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Thackery and Virginia

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

“The Virginians” is probably the best of all the English novels which attempt to portray some aspect of American life; and yet Thackeray’s story has generally been discussed as though the Virginia scenes and characters were merely incidental. It has been assumed that Thackeray knew next to nothing about Virginia. By giving some account of the genesis of the novel so far as we can now trace it, I hope to show that in reality Thackeray took great pains to give his picture of Virginia life both historical accuracy and vivid local coloring.

When Thackeray sailed for America for the first time, in October, 1852, “Henry Esmond” had just been published. In that book the novelist had sent his favorite hero before him to the land he was about to visit. As the site of the new Castlewood, Thackeray had selected Westmoreland County, in Virginia, because Washington had lived there. From the preface to “Henry Esmond,” which is ascribed to Henry’s only child, Rachel Esmond-Warring-ton, we infer that Thackeray had already conceived the idea of an American sequel, although the story had certainly not taken its final form in his own mind. On his way to Richmond, Thackeray visited Mount Vernon. “Tomorrow,” he writes to Miss Lucy Baxter on February 26, “I shall pass down the Potomac on which Mrs. Esmond-Warrington used to sail with her 2 sons when they went to visit their friend Mr. Washington. I wonder will anything ever come out of that preface, and will that story ever be born?”

On his second visit to America two years later—”The Virginians” still unwritten—Thackeray delivered in Richmond his lectures on “The Four Georges,” out of which in a sense “The Virginians” was to grow. Among the Richmond people whom he met was the poet John Reuben Thompson, at that time editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger” and librarian of the Virginia State Library. “Thackeray was at this time,” we are told by Mrs. Burton Harrison, “occupied in overhauling the library for material for ‘The Virginians’; and to Thompson he owed many suggestions of value for that delightful book.”

It was Thompson who introduced to Thackeray the prolific novelist John Esten Cooke, who had published “The Virginia Comedians” only the year before. Cooke at that time made some written notes of what Thackeray said to him, and at various times in later life he wrote several accounts of the interview. I quote from “An Hour with Thackeray,” printed in “Appleton’s Journal” for September, 1879: “Richmond was an attractive place to him, he declared—he had been received with the utmost kindness and attention—and he had always looked upon the Virginians as resembling more closely his own people in England than the Americans of other states. They seemed ‘more homely’, I think was his phrase—which I recall, from the curious employment of the word ‘homely’ in the sense of ‘home-like.’ ” Thackeray told Cooke that he was going to write an American novel to be called “The Two Virginians.” ” ‘I shall lay the scene in Virginia, during the Revolution,’ he said. ‘There will be two brothers, who will be prominent characters; one will take the English side in the war, and the other the American, and they will both be in love with the same girl.’ ” Thackeray, it will be noted, changed his mind about the love story. Thackeray said to Cooke: “It will take me at least two years to collect my materials, and become acquainted with the subject. I can’t write upon a subject I know nothing of. I am obliged to read up upon it, and get my ideas.” “The Virginians,” in fact, did not begin to appear until 1857, two years later.

Thackeray’s relations with John Pendleton Kennedy, once credited with writing a chapter of “The Virginians,” deserve some attention. In a letter from Baltimore, written during his second visit to America, Thackeray refers to “Mr. J. P. Kennedy, exceedingly pleasant, natural and good-natured; and he has introduced me to a club—O gods such a dreary club!” It was about this time that Kennedy wrote in his journal: “Thackeray tells me that he is going to write a novel with the incidents of our revolution introduced into it. To give him some information he is seeking with this view, I lend him some books: Graydon’s ‘Memoirs of the Revolution,’ Heath’s ‘Memoirs’ and Garden’s ‘Anecdotes,’ which he takes away with him; I tell him he may keep them as long as he wishes.”

Kennedy’s nephew, Dandridge Kennedy, of Warrenton, Virginia, tells us that Kennedy took Thackeray on a visit to Virginia to see plantation life for himself. “While in this country,” writes the nephew, “Thackeray was for a time the guest of my uncle, John P. Kennedy, and during that period my uncle took him on a visit to his brother, Mr. Andrew Kennedy, in Virginia. . . I saw Mr. Thackeray while he was staying with my uncle, and knew that the latter gave him much information as to the Virginia people and country, and that he took him on the visit to Virginia that he might see it for himself.” While seeing Virginia life for himself, Thackeray, according to General Wilson, had also a second guide, Judge Eustace Conway (an uncle of Moncure D. Conway), who took him “to Washington’s farm and other localities associated with the illustrious patriot who was to appear in his projected story of ‘The Virginians.’ “

Thackeray and Kennedy met again in Paris in 1858. At this time “The Virginians” was appearing in monthly numbers. On September 26, 1858, Kennedy wrote in his journal: “Thackeray calls to see me, and sits an hour or two. He is not looking well. He tells me that he has need of my assistance with his Virginians—and says Heaven has sent me to his aid. He wants to get his hero from Fort Du-quesne, where he is confined a prisoner after Braddock’s defeat, and bring him to the coast to embark for England. ‘Now you know all that ground,’ he says to me, ‘and I want you to write a chapter for me to describe how he got off and what travel he made.’ He insists that I shall do it. I give him a doubtful promise to do it if I can find time in the thousand engagements that now press me on the eve of our leaving Paris. I would be glad to do it if circumstances will allow.”

That Thackeray was troubled over the problem of getting George Warrington to the coast we know from his letters to other American friends, but that Kennedy wrote out the whole episode and that Thackeray merely copied it is too much to believe without additional evidence. The tradition that Kennedy actually wrote the chapter rests upon the statement of his friend, John H. B. Latrobe, who in an article on Kennedy in Appleton’s “Cyclopaedia of American Biography” states that Kennedy told him he wrote the chapter.

A careful examination of the passage in question does not indicate that Kennedy wrote any of it as it now stands. The episode of George’s escape, incidentally, covers a large part of the third as well as all of the fourth chapter of the second volume; Latrobe ascribes only a single chapter to Kennedy. A single sentence describing the Will’s Creek neighborhood in western Maryland is the only definite descriptive touch that Thackeray seems likely to have owed to Kennedy; and in the same paragraph there is the curious blunder of referring the making of maple sugar to the fall of the year—a blunder that could hardly be attributed to Kennedy, who had frequently visited in the Shenandoah Valley. In Latrobe’s account of the matter, written years after the event, he implies that Thackeray’s request was made half in jest. Kennedy says that his promise to write the chapter was a “doubtful” one. The manuscript of the novel is in Thackeray’s handwriting; and Thackeray’s daughter and editor, Lady Ritchie, scouts the idea that anyone could possibly have written a chapter in one of her father’s books. If Kennedy gave Thackeray anything more than a few descriptive notes or verbal suggestions, it seems probable that some further mention of the matter would appear in Tuckerman’s life of Kennedy or in Thackeray’s letters. Kennedy’s greatest service to Thackeray was taking him to Virginia to show him the charming social life which Kennedy had already so delightfully portrayed in “Swallow Barn.”

In an article contributed to the first volume of the “Bookman,” Mrs. Burton Harrison made an interesting suggestion which Thackeray scholars have not noticed. Until she met William Bradford Reed, of Philadelphia, says Mrs. Harrison, she had felt that Thackeray must somehow have read some of the unpublished letters of her distinguished ancestors, the Fairfaxes and the Carys. “This gentleman, an accomplished historiographer and litterateur . . .” says she, “was thoroughly imbued with the romantic and picturesque aspects of relations [which] some Virginian families long bore to England before and after our Revolutionary War. He mentioned the Fairfaxes as conspicuous examples, and cited the coming of the sixth Lord Fairfax from England, after a disappointment in love, to end his days in the Virginian wilderness, where, after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, he died loyal to the Crown, but still on affectionate terms with his friend, George Washington. He spoke particularly of the return to England in 1775, to take possession of patrimonial acres in Yorkshire, of young George William Fairfax, who married Sally Cary, of Virginia, and had been bred on the plantation upon the Potomac, where George Washington was his comrade in an intimacy not interrupted even by the war itself; and he recalled various bits of Fairfax and Cary family history and of old-time gossip that lend colour to Thackeray’s romance. Of these, with many other details of American life in Colonial and Revolutionary times, Mr. Reed said he had repeatedly talked with Thackeray, as they sat over their wine on occasions during the latter’s visit to the United States when ‘The Virginians’ was conceived.”

Reed was, in fact, admirably qualified to furnish Thackeray the kind of family history to which Mrs. Harrison refers. He had published in 1853 the life of Esther De Berdt, an English girl who had married his grandfather, Joseph Reed, later Washington’s “military secretary” at Cambridge. It is well known that Thackeray found in this interesting little volume at least a suggestion for the Lambert family of “The Virginians.” In “Haud Immemor,” his tribute to Thackeray’s memory, Reed says: “I have reason to think that some of the details in the story [“The Virginians”] were due as well to Mr. Prescott’s ‘Crossed Swords’ as to conversations with me at a time when my mind was full of historical associations and suggestions.”

As Mrs. Harrison suggests, there are in the history of certain old Virginian families stories which resemble the visits of the two Warrington brothers to England. More than one Virginian, in fact, went to England to receive an English title. George William Fairfax, to whom Mrs. Harrison refers, lost in litigation his property in both England and America and died without securing his title. His half-brother, Bryan Fairfax, whose sister married Laurence Washington, the first proprietor of Mount Vernon, went to England in 1798 to receive the title of Lord Fairfax. His right to the title was confirmed; but as he refused to become a British subject, he never actually received the title. Another Virginian, James Wormeley, is said to have traded his property in the Shenandoah Valley to Ferdinando, brother of Lord Fairfax, for the reversion of an estate in Yorkshire. On arriving in England, Wormeley found the estate entailed upon an English heir. According to another version of the story, given to me by a relative of the Virginian Wormeleys, James Wormeley probably lost his estate in the same way that Harry Warrington lost his patrimony—at the card table.

There are passages in “The Virginians” which seem like echoes of such family history as Reed and others gave Thackeray. Something perhaps of Madam Esmond’s scorn for Washington as a “provincial surveyor” is to be traced to the tradition that when Washington requested permission to pay his addresses to Sally Cary, the incensed father replied: “If that is your mission here, sir, you may as well order your horse. My daughter has been accustomed to her coach and six.” The woodcock pie which Madam Esmond served to General Braddock recalls a humorous letter from Washington to Sally Cary, now Mrs. Fairfax, in which he tells her that General Braddock’s fondness for potted woodcocks explains why the General likes Mrs. Wardrope better than Mrs. Fairfax.

While collecting his material for “The Virginians,” Thackeray appears to have read a considerable number of books dealing with the Revolution. The catalogue of his library, sold in 1864 by Christie, Manson, and Woods, lists a number of significant titles, such as Beverley’s “History of Virginia,” Chastellux’s “Travels,” and the “Virginia Historical Register” for the years 1848 and 1851. Of the three books that Kennedy lent him, two could have supplied him with nothing but details of military operations. Graydon’s “Memoirs of His Own Times,” however, seems clearly the source from which Thackeray got the story of Lady Maria’s marriage to the Irish actor, Hagan. Lewis Melville, who refers to the story of Lady Strangeways as Thackeray’s original, seems not to know where Thackeray found it.

Thackeray’s portrait of Washington in “The Virginians” was the first attempt to paint what Paul Leicester Ford has called the true George Washington; but it was too unconventional to please Thackeray’s American contemporaries, and it is too conventional to please the modern historian. Thackeray seems to have tried to pierce through the myth to the real Washington, but the tradition was too strong for him. He asked Kennedy about Washington; and when the latter gave him the usual account, Thackeray interrupted him somewhat testily, saying: “No, no, Kennedy, that’s not what I want. Tell me, was he a fussy old gentleman in a wig? Did he take snuff and spill it down his shirt front?” Thackeray apparently decided that the traditional view of Washington was largely correct. While looking at one of Stuart’s portraits of Washington, he remarked, “Does he not look as if he had just said a good, stupid thing?” To make this priggish hero interesting, Thackeray put him in the unusual situation where, according to the standards of the time, he would be forced to fight a duel to maintain his honor as a Virginian gentleman. If Thackeray ever realized the character of Washington to his own satisfaction, he apparently never came to love him. “Hang him!” he makes George Warrington say. “He has no faults, and that’s why I dislike him.”

Thackeray was the first writer to picture Washington as the product of his Virginian environment. His Washington is a genuine Virginian in his stately dignity and his elaborate courtesy, and in his love of horses and hunting. Although he is too simple, too grave, too old a young man, yet his manners are those of other Virginian gentlemen. Though Thackeray’s portrait was, on the whole, hardly a success, there was enough of the human in it to call forth such a contemporary protest—really high praise—as the following from Longfellow’s friend and colleague, C. C. Felton, who wrote in the “North American Review:” “We have heard some Americans praise this foolish picture, because, forsooth, it makes Washington like other men. Why, this is the very essence of the falsehood. Washington was not like other men; and to bring his lofty character down to the level of the vulgar passions of common life, is to give the lie to the grandest chapter in the uninspired annals of the human race.”

Thackeray was interested in Virginia not only as the home of Washington but also as a part of the eighteenth century England which he knew and loved. His intimate knowledge of the eighteenth century was the basis not only of his love for Virginia but also of his conception of Virginia life. The aristocratic Virginia planter and the English country squire were to him both types of the “fine gentleman.” Indeed, Madam Esmond’s memorable portrait of her father in the preface to “Henry Esmond” might pass with little alteration as a portrait of the old Virginia gentleman.

At the same time Thackeray was aware of many differences between Virginia and England. In fact, he continually uses Virginia life as a foil to the corrupt fife of the English Esmonds. There is less of this in the second volume, for George Warrington is from the outset more English and less Virginian than Harry. Even George, however, cannot be made to understand why his own kinsmen, after cheating Harry out of his last penny, allow him to lie in jail. “Our Virginia was dull,” he writes to Harry; “but let us thank Heaven we were bred there. We were made little slaves [to their mother], but not slaves to wickedness, gambling, bad male and female company. It was not till my poor Harry left home that he fell among thieves.”

The first volume, of which Harry is the hero, is the story of the reaction to English society life of a young Virginian, who is naturally shrewd but totally unsophisticated. Harry is not the conventional aristocrat of most Virginia novels, but only an unsuspecting boy, fond of sport and eager for adventure. At the very outset he finds his English kinsmen inhospitable. As Thackeray says, “Had any of them ridden up to his house in Virginia, whether the master were present or absent, the guests would have been made welcome, and, in sight of his ancestors’ hall, he had to go and ask for a dish of bacon and eggs at a country ale-house!” So unsophisticated is Harry that “old Maria” has no difficulty in making him her slave. Even after he has discovered that he does not love her, Harry swears, like a true Virginian, to keep his promise and marry her. He blushes like a girl at the indecent talk of his English associates. “Even Aunt Bernstein’s conversation and jokes astounded the young Virginian, so that the worldly old woman would call him Joseph, or simpleton.” He has “no victories over the sex to boast of,” and he is horrified when he finds that Cattarina is regarded as his conquest. Until the very last Harry cannot believe that his kinsman, Lord Castlewood, means to cheat him out of his last penny. Only the bailiff and the jailer can bring him to his senses and make him see how inferior the English upper class is to the simple people of his native colony.

The picture of life in Virginia which Thackeray draws is surprisingly accurate. A few blunders were to be expected. He marries Washington to Martha Curtis instead of Martha Custis. He makes Braddock ride in a single day the impossible distance from Williamsburg to Castlewood on the Potomac. He introduces “Parson Broadbent of Jamestown” nearly a century after that historic village had ceased to exist. Thackeray’s conception of Virginia life, however, is more accurate than that of the Virginia novelists who have described the Revolution. He was too shrewd a realist to fall under the spell of the romantic Virginian tradition, already fully developed. He saw clearly—what many even yet fail to see—that the greatest charm of Virginia life was its homespun simplicity. “The Virginian Squire,” says Thackeray, “had often a bare-footed valet, and a cobbled saddle; but there was plenty of corn for the horse, and abundance of drink for the master within the tumble-down fences, and behind the cracked windows of the hall.” This is not the Virginia of romantic tradition; it is the Virginia which Thackeray had seen for himself.

The most serious criticism to be made of Thackeray’s picture of Virginia is that he has merely described it and then used it as a foil to English life; he has not presented it fully enough. Outside of Washington and the Esmond-War-ringtons, there are no important Virginian characters in the novel. And yet, it seems clear, Thackeray took far more pains to make his picture of Virginia life accurate and vivid than anybody has supposed.


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