decorative initial 'A'

FTER THIS SURVEY of production and market conditions and after this argument about the consequences of ideological positions to the specifics of texts, one could well ask whether Thackeray and his publishers were producing a commodity to be sold or a text to be read. Putting the question in this way emphasizes the controversy over whether in fulfilling expectations Thackeray was a pawn in the larger social order or an independent artist pushing against the limitations of a social order he was refusing to bow to. Any answer given will depend on how one looks at the evidence. I think it is possible to see Thackeray as both, playing opposing roles at once. Thackeray the writer was making a living by producing commodities for a marketplace; Thackeray the author was creating texts indicative of the lives of characters and societies in a fictive reality embodying the artist's view of the world. If the social order shaped how he did both of these things, he also shaped the social order he left behind at his death.

Both of these ways of looking at the question suggest that readers should be influenced in their response to a text by the conditions under which that text was produced. They suggest that the intention of the author or the conditions of production (perhaps the "intention" of the society that produced both author and text) somehow should determine the meaning or significance of the text. It would, however, be possible instead to read the text "against the grain" and to find its significance in what it reveals unintentionally. Thus, Henry Esmond can be read to see how Thackeray's or his age's biases are revealed in those aspects of the described fictive lives that go unchallenged or go without saying. One could examine and become critical of the unequal male-female relationships that form the assumed ideal against which are judged the unequal male-female relations that form the normal experience. Thus the author may be seen as having "intended" to criticize a relationship (such as Lord Castlewood and Rachel's) by showing its failure to fulfill an assumed ideal (represented, perhaps, by Esmond and Rachel's marriage). But the reader could choose to be critical of that ideal by describing the paradise on the banks of the Rappahannock River with which the book ends as a male-dominated [221/222] fiefdom on the margins of the empire. Such a comment disregards the apparent "intentions" of the author and of his social order.

And yet, to read a work against the grain requires first that the grain itself be discovered or constructed. The significance of such a description requires a knowledge of the conventional view of a retreat to paradise, which constitutes the grain. Therein lies the value of the close examination of historical evidence about authors and the means of production. It is not to establish what was meant, or what was intended, or even what was not intended. Rather, it is to set up a variety of contexts against which to place formulated critical insights. One needs as much evidence as possible about the historical circumstances of the text before one can remark cogently upon Thackeray's acquiescence in the conventional values of his day or his distancing himself from Henry Esmond's acquiescence in them. Even then, one has only posited alternative ways of reading the text.

The basic idea arising from this study is that Thackeray was very conscious of two fundamental roles that did not always have the same goals and rules. That is not the idea with which I began. In the beginning I set out to show a creative genius at work; what I have found is a genius in traces pulling a rather heavy load and trying to do so with grace and integrity. Though Thackeray himself did not refer to the distinction in any consistent terms, these roles might be distinguished by considering the difference between being a writer and being an author: the writer making a living and the author creating fictive worlds as an exploration of life and ideas.

One way to see how the writer influenced the author is to read the prefaces to Thackeray's works. They constitute confidential communications from the writer to the purchaser about the problems of writing, publishing, and marketing commodities. The author, in the body of the fictions, frequently addressed the reader about the problems of understanding the world of the characters and of being an author. The audience for these two speakers was equally distinct, sometimes acting as purchasers and sometimes as readers. Of course, Thackeray may well have thought of the terms author and writer as synonyms, and he occasionally spoke of readers as purchasers of books. Such confusions are only natural, since the distinctions are conceptual and since it was Thackeray's business to meld the two.

That Thackeray was keenly aware of these distinctions is evident, however. Dedicating The Irish Sketch-Book "To Dr. Charles Lever, of Templeogue House, Near Dublin," Thackeray distinguished between that personage and the ones of the same name and location who created Harry [222/223] Lorrequer and who edited the Dublin University Magazine, neither of whom, Thackeray imagined, would be very happy with the dedication. Dr. Lever of Templeogue House, on the other hand, addressed as a hospitable and good Irishman and friend of Mr. William Makepeace Thackeray, had every right to the dedication.

Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo came to have three introductory notes by the writer. The first dedicates the book to Samuel Lewis, captain of the tour ship, offering the book as a "commodity" in token of the writer's gratitude for a safe voyage. The second, written in the voice of Mr. Titmarsh, details the circumstances that led to the voyage. The crucial question, he says, was, "Could he afford it?" The clinching fact, he tells us, was that the directors of the company "would make Mr. Titmarsh the present of a berth for the voyage." It might seem that this Mr. Titmarsh was the same as the author of the text of the work, but the preface ends with a recommendation that "all persons who have time and means ... make a similar journey," not through reading his book but in person in real life. There may be no frigate like a book, but it seems that this appeal is directed to the purchasers of the book by the writer of the book, rather than to the readers by the author. The personal communication from writer to purchaser is reopened in the "Postscript to the Second Edition" where the writer hopes "that in its present and cheaper form, my little volume may be found welcome to those of another class, who were deterred hitherto, perhaps by the price, from reading it." The context and conventions of the prefaces and dedications dictate that the speaker be a seller and the audience be a buyer or a person to whom a gift is offered.

The preface to Rebecca and Rowena toys with the roles of writer, illustrator, and author more than with the differences between purchaser and reader. Thackeray in the voice of M. A. Titmarsh refers to his illness and to Dr. Ellintson's injunction "ON NO ACCOUNT to put pen to paper" and adds, as an explanation for the employment of Richard Doyle as illustrator, that it "need scarcely be said, that the humble artist who usually illustrates my works fell ill at the same time with myself." That there is no reference to the reader as purchaser in this book may suggest Thackeray's affection for the story, an indication that he offered it primarily to his readers rather than to purchasers, or at least pretended so for this preface.

The Kickleburys on the Rhine originally went forward without dedication or preface, but a supercilious and pompous review in the Times prompted a rejoinder signed by M. A. Titmarsh published in the second edition, which followed so closely on the heels of the first as to be ordered by the publishers on the same day of the Times's review. The review is [223/224] remarkable for two objections, both relevant to the distinctions drawn here. The first objection is that

there is another motive for these productions, locked up (as the popular author deems) in his own breast, but which betrays itself, in the quality of the work, as his principal incentive. Oh! that any muse should he set upon a high stool to cast up accounts and balance a ledger! Yet so it is; and the popular author finds it convenient to fill up the declared deficit, and place himself in a position the more effectually to encounter those liabilities which sternly assert themselves contemporaneously and in contrast with the careless and free-handed tendencies of the season by the emission of Christmas books - a kind of literary assignats, representing to the emitter expunged debts, to the receiver an investment of enigmatical value.
[full quotation in the preface to the second edition, titled "An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer."]

In short, the first objection is that the motive for the work was to make money. Of course, what is being invoked here as a standard for judgment is the romantic notion of the priestly function of the hero as man of letters — a position Thackeray mocked and rejected and modified over and over.

Ten years earlier, when Thackeray in the voice of Yellowplush accused Bulwer Lytton of writing for money, the intention of the accusations was opposite to that of the reviewer of Kickleburys in the Times. There the fact of writing for money is a natural and correct motive, not a shameful one:

You wrote it for money, - money from the maniger, money from the bookseller, — for the same reason that I write this. Sir, Shakspeare wrote for the very same reasons, and I never heard that he bragged about serving the drama. Away with this canting about great motifs! Let us not be too proud, my dear Barnet, and fansy ourselves matters of the truth, matters or apostels. We are but tradesmen, working for bread, and not for righteousness' sake. Let's try and work honestly; but don't lets be prayting pompisly about our "sacred calling. " The taylor who makes your coats (and very well they are made, too, with the best of velvit collars) — I say Stulze, or Nugee, might cry out that their motifs were but to assert the eturnle truth of tayloring, with just as much reazn; and who would believe them?
[Epistles to the Literati. Yellowplush Papers, p. 123] [224/225]

The second objection in the Times's attack on Kickleburys is that the delineations of character ostensibly offered up for enjoyment are unpleasant, though the illustrations are "spirited enough." But the praise is faint and damning: "Mr. Thackeray's pencil is more congenial than his pen. He cannot draw his men and women with their skins off, and, therefore, the effigies of his characters are pleasanter to contemplate than the flayed anatomies of the letter-press." In short, the reviewer claimed, not only was the purchaser being offered a bill of goods, the reader was being offered an unpleasant experience. Perhaps the two, in this case, amounted to the same thing.

Thackeray didn't think so. In the voice of Titmarsh he warned his readers that "the Times newspaper does not approve of the work, and has but a bad opinion both of the author and his readers.... if you happen to take up the poor little volume at a railroad station, and read this sentence, lay the book down, and buy something else. You are warned. What more can the author say? If after this you will buy, — amen! pay your money, take your book, and fall to." As for the charge that he wrote for money, nothing could be more natural; the critic in the Times did as much. Thackeray likened himself and the publishers to publicans brewing and serving beer, "and it is liked by customers: though the critics (who like strong ale, the rogues!) turn up their noses." The irony was, he continued, that on the very day of the review the author received a notice from the publishers which he quoted:

My dear Sir, - Having this day sold the last copy of the first edition (of x thousand) of the 'Kickleburys Abroad,' and having orders for more., had we not better proceed to a second edition? and will you permit me to enclose an order on," &c. &c.?

This letter is not in George Smith's style, though the facts are accurate enough - there was a bonus check, and there was a second edition. So whether or not the critic was pleased, the public seemed content; and as usual with Thackeray, he was happy to let the public decide. Besides, he pointed out, the critic at the Times had not been given the book by the publisher or the author in hopes of a puff, nor had the critic paid lot his copy. The critic, having asked for a copy, disdained what cost him nothing on the grounds that it wasn't worth the price. "Every farthing you have paid," Titmarsh taunts the critic, "I will restore to your lordship, and I swear I shall not be a halfpenny the poorer."

So much for the first objection and its various implications. Thackeray and Titmarsh say nothing about the second one, It seems to have been [219/220] a principle with Thackeray that readers and critics were welcome to their opinions about the texts - these were matters of taste - but beware of any comments on the writer and his motives. As he had said in the second preface to Cornhill to Cairo, "It becomes writers [he means authors] to bear praise and blame alike meekly; and I think the truth is, that most of us get more of the former, and less of the latter, than we merit."

The difficulties Thackeray had in twining the roles of author and writer are alluded to in the preface to Pendennis. Remarking on the surprising number of readers he had attracted, Thackeray disclaimed any right to say to them, "You shall not find fault with my art, or fall asleep over my pages"; but he did ask that they consider him art individual following his own lights: I ask you to believe that this person writing strives to tell the truth. If there is not that, there is nothing." So spoke the artist, the author. But two paragraphs later the writer admitted that there were restraints: "Even the gentlemen of our age - this is an attempt to describe one of them, no better nor worse than most educated men - even these we cannot show as they are, with the notorious foibles and selfishness of their lives and their education. Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him, and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our Art," Thackeray did not spell out why, in its fiction, society "will not hear ... what moves in the real world, what passes in society, in the clubs, colleges, news'-rooms, - what is the life and talk of your sons." One must conjecture that the demands of the marketplace prevented such frankness and that the role of the author was being curbed by the role of the writer, that the individual was not entirely free to say as much as he would like in society.

A contrasting way to put this conflict is revealed in the preface to Vanity Fair where the Manager of the Performance surveys the fair of which he was himself a player in competition with "quacks (other quacks, plague take them?)." Thackeray here seemed to take a sad responsibility for his own performance, which he had "brilliantly illuminated with the Author's own candles," but at the same time he seemed to disavow responsibility for what his puppets had done and said. They are controlled by what society does and says; the author merely reported, as when one comes home from the fair and sits down "in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind" to reflect on what was seen. In other words, the author may be seen as constrained by the facts of the society in which he lives to describe what he sees and knows; forced, as author, to do the [226/227] very thing the author of Pendennis complains that, as writer, he cannot do: to say more than he finds pleasant to report.

Prefaces are prefatory only for readers; they are the author's and writer's last words, Thackeray invariably used his last words to reflect on the discrepancy of values between the author's pursuit of truth and the writer's obligation to the trade, or at least to present realities. The preface to The Newcomes remains literally an epilogue to the novel in which the writer seems to come out of a daze in which he is not sure whether reality lies before or after the horizontal rule drawn at the end of the story. But the shift in role from storyteller to book writer was clearly in his consciousness. The image of Pegasus in harness is Thackeray's own, and he seems never to have escaped a feeling akin to that expressed by W. B. Yeats:

      There's something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal.
[Yeats, p. 104]

That Thackeray came to accept this condition as par for the course need not suggest that he did not chafe at the bit.

In a way, the message of this study is that the controlling force determining what a book means and what effects it will have resides with the reader, and with the contexts by which meaning is constructed that the reader chooses or has chosen for him or her. The experience of those constructions is richer for readers with a greater knowledge of text generation and text reception than it is for those with more limited access to the range of relevant contexts. It is not to establish the meaning of Thackeray's works or even the meaning of Thackeray's career that I undertook this book, but to open still further the range of responses that readers can make to the man, as author and as writer, and to his work, as art and as commodity.


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Last modified 20 July 2012