‘weighing no less than 58.5 oz.’. This clearly satisfied contemporary curiosity as to the source of his peculiar genius: but in grisly point of fact, Thackeray’s brain was not outstandingly big. Turgenev’s, for instance, weighed in at a jumbo 70 oz. On the other hand, Walt Whitman could only claim a measly 44 oz., and to the disgrace of French literature, Anatole France supplied only 36 oz. of grey matter.

Peters mounts her investigation into Thackeray by way of a kind of literary brain-scan designed to elicit his ‘way of looking at the world’. As a biographical approach, her cerebral probing inevitably stresses the uniqueness of Thackeray – the intrinsically ‘Thackerayan’ mentality that made him different from other Victorians and from other Victorian novelists. Like most critics, Peters feels she can summon ‘the other Victorian novelists’ on stage for a dismissive comparison when it suits her purpose. Thus she informs us in her masterful way that ‘Thackeray is, of all the novelists of the first half of the 19th century, the most consistently realistic about marriage.’ Maybe. But how many of that shadowy mass (the ‘all’) does Peters actually know? Not many by name, and even fewer by works, I would guess. She refers in passing to some eighteen other Victorian writers of fiction in the course of her discussion. Numbers are uncertain, but there were probably around six thousand novelists in the Victorian era. The ‘all’ encompassed in Peters’s little bit of critical arm-waving comprises, at a conservative estimate, about a thousand writers.

Looking at writers by the thousand is not much practised by literary critics and biographers, who prefer to deal with the single units of text and author. But as a technique, mass survey has its uses. And if one outlines Thackeray’s career against the careers of his massed fellow novelists one comes up with some alternative insights as to what made him a novelist.

There are a number of aspects of Thackeray’s life and social background which were predisposing factors towards writing fiction: the ambiguous class origins, the grossly unsettled childhood, for instance. But the most striking feature is the high incidence of sickness and diverse professional failure in his career. Thackeray suffered a long, life-threatening fever at 17. He caught a dose of gonorrhoea as a young man and the disease left him with a debilitating urethral stricture. On meeting a Miss Peawell in later life, he was heard to mutter: ‘I wish I could.’ He was chronically short-sighted from youth onwards. In 1849, he contracted cholera, which again almost killed him and certainly shortened his life. By his mid-forties Thackeray was physically shattered, and he died of apoplexy at a time of life when most great writers are in their prime. Intellectually, Thackeray was no flyer. He was an undistinguished pupil at Charterhouse. Despite friendship with the cleverest men of his generation, he left Cambridge without a degree. He read for the law in London, but never qualified and seems to have hated himself for his idleness. He acquired a newspaper (the National Standard) in the 1830s but could not keep it going, despite squandering the bulk of his inherited fortune and a quantity of his stepfather’s money on the project. He married a dowerless woman who soon went insane. In 1857, having made a name for himself, Thackeray failed to get into Parliament. The last years of his life were spent writing novels for quick money and ruefully wishing that instead he could turn his attention to 18th-century history – a line of writing which always seemed to him more respectable. He died a literary success, having failed at almost everything else.

It is a feature of the Victorian male novelist that his path to fiction was strewn with failure and ill-health. The VMN ricocheted into authorship off what he really wanted to do or was intended to do in life. To take four examples out of hundreds: William Cosens Lancaster (1851-1922), the son of a Royal Navy captain, fulfilled a boyhood dream by going to sea himself, but because his eyes were so bad, he was forced to resign the Service. In subsequent life, under the pseudonym Harry Collingwood (Collingwood being a hero of Trafalgar), Lancaster wrote a stream of nautical novels. Frank Barrett (1848-1926) was a successful potter when, in the early 1880s, his kiln collapsed, destroying two years’ work. He was persuaded in this crisis to become a novelist, and went on to write (very profitably) some fifty romances. William Alexander (1826-94) was an Aberdeenshire ploughman when an accident at work took off his right leg. He went on to become a writer, and had a great hit with his dialect novel Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk. William Hepworth Dixon (1821-79), a travel writer, was badly injured by a fall from his horse in 1875. In his enforced leisure he began to write novels.

Had the eyes been sharper, the kiln stronger, had the ploughshare been guarded, had the horse not stumbled, the 19th century would have had another sailor, more vases, straighter furrows, more travel books and some hundred fewer novels, out of the grand total of around fifty thousand. And had Thackeray been called to the Bar and entered Parliament in his thirties, literature would have been short of six novels that it could have spared less easily than those of Harry Collingwood.

Just as the successful criminal has to regard himself as nevertheless a social failure, so did the successful Victorian male novelist. Writing novels was an activity undertaken in the consciousness that the novelist had proved unfit for more important things. Strikingly often in Victorian England, the more important thing, as with Thackeray, was law. In the case of the six hundred male Victorian novelists whose careers I’ve looked at, no less than 12 per cent had some previous experience as lawyers. And the vast majority were, like Thackeray, failed barristers.

The embrace of failure which the male Victorian novelist was obliged to accept is illustrated in the case of Julian Corbett (1854-1922). The son of an architect, Corbett was educated at Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge – like Thackeray. He took a first-class degree (unlike Thackeray) in law, and practised for seven years. Then, having inherited a fortune, he devoted himself to travelling and writing fiction. On the strength of the novels he wrote between 1885 and 95, he had real talent. But, at the age of 45, he found himself at a crossroads in his career. His personal inclination was to carry on with fiction. His friends were urging him to enter Parliament, where his prospects would have been brilliant. His new wife wanted him to give up novels for ‘serious historical writing’. He acceded to her desire, and devoted himself to Naval history, becoming the country’s leading authority on the subject. He was knighted in 1917.

Few male Victorian novelists had Corbett’s Faustian moment of clear-cut professional choice. But suppose Thackeray had been visited by a Mephistopheles and told that he might choose whether to be a great lawyer, a great politician, a great historian or a great novelist: which would he have chosen? Certainly not the last.

I’ve used the cumbersome term ‘male Victorian novelist’ because the entry route of female Victorian novelists was typically different. Their writing careers started earlier and with less deviation. It is a routinely recorded fact of women writers that in their young girlhood they were intellectually precocious. Some of the feats of precocity are startling. Harriet Martineau started in on Milton at the age of seven. It is recorded that Mrs Newton Crosland (1812-95) was reading fluently at the age of three. Both Mary Elizabeth (1806-1907) and Sara Coleridge (1802-52) are on record as being precocious: but Sara apparently had mastered several languages, including Latin and Greek, by the age of 11.

Writing novels was part of this pattern of precocious attainment. Elizabeth Sara Sheppard (1830-62) wrote her first play at ten, was reading Goethe and Schiller in the original German at 11, was helping her mother teach Latin at 13, taught herself Hebrew at 14 and began writing her first published novel, Charles Auchester (which became a best-seller), at the age of 16. Consistently girls got into print, or got their first novels on paper, earlier than their male counterparts. One could make a whole syllabus of women’s novels written before the age of 18. One of them would be Elizabeth’s Suitors, substantially written by Thackeray’s daughter, Annie, when she was 17. The most prodigious early efforts are the romances of Daisy Ashford (1881-1972), including The Young Visiters – which was written when the author was nine. Little Daisy gave up her writing career entirely on going to convent school aged 13.

If we compare gender patterns, it is striking how often female Victorian novelistic precocity leads on to a career marked by extra-literary success and competence. Amelia Blanford Edwards (1831-92) published her first poem at age seven and her first story at 12. Her father was a banker, the riskiest of Victorian professions, and when ruin struck in Amelia’s early teens, she set to and supported her family by writing stories. Amelia Edwards subsequently worked on the Saturday Review and went on to write a string of well-received novels, quite effortlessly. But she gave up fiction after a trip to the Middle East in 1873, subsequently becoming the country’s leading Egyptologist, agitating tirelessly to have Egypt’s ancient monuments preserved.

Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919) was related and is also recorded as intellectually precocious. She was running a farm in Suffolk in her early twenties, as a sideline to writing best-selling romantic novels. An unrelated Mrs Harry Bennett Edwards (1859-1912) began writing at 12, published stories in the Queen three years later, and had her first novel published when she was 20. And by the age of 40, Edwards was earning the colossal sum of £20,000 a year as a magazine proprietor. Examples could be multiplied to support the general point that whereas Victorian male novelists rebounded into writing as career failures, their female counterparts moved into action easily and directly. Nor, generally, did women have any reason to despise themselves for writing novels, or feel, like Thackeray, that it was all they were fit for. If anything, they were enhanced, and liberated to do great things, by success with the pen.