Posted by: zhiv | May 13, 2010

Thackeray #1: Backgrounds, with lots of George Eliot

I’m a Thackeray man. My main man Leslie Stephen was very much a Thackeray man: he married Thackeray’s daughter. The initial prompt for my original essay was to work through some Summer Reading ideas and get around to writing about George Eliot, but I’ll happily stop and dig into Thackeray for a bit. My own experience of reading and studying the Victorian Novel and 19th century literature has a couple of significant Thackeray chapters. The short version, already begun here and noted elsewhere, is that I read books like Wuthering Heights and Oliver Twist and Middlemarch and Boswell and developed a strong enthusiasm for the novel and the 18th century. I read Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf and made the standard forays into European and American Literature, and stumbled through Milton and went well beyond the basics of Shakespeare without falling all the way in, all of this and a bit more as an undergraduate, starting at Santa Barbara and finishing at Berkeley. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on George Eliot. I did more work at San Francisco State during an interim, MA year, though I’d have a hard time guessing what I worked on, Virginia Woolf I know, but I’m not sure about the rest and it doesn’t matter right now and I didn’t write the thesis and didn’t get the degree. Because I’m a bum, and was much more so at the time, when I was still in the earliest stages of exploring the Core Philosophy of Doing Nothing. Being accepted to the Berkeley PhD program gave me an excuse to zhiv the MA thesis, just as I would later use getting an amazing film business job as a reason not to write my dissertation. As I started at the PhD program I expected to work on George Eliot and I felt like I was ahead of the game. But I made an odd decision at a crucial moment. I had read Vanity Fair in an earlier course on the novel at Berkeley. I liked it, and I was curious about Thackeray’s status, but the book itself didn’t make an especially strong impression, not like Middlemarch did. In my later Woolf studies, however, I read her note that she thought that Henry Esmond was Thackeray’s best book, and this caused me to pause. I chose to study Esmond in the Introductory seminar at Berkeley. It seems now to have been a peculiar choice.

My point here, I suppose, is that for a semi-forgotten reason I decided to swim against the tide to try to recover something of the Victorian interest and accomplishment of Thackeray. The Victorians seemed to take a mutual hit from Modernism and the 20th Century in general, but Thackeray had maintained his place through the 50s and into the 60s, more or less. He was the beneficiary of the same post-WW2 industrial academic scholarship that raised Dickens and George Eliot to new heights. Thackeray had Gordon Ray publishing his letters (in 195_) and writing his biography, just as Gordon Haight did the same with George Eliot. When I was wandering onto the scene in the early 80s–itself a rather strange time to be reading Victorian novels, no?–everybody, that is to say a decent number of English majors, read Vanity Fair, and no one read anything else written by Thackeray.

Virginia Woolf had pointed the way to Henry Esmond, and that was a good place to start. The basic sequence for reading Thackeray is pretty clear, and his career and books present similar problems as that of Dickens–it’s just that no one does it, no one goes beyond Vanity Fair. Serial publication broadened their readership and enriched both of them, but it wrecked a certain amount of havoc with the long term attractions of the second or third tier of their fictions, leading to Henry James’s comment on loose and baggy monsters, although James’s own late fiction hardly seems to qualify him as one to talk.

Reading and working on Esmond was meant, I suppose, to show in a subtle way my sophistication as I began graduate school: I had come this far. I liked to ride the boundaries of general literary education, scouting for abandoned mines. A great book that I myself hadn’t heard of six months before was perfect. Even though I had been reading hard for a few years, I must have retained some markings of a literary greenhorn; it hadn’t even been a very long time since I had learned that George Eliot was a woman.

Just now I’ve been writing about Dickens and the DNB, and the ways in which Leslie Stephen, in his late Victorian Lives of the Poets and Novelists, filtered his brother James Fitzjames’s brutal attacks on Dickens. All of a sudden I have a better understanding of Virginia Woolf’s recommendation of Henry Esmond, a new context that I never knew before. James Fitzjames Stephen published his ‘theory of the novel” at age 26, and he meant to establish his reputation through a series of intellectual and political critiques of England’s popular novelist. Perhaps he was extra motivated by Dickens’s satirical portrait of his father, James Stephen, as Tite Barnacle in Little Dorrit (or at least I think he was: still not sure on this one yet. Do I watch the movie? Open it up to anyone who might know Little Dorrit, since I don’t remember it?) One special focus of JF Stephen’s attack was A Tale of Two Cities, which he considered to be poorly regurgitated pulp taken from Carlyle. So it turns out that this is all background to Woolf’s recommendation of Henry Esmond. Esmond, the Stephen clan would claim, is everything that Two Cities isn’t: it is built out of genuine historical and literary sophistication, and Thackeray shared an affinity with the Stephens for the 18th century.

In trying to map out the dark territory beyond Vanity Fair and reconstruct the Thackeray reading list, I notice how his work is still reflected against the brighter light of Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities, still a popular, readable book, shines down on Henry Esmond. And Thackeray has his own Bildungsroman and version of David Copperfield, Pendennis. This shows again how Dickens has outfenced Thackeray in posterity. Copperfield is essential Dickens, winning and fun, and it’s simply a better book than Pendennis, I would think (but what do I know?). I wanted Pendennis to be just a little bit better than it is, though I don’t remember how. In studying the Victorian novel (and getting back to the Essentials and the Summer Reading List), one might easily choose to read David Copperfield before Vanity Fair. It happens all the time, I’m sure. Strong students read 4 or 5 Dickens books: Great Expectations, Bleak House, Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities, and it’s not hard or a chore to mix the sequence or go further and read Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, Barnaby Rudge, and Our Mutual Friend. For myself I have never read Nickleby or Hard Times, and I didn’t get very far in Martin Chuzzlewit. But compare Thackeray. English majors read Vanity Fair or not, and then they stop. A few grad students studying the Victorian novel read Barry Lyndon and Henry Esmond. Fewer readers, out of what is already a small group, read Pendennis or The Newcomes. It doesn’t seem to get easier as you go along, and the books seem less inviting.

Thackeray was held in very high esteem by the Victorians, and Vanity Fair made him the preferred novelist of the intellectual class and more discerning readers, who weren’t quite sure how to place Dickens and his popularity and high spirits. It’s as if Thackeray took Dickens’s measure and made an accomplishment and success for himself, gaining preferred critical esteem along with a substantial audience. But he didn’t see George Eliot coming, he suffered illnesses and his career was cut short, and over time GE took away the greater part of his claim on the intellectual portion of the audience. Vanity Fair abides, though it is pushed aside slightly by Middlemarch. Thackeray remains on the podium, but he seems a bit surprised to take the bronze medal, and he is still in a fight just to hold that position.

Eliot’s work and her life, moreover, generate fans. Reading Middlemarch seems to be the highest accomplishment for an English major studying the Victorian novel, although Vanity Fair does give it a run for its money there, in a way that Bleak House, probably the most challenging Dickens, does not. Students often work their way up to Middlemarch, generally through Mill on the Floss. Or if they’ve conquered Middlemarch, Mill is the obvious place to go next. Silas Marner may have been poison to a couple of generations of high school students (it seems doubtful that any one tries anymore), but as I said, GE generates fans, and they readily turn later to Silas Marner as a nice, quick addition to the list. And GE fans go further quite happily, generally towards Daniel Deronda as a big, challenging book, hoping to find some of the greatness of Middlemarch. We come away semi-satisfied, and we know our author and her work that much better. My personal favorite is Adam Bede. It forms a nice tandem with Mill on the Floss, and it’s perhaps more attractive to male readers than Mill, and Middlemarch easily sustains a strong male audience. Old sexist breakdowns of students of the 19th century novel should be avoided, and seem to be in retreat, but there are literary men who will relish the Russians and Melville and Hawthorne and Flaubert and Stendhal, etc., who know their Jane Austen and Brontes and Virginia Woolf, they have read Vanity Fair and Dickens, and they will proudly include Middlemarch on their list, and perhaps Daniel Deronda as well. If Mill on the Floss, as a female Bildungsroman, seems less than necessary to this nonexistent prejudiced reader, he would like Adam Bede. The story if its surprising and brilliant popular success is a wonderful moment in Victorian publishing annals, and it was truly written by “George Eliot,” a formidable Victorian intellect in a male persona, who happened to be a woman. No one knew who Mary Ann Evans was at the time, although readers were fully aware of her compromised and scandalous social position by the time Mill was published. But they didn’t care.

I suppose I’m admitting that I had a male bias of sorts when I was working through these novels myself, and perhaps that’s part of my topic here. I welcomed and appreciated Adam Bede as a strong and relatively manly novel written by my favorite writer, George Eliot. I liked Mill, just not as much, and Adam Bede seemed to be a neglected gem. Did I make my turn to Thackeray out of a panic of feminization and sensitivity? Was I worried that I liked Austen and Wuthering Heights and GE and Woolf a little too much? Now, decades later, I would make that bet, and I would advise my younger self to be more accepting and appreciative, that there was nothing to worry about. Still, I was setting my course as best I could at the time.

Just to finish up George Eliot, the above shows how one can read four or five of her books with relative ease. Scenes from Clerical Life should be added to the list, and it stands nicely alongside Silas Marner (as long as you’re not trying to start the GE process with Marner in high school). Felix Holt strikes me as the least interesting or engaging of Eliot’s novels, but others might like it and find more there. It would fall down pretty far on my list, but as I said, GE generates fans. It’s not hard to read all of Jane Austen’s works, and some readers will make becoming George Eliot completists their next challenge. It’s manageable, and that’s what I did myself, more or less (I put Spanish Gypsy into the same category as Melville’s Clarel, and I’ll add that I at least own a copy of her translation of Strauss’s Life of Jesus). Go ahead and try to become a Thackeray completist: I dare you. Anthony Trollope seems endless, but his books are easier and more accessible somehow than Thackeray’s, and people seem to read more of them these days.

The historical novel is another area of interest, and it will bring us back to Thackeray. Eliot wrote her own historical novel, Romola, and it is easily set beside Tale of Two Cities and Henry Esmond, along with all sorts of other practitioners of the genre, who followed Sir Walter Scott. I would put Romola in fifth place in my personal George Eliot ranking, behind MM, MotF, AB, & DD, ahead of Marner and Scenes. It’s an intriguing book. Two Cities is fun and has its readership, Esmond is polished and effective, and it’s somehow satisfying to see George Eliot come in third place for once. Eliot’s setting is more distant and challenging. The book continues her exploration of religious enthusiasm in important ways, a critical element in Adam Bede, and one can see how Dorothea Brooke is created out of the materials of Eliot’s preceding heroines, including Romola. If Romola is set up as an essential George Eliot text, perhaps a stretch, I know, and Two Cities is in the Dickens quiver, the stage is set for reading Henry Esmond. It’s the long way around, getting to Esmond through Romola, but it does get you there. And Walter Scott joins the gang along this route too.

With George Eliot duly considered it’s easier to aim towards conclusions on Thackeray. It’s interesting how his works seem to match up better to hers than they do to Dickens’. Vanity Fair and Middlemarch are well-paired. Henry Esmond compares favorably to Romola, and in some ways it’s a better and more satisfying #2 than Mill on the Floss. But Pendennis is better matched to Mill, both of them Bildungsromans. Mill has its flaws, but it’s engaging and readable. One can say the same thing about Pendennis, but perhaps it suffers from its seeming attempt to match the scope and length of David Copperfield. They are extremely similar books, written at the same time, more or less (as I recall). Pendennis, as it turns out, would greatly benefit from being a couple of hundred pages shorter, closer to the length of Mill.

So VF-HE-Pen stack up better than I would have guessed against MM-MotF-Romola. This finally brings us to the next phase of reading Thackeray. Why is this such a no-man’s land? I’ll start with my own experience. I was reading Esmond, Romola, David Copperfield and Pendennis around the same time, after having previously read a lot of Dickens and George Eliot and Vanity Fair. I had a vague knowledge of how Dickens had killed himself with his public readings and his second trip to America, and I became interested in his first trip to the U.S. and his American Notes, and Martin Chuzzlewit seemed to be a good book to read. But I never got into it, and didn’t get far with American Notes either. I was more intrigued, I think, with Dickens’s popularity in the U.S., following the image of readers waiting at the docks for the monthly numbers of his books. I had done a lot of work on Esmond and Thackeray, and I learned that Thackeray had done a lecture tour in the U.S., just as Dickens had. I was reading Thackeray’s biography, two volumes by Gordon Ray, and I also found a book called “Thackeray in the United States,” in the library. Later I actually found a copy of this out-of-the-way book somewhere, so I own it now. All of this gave me a reason to read Thackeray’s book which is set in America, The Virginians.

It was solid enough, but I have virtually no memory of it. It wasn’t unreadable, but it was hardly compelling either. The Newcomes waited to be read afterwards, along with Barry Lyndon and other early, pre-Vanity Fair books like Catherine. Perhaps The Newcomes or Barry Lyndon would have provided better paths to keep going with Thackeray. After reading The Virginians I was done. Martin Chuzzlewit stalled me out on Dickens as well. The Transatlantic topic had been interesting, and I was looking at American writers coming to England, starting with Hawthorne and Henry James. But I was burned out on reading Victorian novels, and I needed a break and some fresh pasture.

The study of Thackeray opened up a new door, as it turned out. I never had much of a grip on Dickens’s work as an editor, although I recently learned a little bit about it from Leslie Stephen’s DNB Life. Thackeray’s launch of the Cornhill Magazine with his publisher, George Smith, came through clearly somehow. A glance at the aforementioned Romola shows it was published in the Cornhill in 1862. I was interested in how a writer like Thackeray launched and supported younger writers. At the time I had been reading biographies of the leading novelists. The first literary biography I had read was Boswell, which is fortunate in all sorts of ways, not least because it is a magnificent introduction to the genre. The next biography I read was probably Gordon Haight’s George Eliot, and Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf came after that, followed by Gordon Ray’s Thackeray. I read sections of Charles Johnson’s Dickens, along with Ray, when i was working on the lecture tours in America. And I had read Eminent Victorians and Strachey’s Queen Victoria, along with Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey. And Woolf’s Orlando and Flush too, though not her Roger Fry. I knew about Froude’s Life of Carlyle and Forster’s Life of Dickens and I read Carlyle and Macaulay. I began to look at how literary biography had made strategic inroads towards establishing itself as an important genre in Modern British Literature, while being a thing that was still evolving at the same time. this was another lonely swim against a strong tide, of course, because formalist criticism had quite effectively separated the lives of authors from their works. Biographical criticism was unwelcome, and criticism of biography required an impossible leap beyond that gulf, despite the vitality of the genre. It was weird. New Historicism was getting going, and it would help and provide the necessary correction. I wasn’t thinking of becoming a biographer myself, though I’m not sure why not. The obvious subjects seemed to have been exhaustively covered by the post-WW2 generation, who had generated accurate and extensive editions of letters and texts along with their seemingly definitive biographies.

I suppose I was generally fumbling about in search of a linchpin, and eventually I found it. Thackeray’s stint as editor of the Cornhill was relatively brief, as he suffered a bad illness and then died suddenly and rather prematurely. He left behind a newly built home in Kensington and two grown daughters. His successor at the cornhill was Leslie Stephen. I knew, in a general way, that Leslie Stephen was Virginia Woolf’s father, familiar as Mr. Ramsay and a challenging topic in Bell’s biography of Woolf. Stephen became a hot topic for me, but only after I moved on from Thackeray. Stephen was an eminent biographer himself, and his work clearly informed not just his daughter, but Lytton Strachey as well. I learned about the DNB. And I also realize that my transatlantic studies had related to travel narrative, and Stephen’s mountaineering exploits cemented my interest in him. The fact that Woolf’s father, Mr. Ramsay, had married Thackeray’s daughter, was a wonderful tagline. But there was much more to it, in fact a solid bridge from the Victorian to the Modern through biography, a direct family link, and even mountain adventure. I was well-set, reinvigorated, and I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I was 25 years old, and I went to live in the Alps for a winter, to read Boswell and go skiing and pretend to learn German, and I thought I would learn how to climb mountains in the summertime. It was a pretty sweet plan.

There’s no doubt that it came through Thackeray studies. Remember that the prompt to read Henry Esmond had come from Virginia Woolf in the first place. Vanity Fair retains its status as an essential 19th century novel, but the resistance towards going further in reading more Thackeray remains somewhat mysterious. Of course I can’t say where all of this might have gone if I had continued my academic career. I only know that going a good part of the way down the Thackeray road both ended my strong run of reading Victorian novels by the handful, while it at the same time revealed a fresh, new, and exciting path and topic and approach to literary studies.



  1. I really enjoyed this personal reading history. I very well may not, but you make me want to read beyond Vanity Fair, and also to get to the lesser Eliot novels.

  2. […] intentions and model for In The Valley as a historical novel. I’ve written before about how Henry Esmond is little read, prompting others to take a look. But the quandary here, if that’s what it is, […]

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