Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ray and Harden let me down!

So I've started pulling things together for my chapter on Thackeray and India.  While researching Ireland in Thackeray's six volumes of letters and private papers (by Gordon N. Ray and the subset by Edgar Harden) I found healthy indexes which included "Ireland," "Catholic" and "England."  However today I found, to my chagrin, there's no, "India," "Indian," "empire," "Calcutta" etc.

Thankfully, me and Willy T are close enough that I knew a few key names and publications to search under.  Furthermore, I found out some fascinating new Thackeray/family info! 

His father, Richmond Thackeray, started a long affair with a native Indian woman soon after he started with the East India Company in Calcutta.  His mother, Anne Becher, has an especially tragic backstory: her snobby upper middle-class grandmother told her she could never see her soldier boyfriend again; after virtually locking her in room, grandma told poor Anne that her “boyfriend” died and then sent all of his correspondence back to him, writing him that Anne no longer cared for him.  

Anne was then carted off to India (a practice he challenges in Vanity Fair) to find a suitable husband; she soon after married the wealthy, older Richmond, created a home in Calcutta and had William the next year.  The soap opera part? Richmond brings a buddy home from work one evening for dinner and..... it’s Anne’s ex-boyfriend, Carmichael-Smyth!  The couple ultimately tells Richmond what happened and he never looks at his wife the same way again.  Richmond dies a few years later, Willy T is sent to school in England (which was the norm for Anglo-Indian kids), and mom marries her "true love."

I’ve known this sordid tale for awhile, and that Richmond had a bastard daughter, but I now have new insight into how Thackeray felt about it.  As per his letters, though he squandered huge amounts of his inheritance gambling during college, he resented the small monthly payment due to his Indian half-sister (and requested by her family after her early death).  In a diary entry in his early 20s, Thackeray berates himself for dining on turtle soup “while Mrs. Blenchyden starves” (referring to his now married half-sister).  He later writes it’s “one of the sorest points of his life” that he didn’t treat her better upon learning of her death in the paper. Years later, Mrs. B’s “very black” daughter shows up in ENGLAND, he never names her but identifies her as “his niece” and is grateful when she leaves, even remarking how his mom was horrified when the girl called her “dear grandmamma.” 

I think its key that he never refers to his late half-sister as “sister” or even “Sarah,” always Mrs. Blenchyden, as if to keep her at distance.  When confronted with her daughter, he refers to her as “his black niece,” but never by name, as if hesitantly recognizing the blood relationship, but also pointing out the difference in skin tone.  Food for thought for my Chapter on India, especially as much of this family drama is reflected in Vanity Fair….

Just for fun, I’ve attached a picture of my alarm clock!


  1. Wow, you and Willy T are definitely closelikethis. ;) Just curious: how are you using the biographical info in the diss?

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  3. Hey Liana! It took a lot of doing (and convincing). A critic (that actually came to BU), Rosemarie Bodenheimer, wrote a fascinating book on George Eliot that read her letters alongside her fictions and explored the connections.

    By reading Thackeray's letters, illustrations, diary entries, tandem with his fictions I feel I see a much more complete picture of how an intelligent, multi-lingual, globetrotter like himself viewed the empire and reflected on what it meant to be "English."

    I'm also questioning recent (narrow) postcolonial readings that say things like: "In Barry Lyndon, the English were mean to young Barry, so his later abuse of his English wife is Thackeray criticizing English rule of Ireland."

    I find such readings terribly forced; when you read his letters alongside his fictions it shows that he believed in the "civilizing mission of empire, but often questioned many English practices and their treatment of those categorized as distinctly "non-English."

    Hope that makes sense, had my evening glass of wine!