Saturday, February 19, 2011

William Makepeace Thakeray: Second isn't Always the First Loser

William Thackeray had his nose broken twice by two different boys.  That's why his nose looks the way it does in pictures.  But how many men can say they had their nose broken by a friend of Tennyson?  Of course, George Stovin Venables wasn't Alfred Tennyson's friend at the time.  Nor was he yet a Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge.  He was a fellow student with Thackeray at Charterhouse School, the third school he had attended.
Venables described Thackeray as "a pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy."  My response to that would've been, "So why did you break this timid boy's nose?"  We don't know if his broken nose was the result of a swift punch in the face or came about after a fight between the two boys, but we do know that before the first broken nose was finished healing, it was broken again by another boy whose name is unknown to history.
So why all the violence towards this "pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy"?  Knowing what we know about Thackeray today, it's easy to assume he was a sharp witted youth who perhaps made statements his fists couldn't back up.  But if Thackeray was anything like the title character from his novel The History of Pendennis, which he most likely was considering it's autobiographical nature, it is very likely that Venables and this mystery boy were defending themselves against an easily provoked youth.  (Interestingly enough, Venables is said to be the basis for George Warrington, the bosom buddy of Arthur Pendennis.)
We can make some fair assumptions about an author based on their body of work.  For example, only using his works to study him, we can assume Dickens was a sentimental, enthusiastic, compassionate, optimistic, and often ridiculous man.  Thackeray, on the other hand, it would be safe to assume, was abrasive, intelligent, witty, pessimistic, and perhaps a bit of a rascal.  I'd also say he had a strong appreciation for justice and morality, a characteristic he shared with Dickens.  I think it is ever so likely that he quite possibly deserved a punch in the face and possibly gave as good as he got.
In a scene early on in Pendennis, Arthur strikes down a boy for making a rude comment to him regarding an attachment he had made to a low-bred actress.  Hobnell Major is surrounded by his friends, but Arthur, not standing for any jokes at his expense, leaps upon him and knocks him down into an open grave and turns upon Major's friends to see if any of them will have some of the same.  They decline.  It is a very intense scene, and in all likelihood is nothing more than wish fulfillment.  Of course, history doesn't record how many times Thackeray was the one breaking noses, so I suppose we'll never know.
Thackeray, age 2, with his mother Anne
We do know that this timid boy was also a mamma's boy.  Born in Calcutta in 1811, Thackeray can never really claim to have known his father, who died in 1815.  His mother, however, outlived Thackeray by a year, dying in 1864.  She returned to England in 1819, remarried to an old flame, who Thackeray admired and used for inspiration in his novel The Newcomes, narrated by Arthur Pendennis.  From Pendennis alone, we can see something that goes beyond merely a deep appreciation for the matronly figure.  Thackeray's mother would serve, for him, as the prime example of the best in womankind.
When he came of age (twenty-one), he received his inheritance, which he quickly squandered away on gambling as well as funding two unsuccessful newspapers.  He was rather idle in his youth, and after his money was nearly wasted away, he began to consider art a viable source of income.  It was not until after his marriage in 1836 to Isabella Shawe that he seriously turned to writing, which, as history clearly shows, he did pretty well with.
His wife "went mad" in 1840, after the birth of their third daughter.  He spent less time at home after this so he could get work done, but after feeling guilty, he went back to take care of her.  In hopes of curing her, he took her on a trip to Ireland, but while on the way, she threw herself overboard.  She was rescued.  It's easy to assume this was postpartum depression, but considering that she eventually detached from reality altogether and never recovered, confined to a home in Paris for the rest of  her life, it's possible it was something else.  Thackeray looked eagerly for a cure, but never found one.
Being essentially a widower, he did pursued two women after this, one a married woman named Jane Brookfield, whose husband barred him from seeing her, and another named Sally Baxter, an American twenty years his junior, who married someone else in 1855.  Of course, we cannot assume Thackeray was as virtuous as his fictional self, though I will not presume to say if he had a physical relationship with either Mrs. Brookfield or Miss Baxter.  His wife died in 1893, outliving him by thirty years.
Thackeray's caricature of himself
Thackeray's interest in the feminine character is shown throughout his works.  Perhaps this understanding of women is due to his unique relationships with them, as well as the fact that he had three daughters, though the second born died after eight months.  His mad wife might also explain, in part, his interest in Jane Eyre, which he said he read in one sitting.
Thackeray was not unfamiliar with illness.  One such illness struck him in the middle of writing Pendennis and, as he indicated in the dedication to that novel, nearly ended the novel prematurely.  Despite this, he went on to produce several novels afterwords, most notably The Newcomes and his personal favorite The History of Henry Esmond, a novel George Eliot called "the most uncomfortable book you can imagine."
His health began to deteriorate more noticeably in the 1850's, when he was stuck in bed for days at a time.  Much to be expected from a man like Thackeray, rather than help himself, he over ate and drank, as well as got little exercise.  To top things off, he refused to give up spicy peppers, which only worsened his digestion.
On the 23rd of December in 1863, he died of a stroke while getting ready for bed, after coming home from a dinner, where you can be sure he eat and drank his fill.  But it seems to me, if he had given up the drink, the peppers, and the abundance of food, if he had gotten more exercise, we may have gotten a few more years out of him; but it wouldn't seem like William Makepeace Thackeray to me. The savage satirist went out in pure Thackerayan style: stubborn and irascible, just like his most famous characters.
Seven years later, the only writer of the era rated higher than Thackeray would also die of a stroke in his home, Gad's Hill Place, ending what some consider to be the greatest days of the novel.  Today, that man--Charles Dickens--is better known and more appreciated, but there is a reason why Thackeray was second only to Dickens in his day.  They two were distinctly different animals from the other novelists of their day.  In a way, they are two sides of the same coin: Dickens the optimist and Thackeray the pessimist.  But to truly understand the Victorian period, it is necessary to read both, and thoroughly.  Sure, there are other Victorian authors ones need to read--when studying the era--but I deride an Academia that can award someone a masters in Victorian literature without requiring them to read a word of Thackeray.


  1. Awesome. And totally agree with your last statement!

  2. Yeah, there's certainly a large amount of flaws in the American education system, but this is something we've known for years.