This essay originally appeared in English Language Notes, 10 (June 1973): 279-81.]


The Harry Lyman Koopman Collection at the John Hay Library, Brown University, contains three previously unpublished Thackeray letters and a fourth which has been printed only from a transcription in an auction catalogue. These letters are published with the permission of Mrs. Edward Norman Butler, who holds the copyright on unpublished Thackeray materials. I also owe a debt of thanks to Dr. Gordon N. Ray, who most generously examined my transcriptions from the manuscript and made several important corrections.

I

hackeray's undated letter to John Forster, which internal evidence suggests is the earliest of the four, reveals him trying to soothe the ruffled feelings of this irascible, often arrogant acquaintance. Apparently, when Forster heard from Alfred Tennyson, one of Thackeray's Cambridge friends, that the novelist had planned a dinner party without inviting him, he must have complained. Since the letter mentions that William Henry Brookfield (1809-1874), another old friend from Cambridge, was to be among the guests, one knows that it must date from before September 1851 — the point at which Brookfield decisively broke with Thackeray. (For a brief biography of Brookfield see The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed., Gordon N. Ray, 4 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1945-1946], 1, xcv-c.) In fact, since Brookfield went to Brighton in April of that year, one may guess that the letter cannot have been written later than April 1851.

The bachelor existence indicated by the nature of the dinner party suggests Thackeray wrote this note after his wife's mental breakdown in 1841, while the mention of a dining room further suggests a date after June 1846, when he rented 13 Young Street, Kensington, in preparation for bringing his children from Paris to London. Thackeray's lodgings after he gave up 13 Great Coram Street in May 1843 appear too small for a dining room. (See Gorden N. Ray, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity, 1811-1846 [New York, l9S5], pp. 279-280, 307). His letter to Forster conceivably may date from the brief period before he gave up Great Coram Street, but it does not seem likely that Thackeray bothered to paint his living quarters in the midst of his severe family troubles and extensive travels.

One may locate the letter even more precisely in time: since Forster and Thackeray quarreled in June 1847 and did not have a reconciliation until 1851, the following letter almost certainly was written between June 1846 and their break twelve months later:

My dear Forster

Part of Alfred[']s statement is disgustingly not to say wickedly incorrect — Leigh Hunt dines with me, and Brookfield and Prout — my table only holds 4 (for the dining room is under paint) otherwise indeed I was going to ask you & White.

But why not all 3 come in a cab after your dinner? l'll give you beds if you like.

Yours ever
WMT.

Francis Sylvester Mahony (1804-1866) established his reputation under the name "Father Prout" with his witty, learned essays, the "Reliques" of that cleric, which he wrote for Fraser's between 1834 and 1836. He lived in Paris after 1848 (Letters, I, 280n)./p>

The Rev. James White (1803-1862) was a frequent companion who appears in a letter of 1840 "looking very fat and chirping" (Letters, I, 418) contributed to various journals. He befriended Thackeray by suggesting him to Blackwood's (see Letters, 1, 346n and 419n).

II

The following undated note appears inside the back flap of an envelope addressed "J. Merriman Esq / 44 Kensington Sqr." This envelope, which is neither stamped nor post-marked, reveals that it and its contents did not go through the mails, and was either sent by messenger or left at the home of Thackeray's physician and friend Dr. John Jones Merriman (1800-1881) or by the writer himself.

Dear Merriman

The accompanying birds were shot on the 14th and are respectfully offered to Mrs. Merriman by

Yours very sincerely
W M Thackeray

At first glance, this brief note seems to concern a simple gift of game. What complicates matters is that in the Koopman Collection this note accompanies a signed but undated copy of Thackeray's burlesque "Sorrows of Werther" written on paper which appears identical to that of the envelope. Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom, 1847-1863 (New York, 1958), pp. 166-167, explains that this burlesque of Goethe was in part a release"in a fierce irony" of his agonized feelings at being parted from Jane Brookfield: "Persuading himself that Jane had adopted this same complacent attitude to him [as Jane thought Charlotte had to Werther], Thackeray envisioned her as Charlotte, while he identified his futile love with that of the foolish Werther." According to Letters, III, 411n, the poem was first published in the November 1853 number of The Southern Literary Messenger.

Of course, the very fact that the novelist wrote the note on identical paper may itself account for the fact that a collector or dealer associated the two. On the other hand, the "accompanying birds" might well refer to Charlotte and Werther, whom the burlesque so effectively lampoons; and if so, the note would date from about 1851.

III

This undated letter, which is bound into a first edition, first issue of Vanity Fair, was number 357, part 2 of the famous Lambert sale of 1914. Thackeray is obviously writing to his children from Oxford, where he was campaigning during a special election as the Independent candidate for Parliament. Since Polling Day was July 21, 1857, and Thackeray did not campaign much before the 9th, the letter is easy to date. (See Letters, IV, 3tl-389 for materials relating to the electoral campaign.)

Compare Thackeray's opening his letters with "My dearest Shildren" in II, 601 and IV, 361.

Thursday. [luly 9 or 16, 1857]

My Shildrens dear

We had famous canvasses yesterday and I'm improving wonderfully in my horatory. This is wrote at 8 in the morning by a gent who is agoing.

I have begged Mowbray Morris to write to Corkran and said his address is 19 Amsterdam St. — if not so, send a line to Buckingham Gate.

God bless you.
Gasslee for ever! I have almost all his votes. Don't say so to Lady R.

[(1) According to Letters, II, 390n, Morris (1819-1874) managed The Times from 1847 to 1873. (2) Malolm Frazer Corkran(d. 1884), "a genial, impractical, and eccentric Irishman," was one of Thackeray's closest friends in Paris (Letters, II, 140n), and when he lost his position as correspondent for The Morning Herald, he his wife, and five children became Thackeray's pensioners: see Thackeray. The Age of Wisdom, p. 351. (3) Lady R remains unidentified. Possibly — but improbably — this may be a reference to Lady Ripon, the former Henrietta Vyner, who was a friend of Thackeray. It might also be a joking reference to one of the Ritchies. His own daughter did not become Lady Ritchie by marriage until long after this letter was written.]

IV

Thackeray's letter to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to solicit their contributions to the Cornhill, of which he had become the editor, has already appeared in the Letters, IV, 165-166, the text having been taken from a 1913 Southby's catalogue. It is perhaps worthwhile printing the letter as it appears in the original. Writing on stationery marked "The Cornhill Magazine. Smith Elder & Co.," Thackeray begins his unsigned letter in mock-formal style but by the close has addressed the two poets directly, having briefy abandoned the third-person:

3S Onslow Sq
Nov. 19 [1859]

A friend of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett his wife has agreed to become Editor of a Magazine wh is to appear with the New Year. He wishes to provide for the public as much amusement, as much instruction as much knowledge pleasure poetry pathos fun as can be procured for love or money. He has a great deal of the first and a liberal portion of the latter to ofer to such contributors as R & E. B. B. Have one or both of you a short poem wh you can give for an early number of the Cornhill Magazine? brances to the above mentioned lady & gentleman.


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Last modified 28 June 2000