Because Thackeray was a brave man and a great writer, it is possible to overlook the fact that his life was a tragedy. D J Taylor’s brilliant new biography, however, captures the essence of that tragedy. Let’s hope it will also alert a new generation to Thackeray’s genius.
When we think of tragic heroes, we do not expect them to be tall, well-heeled gentlemen, downing two bottles of claret at the Garrick Club before going off to write a couple of thousand words of satirical journalism. So one should perhaps try to define what one means by Thackeray’s tragedy. First, and above all else, one thinks of it in personal terms. He was a passionate man, who never seems to have been squeamishly chaste, either as a boy at Charterhouse, or as a young Bohemian in Paris and London. (He once told the table at Punch that the first words spoken to him at his public school were, ‘Come and frig me.’) Taylor – who is particularly good on Thackeray’s relationship with his mother – reminds us of the extraordinary fact that this dissolute only son of a strictly evangelical mother felt able to confide to her details of his worries about venereal disease from young manhood onwards. One thinks the better of them both for this.