‘Mr. Thackeray is forty-six years old, though from the silvery whiteness of his hair he appears somewhat older. He is very tall, standing upwards of six feet two inches, and as he walks erect his height makes him conspicuous in every assembly. His face is bloodless, and not particularly expressive, but remarkable for the fracture of the bridge of the nose, the result of an accident in youth. He wears a small grey whisker, but otherwise is clean shaven. No one meeting him could fail to recognise in him a gentleman; his bearing is cold and uninviting, his style of conversation either openly cynical, or affectedly good-natured and benevolent; his bonhomie is forced, his wit biting, his pride easily touched—but his appearance is invariably that of the cool, suave, well-bred gentleman, who, whatever may be rankling within, suffers no surface display of his emotion.’To do this kind of biographical business is a strange pursuit for an author and a gentleman. If print were not the vehicle of expression, and a writer were not the subject, it would be thought offensive to be so personal, and coarse to be so plainspoken. But there is certainly the defence that contemporary biography sells well, and that, the more personal and plainspoken it is, the better it sells. And even if Mr. Yates has, we will not say endangered, but tested his reputation as a gentleman author by penning and selling this hue-and-ery delineation of a fellow writer, it may perhaps be doubted whether there is not a sort of justice in Mr. Thackeray being the victim; for Mr. Thackeray is the great creator and support of the “new profession”—that of what is euphemistically called lecturing, but what is really taking a man's personal appearance into the market. When any one man has written works which have been read by thousands, and has excited an interest in large classes of the population, there are sure to be a great many persons that would like to see the man himself whose writings they know so well. They like to see him, and to say they have seen him. Mr. Thackeray has thought, and others have thought with him, that there was money to be made largely and easily out of this curiosity. Why should he not show himself? There is a character in Evelina who goes to the play every evening, on the plea that he is willing to pay five shillings a night in order that his friends may see he is alive. Mr. Thackeray effected the same object much more cleverly, and made other persons pay him the five shillings, that they might see he was alive. He took into the market his “silvery hair,” his “bloodless and not particularly expressive face,” his “fractured nose,” and his “small grey whiskers.” He sold a good stare at them to thousands of curious and eager purchasers. Mr. Thackeray was a gentleman by birth and education, and he probably knew that this publicity of private life—this coining money out of his personal appearance—was not a proceeding of a very high stamp. He was, we may suppose, aware that reserve and a hatred of vulgar notoriety are marks of a gentleman's character and bearing. But really the thing was so lucrative. There was nothing wrong in it; and why should he not put his pride in his pocket if he put a heavy purse there too? We do not pretend to quarrel with his decision; but there certainly is some reason why he should complain less than most men of being photographed by Mr. Yates. Mr., Thackeray makes money by showing himself at a lecture, and Mr. Yates makes money by describing what is shown. We do not pretend that the two things are exactly the same, but then Mr. Thackeray and Mr. Yates are not exactly in the same literary position; and if it was, as we hope, a descent for Mr. Yates to draw this biographical portrait, it was indisputably a descent for a man of honourable family and good education to make the tour of the platforms that bid highest for a peep at him.
It would, however, be very unfair if we did not acknowledge that it is extremely hard to sacrifice a large sum of money for a mere punctilio—that most men, and most critics, if tried, would prefer the money to so shadowy a thing as self-approbation—and that there are always a hundred good reasons why money should be made. Few men love themselves, or think more anxiously and wisely for themselves, than parents do for their children, while yet their hopes for their issue are high, and they have not been disheartened by bitter experience. Now, let us suppose that the darling of a family is a mischievous, olive-coloured, hump-backed little pickle. The parents promise themselves that they will keep and cherish this strange nursling for ever. But Barnum comes that way, and settles that this is exactly the child for an “Original Chinese Dwarf.” He proposes a moderate sum to the parents, and is repulsed with scorn. He is not to be beaten back, and bids higher and higher. At last the point is reached when the parents begin to hesitate. They picture all that they could do with the money, and are secretly a little flattered by the urgency of the speculator. Finally they are overcome by what they consider a sense of duty. It will be so obviously for the advantage of their little boy that he should be the Well-known Chinese Dwarf, and common prudence enjoins that they should look to the future, and provide a comfortable maintenance for the poor lad. And so the affair is arranged, and Jemmy, goes away in a caravan. If parents who act thus are guilty of a weakness, it is a weakness from which few would escape. It might indicate a more noble and generous feeling if they had preferred poverty and privacy for their darling; but after all they have acted prudently, and have done no harm. Just so, we must admit that all Mr. Thackeray would have gained by refusing to be Barnumized, was something infinitesimal and inappreciable; and he would have lost a sum of money which the aspect of a bloodless face and a broken nose can rarely procure. To go to market with himself, and satisfy curiosity at a scale of prices regulated according to proximity, was not to do anything dishonourable. It was not anything ungentlemanly, like cheating at cards, or telling a lie. It was, at worst, an offence against taste; and all that could be said about it was that it tended to degrade literature and to foster the appetite for intrusion into other men's affairs, which is apt to be impertinently gratified at the special expense of authors. We can easily conceive that, although a man of Mr. Thackeray's sensibility would perceive that to do this was a departure from the strictest code of high feeling, yet calm philosophy would tell him that such a departure might be justified by a large pecuniary profit. We feel sure that, in some way or other, he thought it only due to himself or to others to let Barnum have his Chinese Dwarf; and it is certain that nine-tenths of any number of persons subjected to the same trial would have decided as he did, and that the few who might decide otherwise would have very little of palpable and visible advantage to show as a compensation for the money they rashly threw away.
We may even admit that it is a debateable point whether there is any derogation from his position in a gentleman going about in his literary caravan. It may be argued that he is still the same man, with the same feelings, opinions, and principles, and that he is only combating the essentially ungentlemanly notion that a man ceases to be a gentleman when he earns his bread honestly in an unusual way. Looking only to the individual, this is to a great extent true, and we must own that Mr. Thackeray is the same man alike when, we have paid our five shillings for the privilege of looking at him, and when we have enjoyed it gratis. But if we turn our thoughts to the whole literary profession, we are inclined to think that the bad effect of a vendible publicity is discoverable. Mr. Thackeray, might maintain that Mr. Yates was taking rather a liberty with him, if he had not himself provided his oil, with a sufficient excuse. That a man near the head of a calling should entitle his inferiors to take a liberty with him, is in itself an evil. At any rate, if we are not to say that it is derogatory to Mr. Thackeray to show himself, nor to Mr. Yates to photograph the show, we may venture to admire more unmixedly those who set themselves against this, literary unreserve. It is not one of the least debts of gratitude that the country owes to the Laureate, that he has always consistently maintained that a gentleman is not to be intruded upon, nor to intrude himself on others, because he has a gift for verse-making. If we recognise the common-sense which says that money is better than a punctilio, we may also sympathize with the nobler scorn which refuses to let same degenerate into notoriety. No one who even knows Mr. Thackeray only by his books, and has not the honour of an acquaintance which the first gentleman in the kingdom might be pleased to possess, can doubt that he is a man of honour and high feeling. But he has made what, if judged on other than pecuniary grounds, appears to us a mistake. Against this mistake Mr. Tennyson has repeatedly protested, and we think that he has chosen the better part.
Saturday Review, July 17, 1858.