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.

Subsequent biographers have tended to fine-tune, amplify or judiciously correct Ray’s version. No one has, or ever will, supersede him. Margaret Forster in 1978 attempted an imaginary autobiography. Ann Monsarrat’s brisk Thackeray: An Uneasy Victorian is strong on the Mrs Brookfield imbroglio. The best of the post-Ray efforts is Catherine Peters’s psycho-biographical Thackeray’s Universe (1987). I regret having given Peters’s book a rather small-minded review in this journal when it first came out. I have used it over the years and find it very perceptive. It was also the first biographical study to integrate a wealth of Thackeray illustration into its text, something that D.J. Taylor also does effectively.

Taylor’s book represents a third generation of biography. His judgment on Thackeray is generous, but much less inclusive than Ray’s. The basis of Taylor’s admiration is the Chestertonian contention that Thackeray ‘was the greatest English writer’ – writer, you note, not novelist – ‘of the 19th century. And perhaps of all time.’ He rejects the ‘change of heart’ thesis and has little time for the ‘buried life’ approach. There is no extended analysis of the fiction. Indeed, Taylor dismisses most of it. To him the three million words of the last five novels count for less than the three thousand words of the early essay ‘Going to See a Man Hanged’.

Taylor offers the longest account since Ray. He writes very well, and has a sharp eye for detail, but, despite his publisher’s impudent claims, he has uncovered little ‘new’ primary material, unless one interprets the term as meaning ‘recently published’. The newest things in this biography are Harden’s volumes and the letters recently discovered by K.J. Fielding relating to Thackeray’s involvement with the Ashburton circle. Taylor himself is very precise about his scholarly debts. Because the research materials he draws on have all been edited and published, he has been able to complete his project in five years. He hasn’t had to travel anywhere. The acknowledgments are revealing: no institution outside London is thanked. This is (as its subject would have approvingly put it) the first Cockney biography of Thackeray.

Some of the richest of Ray’s chapters are those which describe Thackeray conversing in his fiction with fellow novelists like Bulwer, G.P.R. James, Disraeli and Mrs Gore. Ray sees Thackeray in Vanity Fair as creating a work ‘quite as revolutionary as Ulyssess’ in its contradictions and subversions of popular fiction of the 1840s. Judging by his occasional mangling of titles (Charles Lever’s ‘O’Malley’, for example), Taylor has not troubled to steep himself in the work of Thackeray’s contemporaries. Bulwer Lytton, Thackeray’s great anti-type, is barely mentioned.

Taylor evidently has different ends in view. Criticism is proclaimed irrelevant: ‘This is not a critical biography – critics criticise, biographers write biographies.’ And, one mutters, reviewers carp. For all this, Taylor has a critical parti pris. Like John Carey, whom he admires, he subscribes to the simplifying (and Ray-reversing) view that Thackeray is a one-book author. Or, as Carey brutally puts it: ‘Thackeray’s career as a leading novelist began and ended with Vanity Fair. After that it was downhill all the way.’ Taylor follows this exclusionary line rigidly. Esmond, the novel which Ray (and Thackeray himself) considered his masterpiece, belongs in the ‘Victorian remainder bin along with obscurities like Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures’. The novel gets just four lines of high-handed summary. The four last novels, Taylor asserts, are fatally marred by a ‘peculiar woodenness’. The Thackeray who wrote ‘these dull and unhappy books’ was a ‘sentimental fogey’ who knew that he was ‘being false to himself’. Five of Thackeray’s six full-length novels are worth dipping into only for the occasional essayistic ‘digression’ in which, despite himself, the novelist contrives momentarily to write well. Taylor finds grounds for the grandiose assertion that Thackeray is (‘perhaps’) the greatest writer of all time in the early journalism and in bagatelles such as ‘A Little Dinner at Timmins’s’ – ‘the finest short story in the language’, Taylor claims.

Taylor is – like his subject – primarily a novelist. This is both the strength and the most perplexing feature of the biography. He indulges the ‘creative’ side of his literary personality in various interludes and ‘interchapters’. He is, he admits, no Holmesian (Richard, not Sherlock) ‘pursuer’ of his subject. But he offers a vivid account of a visit he made to Kensal Green Cemetery as he began work on his biography. It was December (the month in which the novelist died):

Thackeray’s grave on the south side, where the tractors are out on the path, is difficult to find. Stumbling over the freshly dug turf, holding my coat against the rain – now sweeping in horizontally across the long ridge of stones – I finally discover the single weathered slab, its inscription barely decipherable, fenced off by rusting iron palings.

All that’s missing is the hand-held camcorder. This kind of front-line reportage shows how the TV documentary has infected literary criticism. Not everyone will like it. I do. Similarly diverting are Taylor’s fictionalised interjections from – inter alia – the wardress entrusted with the care of Thackeray’s mad wife for fifty years, anonymous waiters who served him, engravers who processed his illustrations and, to wrap things up, a ‘lost entry’ in George Eliot’s journal, recording ‘Mr Thackeray’s passing’. This last was clearly inspired by Peter Ackroyd’s imaginary conversation between Chatterton, T.S. Eliot, Dickens and Oscar Wilde in his biography of the Great Inimitable. By such techniques, Ackroyd believed, biography could become an ‘agent of true knowledge’, liberating itself from the tyranny of the merely documentary. Taylor agrees.

These novelistic excursions are fun and perhaps represent new ways forward for biography. But there is a problem when the novelistic permeates the biographical narrative proper. A crucial example is the treatment of Isabella Thackeray’s suicide attempt in September 1840, one of the bombshell revelations in Ray’s Uses of Adversity. Although it had been known, even during Thackeray’s lifetime, that his wife had gone mad, it was assumed, as E.R. Dodds put it in his pre-Ray Life, that Isabella was afflicted by a ‘cloud of gentle insanity’.

In fact her descent into lunacy was shockingly violent. The climax came during a three-day sea crossing from London to Cork (Isabella’s family lived in Ireland, Thackeray was meditating a travel book). The poor woman had already made an attempt to drown her eldest daughter, Annie, while walking with the little girl on Margate beach. Thackeray – distracted to the point of madness himself and plagued with money troubles – was intending to deposit Isabella with her family in Ireland, ‘while she is unwell’. Their two small children accompanied their parents on the voyage together with their nurse ‘Brodie’. In his anxiety Thackeray had said harsh things to his ‘little woman’. She, evidently, felt herself discarded. What happened on the second day out is related by Thackeray in a letter to his mother. While the steamship Jupiter made its way through ‘the great calm sunshiny sea off the Isle of Wight’,

Isabella flung herself into the water (from the water closet) and was twenty minutes floating in the sea, before the ship’s boat even saw her. O my God what a dream it is! I hardly believe it now I write. She was found floating on her back, paddling with her hands, and had never sunk at all ... in the next night she made fresh attempts at destruction.

This account is followed, more or less verbatim, by all biographers after Ray. All biographers except Taylor, that is. This is how he renders the episode:

At some point on the evening of Sunday, 13 September Isabella’s condition worsened from a kind of alarmed nervousness to ‘absolute insanity’. Shutting herself in the ship’s lavatory, as Thackeray and Brodie amused the children, she threw herself out of the window in an attempt at suicide. Twenty minutes later a passenger looking out over the rail at the ship’s wake noticed an object splashing in the water. It was Isabella, kept afloat by the air trapped in the flounces of her crinoline and now paddling feebly with her hands.

Isabella’s suicide attempt is central to Taylor’s account and a whole chapter – ‘The Drowning Woman’ – pivots on it. Thackeray’s own account is graphic; Taylor’s is electric. A number of details are introduced: it is ‘evening’ (Thackeray does not specify a time); the husband and Brodie are amusing the children; Isabella’s ‘paddling’ is ‘feeble’. Other details do more than flesh out the account: they rewrite it drastically. There is, for example, the crinoline. Ships’ lavatories, then and now, tend to be rather cramped. Crinolines – huge hoops of horsehair, bone or steel, which could be up to twelve feet in diameter – would have been inappropriate on board ship unless the wearer were a contortionist. Getting through the ship’s porthole wearing a crinoline would require the agility of a Houdini or a vent the size of a barn-door (despite what Taylor says, ships do not have ‘windows’ – particularly those plying the stormy waters of the Bristol Channel). On the second day of a voyage Mrs Thackeray would have been wearing travelling dress, which would have clung closer to the body and could be easily lifted over the waist. And if she had been wearing a crinoline its buoyancy, at the lower end of her body, would have driven her head underwater and only a furious thrashing of the arms would have enabled her to breathe. Besides, crinolines did not come into fashion until the 1850s and 1860s when a cheap process for the manufacture of tensile steel made mass production possible (there’s an excellent essay on the crinoline rage in R.D. Altick’s The Presence of the Present, 1991).

Why, then, does Taylor introduce the crinoline? Because, like the straitjacket, it symbolises confinement and feminine oppression by fashion. As another part of that oppression 19th-century women were routinely instructed not to swim (like boys) but shown only how to ‘float’ – and encouraged to use this as a life-preserving technique. (Ballantyne discusses tins extensively in Coral Island and its successors; he was in favour of girls being taught to swim.) Floating is clearly what Isabella was doing, efficiently enough to save her life.

Most striking, however, is Taylor’s ‘passenger looking out over the rail at the ship’s wake’, who – twenty minutes after Isabella had cast herself into the deep – notices ‘an object splashing in the water’. Even if the steamship were making as little as four knots an hour, the passenger would have needed a telescope to see something which had dropped into the sea twenty minutes since. More important, where does this passenger come from? According to Thackeray’s account, it was a ‘ship’s boat’ which, after searching for twenty minutes, found her.

Taylor the biographer licenses Taylor the novelist to gild Thackeray’s account. For a TV adaptation of Thackeray’s life, Taylor’s is the version one would choose. It is vivid – like much else in this book. But is it legitimate to alter the biographical record in this way? We feel rather as we do about Andrew Davies’s alteration of the ending of Vanity Fair in his TV dramatisation last year from ‘Becky poisons Jos’ to ‘Becky has a mischievous twinkle in her eye; what next?’ Liberties have been taken.

It may be that I am doing D.J. Taylor an injustice. He may have found some source material hitherto unused by biographers which contradicts Thackeray’s description of the event. But if so, we would never know. His notes are even barer and less informative than Peter Ackroyd’s. To have annotated his text, Taylor says, ‘would be to enlarge the book’s extent beyond manageable proportions’. It’s a slap in the face for all those apparatus-laden academic biographers, Gordon Ray included (according to Ray annotation is ‘a particular necessity with Thackeray who has long suffered from the failure of his biographers to document their assertions’).

The viewing audience doesn’t give a toss about Davies’s fidelity to the text and most readers will happily sacrifice a hundred pages of endnotes if it brings down the cost of the book. But, as any PhD supervisor knows, annotation keeps a scholar honest. And knowing that his account can be checked makes a biographer careful about details. Despite the fact that vast quantities of evidence are competently absorbed into his narrative, there is a recurrent carelessness with detail which does Taylor unnecessary harm. One of the most valuable sections of his book is his account of Thackeray’s treatment of his mad wife in the decades of her protective confinement. Taylor argues against critics (principally myself) who discern neglect or even cruelty and makes a convincing case. But it is vitiated by his misnaming two of the principals involved. John Conolly (the pioneering advocate of non-restraint) becomes ‘Connolly’; Bryan Waller Procter (a commissioner in lunacy who advised Thackeray) is ‘Proctor’. The consistent misspelling of Procter is particularly damaging. Procter and his wife were among the closest of Thackeray’s confidants and Procter is the dedicatee of Vanity Fair. Taylor offers other tempting targets by not checking what he thinks he knows. All that can be said in defence of Thackeray’s racism about American slaves, he instructs, is that Victorians had many such blind spots – ‘think of the Jellabys in Bleak House’. Who?

These slips seem to me symptomatic of a kind of buccaneering attitude to detail. I do, however, feel a spasm of unease. Those who read the author’s acknowledgments may note his thanks to me for having read his typescript. (He may not, I fear, be so grateful now.) All I can say is that I’m sorry I didn’t read it more carefully, though however carefully I had read, and however persuasively I set out my objections, I don’t think we would ever have agreed about the central virtues of Thackeray’s fiction – or how best to present them. Indeed, his criticisms of my approach (for what it is) are quite explicit in the book. Which is healthy. And, to broaden the issue, one may wonder about the degree to which the professional acknowledgment of thanks can, does (and in some cases is designed to) immunise books from future unwelcome attention. Doubtless there is an MLA guideline on good practice.

Dr Dryasdust could score any number of points against this biography. But Taylor is not writing for him. The book is addressed to the large, literate, indulgent public for whom Thackeray is a familiar name, but not – as he should be – a popular author; and it will do more to get Thackeray widely read again than any number of learned academic disquisitions.