Monday, March 21, 2016
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 four or more years ago.
“THE FOUR GEORGES” by William Makepeace Thackeray (first delivered as lectures 1855-56, and published in book form 1861)
As I have remarked before on this blog (see the post on The Newcomes), I have never delved as deeply into the works of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) as I could have, given that most of his works are within easy reach in my study. I have read three of his four best-known novels (Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond and The Newcomes) but have never been able to crack the fourth (Pendennis). The Virginians, Catherine and The Adventures of Philip sit unread on my shelves, though I did enjoy reading the bustling Barry Lyndon (very different in many ways from the solemn film Stanley Kubrick made of it) and a number of times read his children’s book The Rose and the Ring to my own children when they were younger. So my acquaintance with Thackeray’s “important” stuff is patchy. On the other hand, treated as bedside books to be nibbled at before sleep, I have often enjoyed dipping into his essays and occasional pieces – The Yellowplush Papers, The Roundabout Papers, The Book of Snobs and Sketches and Travels in London. It has sometimes been claimed that Thackeray was more naturally an essayist rather than a novelist, and this argument could be sustained were it not for the fact that his best novels really are great novels.
It was in this bedside-book, dipping fashion that I first read and enjoyed Thackeray’s The Four Georges, a slim volume barely one hundred pages long in the small-print Smith and Elder reprint of 1888 which I possess.
A little background – Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde were not the only Victorians to hit the lucrative American lecture circuit when they felt the need for funds. Thackeray twice took the same path. In the early 1850s he went to the United States and gave lectures on The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century. He returned in 1855-56 and gave his lectures on The Four Georges. When his four lectures were published in book form in 1861 (together with The English Humourists), they had the subtitle “Sketches of Manners, Morals, Court and Town Life”. Fair enough too, for these four lectures on England’s eighteenth and early nineteenth century Hanoverian monarchs tell us very little about weighty political matters, foreign affairs, wars and so forth in the reigns of Georges I, II, III and IV. Instead, they concentrate on personal gossip, rivalries at court and among the ruling classes, and amusing anecdotes.
Two sniffy litterateurs of long ago, Edith Batho and Bonamy Dobree, in The Victorians volume of their Introduction to English Literature, describe The Four Georges as “thoroughly bad” and say it has “been more responsible than any other work for disseminating false views of the early Hanoverian monarchs”.
“Poo to them,” I say, as I plunge in once more to Thackeray’s garrulous chitter-chatter.
What is it that Thackeray tells us of these four monarchs?
That George I was a carpet-bagging German, who was received and accepted as King of England only by craven toadies who would have as readily supported the usurped Stuarts if the wind had been blowing differently.
That George II was a choleric bully with a filthy temper allied to a peculiarly German sort of sentimentality. Thackeray happily recounts the story of George II’s wife, on her death-bed, begging the king to re-marry when she was gone, and the king, with tears in his eyes, replying “Non, non – j’aurai des maitresses.” It is in the George II lecture that Thackeray also remarks on the fact that George II thought England far less important as a realm than his native Hanover. Says Thackeray: “The King’s fondness for Hanover occasioned all sorts of rough jokes among his English subjects, to whom Sauerkraut and Sausages have ever been ridiculous objects. When our present Prince Consort [he means Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert] came among us, the people bawled out songs in the streets, indicative of the absurdity of Germany in general. The sausage shops produced enormous sausages which we might suppose were the daily food and delight of German Princes.”
That George III, though insane for some of his reign, was at least pious and kindly in his lucid intervals and did try to rein in some of his more overbearing aristocrats.
But that the Prince Regent – later George IV – was a pampered, lecherous, foolish, dishonourable sot.
These four affable, easy-going, anecdotal chats are the epitome of the Whig outlook. Thackeray regards all four Georges with easy superiority. They are, in his view, very inferior to the really great personages of their age. But at least, runs the subtext, these four buffoons were preferable to active and industrious tyrants for, as seen by Thackeray, kings should at best be regarded as ceremonial conveniences for the industrious middle-classes who are the people who really run the country.
Chuckling along with Thackeray’s contempt, I found two notable features in these lectures. First, the Victorian clubman Thackeray hankers for, and has a great fondness for, the club-world of the previous century, with all his admiring references to “Dick Steele” and Samuel Johnson and other such clubbable chaps. Second, it is the Prince Regent who earns his greatest contempt. Thackeray has great fun ridiculing the notion of “the First Gentleman of Europe” by showing what a bounder Beau Brummell’s “fat friend” was, but even more by suggesting that the Prince Regent’s years of power supplied far worthier genuine “gentlemen” that the royal one. Thackeray nominates Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey (Lord knows why!) and of course George Washington. His praise of the last-named reminds us that he was addressing an American audience and, as all touring British lecturers do in the USA, was buttering them up big time. After all, what would a nineteenth-century Yankee enjoy more than a witty Englishman telling them how fatuous British kings were?
There are some unexpected elements in Thackeray’s outlook. Unlike Dickens, Thackeray himself maintained more of the roistering Regency outlook than the Victorian moralism that succeeded it (and which Dickens in part created). Nevertheless, even as he notes the decline in boxing and in card-playing, Thackeray brings quite a bit of his own moralism to bear in depicting the Prince Regent. Also, though in his other works generally negative or satirical towards Catholics, Thackeray joins Dickens in regarding Catholic Emancipation (in 1829) as a “good thing”.
In his text I find two palpable hits, both in the lecture on George IV.
Knowing that, in purely legitimist terms, the “Brunswicks” (Hanoverians) had usurped the English throne, which rightly belonged to the Stuarts, there were legitimist Jacobites who still supported the Stuarts. Yet as Thackeray correctly notes:
“The Brunswicks had no such defenders as those two Jacobite commoners, old Sam Johnson, the Lichfield chapman’s son, and Walter Scott, the Edinburgh lawyer’s.”
Quite so. The Tory Johnson was a bitter foe of the Whig ascendancy, and Walter Scott’s novels romanticised the pre-Hanoverian, pre-bourgeois past. Yet both writers supported royalism and established royalty and in effect, willy-nilly, legitimised the Hanoverian usurpers in the popular imagination.
Then there is one of Thackeray’s cracks against the sybaritic Prince Regent:
“Where my Prince did actually distinguish himself was in driving. He drove once in four hours and a half from Brighton to Carlton House – 56 miles. All the young men of that day were fond of that sport. But the fashion of rapid driving deserted England; and, I believe, trotted over to America.”
Yes indeed. The fat regent, whipping his horses along, was the precursor of petrolheads and nitwits heading down the highway looking for adventure, even if he relied on literal horsepower over unsealed dirt roads. That lust for speed was already an American lust by the mid-nineteenth century (see the closing remarks on my post concerning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s TheHouse of the Seven Gables).
As I said, The Four Georges is very pleasant bedside reading, no more nor less. You didn’t think I was touting great literature this week, did you?