A Goddess with Clay Feet: Brontë and Thackeray

The Brontës meet Thackeray at the offices of Smith and Elder: one of 8 wooden door panels at 3, Cornhill, London. Pic via http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk

The Brontës meet Thackeray at the offices of Smith and Elder: one of 8 wooden door panels at 3, Cornhill, London. Pic via http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk

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.

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44 thoughts on “A Goddess with Clay Feet: Brontë and Thackeray

    1. Alas, Mrs Thackeray had a history of mental illness; so much so that people sepculated Charlotte’s Mr Rochester might have been modelled on Thackeray himself. His appearance would match the description in Jane Eyre very well; but academics seem to think it unlikely. Thackeray’s wife was in an institution, and his mother helped him bring up his children.

  1. ‘Yes: and no.” What profundity! The fuse had fizzed impressively all the way to the dynamite, but when the flame reached the stick there was a pathetic ‘pfft’. One can understand Thackeray doing a duck.

  2. Jane Eyre was drudgery for me to get through. I do know part of its significance is that perhaps first in English language with woman as hero and in a world of commoners(not Joan of Arc kind of thing). In class I asked the professor why this junk was deemed so meritorious. He became enraged at my impertinence. He gave me an F in course and Fs and Ds in others so I had to change my major to religion/history for my undergrad degree which took me 2 extra semesters with barely a C average upon graduation because of those grades. This Jane broad almost ruined my college career.

      1. The panel is by Walter Gilbert, a sculptor, Carl. You can find more about it – and see the inscription – over at Dr Tony Shaw’s blog herehttp://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/anne-and-charlotte-bronte-and-william.html

  3. I have had one such encounter with someone I admired……and I went away from the dinner repelled by them. Sometimes it might be best to let those we admire live in our imagination. 🙂

    1. We none of us come in tidy packages, I suppose, Andra: ideals are just that. It comes down to whether we will gain anything by spending more time with the person who has created something of such beauty. I’d take time with Charlotte because a mind like that would be well worth persevering with.
      But I’d do it on my own terms, and not at some society party where appearance was paramount.

  4. This was almost excruciatingly fascinating. The creative mind, author of a brooding literary masterpiece (by my definition) would have been at a loss for small talk. I love the memory coming from a child’s careful eye, and think it matches well what I would imagine of Charlotte. I never get tired of hearing about the Brontës, Kate!

  5. Dear Kate, this story reminds me of one I heard in grad school at the University of Minnesota about the friendship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. It seems that the latter had asked his friend to read the final draft of “Moby Dick.” One evening after supper, the guest asked his host–Hawthorne–what he thought of the novel.

    Hawthorne waxed eloquent. Oh, the metaphors. The symbolism! How it was developed. How it grew. How it encompassed so much of a man’s life in its depth and breadth. Ah…yes symbolism–so dear to Hawthorne’s heart.

    And Melville listened to all these compliments, hearing the words “symbolism” and “symbolic” over and over. A pause came as Nathaniel waited for some explanation of how Herman had come upon these original ideas for a symbolic novel. Finally Melville cleared his thought, looked apologetic, and said, “Well, Mr. Hawthorne, I’m glad you find all that symbolism there. I didn’t put it there, but still I’m glad you found it.”

    Peace.

  6. Poor Charlotte must have been very shy in any society beyond that of her home with her father and siblings. I have always admired the novel Jane Eyre. I still do. I don’t think it was very nice of WMP to sneak out of his own party. He did invite her.

  7. Smart and a lot of Kate under the surface in this one, well done. Much truth in this, Maybe that is why I value the mentors I have had. Mentors will hold you, accept and share with you -idols just kind of fizz out in time.

    I, like Carl, enjoyed the panel, a true honey in it’s design and craftsmanship. I noted the link.

  8. Great story. Perhaps Charlotte was tongue-tied in the presence of Thackeray. She didn’t spend her evenings dining with four-and-twenty families, and wasn’t used to dredging up small talk. I wonder whether Jane Eyre would have been any more successful as a guest of honor. Lizzie Bennet she wasn’t. But Mr. Thackeray behaved more like Darcy than like a Victorian gentleman. Which brings to mind GWTW, in which Melanie says to Ashley she fears Thackeray “is not the gentleman Mr. Dickens is.” Poor Charlotte. If she’d had dinner with Dickens, I’m sure things would have gone better.

    Wouldn’t you love to get a group of authors and all their characters together at a dinner table and see what happens?

    1. Do you know, I had forgotten all about Melanie’s words, Kathy! She must hve been right all along! Thank you!
      You bring to mind a challenge Wanderlust set a long time ago – I’m not very good at keeping up with awards and challenges. She challenged a group of writers to host a virtual dinner party, inviting great figures from history to sit at the table. Fabulous idea. And I never have. Perhaps I should have a go, and pass the baton to some other writers…

  9. Given the strained silence, I almost forgive Mr. Thackery for slipping out when he had a chance. But it was rude to leave … especially as the others now had to entertain the very taciturn – or extremely shy – Charlotte Brontë.

  10. What a wonderfully awful scene this would make in a film. Poor stern Miss Brontë with no real talent for sparkling but all that swirling melodrama underneath. Did Smith not think to warn Thackeray that she was so much like Jane?

  11. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness;

    I’ve always loved that . Has anyone described CB in London better?

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