“Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.” (by W.M. Thackeray, 1856).
Whatever we may think of the policy of republishing some parts of Mr. Thackeray's Miscellanies, there can be no doubt that English literature would have sustained a serious loss if Barry Lyndon had still been buried in the pages of a magazine. In some respects, it appears to us the most characteristic and best executed of Mr. Thackeray’s novels, though it is far less known, and is likely, we think, to be less popular than the rest. Barry Lyndon is the history of a scoundrel from his own point of view, and combines the habitual freshness of Fielding with a large measure of the grave irony of Jonathan Wild, To be able, with perfect decency and propriety, to take up his abode in the very heart of a most unmitigated blackguard and scoundrel, and to show how, as a matter of course, and without any kind of denial or concealment, he bonâ fide considers himself one of the best and greatest of men, is surely one of the hardest tasks which could be imposed on an author; yet Mr. Thackeray has undertaken and executed it with perfect success.
Redmond Barry, who on his marriage takes the name of Lyndon, is the son of a man who runs through, his property at gambling-tables and horse-races. He passes his boyhood in a sort of beggarly gentility, partly under the care of a handsome, proud, and vixenish mother, partly at a sort of Castle Rackrent belonging to his uncle, Mick Brady. At sixteen, he falls madly in love with his eldest cousin, a silly and ugly girl of twenty-four, and in a mock duel, which he supposes to be real, shoots a rich and cowardly English rival with a tow bullet. He leaves his home to avoid the consequences of his supposed murder -- falls amongst sharpers at Dublin—is plundered by them—enlists as a common soldier-serves at the battles of Minden and Warburg—robs a wounded lieutenant, after the latter action, of his money, clothes, and papers, and passes himself off as an officer. Whilst thus disguised, he is kidnapped by one of the man-stealers who were so largely employed to recruit the armies of Frederick II, and passes some years in the service of that sovereign. Impatient of the hardships to which he is exposed, he tries to mitigate them by assuming the occupation of a police spy, and in this character is set to watch the proceedings of his uncle, a professional gambler, who comes to Berlin in the exercise of his calling, and, as the police suppose, with some political object. The uncle finds means to enable his nephew to escape with him to Dresden, and Mr. Barry blazes out in the full glory of partner in, and bully to, a gambling establishment. After several strange adventures in this capacity, the uncle, a zealous Catholic, becomes anxious “to make his salut,” and goes into a convent for that purpose, whilst Mr. Barry, junior, returns to Ireland, after an absence of twelve years, in possession of some £500, and a dazzling reputation for resource and audacity. Here he falls in with a widow of enormous wealth, who being weak, clever, and romantic, had carried on a foolish literary flirtation with him in her husband's life-time. By fighting a duel with one of her admirers, and giving out with infinite vehemence his intention to do as much for any others who may appear, and by the fascination which courage, a strong will, and dashing vulgar display exercise over a frivolous mind, he bullies Lady Lyndon into marrying him, and becomes possessed in right of his wife of some six palaces and £40,000 per annum. Having thus reached the pinnacle of his glory, Mr. Barry begins to descend. He cuts down his woods, raises money on his wife's life, quarrels vehemently with her son by her first husband, who is his heir, gets utterly drowned in debt, retires savagely to an obscure estate in Ireland, and there fights with the duns and bailiffs, eats his own mutton, and locks up his wife in her bed-room. By a stratagem she recovers her liberty, and her husband is sent abroad with a small pension from her relations, who stop it on her death, whereupon Mr. Barry Lyndon finishes his days in the Fleet Prison, where “a small man, who is always jeering me and making game of me, asks me to fight, and I haven't the courage to touch him.”
Such is Mr. Barry's career—a riotous and miserable youth, a manhood of infamy, and an old age of ruin and beggary. Yet the genius of the novelist not only makes us feel that his hero would naturally look upon himself as a wronged and virtuous man—“the victim,” as he is made to say on his title-page, “of many cruel persecutions, conspiracies, and slanders,”—but also that even in this wretched kind of existence all was not bad— that wheat as well as tares grow in the most unkindly and ill-cultivated soil. The ability with which this is managed is quite wonderful. The whole book is founded on the great principle, that if a man only lies hardily enough and long enough, nothing is easier for him than to impose upon himself. In nine cases out of ten, hypocrisy is nothing else than self-deception. Describe the transactions in which you are engaged, not as your neighbours would describe them, but as you yourself would wish them to be, and it is surprising how soon they will appear to be capable of no other construction. Barry Lyndon's fundamental and universal postulate is, that he is a good and gallant man, that he is a model of manly virtue, and that, therefore, though he may be occasionally subject to human infirmities, his actions must always be, on the whole, in accordance with his character. Take, as an example of the degree in which a man may bring himself to believe his own lies, the following wonderful account of Mr. Barry's family:--
‘As a man of the world, I have learned to despise heartily the claims of some pretenders to high birth who have no more genealogy than the lackey who cleans my boots; and though I laugh to utter scorn the boasting of many of my countrymen, who are all for descending from kings of Ireland, and talk of a domain no bigger than would feed a pig as if it were a principality, yet truth compels me to assert that my family was the noblest of the island, and perhaps of the universal world; while their possessions—now insignificant, and torn from us by war, by treachery, by the loss of time, by ancestral extravagance, by adhesion to the old faith and monarch—were formerly prodigious, and embraced many counties at a time when Ireland was vastly more prosperous than now.’Or take the following chastened reflections on the profession of gambling, as a specimen of the marvellous power which the mind possesses, or may acquire, of seeing things altogether upside-down. After describing, some of the tricks by which he assisted his uncle in play, Mr. Barry proceeds:—
‘Some prudish persons may affect indignation at the frankness of these confessions, but Heaven pity them! Do you suppose that any man who has lost or won a hundred thousand pounds at play will not take the advantages which his neighbour enjoys? They are all the same. But it is only the clumsy fool who cheats, who resorts to the vulgar expedients of cogged dice and cut cards. Such a man is sure to go wrong some time or other, and is not fit to play in the society of gallant gentlemen; and my advice to people who see such a vulgar person at his pranks is, of course, to back him while he plays, but never-never to have anything to do with him. Play grandly, honourably . . . . When one considers the time and labour spent, the genius, the anxiety, the outlay of money required, the multiplicity of bad debts that one meets with (for dishonourable rascals are to be found at the play-table as everywhere else in the world), I say, for my part, the profession is a bad one; and indeed I have scarcely ever met a man who in the end profited by it.’The parenthesis which marks the point at which Mr. Barry has succeeded in convincing himself that his profession is, on the whole, highly honourable and noble, though a few mean interlopers may disgrace it, is inconceivably ludicrous, and shows a depth of humour almost sublime. It is a sort of typical specimen of the spirit which makes a free negro talk with contempt of “black fellows,” or the vulgarest dandies who disgrace our name and nation on the Continent sneer at “those English.” To show how Mr. Barry contrives to look upon himself as an ill-used man through the whole of his eventful life, would require little less than an abstract of the entire book. We may mention more particularly, however, his wonderful account of his relations to his wife, in which, after detailing with a high moral tone the measures which he thought necessary to bring her to a sense of her conjugal duties—consisting in a long series of the most brutal acts of tyranny and violence—he describes with a sort of contemptuous pity her low spirits, nervousness, bad health, and general dulness, and concludes by the quiet remark—“My company from this fancied I was a tyrant over her; whereas I was only a severe and careful guardian over a silly, bad-tempered and weak-minded lady.” We have not the slightest doubt that such a man would seriously and bonâ fide take exactly that view of such conduct. Indeed, why should he not? It is much pleasanter to consider oneself a man of sense and honour than a low-minded villain; and to one who wishes to do so, and knows how to set about it, it is quite as easy.
The conception of Barry Lyndon's character involves, however, some grains of good. Indeed, their absence in any man whatever would have been conclusive evidence that the book in which he was depicted was not written by Mr. Thackeray. His courage is genuine courage. He really is a very brave man; and although he knows it, and is inordinately vain of it, we think the picture is true to nature. Sydney Smith long ago pointed out that where there is a great deal of vanity, there is generally some talent; and Mr. Thackeray seems to us to have shown his usual acuteness in exposing the fallacy of the common notion that a bully and a braggart is generally a coward. We should agree with him in thinking such faults some evidence of courage— though of a courage lower both in kind and degree than that which such a person would claim. There is great beauty also in the parental affection which Mr. Thackeray ventures to attribute to this utter scoundrel. He has a son by his second wife, and loves him tenderly, wildly, passionately, with a sort of fierce instinct such as any other brute might show. He is almost heartbroken at his death, and, in his lowest degradation, wears a lock of his hair round his neck. There is something not only touching, but deeply true, in such a representation. It recognises the fact that a strong, unbridled character, full of fierce appetites and ungoverned passions, is not utterly devilish—that it sometimes gives birth to virtues, rough and animal, if you please, but still genuine. The character of old Mrs. Barry, the hero's mother, is a further illustration of the same thing. She is a greedy, proud, unprincipled woman, capable by turns of meanness, haughtiness, fanaticism and gross cruelty; yet she loves her son dearly through all. There is something wonderfully true in the unity with which the character is drawn. During her son's absence in Prussia, the fanatical side of her character comes out, and she falls under the dominion of a hypocritical scoundrel, called Jowls, who wants to marry her. Her son visits Ireland, fights a duel, and comes to his mother for refuge. Mr. Jowls is scandalized and frightened, and wants to turn out the fugitive, saying “he would have had the gentleman avoid the drink, and the quarrel, and the wicked duel altogether.” Whereupon “my mother cut him short by saying ‘that such sort of conduct might be very well in a person of his cloth and his birth, but it neither became a Barry nor a Brady.' In fact she was quite delighted with the thought that I had pinked an English marquis's son in a duel; and so, to console her, I told her of a score more in which I had been engaged.” The curtain ultimately falls upon the tough old lady, supporting her blackguard broken-down offspring in his captivity by' the labour of her own hands, and on the wrecks of her property.
Artistically considered, we should almost be inclined to place Barry Lyndon at the head of the list of Mr. Thackeray's books. It has an immense advantage over his better known works in being far shorter—for which reason the plot is clearer, simpler, and more connected than it is in Vanity Fair, Pendennis, or the Newcomes. Every page carries the story on, and with the exception of Barry's meeting with his uncle at Berlin, and of a rather melodramatic episode which takes place at a small German court, the story is as natural and easy as if it were true. We have attempted to show that the book has a moral, if the reader knows how to look for it; but it is kept in its proper place, and is suggested by the facts, instead of suggesting them. In most of Mr. Thackeray's more elaborate performances, his own views of the world appear to us to be insisted on too openly and too often; but there is nothing of this in Barry Lyndon. It is neither a melancholy nor a cheerful book, but a fair and wonderfully skilful portrait of a man whom we feel as if we had known personally. The accessories are described in as life-like and rigorous a manner as the main subject. We do not think that Mr. Thackeray's extraordinary power of description was ever more strongly illustrated than in the sketches which this volume contains of the wild, mad Irish life of Dublin and the provinces in the last century—of the horrible mechanism of man-stealing and espionage by which Frederick II, maintained his power—of the strange career (half-highwayman, half-grand seigneur) of a professional gambler—or of the petty Courts in which, before the French Revolution, so many sham sovereigns played at kings and queens, with human beings for their counters. All these, and many other subjects of the same kind, are sketched off rapidly, easily, and with a life and distinctness altogether marvellous in a volume which will not last an active reader through a very long railway journey: We conclude our notice with a specimen of these strange pictures. The hero has been kidnapped, and is thrown, with several companions in misfortune, into a waggon, which is to carry him to the depôt of Frederic's recruits:--
‘The covered waggon, to which I was ordered to march, was standing, as I have said, in the courtyard of the farm, with another dismal vehicle of the same kind hard by. Each was pretty well filled with a crew of men whom the atrocious crimp who had seized me had enlisted under the banners of the glorious Frederic; and I could see by the lanterns of the sentinels, as they thrust me into the straw, a dozen dark figures huddled together in the horrible moving prison where I was now to be confined. A scream and a curse from my opposite neighbour showed me that he was most likely wounded, as I myself was; and during the whole of the wretched night the moans and sobs of the poor fellows in similar captivity kept up a continual painful chorus, which effectually prevented my getting any relief in sleep. At midnight (as far as I could judge) the horses were put to the waggons, and the creaking, lumbering machines were put in motion. A couple of soldiers, strongly armed, sat on the outer bench of the cart, and their grim faces peered in with their lanterns every now and then through the canvas curtains, that they might count the number of their prisoners. The brutes were half-drunk, and were singing love and war songs, such as “O Gretchen mein Taubchen, mein Herzemstrompet, mein Kanon, mein Heerpauk, und meine Musket,” “Prinz Eugen der edle Ritter,” and the like; their wild whoops and jodels making doleful discord with the groans of us captives within the waggons. Many a time afterwards have I heard those ditties sung on the march, or in the barrack-room, or round the fires, as we lay out at night.’Saturday Review, December 27, 1856.