What happens when two Titans of literature meet?
Often such paragons seek each other out. Look at the Shelleys, and Byron, and their little clan.
But sometimes the very act of being extraordinary must be awfully burdensome. And perhaps it weighs heavy on a meeting, laced with so many expectations.
And what of the meeting between the august author of Vanity Fair, and the writer of Jane Eyre?
Charlotte Brontë was filled with expectations, on a return visit to London; for Thackeray was her hero. Her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre speaks glowingly of his writing.
The story I have for you today is related, not by George Smith – though he has a walk-on part – but by someone who was a little girl when Charlotte came to visit William Makepeace Thackeray.
Her name in later life was Anne, Lady Ritchie. But you might know her better as Anne Thackeray.
Little Annie had not exactly been given Jane Eyre to read. No: she and her siblings had taken Jane Eyre without asking, and read contraband bits here and there. She recalls that they had been “carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind into things, times, places all utterly absorbing and at the same time absolutely unintelligible to us…”
It was a hot Summer evening. The children had been tidied up and sat in a row waiting with their governess, when, though the open windows of the house in Young Street, London, came the sound, and then the sight, of a carriage drawing to a stop outside.
Thackeray had been pacing up and down in the front room- though he never waited for anyone in such a fashion. Now, he ceased tramping and went to meet the guests at the door.
The carriage door opened. Out jumped George Smith, \]Charlotte’s publisher, a dashing young figure. And then, the house doors opened wide to admit George and the long-awaited young novelist.
“Two gentlemen come in,” accounts Anne, “leading a tiny, delicate, serious little lady, with fair, straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barége dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement.”
Charlotte barely reached Thackeray’s elbow.
But Charlotte was “somewhat grave and stern” to the little girls. She watched Thackeray intently as he carved the meat for the meal, her eyes lighting up every now and then as she spoke to him.
Her father had taken the liberty of inviting some friends to meet this celebrated author. Some were notable celebrities of the day, like ghost story-teller Catherine Crowe, and Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife. Everyone was most expectant.
But the glittering repartee which was expected never arrived. “It was a gloomy and silent evening,” Anne recalls. ” Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all.”
One of Thackeray’s friends, Mrs Brookfield, leaned forward and asked: “Do you like London, Miss Brontë?”
There was a long silence. At length the author replied, gravely, ” Yes; and no.”
And then she lapsed into silence again. The room was gloomy, the guests sitting round waiting for something to happen. We have all experienced such a gathering: excruciating.
And the little girl who writes this tale recalls how the children bowled about because, after all, there was an extra plate of biscuits. And on her way from the biscuits to the drawing room, Anne found her father putting his hat on by the front door.
He put his fingers to his lips, Lady Ritchie recalls; and opened the door, and walked thankfully out into the night.
Overwhelmed, poor old Thackeray had quietly left the house: and gone off to his club.