‘I should like to write a nightcap book,’ wrote Thackeray towards the end of his life; one that might put you to sleep but of which a reader would say, ‘This man has a friendly heart.’ John Sutherland has put together just such an anthology.
On taking over the editorship of the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, Thackeray invented a new persona for himself, ‘Mr Roundabout’. Under that name, he wrote a series of articles in which he gave himself full licence to be indignantly polemical, and furiously satirical and sweetly soft-hearted – each in turn or all together – just as he pleased.
Sutherland quotes Dr Johnson’s definition of the essay as ‘a loose sally of the mind’, and there is something exhilarating about the unregulated looseness of these pieces. The most famous of them, On Going to See a Man Hanged, has as its main subject a public execution. It ends with Thackeray’s courageous admission of the shame he felt at having been one of the crowd, and with his splendid diatribe against the ‘sickening, ghastly’ spectacle, and the ‘hideous debauchery’ and ‘frightful wickedness’ of capital punishment in general. Yet, along the way to this thundering conclusion, he allows himself the latitude to muse on how delightfully fresh the air is in the early-morning streets, and what a pity it is to stay up late gambling (as he all too often did) and so sleep in and miss it.
He asks himself why there are so many good jokes about murder: the ‘jingling antithesis between life and death’ is ‘sure of its effect’. That thought segues into a reflection on why he finds the clowns in Astley’s Circus funnier than Rabelais. And so it goes on, until his eye is caught by a drunken aristo ‘aspersing the mob with brandy and water’ from a balcony, and he skewers the moustachioed ‘snob’ and the Catholic Church together with that pointed verb.
Long before the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ was coined, Thackeray was already adrift on his own many-branched streams. He loses his thread – mostly artfully, but perhaps sometimes because he did so love the ‘cloop’ of a cork being released from its bottle. He interrupts himself: ‘What is the meaning of this unconscionably republican tirade?’ He catches himself out in fibs and absurdities. He wouldn’t have claimed primacy in rambling on. By his bedside, he tells us, he kept volumes by Montaigne and the now mostly forgotten James Howell, because, he says, he never tires of hearing the ‘artless prattle’ of his two ‘old friends’. He addresses the reader as though we, too, were his friends.
This book is just a sampler, but it’s full of good things. There are Thackeray’s musings on how he composes his plots – not like Alexandre Dumas, planning a whole novel flat on his back on the deck of a yacht before picking up a pen – but just by seeing what comes along. There is doggerel. There is sentiment – the deliciously saccharine death of Colonel Newcome. There is the fantastic verbal caricature of The Court Circular, in which a little girl becomes a vision from Arcimboldo in a dress trimmed with Brussels sprouts and radishes, while her mama sports a brass door knocker ‘en ferronière’ in her hat. And throughout there is Thackeray – fluently, funnily ‘prosing’ (his word).
He died when he was still in his fifties. Writing his obituary, his great competitor, Charles Dickens, recalled how often he’d rebuked Thackeray for ‘too much feigning a want of earnestness’, for ‘undervaluing his art’. They argued but, wrote Dickens, ‘I have a lovely image of him in my mind, twisting both his hands in his hair, and stamping about, laughing, to make an end of the discussion.’
Thackeray was too witty and too wise to stay long on his high horse, even in defence of his own modesty. Something would amuse or waylay him. He would go roundabout.
He didn’t really ‘undervalue’ himself – but, candid critic of his own work as he was – he knew his winged horse wasn’t a proud prancer or a straight-ahead galloper.
‘My Pegasus,’ he wrote, would always stop to ‘crop the hedge’.
'A Roundabout Manner: Sketches of Life' by W. M. Thackeray, with an introduction by John Sutherland, is published by Notting Hill Editions.