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   Chapter 14 THACKERAY

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 19065

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

No other literary Londoner has taken root as Carlyle did in Cheyne Row and remained for nearly half a century without once changing his address. Thackeray shifted about from place to place nearly as much as most of them. He went to school at the Charterhouse, and for a year or two had lodgings over a shop in Wilderness Row, Clerkenwell; in the first years after his marriage he lived in Albion Street; he had chambers in the Temple, at Hare Court, in Crown Office Row, and at Brick Court. The Paris Sketch Book was written whilst he was living at 13 Great Coram Street, in 1840, and it was there that his wife began to suffer from the sad mental disorder that was presently to take her from him for the rest of his days. In August 1846 he gave up his lodgings in St. James's Chambers, and drew his broken home life together again at 16 Young Street, Kensington. "I am beginning to count the days now till you come," he wrote to his mother, with whom his two little daughters were staying in Paris; "and I have got the rooms all ready in the rough, all but a couple of bedsteads, and a few etceteras, which fall into their place in a day or two. As usual, I am full of business and racket, working every day, and yet not advancing somehow." He was industriously turning out drawings and jokes and articles and verses for Punch and Fraser's Magazine, and hard at work on the great novel that was to make him famous-Vanity Fair.


"It was not till late in the autumn that we came to live with my father in Kensington," writes Lady Ritchie, in one of her delightful prefaces to the Centenary Edition of Thackeray's works. "We had been at Paris with our grandparents-while he was at work in London. It was a dark, wintry evening. The fires were lighted, the servants were engaged, Eliza-what family would be complete without its Eliza?-was in waiting to show us our rooms. He was away; he had not expected us so early. We saw the drawing-room, the empty study; there was the feeling of London-London smelt of tobacco, we thought; we stared out through the uncurtained windows at the dark garden behind; and then, climbing the stairs, we looked in at his bedroom door, and came to our own rooms above it.... Once more, after his first happy married years, my father had a home and a family-if a house, two young children, three servants, and a little black cat can be called a family. My grandmother, who had brought us over to England, returned to her husband in Paris; but her mother, an old lady wrapped in Indian shawls, presently came to live with us, and divided her time between Kensington and the Champs Elysees until 1848, when she died at Paris."

Thackeray's first name for Vanity Fair was Pencil Sketches of English Society. He offered the opening chapters of it under that title to Colburn for his New Monthly Magazine. Thereafter he seems to have reshaped the novel and renamed it, and even then had difficulty to find a publisher. At length, Messrs. Bradbury & Evans accepted it, and it was arranged that it should be published after the manner that Dickens had already rendered popular-in monthly parts; and the first part duly appeared on the 1st January 1847, in the familiar yellow wrappers that served to distinguish Thackeray's serials from the green-covered serials of Dickens. But the sales of the first half-dozen numbers were by no means satisfactory.

"I still remember," writes Lady Ritchie, "going along Kensington Gardens with my sister and our nursemaid, carrying a parcel of yellow numbers which had been given us to take to some friend who lived across the Park; and as we walked along, somewhere near the gates of the gardens we met my father, who asked us what we were carrying. Then somehow he seemed vexed and troubled, told us not to go on, and to take the parcel home. Then he changed his mind, saying that if his grandmother wished it, the books had best be conveyed; but we guessed, as children do, that something was seriously amiss. The sale of Vanity Fair was so small that it was a question at the time whether its publication should not be discontinued altogether."


At that critical juncture he published Mrs. Perkins's Ball, which caught on at once, and this and a favourable review in the Edinburgh are supposed to have sent the public after the novel, for the sales of Vanity Fair rapidly increased, and the monthly numbers were soon selling briskly enough to satisfy even the publishers, and so in his thirty-seventh year Thackeray found himself famous. James Hannay first saw him when the book was still unfinished but its success assured. He says that Thackeray pointed out to him the house in Russell Square "where the imaginary Sedleys lived," and that when he congratulated him on that scene in Vanity Fair in which Becky Sharp cannot help feeling proud of her husband whilst he is giving Lord Steyne the thrashing that must ruin all her own chances, Thackeray answered frankly, "Well, when I wrote that sentence I slapped my fist on the table and said, 'That is a touch of genius!'" Which reminds one of the story told by Ticknor Fields of how, when he was making a pilgrimage around London with Thackeray in later years, and they paused outside 16 Young Street, which was no longer his home, the novelist cried with a melodramatic gesture, "Go down on your knees, you rogue, for here Vanity Fair was penned, and I will go down with you, for I have a high opinion of that little production myself!"

His letters of 1847 and the early half of 1848 are full of references to the strenuous toil with which he is writing his monthly instalments of Vanity Fair, and in one of them, to Edward Fitzgerald, he mentions that he is giving a party: "Mrs. Dickens and Miss Hogarth made me give it, and I am in a great fright." Perhaps that was the famous party to which Charlotte Bront?, Carlyle and his wife, and other of his great contemporaries came, and things went wrong, and he became so uncomfortable that he fairly bolted from his guests, and went to spend the rest of the evening at the Garrick Club.

Pendennis was written at the Young Street house, and Thackeray put a good deal of himself into that hero of his. Pen had chambers at Lamb Building, in the Temple, and there is some likeness between his early journalistic experiences and Thackeray's own. The opening chapters of Pendennis, though, were written at Spa. Thackeray had wanted to get away to some seaside place where he could set to work on his new book, and had asked his mother, who was going to Brighton, if she could not get a house for £60 that would have three spare rooms in it for him. "As for the dignity, I don't believe it matters a pinch of snuff. Tom Carlyle lives in perfect dignity in a little £40 house at Chelsea, with a snuffy Scotch maid to open the door, and the best company in England ringing at it. It is only the second or third chop great folks who care about show."

In Pendennis there is an allusion to Catherine Hayes, the dreadful heroine of Thackeray's Catherine, that had been published a few years before, and a hot-tempered young Irishman, believing the reference was to Miss Catherine Hayes, the Irish vocalist, chivalrously came over to England, took lodgings opposite Thackeray's house in Young Street, and sent him a warning letter that he was on the watch for him to come out of doors, and intended to administer public chastisement by way of avenging Miss Hayes's injured honour. After getting through his morning's work, Thackeray felt the position was intolerable, so he walked straightway out across the road, knocked at the opposite door, and boldly bearded the lion in his den. The young Irishman was disposed to bluster and be obstinate, but Thackeray explained matters, calmed him, convinced him that he had made a mistake, parted from him amicably, and had the satisfaction of seeing the young fire-eater come forth on his way back home that evening.


Writing of Pendennis, Lady Ritchie says, "I can remember the morning Helen died. My father was in his study in Young Street, sitting at the table at which he wrote. It stood in the middle of the room, and he used to sit facing the door. I was going into the room, but he motioned me away. An hour afterwards he came into our schoolroom, half laughing and half ashamed, and said to us, 'I do not know what James can have thought of me when he came in with the tax-gatherer just after you left and found me blubbering over Helen Pendennis's death.'"

At Young Street, Thackeray wrote also his Lectures on the English Humorists, and having delivered them with gratifying success at Willis's Rooms, he journeyed to America in 1852, and was even more successful with them there. Meanwhile, he had written Esmond, and it was published in three volumes just before he left England. "Thackeray I saw for ten minutes," Fitzgerald wrote to Frederick Tennyson concerning a flying visit he had paid to London; "he was just in the agony of finishing a novel, which has arisen out of the reading necessary for his lectures, and relates to those times-of Queen Anne, I mean. He will get £1000 for his novel; he was wanting to finish it and rush off to the Continent to shake off the fumes of it." His two daughters, both now in their teens, were sent out to join their grandparents before he sailed for the States, and in a letter to Anne (Lady Ritchie) he explains his motive in crossing the Atlantic: "I must and will go to A

merica, not because I want to, but because it is right I should secure some money against my death for your poor mother and you two girls."

There are several drawings made by Thackeray in those Young Street days of his daughters and himself, and one of his study at breakfast time, and here is a word-picture of the study given by Lady Ritchie in her preface to Esmond: "The vine shaded the two windows, which looked out upon the bit of garden and the medlar-tree, and the Spanish jasmines, of which the yellow flowers scented our old brick walls. I can remember the tortoise belonging to the boys next door crawling along the top of the wall where they had set it, and making its way between the jasmine sprigs.... Our garden was not tidy (though on one grand occasion a man came to mow the grass), but it was full of sweet things.... Lady Duff Gordon came to stay with us once (it was on that occasion that the grass was mowed), and she afterwards sent us some doves, which used to hang high up in a wicker cage from the windows of the schoolroom. The schoolroom was over my father's bedroom, and his bedroom was over the study where he used to write, and they all looked to the garden and the sunsets."

On his return from the American lecturing, in 1853, when he had already made a beginning of The Newcomes, he gave up the Young Street house and moved to 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington (or Brompton, as it was called at that period); and during the seven years of his residence there he finished The Newcomes, wrote The Four Georges, The Virginians, many of the Roundabout Papers, began the writing of Philip, and founded and entered upon his duties as editor of the Cornhill Magazine. The front room on the second floor was his study.


It was whilst Thackeray was living here that the quarrel occurred between him and Edmund Yates, who had contributed a smart personal article to Town Talk, on the 12th June 1858, in the course of which he wrote: "Mr. Thackeray is forty-six years old, though from the silvery whiteness of his hair he appears somewhat older. He is very tall, standing upwards of six feet two inches; and as he walks erect his height makes him conspicuous in every assembly. His face is bloodless, and not particularly expressive, but remarkable for the fracture of the bridge of the nose, the result of an accident in youth. He wears a small grey whisker, but otherwise is clean shaven. No one meeting him could fail to recognise in him a gentleman; his bearing is cold and uninviting, his style of conversation either openly cynical, or affectedly good-natured and benevolent; his bonhomie is forced, his wit biting, his pride easily touched-but his appearance is invariably that of the cool, suave, well-bred gentleman who, whatever may be rankling within, suffers no surface display of his emotion." He went on to discuss Thackeray's work, and said unjustly of his lectures that in this country he flattered the aristocracy and in America he attacked it, the attacks being contained in The Four Georges, which "have been dead failures in England, though as literary compositions they are most excellent. Our own opinion is that his success is on the wane; his writings never were understood or appreciated even by the middle classes; the aristocracy have been alienated by his American onslaught on their body, and the educated and refined are not sufficiently numerous to constitute an audience; moreover, there is a want of heart in all he writes which is not to be balanced by the most brilliant sarcasm."

The description of Thackeray's personal appearance here is perhaps rather impertinently frank, but it is clever and pictorially good; for the rest-we who know now what a generous, kindly, almost too sentimentally tender heart throbbed within that husk of cynicism and sarcasm in which he protectively enfolded it, know that Yates was writing of what he did not understand. Unfortunately, however, Thackeray took him seriously, and wrote a letter of dignified but angry protest to him, especially against the imputation of insincerity when he spoke good-naturedly in private. "Had your remarks been written by a person unknown to me, I should have noticed them no more than other calumnies; but as we have shaken hands more than once and met hitherto on friendly terms, I am obliged to take notice of articles which I consider to be not offensive and unfriendly merely, but slanderous and untrue. We meet at a club where, before you were born, I believe, I and other gentlemen have been in the habit of talking without any idea that our conversation would supply paragraphs for professional vendors of 'Literary Talk'; and I don't remember that out of the club I have ever exchanged six words with you."

Yates replied, and "rather than have further correspondence with a writer of that character," Thackeray put the letters before the committee of the Garrick Club, asking them to decide whether the publication of such an article as Yates had written was not intolerable in a society of gentlemen and fatal to the comfort of the club. The committee resolved that Yates must either apologise or resign his membership. Then Dickens, thinking the committee were exceeding their powers, intervened on Yates's behalf; wrote to Thackeray in a conciliatory strain, and asked if any conference could be held between himself, as representing Yates, and some friend who should represent Thackeray, with a view to arriving at a friendly settlement of the unpleasantness. This apparently well-intentioned interference annoyed Thackeray; he curtly replied that he preferred to leave his interests in the hands of the club committee, and as a result he and Dickens were bitterly estranged. That the friendship between two such men should have been broken by such a petty incident was deplorable enough, but happily, only a few days before Thackeray's death, they chanced to meet in the lobby of the Athen?um, and by a mutual impulse each offered his hand to the other, and the breach was healed.

In 1862 Thackeray made his last change of address, and went to No. 2 Palace Green, Kensington, a large and handsome house that he had built for himself. Some of his friends thought that in building it he had spent his money recklessly, but he did it in pursuance of the desire, that crops up so frequently in his correspondence, to make some provision for the future of his children; and when, after his death, it was sold for £2000 more than it had cost him, he was sufficiently justified. It was in this house that he finished Philip, and, having retired from the editing of the Cornhill, began to write Denis Duval, but died on Christmas Eve 1863, leaving it little more than well begun. When he was writing Pendennis he had been near death's door, and ever since he had suffered from attacks of sickness almost every month. He was not well when his valet left him at eleven on the night of the 23rd December; about midnight his mother, whose bedroom was immediately over his, heard him walking about his room; at nine next morning, when his valet went in with his coffee, he saw him "lying on his back quite still, with his arms spread over the coverlet, but he took no notice, as he was accustomed to see his master thus after one of his attacks." Returning later, and finding the coffee untouched on the table beside the bed, he felt a sudden apprehension, and was horrified to discover that Thackeray was dead.

Yates has told how the rumour of his death ran through the clubs and was soon all about the town, and of how, wherever it went, it left a cloud over everything that Christmas Eve; and I have just turned up one of my old Cornhill volumes to read again what Dickens and Trollope wrote of him in the number for February 1864. "I saw him first," says Dickens, "nearly twenty-eight years ago, when he proposed to be the illustrator of my earliest book. I saw him last, shortly before Christmas, at the Athen?um Club, when he told me that he had been in bed three days-that after these attacks he was troubled with cold shiverings, 'which quite took the power of work out of him'-and that he had it in his mind to try a new remedy, which he laughingly described. He was very cheerful, and looked very bright. In the night of that day week, he died." Dickens goes on to give little instances of his kindness, of his great and good nature; and then describes how he was found lying dead. "He was only in his fifty-third year; so young a man that the mother who blessed him in his first sleep blessed him in his last." And says Trollope, no one is thinking just then of the greatness of his work-"The fine grey head, the dear face with its gentle smile, the sweet, manly voice which we knew so well, with its few words of kindest greeting; the gait and manner, the personal presence of him whom it so delighted us to encounter in our casual comings and goings about the town-it is of these things, and of these things lost for ever, that we are now thinking. We think of them as treasures which are not only lost, but which can never be replaced. He who knew Thackeray will have a vacancy in his heart's inmost casket which must remain vacant till he dies. One loved him almost as one loves a woman, tenderly and with thoughtfulness-thinking of him when away from him as a source of joy which cannot be analysed, but is full of comfort. One who loved him, loved him thus because his heart was tender, as is the heart of a woman."

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