Thackeray's Letters

How much formal biography really adds to our knowledge of a great literary character is a curious question. Perhaps it is not modesty nor a proud and sensitive reserve that urges a nature like Hawthorne’s to try to evade the biographer ; nor does mere humbleness of spirit account wholly for Thackeray’s repeated injunction upon his heirs not to allow the public to view his private life. Probably every man of literary genius who has found expression for what was in him feels that his true self is there in his works, and that in his personal life, with all its accidental and eccentric details, the circumstances of his position and the varying moods of his temperament obscure the reality, and are, more often than not, misleading. A quarrel that was but an incident of a lifetime becomes a long episode in the book ; a scandal that quickly melted away comes back as a cloud not to be dispersed ; an irritable letter, an imprudent witticism, a blunder in some fit of dullness, a piece of self-deception that was only momentary, and all the thousand and one superficial matters that fill the day are brought into prominence, as if they, and not the spirit that underwent these crosses, were the life itself. But the real man is in his books. One knows that this is so in Thackeray’s case. The personality of the author is so blended with his characters, and makes so largely the main charm of his style, that one comes to know him with exceptional nearness, and to feel that there is no other reason to desire a formal biography of him than to have more of the same thing.

In reading this collection of Letters 1 which Thackeray wrote to his friends, the Brookfields, one is most struck by this identity of the man and the author; it affords a most startling test of Thackeray’s sincerity. Those who are lovers of his works, thoroughly familiarized with his ways of looking upon the world and his manner of treating the individuals who compose it, experience no surprise at this ; but they are delighted to hear the old voice speaking again, and pleased to have his qualities brought out in this private correspondence so plainly that no one, however blind to his real nature in his novels, can fail to find in the writer the kindliness, the honesty, and goodness of heart which lie at the bottom of all his great achievements in literature. He is to be seen here as genuinely as Steele in those letters to his wife, which are as charming a piece of biography as English literature has to show.

The collection covers eight years of Thackeray’s mature life. It is composed of every-day notes, written from the club or his lodgings about the things of the hour; or of longer letters of travel, sent from some watering-place on the Continent, or some country retreat in England, or from Paris, whither he made frequent excursions. They are for the most part entirely personal, and describe what happened to himself, or confide the moods that visited him ; and, too, they are especially the letters of a novelist, — the world that he sees is the very same that he writes about. One may say that in the passages concerning persons we read his novels in the rough, his notes still unelaborated; and we see quite plainly the method in which he worked up his observations, and the way in which life reacted upon his mind. Such is the description of the friend of his youth, whom a score of years before he thought “ the most f ascinating, accomplished, witty, and delightful of men: ”

“ I found an old man in a room smelling of brandy and water, at five o’clock, at —, quite the same man that I remember, only grown coarser and stale somehow, like a piece of goods that has been hanging up in a shop window. He has had fifteen years of a vulgar wife, very much brandy and water, I should think, and a depressing profession ; for what can be more depressing than a long course of hypocrisy to a man of no small sense of humor ? It was a painful meeting. We tried to talk unreservedly, and as I looked at his face I remembered the fellow I was so fond of. . . . He must have been glad, too, when I went away, and I dare say is more scornful about me than I about him. I used to worship him for about six months, and now he points a moral and adorns a tale such as it is in Pendennis. . . . Poor old Harry — ! and this battered, vulgar man was my idol of youth.”

It is worth noting that Thackeray’s satire is not merely that of a man acquainted with the world, not hard, and incisive, and sneering only, but that of a man who in his youth had “ a knack of setting up idols to worship,” and in whom acquaintance with the world was not only knowledge, but disappointment. Regret, the remembrance of better things, is one of the colors of his style ; it is “the principle” of which he elsewhere speaks as based “ on the eternal data of perennial reminiscences.”

But it is hardly worth while to use these Letters for the purpose of analysis; they are not explanations, but further illustrations of the man. To extract passages is easy, but one cannot give a truthful impression of the whole by that method, nor is there any way of stating the character of them comprehensively ; their charm is one to be felt only at first hand.

A particular interest, however, attaches to the half dozen paragraphs, scattered through the volume, in which Thackeray expresses his convictions upon religious topics. It is a very simple creed, and is usually brought to the surface by way of reaction against some irritating doctrine of a more stalwart church than that in which he is militant. A sentence or two may not be out of place : —

“ The light upon all the saints in heaven is just as much, and no more, God’s work as the sun which shall shine to-morrow upon this infinitesimal speck of creation, and under which I shall read, please God, a letter from my kindest lady and friend. About my future state I don’t know ; I leave it in the disposal of the awful Father, — but for today I thank God that I can love you, and that you yonder, and others besides, are thinking of me with a tender regard. Hallelujah may be greater in degree than this, but not in kind, and countless ages of stars may be blazing infinitely, but you and I have a right to rejoice and believe in our little part, and to trust in to-day as in to-morrow. . . . When I am on a cloud a - singing or a-pot-boiling, I will do my best; and if you are ill, you can have consolation ; if you have disappointments, you can invent fresh sources of hope and pleasure. . . . By Jove! I ‘ll admire, if I can, the wing of a cock-sparrow as much as the pinion of an archangel, and adore God, the Father of the earth, first; waiting for the completion of my senses, and the fulfillment of his intentions towards me afterwards when this scene closes over us. So, when Bullar turns up his eye to the ceiling, I ’ll look straight at your dear kind face and thank God for knowing that, my dear ; and though my nose is a broken pitcher, yet, lo and behold, there’s a well gushing over with kindness in my heart, where my dear lady may come and drink.”

All this, however, one can read in the novels as plainly, if one will, and pereeive in it the real piety toward heaven and brotherliness toward man which belong to a large, grateful, and honest heart, much perplexed and cast down before the gorgeous presence of the Church Established.

But why go on to detail what every one interested will read for himself ? The little satirical vignettes, ma cousine at Paris, the cavalier lady in the row, the Continental table d’hôte where he dined like “ an ordinary person,” the French plays with their naughtinesses and their little girls singing for the dragoons, Jules Janin, the Chinaman kissing the Duke of Wellington, to that “old boy’s ” great surprise, the old gentleman in pantalets, — all these one must look at for himself. The unfailing interest in human life, especially in the worldly stage, and in little else besides; the preoccupation with the novels in hand, and their reality to the author as part and parcel of the life he has lived; the just eye for the visible weaknesses of mortals, and the charitableness and self-abasement of him who recognized it all as of a piece with his own humble human nature ; the constant and unwearied lovingness of the man whose Lares and Penates were tenderness and humor; his generous admiration, — these belong to his personality, and are not to be understood except in their concrete expression ; and the whole volume which contains these things must be read, if one would understand. It is in no sense a life of Thackeray; it is a better thing, — it is Thackeray living; and we risk nothing in saying it will hereafter be reckoned on the noble list as one of Thackeray’s best books.

  1. A Collection of Letters of Thackeray. 1847-1855. With Portraits and Reproductions of Letters and Drawings. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1887.