Chapter LXXXIII: Thackeray--The Cynic?
A LITTLE time after Carlyle's French Revolution was published he wrote to his brother, "I understand there have been many reviews of a very mixed character. I got one in the Times last week. The writer is one, Thackeray, a half-monstrous Cornish giant, kind of painter, Cambridge man, and Paris newspaper correspondent, who is now writing for his life in London. . . . His article is rather like him, and I suppose calculated to do the book good."
In these few sentences we have a sketch of William Makepeace Thackeray's life, from the time he finished his education up to the age of twenty-six, when Carlyle met him. He was the son of Richmond Thackeray, a collector in the service of the East India Company, and was born in Calcutta in 1811.
Little Billy-man, as his mother called him, in after years could remember very little of India. He remembered seeing crocodiles and a very tall, lean father. When Billy was quite a tiny chap, his father died. Soon after, the little boy was sent home, as Indian children always are, but his mother remained out in India, and a year or two later married Major Henry Carmichael Smyth. Major Smyth was a simple, kindly gentleman, and proved a good stepfather to his wife's little boy, who, when he grew up and became famous drew his stepfather's portrait in the character of Colonel Newcome.
Meanwhile Billy-man was separated from both father and mother, and sailed home under the care of a black servant. His ship called at St. Helena, and there the black servant took the little boy on a long walk over rocks and hills until they came to a garden. In the garden a man was walking. "That is he," said the black man, "that is Bonaparte. He eats three sheep every day, and all the little children he can lay hands on." Ugh! We think that the little boy did not want to stay there long.
William reached home safely and was very happy with kind aunts and grandmother until he went to school. And school he did not like at all. Long afterwards in one of his books he wrote, "It was governed by a horrible little tyrant, who made our young lives so miserable, that I remember kneeling by my little bed of a night and saying, 'Pray God, I may dream of my mother.'"*
But he left this school and when he was about eleven went to Charterhouse. Here Thackeray was not much happier. He was a pretty, gentle boy, and not particularly clever, either at games or at lessons. The boys were rough and even brutal to each other, and Thackeray had to take his share of the blows, and got a broken nose which disfigured his good-looking face ever after. And when he left school he took away with him a painful remembrance of all he had had to suffer. But by degrees the suffering faded out of his memory and he looked upon his old school with kindly eyes, and called it no longer Slaughterhouse, but Grey Friars, in his books.
Before Thackeray went to Charterhouse his mother and stepfather had come home to England and made a home for the little boy where he spent happy holidays. Thackeray was not very diligent, but in his last term at school he writes to his mother, "I really think I am becoming terribly industrious, though I can't get Dr. Russell (the headmaster) to think so. . . . There are but three hundred and seventy in the school. I wish there were only three hundred and sixty-nine."
Soon he had his wish, and leaving Charterhouse he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. He liked Cambridge better than Charterhouse, but did not learn much more. In little more than a year he left because he felt that he was wasting his time, and went abroad to finish his education. After spending a happy year in Germany he came home to study at the bar, but soon finding he had no taste for law, he gave that up.
Thackeray was now of age and had come into a little fortuned of about 500 pounds a year, left to him by his father. So he decided to try his hand at literature, and bought a paper called the National Standard, and became editor of it. He could not, however, make his paper pay, and in that and other ways he had soon lost all his money.
It was now necessary that he should do something to earn a living, and he determined to be an artist, and went to Paris to study. But although he was fond of drawing, and was able afterwards to illustrate some of his own books, he never became a real artist.
Meanwhile in Paris he met a young Irish lady with whom he fell in love, and being offered the post of Paris correspondent on another paper, he married. But very soon after he married the paper failed and Thackeray and his young wife returned to London, very poor indeed, and there he remained, as Carlyle said, "writing for his life."
It was a struggle, doubtless, but not a bitter one, and Thackeray was happy in his home with his wife and two little daughters. Long afterwards one of these daughters wrote, "Almost the first time I can remember my parents was at home in Great Coram Street on one occasion, when my mother took me upon her back, as she had a way of doing, and after hesitating for a moment at the door, carried me into a little ground floor room where some one sat bending over a desk. This some one lifted up his head and looked round at the people leaning over his chair. He seemed pleased, smiled at us, but remonstrated. Nowadays I know by experience that authors don't get on best, as a rule, when they are interrupted in their work--not even by their own particular families--but at that time it was all wondering, as I looked over my mother's shoulder."
But these happy days did not last long. The young mother became ill; gradually she became worse, until at last the light of reason died out of her brain, and although she lived on for many years, it was a living death, for she knew no one and took no notice of anything that went on around her.
The happy home was broken up. The children went to live with their great-grandmother, who found them "inconveniently young," while Thackeray remained alone in London. But though he was heart-broken and lonely, he kept a loving memory of the happy days gone by. Long after he wrote to a friend who was going to be married, "Although my own marriage was a wreck, as you know, I would do it over again, for behold, Love is the crown and completion of all earthly good. The man who is afraid of his future never deserved one."
Thackeray was already making a way with his pen, and now he found a new opening. Most of you know Punch. He and his dog Toby are old friends. And Mr. Punch with his humped back and big nose "comes out" every week to make us laugh. He makes us laugh, too, with kindly laughter, for, as Thackeray himself said, "there never were before published in this world so many volumes that contained so much cause for laughing, so little for blushing. It is easy to be witty and wicked, so hard to be witty and wise!" But once upon a time there was no Punch, strange though it may seem. It was just at this time, indeed, that Punch was published and Thackeray became one of the earliest contributors, and continued for ten years both to draw pictures and write papers for it. It was in Punch that his famous "Snob Papers" appeared. What is a Snob? Thackeray says, "He who meanly admires mean things."
It has been said that by reason of writing so much about snobs that Thackeray came to see snobbishness where there was none. But certain it is he laid a smart but kindly finger on many a small-minded prejudice. Several times in this book you have heard of sizars and commoners, stupid distinctions which are happily now done away with. Perhaps you would like to know what Thackeray thought of them. For although it is not a very good illustration of real snobbishness, it is interesting to read in connection with the lives of many great writer.
"If you consider, dear reader, what profound snobbishness the University System produced, you will allow that it is time to attack some of those feudal Middle-age superstitions. If you go down for five shillings to look at the 'College Youths,' you may see one sneaking down the court without a tassel to his cap; another with a gold or silver fringe to his velvet trencher; a third lad with a master's gown and hat, walking at ease over the sacred College grass-plats, which common men must not tread on.
"He may do it because he is a nobleman. Because a lad is a lord, the University gives him a degree at the end of two years which another is seven in acquiring. Because he is a lord, he has no call to go through an examination. . . .
"The lads with gold and silver lace are sons of rich gentlemen, and called Fellow Commoners; they are privileged to feed better than the pensioners, and to have wine with their victuals, which the latter can only get in their rooms.
"The unlucky boys who have no tassels to their caps, are called sizars--servitors at Oxford--(a very pretty and gentlemanlike title). A distinction is made in their clothes because they are poor; for which reason they wear a badge of poverty, and are not allowed to take their meals with their fellow students."
But the same pen that wrote sharply and satirically about snobs, wrote loving letters in big round hand to his dear daughters, who were living far away in Paris. For either child he used a different hand, so that each might know at once to whom the letter was addressed. Here is part of one to his "dearest Nanny." "How glad I am that it is a black puss and not a black nuss you have got! I thought you did not know how to spell nurse, and had spelt it en-you-double-ess; but I see the spelling gets better as the letters grow longer: they cannot be too long for me. Laura must be a very good-natured girl. I hope my dear Nanny is so too, not merely to her school mistress and friends, but to everybody--to her servants and her nurses. I would sooner have you gentle and humble-minded than ever so clever. Who was born on Christmas Day? Somebody Who was so great, that all the world worships Him; and so good that all the world loves Him; and so gentle and humble that He never spoke an unkind word. And there is a little sermon and a great deal of love and affection from papa."*
*Mrs. Ritchie's introduction to Contributions to Punch.
The Book of Snobs brought Thackeray into notice, and now that he was becoming well known and making more money, he once more made a home for his daughters, and they came to London to live with their father. Everything was new and strange to the little girls. There was a feeling of London they thought, in the new house, and "London smelt of tobacco." Thus once more, says his daughter, "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."
Thackeray was a very big man, being six feet three or four. He must have seemed a very big papa to the little girls of six and eight, who were, no doubt, very glad to be again beside their great big kind father, and he, on his side, was very glad to have his little girls to love, and he took them about a great deal to the theater and concerts. They helped him in many little ways and thought it joy to leave lessons in the schoolroom upstairs and come downstairs to help father, and be posed as models for his drawings.
It was now that Thackeray wrote his first great novel, his greatest some people think, Vanity Fair. I cannot tell you about it now, but when you are a very little older you will like to read of clever and disagreeable Becky Sharp, of dear Dobbin, and foolish Amelia, and all the rest of the interesting people Thackeray creates for us. Thackeray has been called a cynic, that is one who does not believe in the goodness of human nature, and who sneers at and finds fault with everything. And reading Vanity Fair when we are very young we are apt to think that is so, but later we come to see the heart of goodness there is in him, and when we have read his books we say to ourselves, "What a truly good man Thackeray must have been." "He could not have painted Vanity Fair as he has," says another writer,* "unless Eden had been shining brightly in his inner eyes."
Though Thackeray is no cynic he is a satirist as much as Pope or Dryden, but the most kindly satirist who ever wrote. His thrusts are keen and yet there is always a humorous laugh behind, and never a spark of malice or uncharitableness. Thackeray bore no hatred in his heart towards any man. He could not bear to give pain, and as he grew older his satire became more gentle even than at first, and he regretted some of his earlier and too sharp sayings.
After Vanity Fair other novels followed, the best of all being Esmond. Esmond is perhaps the finest historical novel in our language. It is a story of the time of Queen Anne, and when we read it we feel as if the days of Addison and Steele lived again. But with Thackeray the historical novel is very different from the historical novel of Scott. With Thackeray his imaginary people hold the chief place, the real people only form a background, while in many of Scott's novels the real people claim our attention most.
Before Esmond was written Thackeray had added the profession of lecturer to that of author. He was a very loving father and was always anxious not only that his daughters should be happy when they were young, but that when he died he should leave them well off. Again and again in his letters we find him turning to this thought: "If I can't leave them a fortune, why, we must try to leave them the memory of having had a good time," he says. But he wanted to leave them a fortune, and so he took to lecturing. His lectures were a great success, and he delivered them in many places in England, Scotland, Ireland and America.
It was while he was lecturing in Scotland that he heard a little boy read one of his ballads. It was a satirical ballad, and somehow Thackeray did not like to hear it from the little boy's lips. Turning away he said to himself, "Pray God I may be able some day to write something good for children. That will be better than glory or Parliament."
But already he had written something good for children in the fairy tale of The Rose and the Ring. One year he spent the winter with his children in Rome, and wrote the fairy tale for them and their friends, and drew the pictures too.
I have no room in this book to tell you the story, but there is a great deal of fun in it, and I hope you will read it for yourselves. Here, for instance, is what happened to a porter for being rude to the fairy Blackstick. After saying many other rude things, he asked if she thought he was going to stay at the door all day.
"'You are going to stay at that door all day and all night, and for many a long year,' the fairy said, very majestically; and Gruffenuff, coming out of the door, straddling before it with his great calves, burst out laughing, and cried 'Ha, ha, ha! this is a good un! Ha--ah what's this? Let me down--O-o-H'm!' and then he was dumb.
"For as the fairy waved her wand over him, he felt himself rising off the ground, and fluttering up against the door, and then, as if a screw ran into his stomach, he felt a dreadful pain there, and was pinned to the door; and then his arms flew up over his head; and his legs, after writhing about wildly, twisted under his body; and he felt cold, cold, growing over him, as if he was turning into metal; and he said, 'O-o-H'm!' and could say no more, because he was dumb.
"He was turned into metal! He was from being brazen, brass! He was neither more nor less than a knocker! An there he was, nailed to the door in the blazing summer day, till he burned almost red-hot; and there he was, nailed to the door all the bitter winter nights, till his brass nose was dropping with icicles. And the postman came and rapped at him, and the vulgarist boy with a letter came and hit him up against the door. And the King and Queen coming home from a walk that evening, the King said, 'Hallo, my dear! you have had a new knocker put on the door. Why, it's rather like our porter in the face. What has become of that old vagabond?' And the housemaid came and scrubbed his nose with sand-paper; and once when the Princess Angelica's little sister was born, he was tied up in an old kid glove; and another night, some larking young men tried to wrench him off, and put him to the most excruciating agony with a turnscrew. And then the queen had a fancy to have the colour of the door altered, and the painters dabbed him over the mouth and eyes, and nearly choked him, as they painted him pea-green. I warrant he had leisure to repent of having been rude to the Fairy Blackstick."
As the years went on, Thackeray became ever more and more famous, his company more and more sought after. "The kind, tall, amusing, grey-haired man"* was welcome in many a drawing-room. Yet with all his success he never forgot his little girls. They were his fast friends and companions, and very often they wrote while he dictated his story to them. He worked with a lazy kind of diligence. He could not, like Scott, sit down and write a certain number of pages every morning. He was by nature indolent, yet he got through a great deal of work.
Death found him still working steadily. He had not been feeling well, and one evening he went to bed early. Next morning, Christmas Eve of 1863, he was found dead in bed.
Deep and widespread was the grief of Thackeray's death. The news "saddened England's Christmas." His friends mourned not only the loss of a great writer but "the cheerful companionship, the large heart, and open hand, the simple courteousness, and the endearing frankness of a brave, true, honest gentleman."*
Although he was buried in a private cemetery, a bust was almost at once placed in Westminster by his sorrowing friends.
The following verses were written by the editor of Punch* in his memory:--
"He was a cynic! By his life all wrought
Of generous acts, mild words, and gentle ways;
His heart wide open to all kindly thought,
His hand so great to give, his tongue to praise.
"He was a cynic! You might read it writ
In that broad brow, crowned with its silver hair,
In those blue eyes, with childlike candour lit,
In the sweet smile his lips were wont to wear.
"He was a cynic! By the love that clung
About him from his children, friends, and kin;
By the sharp pain, light pen and gossip tongue
Wrought in him chafing the soft heart within.
. . . . . .
"He was a cynic? Yes--if 'tis the cynic's part
To track the serpent's trail with saddened eye,
To mark how good and ill divide the heart,
How lives in chequered shade and sunshine lie:
"How e'en the best unto the worst is knit
By brotherhood of weakness, sin and care;
How even in the worst, sparks may be lit
To show all is not utter darkness there."
BOOK TO READ
The Rose and the Ring. NOTE.--The Rose and the Ring can be found in any complete edition of Thackeray's works.