- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.
By D.J. Taylor
Carroll & Graf, $28, 494 pages, illus.

A distinguished historian asked forlornly in an essay a few years ago, who now reads Macaulay? It might similarly be asked, who now reads Thackeray? Probably not many turn to one of the dominant writers of Victorian literature. The densely detailed, baggy novels of the period are regarded, one suspects, as cruel and unusual punishment for generations shaped by jumpy television images, and likely appeal mostly to graduate students desperately seeking a thesis.
A splendid teller of tales, however, will find a readership, small though it may be. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and, not least, William Makepeace Thackeray will continue to enchant. Not to have read "Vanity Fair" proclaims one culturally disadvantaged and to have missed no small pleasure.
At his death on Christmas Eve, 1863, at 52, Thackeray was with Dickens the literary beacon of the mid-Victorian era. This was despite the fact that Thackeray was not a "natural novelist," as D.J. Taylor writes in this "literary life."
Before "Vanity Fair" made his reputation, and indeed after, Thackeray was a Grub Street hack, precariously and fretfully earning the loaves of bread and jugs of wine that he consumed with gusto. He wrote in every category of expression available and in 1840s London there were literally hundreds of newspapers and journals at one time or another.
Mr. Taylor seems to be alarmingly knowledgeable about Thackeray's vast output (26 volumes in all) of sketches and essays, art and drama and literary criticism, satiric jousts and occasional jottings, many of which appeared over the decades in the magazine Punch and of course the novels, not to mention thousands of letters.
Thackeray was the son of two prominent Anglo-Indian families, but was forced to scuffle for a living after the substantial fortune his deceased father left him evaporated during an Indian banking crisis as he approached maturity.
Sent back from the Raj as a tadpole the norm for so many families he attended Charterhouse school and was surrounded by thickets of kin in England. He put in two desultory years at Cambridge, alternating between the lively life of a dandy and a morose torpor.
Forced then to consider a livelihood, Thackeray thought about the law, though not for long. Drawing having been one of his earliest joys and accomplishments, he gave art and the Bohemian life a several-year try in Paris (where, too indiscriminately sowing his wild oats, he contracted a urethric ailment that would plague him to his death, burdening a not-robust constitution).
To further complicate a life of limited prospects, in 1836 Thackeray in romantic impetuosity married teen-age Isabella Shawe, whose mother prefigured the termagant mothers-in-law of his fiction. Three children quickly followed (the middle one died in infancy). As the young man now hustled as an unknown writer, often not able to pay household bills, Isabella sank into what Mr. Taylor describes as postnatal depression. This soon worsened into degenerative disorientation.
Repeatedly hospitalized, further straining Thackeray's fragile finances, Isabella in a few years would be turned over to the custody of a caretaker family, and eventually and for practical purposes vanished from his life. He would describe himself as "a widower with a wife." Daughters Annie and Minnie spent most of their early years with his mother and her second husband in France, as their father continued to churn out copy in peripatetic search for new material.
"Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero" began serial publication in January of 1847. Though sales were not spectacular, the devious and ambitious Becky Sharpe made Thackeray's reputation. Dickens' "Dombey and Son" was appearing in installments at the same time and, writes Mr. Taylor, this is an example of "the odd, shadowing process by which Dickens and Thackeray often seem to have conducted their working lives."
One friend of both in the intimate literary milieu of London opined that Thackeray "had Dickens on the brain." Mr. Taylor finds that "The evidence of this obsession piles up in nearly every corner of his adult life, and yet it was an odd form of mania: simultaneously admiring, emulative and envious, and capable of producing bizarre manifestations." The latter included a number of notable public quarrels, particularly "The Garrick Club Affair" which rankled both for several years, but the two reconciled the summer before Thackeray's death. Though he eventually would earn handsomely and become a lion of the literary world and patronized by the titled, it ruffled Thackeray that Dickens' popularity, and rich returns, so exceeded his own.
Thackeray was a lonely man even as his achievements mounted and notwithstanding the now-constant company of two bright and loving daughters. Enter Jane Brookfield and her husband, William, a friend from Cambridge days.
For nearly a decade, Thackeray was smitten by Jane while maintaining his friendship, for a time, with William. This anomalous attachment with a friend's wife was probably platonic but passionate and sentimental, involving almost daily visits and letters. It diminished when Jane became pregnant after seven years of marriage. "Each, one feels, used the relationship … as a kind of emotional safety-value: Thackeray ardent, resigned, self-pitying; Jane nervous, flattered, indulgent, in the end entirely capable of looking after herself." Whatever else, it was uncommonly complicated.
The novels kept flowing from his pen in the "punishing" schedule of work he maintained for most of his life most notably "Pendennis" in 1848; "Esmond" in 1852; "The Newcomes," 1853-55; with a sequel to "Esmond," "The Virginians," published serially in 1857-59. (The latter is generally considered an inferior work, but worth a reader's time, suggests the reviewer, for Thackeray's often fascinating portrayal of early colonial America.)
In 1860, Thackeray became editor of the Cornhill magazine, in which capacity he recognized Trollope's talent and published "Framley Parsonage," which established the younger man's reputation (Trollope in 1879 would write an admiring biography of the man who had launched him into a literary esteem that has outlasted his mentor).
In these latter years, Thackeray "was perfectly aware of [his] slide into mediocrity the reader is presented with the spectacle of an author falling asleep over his work and then recovering himself almost from paragraph to paragraph," writes Mr. Taylor. Deteriorating health doubtless contributed to this withering of a talent that had been harnessed relentlessly.
Mr. Taylor, in addition to his empathetic portrait, has a keen eye for the man's writerly persona. "That Thackeray's genius should have fallen apart in this depressing way is a measure of his complex relation to his time. There is a rather obvious irony in the process by which the cutting young satirist of 'Fraser's' and 'Punch' transformed himself into the sedate and sentimental fogey of 'The Newcomes,' and the irony lies in Thackeray's inability to prevent himself falling victim to the attitudes he had burlesqued in his early work. Elevated to the status of a grand literary panjandrum after the success of 'Vanity Fair,' he was never quite sure of his stance toward the society he had once poked fun at but … wanted to become part of."
At his best, however, Thackeray had the ability "to saturate narrative with detail and create a world that, though bristling with intrigue, has a curiously lived-in feeling, simultaneously exotic and familiar."
"When he died, the world of mid-Victorian London seemed diminished by his absence," Mr. Taylor nicely writes.
It may be that this very readable biography will rouse readers, as it did the reviewer, to revisit "Vanity Fair" a novel that after a century and a half retains its sly and saucy vivacity.

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