Rackety life


D J Taylor <em>Chatto & Windus, 494pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0701162317

This is a compelling biography. Whether D J Taylor is writing about the brutalities of Thackeray's school days at Charterhouse or the delights of his youthful sojourn in Goethe's "sepia-tinted" Weimar, the "rackety" life he led in Paris and London in his early twenties as a would-be artist and hack-journalist, or his dignified later life as famous novelist, devoted paterfamilias, eminent clubman and homme d'affaires, he succeeds always in evoking a rich sense of context, of the medium in which Thackeray moved. He does so without losing the narrative momentum built up from his dramatic opening account of Thackeray's mother's love-story, and of the little boy being sent by his mother from India to England and placed in a horrible school.

Taylor's deft interweaving of vivid quotations from Thackeray's wonderful letters, his elder daughter's reminiscences and other contemporary sources contributes strongly to this effect, as do the authentic-sounding fictional memories of Thackeray by various contemporaries, some historical and some imagined, interspersed throughout (an Ackroydian touch). Taylor also deals illuminatingly with Thackeray's most important relationships. He shows, for example, the constant tension between tender filial devotion and doctrinal exasperation in Thackeray's relations with his evangelical mother, as well as the strange intensity of his long-running amitie amoureuse with Mrs Brookfield and the ambivalence of his attitude - "admiring, emulative and envious" - towards Dickens. Taylor writes especially well about that sadness at the heart of Thackeray's adult life, the descent into insanity of his much-loved wife, Isabella, soon after their third child was born.

Taylor, although evidently inspired by a passionate, knowledgeable and discriminating admiration both for the man and his work, does not blink at the less appealing aspects of Thackeray's life and behaviour - the fondness for smutty jokes when carousing with his Punch colleagues, for example, depressingly racist remarks about black slaves encountered on his American lecture tours, or the prickliness and pomposity manifested in the celebrated "Garrick Club Affair" which brought him and Dickens into collision.

Whether Taylor achieves the bold aim announced in his first chapter - "to demonstrate that Thackeray was the greatest English writer [writer, you note, not novelist] of the 19th century" - is rather more questionable. It would, in fact, require a critical biography of the kind he emphatically denies he is writing (as well as some close comparisons with Dickens) to argue the claim. But Taylor certainly does persuade us, through apt quotation and perceptive commentary, of the special brilliance of Thackeray's journalism at its best, and of the clear-eyed excellence of his satirical sketches of the social life and manners of the Victorian middle class in all its manifold gradations - the superb "On Going to See a Man Hanged", for example, or the great "Snob" series in Punch (the journal that, Thackeray told his mother exultantly, provided him with both "good pay" and "a great opportunity for unrestrained laughing, sneering, kicking and gambadoing").

Taylor will no doubt send readers back with renewed zest to the masterpieces, Vanity Fair and Pendennis, and his fine chapter on The Newcomes will cause many to turn to that unjustly neglected work. A word should be said, too, in gratitude to the publishers for allowing the inclusion in the text of a fair sprinkling of Thackeray's delightfully witty little caricatures and decorated capital letters, including a marvellous one of himself as a tight-rope walker, which speaks volumes.

Michael Slater is professor of Victorian literature at Birkbeck College, London