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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IX. Thackeray

§ 2. The Yellowplush Correspondence

Before 1837, he had been an occasional contributor to Fraser’s Magazine, and he has been credited with the authorship, as early as 1832, of a story called Elizabeth Brownrigge, printed in the August and September numbers for that year, which dealt ironically with the career of the notorious criminal who

  • whipp’d two female prentices to death
  • And hid them in the coal-hole.
  • There is no conclusive evidence for attributing this performance to Thackeray, although its tone bears a general likeness to that of the series of works of fiction which began with The Yellowplush Correspondence. His criticisms, as a reviewer, if not profound, were readable. Carlyle thought his review of The French Revolution in The Times of 3 August, 1837, “rather like” its author, “a half-monstrous Cornish giant, kind of painter, Cambridge man, and Paris newspaper correspondent, who is now writing for his life in London,” and supposed that it was “calculated to do the book good.” A book which suited Thackeray’s humour better was a manual of etiquette, My Book, or, The Anatomy of Conduct, by one John Henry Skelton, which he reviewed in Fraser for November, 1837, writing under the disguise of Charles James Yellowplush, a footman whose social experience made him an exigent critic of manners, while his observations were clothed in an effective garb of judicious mis-spelling. During succeeding months, Mr. Yellowplush regaled his readers with his reminiscences of service. The device of mis-spelling was by no means new, and Yellowplush’s methods are too consistently ingenious to bear comparison with the well-feigned illiteracy of Win. Jenkins’s spelling in Humphry Clinker; but, whereas the errors of Win. Jenkins belong to pure farce, Yellowplush is a chronicler of tragedy. Eight years later, in Punch, his successor “Jeames,” the speculator in railway stock and perjured lover of Mary Ann Hoggins, was the subject of an episode which is farcical from beginning to end; but the Yellowplush of The Amours of Mr. Deuceace is the shrewd spectator of a social drama which, with all its mirth-provoking incidents, derives its motives from the most selfish and sordid qualities in human nature and culminates in the misery, appalling even to the callous flunkey, of its one approximately innocent personage. The detached point of view of the narrator and the outward eccentricity of form which he gives to his story are the artistic foil to its base passions and enhance the effect of those scenes in which the veil of irony is dropped for a moment.

    Yellowplush bade a temporary “ajew” to the world in August, 1838, in his original character of literary critic, to which the household of a reputable baronet was more congenial than the precarious service of Deuceace and lord Crabs. In this last paper, he satirised with genial mischief Bulwer’s sentimentality and grandiloquence. He returned to the same theme in 1840, with a diverting criticism of the flowery language of Bulwer’s play, The Sea-Captain. Meanwhile, Thackeray had adopted a new disguise. Major Goliah O’Grady Gahagan, a new Münchausen, began to contribute his Historical Reminiscences of a life of adventure, adorned with much ingenious distortion of Hindustani terms, to The New Monthly in November, 1838. Gahagan was succeeded by Ikey Solomons, junior, who lent his name to Catherine. Solomons, however, unlike Yellowplush and Gahagan, had no personality of his own. The narrator of Catherine, which appeared as a serial in Fraser, was Thackeray himself, bent upon demolishing a pernicious abuse of sentiment, but nervously anxious to preclude any misunderstanding of his object. His attempt was to ridicule “with solemn sneer” the vice of ennobling crime in fiction, to which Bulwer’s sophistries and Ainsworth’s gift for writing a readable novel had given some popularity. Fielding’s Jonathan Wild the Great supplied a model in which the baseness of criminal life was exposed in a mock-heroic strain, maintained with merciless thoroughness. Thackeray failed in the essential quality which such writing demands. His irony is incomplete: it is overcome by his own indignation with his characters, and is interrupted by quite unnecessary assurances that he is holding them up for contempt. Naturally, the reader whose prejudices he feared to shock sees no point in this vacillation between two opposite treatments, equally unpalatable, of a revolting subject; while, to the elect who can relish the severe medicine of Jonathan Wild, his attempts to sugar his draught to the general taste are inartistic and ineffectual. Moreover, in these efforts he invested the worthless character of Catherine herself with a spurious pathos, foreign to his intention, but closely allied to that abuse against which he protested. He was far more successful when, somewhat earlier, he allowed the complacent Stubbs to relate his own autobiography in The Fatal Boots; while the vulnerable point of the literary apotheosis of burglars and murderes, its want of humour, which the intermittent moralising of Catherine failed to touch, was reached several years later with less effort and less expenditure of pen and paper in George de Barnwell.

    In 1840, the failure of Mrs. Thackeray’s health necessitated her separation from the society of her husband and their two infant daughters. This calamity curbed his ironic mood; and it is about this time that the interplay of satiric wit with the tenderest pathos which, henceforth, was never absent from his work, begins to be noticeable. Something of this had already been discoverable in Yellowplush’s instinctive compassion for the deformed Mrs. Deuceace; but her fidelity to her husband was animal, and she had none of the qualities of Caroline, heroine and victim of A Shabby Genteel Story, which Thackeray contributed to Fraser in 1840. Long afterwards, Caroline’s mature simplicity of character, enriched with sound common sense, shone more brightly in The Adventures of Philip. In the earlier story, she plays a passive rôle amid her unattractive surroundings, the shabbiness of which is enhanced by the intrusion of the crapulous lord Cinqbars and his Oxford friends. These devotees of pleasure belong to a class which Thackeray satirised freely, partly, no doubt, for the benefit of the middleclass reader. Their foibles, however, although strongly emphasised, are not caricatured, and George Brandon, the villain of the piece, is not without his moments of generous sentiment. While Thackeray was fully alive to the distresses of the virtuous Caroline, his appreciation of contrast enabled him to draw her drunken father, her odious mother and step-sisters and the conspirators who wreck her happiness, with gusto and even with sympathy; just as Yellowplush, while able to pity Mrs. Deuceace, was equally able to admire the guile of her husband. Similarly, in The Great Hoggarty Diamond, written for Fraser in 1841, the simple pathos of the struggles and bereavements of Samuel Titmarsh and his young wife is balanced by the antipathetic portraiture of Mrs. Hoggarty and the swindling Mr. Brough. It is not unnatural that, to enhance the effect of Brough’s subtlety, the honesty of his victims should be so freely underlined that it bears some relation to credulous stupidity. There is a humour, keenly apparent to Thackeray’s temperament, in the precarious existence of rascals who live upon intrigue and subterfuge, which is wanting in the sorrows and trials of more straightforward natures. Of his personal preference for virtue, there can be no question; but, while his virtuous characters are not seldom insipid, his scoundrels, with few exceptions, are singularly amusing.