Bring on the van, syringe and straitjacket

Matthew Sweet
Sunday 26 September 1999 00:00 BST

Thackeray by DJ Taylor (Chatto £25)

Thackeray by DJ Taylor (Chatto £25)

William Makepeace Thackeray is one of the most - and least - read of 19th- century novelists. Though F R Leavis dismissed Vanity Fair as nothing more than a way of killing time, it has established an unassailable position in the canon, and is one of those books it's best not to admit you haven't read. But what about the others? The Newcomes, anyone? The Adventures of Philip? Barry Lyndon? (The Kubrick movie doesn't count.) I think you'd be hard-pushed to find many English dons who've been bothered to drag their eyeballs all the way through The Virginians. (In fact, if you're an undergraduate, why not put your tutor to the test and ask?) So, while Thackeray's magnum opus gets endlessly reprinted - even in editions with Natasha Little on the cover - much of the rest of his work sits in musty corners of second-hand bookshops.

D J Taylor's dazzingly good new biography of Thackeray suggests that Vanity Fair was a watershed in its subject's life. After bringing his masterpiece into the world, he spent his remaining years in retreat from its savage conclusions. The early Thackeray was a kind of satirical Tasmanian Devil, a whirl of claws and teeth slashing away at every social pretension going. What was Thackeray rebelling against? You can imagine the creator of Becky Sharp looking up from his writing desk and pouting "Whaddavayagot?" His best-aimed punch was struck against the tenet of fiction that requires a novel to contain a figure in whom you can put your trust: Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, only offers the sweetly ineffectual Captain Dobbin, the uxorious hussar Rawdon Crawley, and the brass-buttoned bastard George Osborne.

Conversely, the later Thackeray was a club bore whose fiction was suddenly creaking under the weight of conventional heroes; a man who spent his time stuffing himself at endless roast beef dinners and literary bunfights, gargling a river of Brown Windsor soup and chotapegs. He became a toady of the titled who cultivated old-fartiness until he choked to death on the fumes. It's a tough transformation to credit. He went to bed one night Gerald Scarfe, and woke up as Norman St John-Stevas.

There's much to dislike about this latter incarnation of Thackeray. Antisemitism was an enthusiasm (it made him a lifelong enemy of Disraeli). His comment that "Sambo is not my man & my brother; the very aspect of his face is grotesque and inferior", should clear up any ambiguities for readers puzzling over the authorial attitude to the Sedleys' footman in Vanity Fair. He cosied up to horrific old authoritarians such as Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. (Thackeray praised an article by Stephen as "a very moderate honest sensible plea for aristocratic government [which showed] the dangers of democracy quite fairly".) He also had a taste for undignified public arguments, which were conducted in an absurd pastiche of duelling etiquette. They were the 19th-century equivalents of modern literary bitch-fights - attacks upon critics by soup-throwing novelists; journos smacking each other about in the toilets at the Groucho. Taylor's account of these squabbles does none of their participants (Thackeray, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Edmund Yates) any credit at all.

Perhaps we should blame it on his tough schooling. His education at Charterhouse seems to have mainly involved memorising the Epodes of Horace between bouts of being buggered by the prefects. ("Come and frig me" were apparently the first words spoken to him on his arrival at the school in 1822.) "Extracurricular activities," recounts Taylor, "ranged from bringing in pornographic books and planning excursions to watch public hangings at nearby Newgate or wandering around Holywell Street, where the local prostitutes stood soliciting custom".

For a modern biographer of Thackeray, however, the trickiest part of the story is the author's relationship with his wife. Isabella Gethin Shawe met Thackeray in Paris in 1835. He was a hack journalist in his mid-20s, struggling to make ends meet: she was a frail girl of 17 with a history of constipation (the subject of some of their earliest love- letters). Two years later they were married. But the birth of their children awoke some hereditary mental malady in Isabella, from which she never recovered.

Taylor treats the issue with admirable sensitivity. He is neither an apologist for Thackeray's decision to remove Isabella from the family home, nor does he resort to the cliche of the stage villain, twitching his eyebrows as his young wife is chained up in a moated grange. Thackeray emerges as a baffled, exhausted husband who probably decided that, as he needed to work from home to support his family, he could not allow Isabella's depressions and manic episodes to disrupt the household. "My rogue of a wife makes me melancholy," he wrote. It's not very acceptable these days to talk about the negative influence that the insane can exert upon the sane. But like it or not, there's a moment when we'd all call the doctor and say, enough is enough, bring the van and the syringe and the straitjacket.

Taylor's assessment of these events contains, I think, only one misjudgement. He describes as "bizarre" the way in which Thackeray took comfort from a diagnosis that determined Isabella's malady had a moral basis. In the terms of Victorian mental pathology, this is perfectly logical. If she was suffering from a case of moral insanity, then there was a chance that she might be cold-showered back to health. If her condition was organic, then all that awaited her was the slow atrophy of her brain. Unfortunately, the latter seems to have happened.

Thackeray pursued every other option before surrendering his wife to the care of others. They took convalescent holidays to Margate which they could not afford. They consulted the greatest experts in Europe. They took a trip to Ireland to visit Isabella's mother. This particular voyage didn't quite go as planned: during the crossing, Isabella hoicked herself out of the lavatory window in an attempt to drown herself, and only the air trapped in her crinoline prevented her from glugging to the bottom of the Irish Sea. Perhaps she suspected that she was about to be found a permanent home in Ireland, which had a notoriously unregulated asylum system. The publisher James Maxwell, a contemporary of Thackeray, placed his wife in one of these institutions. It was a lot more convenient, I suppose, than going to the trouble of constructing secret attic apartments, from which - in fiction at least - mad wives had a tendency to descend and light fires.

Eventually, Thackeray decided to despatch Isabella over a narrower stretch of water, and lodge her with a Mrs Bakewell in Camberwell. He continued to visit and pay her expenses, but soon her condition advanced to a state in which she usually failed to recognise him. You can imagine the pair of them in some shabby-genteel parlour in semi-rural south London, Thackeray staring, embarrassed, at the hearthrug, Isabella unable, or refusing, to register his presence. There are no winner or losers in the story. This is, after all, a biography without a hero.

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