Monday, September 30, 2013

When Brontë Met Thackeray: The Puncturing Of Inflated Expectations

by Stephen J. Gertz

This is what introduced Charlotte Bronte to William Makepeace Thackeray:

This is what introduced William Makepeace Thackeray to Charlotte Brontë aka Currer Bell:
 "There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital - a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of 'Vanity Fair' admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst who he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time - they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.

"Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day - as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he's like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humor, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humor attractive, but both bear the same relation, to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark his in its womb. Finally: I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him - if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger - I have dedicated this second edition of Jane Eyre. Currer Bell Dec. 21st, 1847."
This is what Thackeray thought of Brontë's tribute:
"January 1848

My dear Mr.
[William Smith] Williams,

I am quite vexed that by some blundering of mine I should have delayed answering Currer Bell's enormous compliment so long. I didn't know what to say in reply; it quite flustered and upset me. Is it true, I wonder? I'm - But a truce to egoism. Thank you for your kindness in sending me the volumes, and (indirectly) for the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.

Faithfully yours,

W.M. Thackeray"

What happened when the two finally met face to face was a textbook case of romanticized notions of an author's greatness deflated upon meeting the superman; he was merely human and nothing at all  like Brontë had built up in her imagination. Her hero was just a guy; the glorious prophet in print was pedestrian in person, a holy man defrocked by reality and stripped of his sanctity. Lewis Melville, in his biography of Thackeray, tells the story.

"It has already been mentioned that 'Currer Bell' dedicated the second edition of 'Jane Eyre' to Thackeray, and Thackeray later acknowledged the compliment, before even he knew her name or sex, by sending her a copy of 'Vanity Fair' [first edition in book form, 1848] inscribed with his 'grateful regards.' Charlotte Bronte had been much disturbed by the widespread rumour that she had drawn Thackeray and his wife [who was mentally ill and institutionalized] as Mr. and Mrs. Rochester, though she was indifferent to those other lying reports that said she had been a governess in his family and subsequently his mistress; and when she came to London in December 1849, she eagerly accepted the offer of George Smith [1824-1901, partner in Smith, Elder & Co., publisher of Jane Eyre, The Cornhill Magazine, and Thackeray's friend], to introduce Thackeray to her.

Thackeray's inscription on his presentation copy to Brontë of Vanity Fair.

"When they did meet, she was much astonished. As the dedication to the second edition of 'Jane Eyre' shows, she had expected to find a fervent prophet, and Thackeray was simply a quiet, well-bred gentleman, with nothing in appearance to distinguish him from hosts of other men. A delightful story has been related of their meeting. It is worthy of being repeated, for, though probably apocryphal, it is amusingly true of the lady's attitude to her hero.

"'Behold, a lion Cometh up out of the North!' she quoted under her breath, as Thackeray entered the drawing-room. Thackeray, being informed of this, remarked: 'Oh, Lord ! and I'm nothing but a poor devil of an Englishman, ravenous for my dinner.' 

"At dinner. Miss Bronte was placed opposite him. 'And,' said Thackeray, 'I had the miserable humiliation of seeing her ideal of me disappearing, as everything went into my mouth, and nothing came out of it, until, at last, as I took my fifth potato, she leaned across, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, and breathed imploringly, 'Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don't!'"

"Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don't!"

"Thackeray was an enigma to Charlotte Bronte; she could not understand him; she was never certain whether he was speaking in jest or in earnest; but she was determined to take him seriously.

"'All you say of Mr. Thackeray is most graphic and characteristic,' she wrote to Ellen Nussey, on December 19 [1849]. 'He stirs in me both sorrow and anger. Why should he lead so harassing a life? Why should his mocking tongue so perversely deny the better feelings of his better moods?…Mr. Thackeray is a man of very quiet, simple demeanour; he is, however, looked up to with some awe and even distrust…Thackeray is a Titan of mind. His presence and powers impress one deeply in an intellectual sense; I do not know him or see him as a man. All the others are subordinate…I felt sufficiently at my ease with all but Thackeray; with him, I was fearfully stupid.'

"Charlotte Bronte came again to London in the following June [1850], and Thackeray called on her at George Smith's house, and the host, who was alone with them, afterwards described the interview as 'a queer scene.'

"'I suppose it was,' the lady wrote to Ellen Nussey. 'The giant sat before me: I was moved to speak of some of his shortcomings (literary, of course); one by one the faults came into my head, and one by one I brought them out, and sought some explanation or defence. He did defend himself, like a great Turk and heathen; that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself. The matter ended in decent amity; if all be well I am to dine at his house this evening (June 12).'

"The dinner, it must be confessed, was not a success. The party included Mrs. Crowe, the Brookfields, the Carlyles, Mrs. Procter and her daughter, and Mrs. Elliot and Miss Perry, and it should have been a bright gathering. Instead it was a gloomy and silent evening, conversation languished, the guest in whose honour all were assembled said nothing, and Thackeray, too much depressed by the failure of the entertainment, but little. Mrs. Brookfield made an effort.

"'Do you like London, Miss Bronte?' she asked; then, after a pause, the other said gravely, 'Yes — no.'

"Charlotte Bronte was the first to leave, and so soon as she had gone Thackeray slipped out of the drawing-room, and his eldest daughter was surprised to see him open the front door with his hat on.

"'He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him. When I went back to the drawing-room again, the ladies asked me where he was. I vaguely answered that I thought he was coming back,' Lady Ritchie [Thackeray's daughter] has written. 'Long years afterwards, Mrs. Procter, with a good deal of humour, described the situation — the ladies, who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club. The ladies waited, wondered, and finally departed also; and as we were going up to bed with our candles, after everybody was gone, I remember two pretty Miss L 's, in shiny silk dresses, arriving full of expectation…We still said we thought our father would soon be back, but the Miss L's declined to wait upon the chance, laughed, and drove away again almost immediately.'

"Once more Charlotte Bronte and Thackeray met, and again a letter of the lady tells the tale.

"'I came here (London) on Wednesday, being summoned a day sooner than I expected, in order to be in time for Thackeray's second lecture, which was delivered on Thursday afternoon. This, as you may suppose, was a great treat, and I was glad not to miss it,' she wrote to Ellen Nussey, on June 2, 1851. 'As our party left the (lecture) Hall, he (Thackeray) stood at the entrance; he saw and knew me, and lifted his hat; he offered his hand in passing, and uttered the words, 'Qit'eii dttes-vous?' — a question eminently characteristic and reminding me, even in this his moment of triumph, of that inquisitive restlessness, that absence of what I considered desirable self-control, which were among his faults. He should not have cared just then to ask what I thought, or what anybody thought; but he did care, and he was too natural to conceal, too impulsive to repress, his wish. Well! if I blamed his over-eagerness, I liked his naivete. I would have praised him ; I had plenty of praise in my heart; but, alas! no words on my lips. Who has words at the right moment? I stammered lame expressions; but was truly glad when some other people, coming up with profuse congratulations, covered my deficiency by their redundancy.'

"Indeed, though intensely appreciative, Charlotte Bronte proved so severe a critic, both of himself and his works, that Thackeray was not quite pleased with the various letters (printed in Mrs. Gaskell's 'Life') in which she expressed her opinions, and he said so much in his 'Last Sketch,' prefixed to 'Emma,' when, under his editorship, that fragment appeared in the Cornhill Magazine.

"'I can only say of this lady, vidi tantiim. I saw her first just as I rose out of an illness from which I had never thought to recover. I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterise the woman. Twice, I recollect, she took me to task for what she held to be errors in doctrine. Once about Fielding we had a disputation. She spoke her mind out. She jumped to conclusions (I have smiled at one or two passages in the 'Biography' in which my own disposition or behaviour form the subject of talk). She formed conclusions that might be wrong, and built up whole theories of character upon them. New to the London world, she entered it with an independent indomitable spirit of her own; and judged of contemporaries, and especially spied out arrogance or affectation, with extraordinary keenness of vision. She was angry with her favourites if their conduct or conversation fell below her ideal. Often she seemed to be judging the London folks prematurely; but perhaps the city is rather angry at being judged...

"An austere little Joan of Arc."
The ecdysiast edition for Kindle.

"'I fancied an austere little Joan of Arc marching in upon us, and rebutting our easy lives, our easy morals. She gave me the impression of being a very pure and lofty, and high-minded person. A great and holy reverence of right and truth seemed to be with her always. Such, in our brief interview, she appeared to me'" (Melville, The Life of William Makepeace Thackeray [1899], pp. 310-314).

• • •

While we know what Brontë and Thackeray thought when they met we have no idea what the designers of the above modern editions of their work were thinking when they met these two classics of English literature. We only know that when Brontë and Thackeray met modern packaging travesty ensued and bore two further examples of the death of civilization as we know it, whether through ignorance or a good case of bad taste while trying to breathe new life into old bones and resuscitate the once lively now near dead for 21st century readers.

But it appears to be fact of modern life that until a product of culture is sexualized it hasn't truly been integrated into the culture that produced it. In that regard, the sexualization of Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair for sales purposes may be, however dubious, the greatest compliment that can be paid to these old standards. 

"The moral world has no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name" (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair). Thackeray, the great social observer, would have been, it seems, in Playland in the 21st century; so much to satirize. His challenge, of course, would be how to satirize a society that is already a parody of itself, the modern humorist's dilemma.

"To those who think with their heads, life is a comedy, to those who think with their hearts, life is a tragedy" (Henry Miller). That's the difference between Thackeray, the cool satirist, and his contemporaries, Dickens, the warm sentimentalist, and Brontë, the suffering gothic naturalist.

“If I am against the condition of the world it is not because I am a moralist, it is because I want to laugh more. I don't say that God is one grand laugh: I say that you've got to laugh hard before you can get anywhere near God" (Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn). And cry hard. While we shed tears over the perversion of culture we are amused by it. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Thackeray would have shared that view. Sorrow is the root of comedy and to be able to laugh in the midst of tears is the best defense against utter despair. 

And so, painful though the prospect is, I look forward to Jane Erred and Venery Fair, proof-positive that there's still life in these old cougars pathetically porned-up to attract younger partners. Brontë, the judgmental moralist, would be appalled. Thackeray would be appalled, too, but the temptation to slit his wrists would be tempered by wit, the folly of human behavior trumping stern righteousness.

That's the conversation I'd have enjoyed eavesdropping on when Brontë met Thackeray, if only Thackeray had stopped shoveling potatoes into his mouth long enough to participate. She was hungry for wisdom. He was just plain hungry.


  1. A really interesting read, loved the description of Bronte as the 'suffering gothic naturalist'!

  2. I actually rather like the Vanity Fair cover. Jane Eyre, though... promiscuity and rumpled sheets in Thackeray I can see, but not much pole dancing going on in Bronte...


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