Monday, November 3, 2014

Giving up on Pendennis - and maybe W.M. Thackeray, except for Vanity Fair

I knew the title of Pendennis before I ever heard of William Makepeace Thackeray, because characters from other books read and talk about it.  In Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl, "One snowy Sunday afternoon Tom lay on the sofa in his favorite attitude, reading 'Pendennis' for the fourth time, and smoking like a chimney as he did so."  I don't remember Alcott ever mentioning Thackeray by name, but at this point in the story Tom is an idle, expensive young man who is "sky-larking" his way through college.  And he sits selfishly snug at home with book and cigar, rather than taking his little sister Maud to visit Polly.  There is a parallel in his other sister Fanny, who stays indoors on a snowy day to curl up with Lady Audley's Secret.  Given the context, I don't think Alcott approves of Pendennis or Lady Audley's Secret, but at least they aren't those dangerous "yellow-backed French novels" that tempt Rose Campbell and others.  The book is also mentioned in Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night, where Miss Martin, the Dean, complains that the students "go about looking all bits and pieces, like illustrations out of Pendennis - so out of date of them!  But their idea of modern is to imitate what male undergraduates were like half a century ago."  There is a second, sly reference to the book in the old Professor Boniface, "ninety-seven and practically gaga," whom the Dean shepherds around one afternoon - Boniface being the college that the title character in Pendennis attends.

The first book of Thackeray's that I read was Vanity Fair, and it just bowled me over.  I assumed that it was the start of a literary love affair, and I began collecting his other books.  I read The History of Henry Esmond first, partly to discover why Anthony Trollope thought it was "the best novel in the English language."  I found it a bit of a slog, but I kept reading even after I accepted it was no Vanity Fair.  It would never make my "Best" of anything list.  Last week I started Pendennis, a chunkster of 977 pages in my Oxford World's Classics edition. It begins well, with the young man of the title, Arthur Pendennis, in love at age eighteen with an actress ten years his senior, and determined to marry her.  His uncle and guardian Major Pendennis posts down to the west country to break up the affair, though it means leaving a social London life for weeks of rural boredom.  The Major is a friend of wicked Lord Steyne, who also appears in Vanity Fair, and I found them both a lot more interesting than young Arthur.

I persevered to page 412, but today I decided I didn't want to spend any more time on this book, even if it is a classic.  I've never written a post before about a book I didn't finish, but I have been trying to figure out why these two books do not appeal to me, and whether Vanity Fair is an outlier among Thackeray's work.  It is certainly not the length of his books that is the problem.  I enjoy meandering Victorian narratives, with Trollope's at the head of the list.  But there is an energy in his books, as in Dickens and Dumas, where these two books of Thackeray's just seem to drag.  In part I think that's because the heroes are rather glum.  They're active, getting into trouble, but boring.  They don't seem to have much fun even in their scrapes.  I finally admitted to myself today that I don't care enough about Pendennis to read any further.

I think the bigger problem for me - in these two books - is the women characters.  In both they are angels of the home, who sit passively by the fireside, waiting for their adored sons or brothers to come home, so they can coddle and worship them.  When the heroes are absent, out getting into trouble, the mothers and sisters cry over them and pray for them.  And they pinch pennies so the boys can have their horses and drinks and fine clothes.  The narrator of Pendennis tells us at one point that women like these "were made for our comfort and delectation, gentlemen, - with the rest of the minor animals."  With hindsight, that sentence was probably the beginning of the end for me.  Trollope's women characters are generally bound by the social conventions, but they have so much more life, not simply as adjuncts of the male characters.  And then there are the women who break the rules, in Rhoda Broughton and Margaret Oliphant's books, who may not always get a happy ending but who come to vivid life.  So does Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, for that matter.

Other than Vanity Fair, I don't see much about Thackeray's novels in discussions or on blogs, compared to Trollope, Dickens or Wilkie Collins.  Do people still read his other novels, I wonder? I have two more on the TBR shelves. Barry Lyndon is a shorter novel, about "an accomplished rogue - a liar, a gambler, a libertine."  The Newcomes is another 1000-page doorstop, about "the fortunes and misfortunes of a 'most respectable' extended middle-class family."  I will probably give them the 50-page test.  Meanwhile, I'll be passing Pendennis and Henry Esmond on to the library sale.


  1. What a disappointment! Vanity Fair was wonderful, but it is also the only Thackery novel I could name off the top of my head - maybe that's why.

    My husband likes the Barry Lyndon movie...

  2. I'm sorry to hear this was disappointing. Maybe there's a good reason why Thackeray's other novels aren't very popular. I'm still looking forward to reading Vanity Fair and have put it on my classics spin list today.

  3. I've never even heard of this novel. I have read Vanity Fair, but that's the only Thackery novel I'm familiar with....sounds like there's a good reason for that. :) Great post.

  4. JoAnn, I just looked the film up on IMDb. I had an idea Michael York was in it, but I see it's Ryan O'Neal.

    Helen, I saw Vanity Fair on your spin list. It's marvelous, to my mind so much better than either Henry Esmond or Pendennis - almost like it's from another author.

    Lark, I've been wondering if Thackeray's other books are too much of their time, and they don't translate as well for modern readers as Trollope and Dickens do.

  5. Ugh, I don't like that comment about women being among the minor animals. That would put me right off, too!

  6. Anbolyn,if a character had said it it would be one thing. But for the narrator to say it - no.

  7. Going off of a thing Tom Stoppard has a character say in one of his plays ("It's Thackeray, all right! Unbearable!"), it's Thackeray's prose style that puts people off. :p I do intend to read Vanity Fair someday -- I do, I do -- but nobody's ever told me to read Thackeray's other stuff. And SEVERAL people have said don't (including, now, you!).

  8. Jenny, why didn't anyone warn me?! Vanity Fair is marvelous though.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!