Monday, February 3, 2014

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE NEWCOMES” by William Makepeace Thackeray (First published in 23 monthly serial parts, 1853-55. Published in book form 1855.)

            I admit to a rather fraught relationship with William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863). Of course I’ve read Vanity Fair (1848) a number of times, and once inflicted it on a class of Year 13 girls (who, after first baulking at its length, and making some acute comments about its snobbery, nevertheless ended up loving it). Despite its Whiggish view of history, I read and enjoyed Henry Esmond (1852) as one of the better historical novels of its age. One time, when I was visiting Italy, I had nothing else in the English language to read when I found a paperback copy of Barry Lyndon (1844) at a railway bookstall, and thoroughly enjoyed its galloping tale of rascality, quite different in tone from the rather solemn movie version that Stanley Kubrick made from it. I read Thackeray’s brief kiddies’ book The Rose and the Ring (1855) to my older children when they were young – to their apparent enjoyment. I found his lectures The Four Georges (1856), his Book of Snobs (1848) and especially his humorous magazine pieces The Roundabout Papers (1863) very satisfactory bedside books, to be nibbled at, a chapter at a time, before lights out. On the other hand, I was never able to finish his (apparently) most autobiographical novel Pendennis (1850) – about a young journalist. I got about a third of the way through it and found myself squirming with boredom and irritated by the eponymous Arthur Pendennis. Likewise his immensely long historical novel The Virginians (1859) sits unread on my shelves, as does The Adventures of Philip (1862).
Basically, Thackeray is remembered in two ways. First, as the author of Vanity Fair. Second, as the “second best” Victorian novelist after Dickens. The hard fact is, he cannot be mentioned without people at once comparing him with his much more popular contemporary. These constant comparisons with Dickens are really belittling. Thackeray had his own peculiar genius, and it is hard to imagine Dickens allowing himself to create a full-blown sexual adventuress like Becky Sharp.
Just observe the most common portrait of Thackeray (owlish, bespectacled and
grey-haired) and, apart from the somewhat sardonic curl of his lips, he almost looks like a comfy, avuncular member of the Establishment. With a jolt, we realize that he had aged prematurely and in fact died when he was only 52. (The equally workaholic Dickens died at 58). Also, he was never a comfortable member of the Establishment. He was on the fringes of high society, which he regarded with a mixture of satire and toadyism – the mainspring of the outbreaks of snobbery for which he has often been criticised. (I can’t refrain from quoting W.H.Auden’s naughty clerihew “William Makepeace Thackeray / Wept into his daiquiri / When he heard that St John’s Wood / Thought he was no good.”)
            George Saintsbury, a forgotten critic from the very early 20th century, once described four novels by Thackeray as his “Quadrilateral” – the impregnable fortress of Thackeray’s literary achievement. They are Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Pendennis and The Newcomes. I shudder at the inclusion of Pendennis, but endorse the inclusion of The Newcomes. As another of Thackeray’s major works that I have read, The Newcomes (1853-55), subtitled Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, seems to me a sadly neglected and very sympathetic mid-Victorian novel.
Some context. I first read The Newcomes because I had read Don Quixote and was following up The Greatest Novel Ever Written by reading a number of works that were influenced by it. (Such as Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tobias Smollett’s Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, comments on both of which you can find via this blog’s index.) An essay by Herbert Grierson tipped me off that a key character in Thackeray’s The Newcomes was based on Don Quixote and modelled his values on the Knight of the Woeful Countenance. So into The Newcomes I plunged, and I was mighty glad I did so.
Unlike most of Thackeray’s novels, The Newcomes is set in the times when Thackeray was writing it – or at least only a decade or so before publication date. Like most of Thackeray’s novels, it is centrally concerned with gradations of class feeling among the upper middle classes. As their name alerts us, the Newcomes are a nouveau-riche family, and the chief cleavage in the family is between those who are willing to admit their humble origins, and those who make pretensions to noble descent.
The tale opens with the widower Colonel Thomas Newcome, known to all as a perfect gentleman, coming back from India and taking his son Clive Newcome from boarding school. (Obviously an old officer in Britain’s Indian army would call his son Clive.) Colonel Newcome, generosity and honour personified, is specifically identified as the Don Quixote character. He always wants to think the best of people. Unlike some of his snobbish relations, he has no difficulty in paying social calls to, and being polite to, poor relations whom the social-climbing branches of the family would prefer to forget – such as poor old Sarah Mason, who lives back in the borough of Newcome; or members of the family of the colonel’s deceased wife – notably Miss Honeyman, who runs a boarding house in Brighton.
Much of the early part of the novel consists of Clive’s attempts to be an artist (reflecting some autobiography on the part of artist-novelist Thackeray). Colonel Newcome takes Clive’s modest talent to be a sign of genius. The comedy here consists of our awareness that the colonel is looking through the eyes of paternal pride. There is also much delicacy in the way Thackeray shows Clive protecting his father (from some of the more louche aspects of London life) as much as the colonel protects Clive. One of the chief delights of this novel is its depiction of a father and son who really love each other, despite their differences of temperament.
When, in its rambling way, the plot really gets going, it centres on Clive’s thwarted love for his cousin Ethel Newcome, whom he hopes to marry. Clive’s nemesis is Ethel’s boorish, domineering and very wealthy brother Barnes Newcome, who despises Clive and wants his sister to make a wealthy society match.
I will not summarise the plot in detail. It is fruitless to do so for a serially-published Victorian novel which, like Dickens’ novels, often runs off at tangents in its more than 800 pages. Suffice it to say that, repeatedly, Clive woos Ethel only to have her whisked away by yet another wealthy suitor acceptable to her brother. Clive himself gets caught up in the marriage market, where eligible girls are dangled, by their mothers, before eligible bachelors. A Mrs MacKenzie -  Mrs Mack, the old campaigner” - makes strenuous efforts to get Clive to marry her daughter Rosey MacKenzie. Meanwhile Colonel Newcome’s financial fortunes rise when he returns to India and invests in the Bundelcund Banking Company (amusingly for a modern reader, it is often identified in the novel by its initials – B.B.C.)….. but later the colonel’s fortunes crash again when the company goes bankrupt and folds after the unwise speculations of other share-holders. Unusually for a Victorian novel, there are episodes concerning a very messy divorce, when the domineering Barnes Newcome proves to be a wife-beating brute and his wife deserts him.
Through the romantic ups-and-downs of Clive and Ethel, the novel works its way towards a sad and downbeat conclusion, regarding both Clive’s marital status and the material fortunes of his immediate family. This is fully credible in terms of the characters and their circumstances, as they have been revealed to us.
Unfortunately, Thackeray didn’t want to disappoint his serial-reading audience. So, in the last three or four chapters, he contrives a “happy ending” to set everything right again, regardless of its improbability. I really do wish the novel ended without those last chapters. They are as much of an intrusion, and a betrayal of what has gone before, as Dickens’ re-written ending to Great Expectations.
In making a sort of summary like this, I have naturally left out many characters who don’t contribute much to the plot, but who are part of the flavour of the novel. There is the painful fact that much of the novel is narrated (either in the first- or the third-person) by Thackeray’s alter ego, the tiresome Arthur Pendennis, whose wife Laura Pendennis is introduced very late into the proceedings as a female companion to some of the novel’s female characters. This, I think, is an awkward dodge to “justify” Arthur Pendennis’ having intimate knowledge of matters he couldn’t possibly witness.  A lot of excitable and funny Froggies are introduced as raw comic relief. There is some satire on art criticism in the person of Clive’s art critic friend Fred Bayham, who “puffs” Clive’s paintings. Early in the novel, the Reverend Charles Honeyman (Colonel Newcome’s brother-in-law) is a mildly satirical portrait of the fashionable churchman who tempers his homilies to the tastes of his affluent congregations.
To modern readers The Newcomes creates a whole vanished world of social arrangements, and I admit to being fully diverted by it in the fortnight or so that I dawdled my way through it. I cannot be ungrateful or churlish about its entertainment value. When I try to apply some rational criticism to it, however, I find myself doing what all the others do, and comparing Thackeray with Dickens.
As in Dickens’ early novels (such as Nicholas Nickleby), the young man who is supposedly the central character, Clive Newcome, is not particularly interesting. The novel droops in the central sections, when the generous Colonel Newcome is absent from the scene. Clive’s love for his father is believable, but too often Clive is shoved about at the convenience of the plot, especially in the matter of his marriage.
As I have already noted, there is considerable awkwardness in having Arthur Pendennis as observer and narrator. Frequently his narration resembles gossip or chitter-chatter and underlines the novel’s limited social perspective. (Attitudinising chitter-chatter was as much Thackeray’s abiding sin as sentiment was Dickens’ abiding sin.) Indeed, Thackeray himself seems to be so aware of the defectiveness of his narrative voice that he twice (at the beginnings of Chapter 24 and Chapter 49) makes defensive comments to justify it.
Unlike Dickens, Thackeray (who had Indian connections) does show an awareness of Britain’s accumulating empire and its wealth. He is also aware of the grubby ways in which much imperial wealth was acquired. In Chapter 48, there’s a passing reference to the opium trade as one of the means by which fortunes are made for the company in which Colonel Newcome invests. (The Newcomes was written less than a decade after the series of wars in which Britain forced opium on the Chinese empire.) The boyish high jinks of Thackeray’s male characters do come across as Regency morality modified a little for Victorian readership, quite unlike the wholesale embrace of Victorian morality in Dickens’ novels. However, again unlike Dickens, Thackeray has a more limited social perspective with regard to England itself. The world of The Newcomes is Mayfair, clubland, decaying gentry, arriviste upper middle classes and the marriage market, with a few bohemians in Clive’s arty set. The mercantile upper middle classes seethe with envy for the unearned wealth of the titled gentry; Thackeray satirises toadyism, social climbing and pretensions, yet at the same time he (as usual) half buys into these things. Save for some sentiment about poor relations, the lower classes scarcely make an appearance, as they so often do in Dickens. In offhanded remarks planted here and there, you can also see that Thackeray shares many of the prejudices of his age, race and class – against Catholics, funny Irish and excitable Froggies, for example.
Yet, for all his moments of windy attitudinising, Thackeray can bring off the strong dramatic scene. There is no coup de theatre as shocking as the “dead, with a bullet through his heart” moment in Vanity Fair. But there is Colonel Newcome’s anger at the smutty song he hears sung in a club. And Clive enraged enough by the brutish Barnes to throw a drink in his face. And Ethel attaching to herself a green ticket (like the ones put on ticketed paintings) as a sign that her brother regards her as being for sale in the marriage market. And Clive burning with frustration as he sees the unattainable Ethel on a public platform.
Hands up, too, for Thackeray’s witticisms. There’s the person in Chapter 8 who suggests Clive’s future thus: “I think I should send him into the army – that’s the best place for him – there’s the least to do and the handsomest clothes to wear.
There’s the passage in Chapter 20, where Thackeray summarises the colonel’s care for his son, and how it is often returned:  “….the old man lay awake, and devised kindnesses, and gave his all for the love of his son; and the young man took, and spent, and slept and made merry.”
And as for philistinism, there is the passage in Chapter 35 on Clive’s idling in Italy, which begins “Our friend is an Englishman, and did in Rome as the English do.” There follows one of the most acute analyses on record of the mixed fear and envy that Protestant Englishmen felt when they came face-to-face with the art of Catholic Italy.
 It is an imperfect and lumpy novel, for sure, but it is still one of Thackeray’s best, and would reward a reading by anyone who loved Vanity Fair.

Random footnotes:
(A.) The Newcomes was published a decade before “Lewis Carroll” wrote Alice in Wonderland. But in Chapter 24 of The Newcomes I was surprised to find that somebody remarks “That woman grins like a Cheshire cat”, whereupon Thackeray comments “Who was the naturalist who first discovered this peculiarity of the cats in Cheshire?” Identifying the phrase with Lewis Carroll is a good instance of a traditional and proverbial phrase being ascribed to the one literary source that popularised it.
(B.) As a piece of pure imbecility, I note that the two-volume Collins Clear Type edition of The Newcomes which sits on my shelf was published in the very early 20th century. Instead of the original illustrations, its illustrations are posed sepia photographs taken from an early 20th century stage adaptation of The Newcomes. This reminds me that before television came along, with its frequent serial adaptations of long 19th century novels, stage adaptations of them were quite common. However I struggle to see how the novel’s rambling and various narrative matter could be fitted into even a three- or four-hour play, and I can only assume that the stage adaptation was very pared-down in terms of plot. Or perhaps audiences had very different expectations of an evening’s entertainment in those days.


  1. George Eliot was of course the greatest Victorian novelist!

    Nicholas Reid (the 'other' Nicholas Reid)

  2. Yes, my dear Doppelganger, that is easily arguable and I have recently read "The Road to Middlemarch" which makes the same call. However, in terms of popularity among the Victorians themeselves? And (regardless of what intellectuals, such as we, think) what of the modern "common reader" who is much more likely to read "David Copperfield" or "Vanity Fair" by choice rather than "Middlemarch"?