Thackeray at work
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The following dissertation examines Thackeray's working habits and methods in the composition of his six major novels; Vanity Fair. Pendennis. Esmond. the Wewcomes, the Virginians and Denis Duval* The method of the examination is not to attempt a comprehensive account of the production of these novels but to consider a par¬ ticular, illuminating aspect in each. The Introduction discusses Thackeray's notorious and selfconfessed 'carelessness.* His habitual indifference to narrative detail, accuracy and consistency has often pained those who admire his fiction and justified those who do not. Trollope, a noted disciple, is especially interesting for his attack on the pervasive 'touch of vagueness' in Thackeray's work. Even if his attack is wrong or overstressed Trollope helps us focus on the characteristic quality of Thackeray's writing, its unforced, opportunistic nature which can as easily produce 'touches of genius* as of 'vagueness.* The first chapter deals with Vanity Fair. The function of improvisation is examined at three ascending levels in Thackeray's novel; at the level of the scene, the monthly number and of the whole work. In the first the evolution on the MS. page of the •Iphigenia* scene is analysed. In the second some fragmentaryplans Thackeray made for the Waterloo number are compared with the very different published text. The third section follows the chronology of the story as a whole. At each of these levels one finds the same spontaneous adaptability to new narrative situations and possibilities. The second chapter traces the working compromise Thackeray made between his temperamental inclination towards autobiographical fiction and his disinclination to reveal too much of himself. The surviving fragment of the Pendennis MS♦(substantially chapter 41) is unusually instructive on this question of self-revelation. Moreover it offers a model example of the way in which Thackeray would work out problems in the very act of writing his novel. The third chapter takes up a long-standing controversy about the writing of Ssmond which is alone among Thackeray's major works in having been finished entirely before publication was begun. Was it composed 'carefully' or dashed off in the same way as the previous serial novels? Some alterations to the Rachel-Harry-Beatrix love-plot suggest the latter as does the haphazard emergence of the editorial apparatus in the second volume. The fourth chapter considers the prize item in the scanty catalogue of Thackeray's surviving working materials, an advance number plan for the last part of the Heweomes. fet how far this plan-making was Thackeray's normal practice or even how far it improved the novel in this particular instance, is doubtful. The MS. of the magnificent death-scene of Colonel Hewcome suggests that at the most important moments of composition Thackeray relied less on preparation th$n on a more immediate power of inspired improvisation. The fifth chapter considers the Virginians in the light of its failure when judged by the standard of Thackeray's best fiction. This failure seems to stem from mixed causes among which the principal are: confusion of aims, undue deference to American sensitivities and a certain timidity when dealing with the inner lives of his characters. The last chapter considers whether or not serialism was injurious to Thackeray's fiction. Denis Duval, the novel whose composition we have most material on, would seem to show a happy collaboration between the serialist-Thackeray's need to write fast and the scholar- Thackeray's love of steeping himself in miscellaneous sources of information for the background to his historical fiction. The four appendices offer supporting evidence on Thackeray's ways of writing his fiction. The first gives some of the working plans made for Duval. The second follows the process of revision(and the muddle it causes) in a chapter of Esmond. The third gives a brief account of Thackeray's use of secretarial assistance in writing his fiction. The fourth contradicts, on the evidence of the MS., the received idea of the six-paragraph interpolation at the end of the eighth chapter of Vanity Fair.