William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
From 1800-1829 Literary Anecdotes

I INQUIRED if he saw much of Thackeray. No, he said, not latterly. Thackeray was much enraged with him because, after he made a book of travels for the P. & O. Company, who had invited him to go on a voyage to Africa in one of their steamers, he (Carlyle) had compared the transaction to the practice of a blind fiddler going to and fro on a penny ferry-boat in Scotland, and playing tunes to the passengers for halfpence. Charles Buller told Thackeray; and when he complained, it was necessary to inform him frankly that it was undoubtedly his opinion that, out of respect for himself and his profession, a man like Thackeray ought not to have gone fiddling for halfpence or otherwise, in any steamboat under the sky.

Duffy, Conversations, pp. 76-7.

I can remember on one occasion through a cloud of smoke, looking across a darkening room at the noble, grave head of the Poet-Laureate. He was sitting with my father in the twilight, after some family meal, in the old house in Kensington. It is Lord Tennyson himself who has reminded me how upon this occasion, while my father was speaking to me, my little sister looked up suddenly from the book in which she had been absorbed, saying, in her soft childish voice, `Papa, why do you not write books like Nicholas Nickleby?'

Lady Ritchie, Records, pp. 49-50.

IN common with most children, the stories of our father's youth always delighted and fascinated us, and we had often heard him speak of his own early days at college and in Germany, and of his happy stay at Pumpernickel-Weimar, where he went to Court and saw the great Goethe, and was in love with the beautiful Amalia von X. And now coming to Weimar we found ourselves actually alive in his past somehow, almost living it alongside with him, just like Gogo in Mr. du Maurier's story. I suddenly find myself walking up the centre of an empty shady street, and my father is pointing to a row of shutters on the first floor of a large and comfortable-looking house. `That is where Frau von X used to live,' he said. `How kind she was to us, and what a pretty girl Amalia was.' And then a little further on we passed the house in the sunshine of a plaz in which he told us he himself had lodged with a friend; and then we came to the palace, with the soldiers and sentries looking like toys wound up from the Burlington Arcade, and going backwards and forwards with their spikes in front of their own striped boxes; and we saw the acacia trees with their cropped heads, and the iron gates; and we went across the courtyard into the palace and were shown the ballroom and the smaller saloons, and we stood on the shining floors and beheld the classic spot where for the first and only time in all his life, I believe, my father had invited the lovely Amalia to waltz. And then coming away all absorbed and delighted with our experiences in living backwards, my father suddenly said, `I wonder if old Weissenborne is still alive? He used to teach me German.' And lo! as he spoke, a tall thin old man, in a broad-brimmed straw hat, with a beautiful Pomeranian poodle running before him, came stalking along with a newspaper under his arm. `Good gracious, that looks like—yes, that is Dr. Weissenborne. He is hardly changed a bit,' said my father, stopping short for a moment, and then he too stepped forward quickly with an outstretched hand, and the old man in turn stopped, stared, frowned. `I am Thackeray, my name is Thackeray,' said my father eagerly and shyly as was his way; and after another stare from the doctor, suddenly came a friendly lighting up and exclaiming and welcoming and handshaking and laughing, while the pretty white dog leapt up and down, as much interested as we were in the meeting. . . .

We came back with our friend the doctor and breakfasted with him in his small apartment, in a room full of books, at a tiny table drawn to an open window; then after breakfast we sat in the Professor's garden among the nasturtiums. My sister and I were given books to read; they were translations for the use of students, I remember; and the old friends smoked together and talked over a hundred things. Amalia was married and had several children: she was away....

There was a certain simple dignity and hospitality in it all which seems to belong to all the traditions of hospitable Weimar, and my father's pleasure and happy emotion gave a value and importance to every tiny detail of that short but happy time. Even the people at the inn remembered their old guest, and came to greet him; but they also sent in such an enormous bill as we were departing on the evening of the second day, that he exclaimed in dismay to the waiter,

`So much for sentimental recollections! Tell the host I shall never be able to afford to come back to Weimar again.'

The waiter stared; I wonder if he delivered the message. The hotel-bill I have just mentioned was a real disappointment to my father, and, alas for disillusions! another more serious shock, a meeting which was no meeting, somewhat dashed the remembrance of Amalia von X.

It happened at Venice, a year or two after our visit to Weimar. We were breakfasting at a long table where a fat lady also sat a little way off, with a pale fat little boy beside her. She was stout, she was dressed in light green, she was silent, she was eating an egg. The sala of the great marble hotel was shaded from the blaze of sunshine, but stray gleams shot across the dim hall, falling on the palms and the orange trees beyond the lady, who gravely shifted her place as the sunlight dazzled her. Our own meal was also spread, and my sister and I were only waiting for my father to begin. He came in presently, saying he had been looking at the guest-book in the outer hall, and he had seen a name which had interested him very much. `Frau von Z. Geboren von X. It must be Amalia! She must be here—in the hotel,' he said; and as he spoke he asked a waiter whether Madame von Z. was still in the hotel. `I believe that is Madame von Z.,' said the waiter, pointing to the fat lady. The lady looked up and then went on with her egg, and my poor father turned away, saying in a low, overwhelmed voice, `That Amalia! That cannot be Amalia.' I could not understand his silence, his discomposure. `Aren't you going to speak to her? Oh, please do go and speak to her!' we both cried. `Do make sure if it is Amalia.' But he shook his head. `I can't,' he said; `I had rather not.' Amalia meanwhile, having finished her egg, rose deliberately, put down her napkin and walked away, followed by her little boy...

Things don't happen altogether at the same time; they don't quite begin or end all at once. Once more I heard of Amalia long years afterwards, when by a happy hospitable chance I met Dr. Norman Macleod at the house of my old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Cunliffe. I was looking at him, and thinking that in some indefinable way he put me in mind of the past, when he suddenly asked me if I knew that he and my father had been together as boys at Weimar, learning German from the same professor, and both in love with the same beautiful girl. `What, Amalia? Dr. Weissenborne?' I cried. `Dear me! do you know about Amalia?' said Dr. Macleod, `and do you know about old Weissenborne? I thought I was the only person left to remember them. We all learnt from Weissenborne; we were all in love with Amalia, every one of us, your father too! What happy days those were!' And then he went on to tell us that years and years afterwards, when they met again on the occasion of one of the lecturing tours in Scotland, he, Dr. Macleod, and all the rest of the notabilities were all assembled to receive the lecturer on the platform, and as my father came by carrying his papers and advancing to take his place at the reading-desk, he recognized Dr. Macleod as he passed, and in the face of all the audience he bent forward and said gravely, without stopping one moment on his way, `Ich liebe Amalia doch', and so went on to deliver his lecture.

Lady Ritchie, Chapters, pp. 109-20.

Thackeray was no cynic, but he was a satirist, and could now and then be a satirist in conversation, hitting very hard when he did hit. When he was in America he met at dinner a literary gentleman of high character, middle-aged, and most dignified deportment. The gentleman was one whose character and acquirements stood very high—deservedly so—but who, in society, had that air of wrapping his toga around him, which adds, or is supposed to add, many cubits to a man's height. But he had a broken nose. At dinner he talked much of the tender passion, and did so in a manner which stirred up Thackeray's feeling of the ridiculous. `What has the world come to,' said Thackeray out loud to the table, `when two broken-nosed old fogies like you and me sit talking about love to each other!' The gentleman was astounded, and could only sit wrapping his toga in silent dismay for the rest of the evening. Thackeray then, as at other similar times, had no idea of giving pain, but when he saw a foible he put his foot upon it, and tried to stamp it out.

Anthony Trollope, Thackeray (1879), pp. 60-61.

No unusual incidents marked Thackeray's lectures in St. Louis and Cincinnati, though he was fond of relating an anecdote which had Barnum's Hotel in the former city as its setting. Dining there one day, he overheard one Irish waiter say to another:

`Do you know who that is?'
`No', was the answer.
'That', said the first, `is the celebrated Thacker!'
`What's he done?'
`D-d if I know!'

Bayard Taylor, Critical Essays and Literary Notes (New York, 1880), pp. 149-50;
quoted in Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom, 1847-1863 (New York, 1958), pp. 262-263.

When Dr. Russell, so long The Times correspondent, was coming in a boat to the ship which was to bear him from America to England, the sea was extremely rough: the boat with great difficulty reached the ship. Turning to a gentleman sitting beside him, an American general, Dr. Russell said, `I fear, Sir, that we shall have a rough passage': the Officer replied, `I am not going to Europe.' 'Then will you permit me to ask what induces you to come out in such tremendous weather in an open boat?' `I have one motive, Sir, which I think sufficient. I shall know for the rest of my life that I have spoken to one who has conversed with Thackeray.' General Garnett was killed not long afterwards, in an action at Wheeling in Western Virginia. He served in the Southern army.

Sir William Fraser, Hic et Ubique (1893), p. 170.

« NEXT » « Anecdotes 1800-1829 » « All Anecdotes » « Humour » « Library »