Once upon a time there were just two authors: Dickens and Thackeray. Well, maybe three. There was also Douglas Jerrold. The three form a triad, a noted critic of the time once said, the time being mid-Victorian England, the critic David Masson.
Who on earth is Douglas Jerrold, I hear you say? Indeed. For that matter who was David Masson? Sigh. Where are the Jonas Brothers of yesterday?
Though I specialized in Victorian literature for my PhD, I confess to never having read Douglas Jerrold and not really knowing much about David Masson. I do know quite a lot about William Makepeace Thackeray, but sometimes I fear he is on his way to becoming the third Jonas brother. He is certainly no longer ranked up there with Dickens, fighting it out at the top of the tree, as he himself once put it.
Nowadays if I tell someone I specialized in Thackeray, the common reaction is, Who? And I tend to explain by saying, “The same time as Dickens, another Victorian novelist.” And they nod sagely, and I talk about the work I did on Thackeray’s Catherine, which we both know they’ll never read.
Maybe they’ll read Vanity Fair. Or they will at least have heard of it (though there may be some confusion with the magazine of that name). Thackeray has become, essentially, a one book author. And it’s a very good book, full of insight into human foibles and with an intriguing, fascinating, frustrating heroine (Becky Sharp), who over the years has sparked much critical debate.
I am not here to sell you on the merits of Thackeray’s other work – well, except maybe Catherine. I’ve spent a lot of my life working on Catherine, producing an edition of it, hoping to get that edition reissued in paperback (so far a not yet attained goal), and just generally promoting it. I even wrote a screenplay based on it (not that anyone was interested in turning it into a movie).
Why should we care about Catherine? Well, I’m not sure we should. But I do like it; it to me is a bit of a forerunner of Vanity Fair – it’s his first novel (novella, some would say; “story,” its own subtitle calls it), a decade before his masterpiece, and it shares some of its characteristics: the wry commentary on human ways, the roguish heroine (anti-heroine?). For those not ready to tackle the 900 pages of Vanity Fair, or most other Victorian classics, it’s an easy introduction at 150 pages or so. Like The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings (not that I’ve ever read The Hobbit … hmm).
Part of the struggle with promoting Catherine is that Thackeray himself thought it wasn’t very good (but what do authors know?). Too gory, apparently (and it does have a nasty murder and a graphically described execution at the end, lifted almost verbatim from the eighteenth-century sources Thackeray was drawing on). Later editors tended to cut out the gore, so many of the editions (including those online) are expurgated.
Also he feared he had become too friendly to his heroine, who really was supposed to be an anti-heroine. Thackeray’s stated aim when he started out was to write a response to the Newgate school of fiction of that time. You may know the opening line of one of its exemplars: “It was a dark and stormy night” (from Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford). Thackeray thought Bulwer-Lytton (whom he hated generally), along with Harrison Ainsworth (yes, I know, another Jonas Brother) and even Dickens (for his Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist) were glorifying criminals.
He would set that right, though; he’d find the nastiest crime he could, out of the Newgate Calendar of true life crimes, and write fiction based on that, to show what criminals were like. But as he told his mother at the end, he developed a “sneaking kindness” for Catherine, his anti-heroine, based on the real-life husband-murderer, Catherine Hayes, from 1726. He turned her and her companions into charming rogues rather than vicious killers – which is a good thing, actually. I’d much rather read about charming rogues than vicious killers. But Thackeray thought he’d made a mess of things, and kept the work out of his Miscellanies, the collection of his works issued in his own lifetime.
For a long time Catherine languished in the pages of Fraser’s Magazine, where it had appeared in serial installments, until after Thackeray’s death it finally made it into one of the last volumes of his collected works put out by Smith, Elder, his publishers at the end. It languished there too (in expurgated form, as I have mentioned). It languishes still. But I do think it’s worth a read, though I agree that the gory plagiarized ending is rather a mess (and maybe deserved to be expurgated: it’s there in all its glory in my edition, though).
Perhaps it is a cautionary tale, and not in the way Thackeray intended. The leading figures of one age can vanish almost completely in the next (or the next after that). Dickens alone remains, as he has been from the start, at the top of the tree of Victorian novelists – maybe of the tree of all novelists. And why should that be?
I have no good answer, and perhaps am the wrong person to ask. It would be a bit like asking fans of some almost forgotten mystery writer why Sherlock Holmes is still at the top of his tree. Dickens was in some ways the mirror image of Thackeray. Nowadays, as is the fashion, you can read biographical studies of Dickens revealing that he wasn’t very nice to his children or his wife. In real life the man whose novels exuded kindness and compassion really wasn’t so kind and compassionate, it seems.
Thackeray, on the other hand, was a writer whose works exude cynicism and satire, mocking everyone and everything (most of the time, at least, and especially in his early works), but in real life he was the generous one, devoted to his daughters and his mad wife – though of course, as is the style, you can find negative portrayals of him too in modern biography.
And of course I oversimplify, but it’s almost as if you have a certain amount of kindness and compassion, and it either goes into your works or into your life. There’s not enough for both. And does this mean we’d rather read kind and compassionate literature (and then find out that their creator didn’t live up to his fictional image) rather than indulge in the slings and arrows of a satirist hurling Greek fire (I paraphrase Charlotte Brontë)? Even if the hurler of Greek fire turns out to be a big teddy bear?
(Thackeray was a big man, 6 foot 3; he sprouted in his youth after an illness, and when asked if others were astonished to see how tall he had become, answered, “I don’t know. My coats looked astonished.” Carlyle called him a “big, fierce, weeping, hungry man; not a strong one.”)
There were other differences. Dickens came from the lower middle class; Thackeray from the upper. Their milieus were different; you don’t get lords and ladies in Dickens. Not that Thackeray wrote “silver fork novels” (he satirized those, of course); he wrote as a sort of oppositional figure from within the upper middle class, reflecting the point of view of someone excluded from the best circles, as he felt he had been, in part because he’d lost his fortune and had to “write for his life,” descending into journalism, costing himself status.
But who can say why one writer lasts and another doesn’t? Perhaps Dickens is simply better than Thackeray? Thackeray would sometimes say so, at least in public. “There’s no writing against [that],” he said after reading the depiction of the death of little Paul Dombey. But this was when Thackeray’s own Vanity Fair was just appearing and winning him vast acclaim. And aren’t there some who would prefer to read clever satires about the aristocracy rather than gritty, tearful depictions of the unfortunate?
Or maybe not. Maybe there’s something more serious and more timeless about gritty misfortune. Maybe Thackeray is too much of his age, and Dickens somehow passes beyond it. And yet Thackeray’s commentary about human foibles is not really just about Victorian aristocrats; it lays bare human hypocrisy, selfishness, greed … But again, perhaps that is less appealing in the long run than generous-minded support for the downtrodden, complete with more or less happy endings. You don’t get a happy ending in Vanity Fair or Catherine.
Oddly, though, when Thackeray begins to go in for happier endings, in his later works, in his mellower later years after success had eased the pain of exclusion, he ends up often with something much too syrupy or just somehow odd. Who cares about Henry Esmond finding happiness with the mother of the girl he thought he was in love with? And isn’t it rather odd? Maybe Dickens had just the right touch for that sort of thing, and Thackeray should have stuck to his satire.
Still, if you’re in the mood for satirical barbs (at you the reader, among others) you can do worse than sit down with Vanity Fair. And if you want a bite-sized introduction to Thackeray (and Victorian fiction generally) you can have a go at Catherine.