Clubland battle of the bookmen

When a gossip columnist criticised Thackeray, Dickens weighed in to savage his rival

Celebrity is a two-edged sword. The enticement of fame and fortune can soon fade under the exposure of public scrutiny.

It has been ever thus since the advent of mechanised printing and the nationwide distribution of news across the rail network. Before the mid-19th century, those who enjoyed celebrity status such as actors, authors and artists were judged purely on the work they chose to put before their admirers. The advent of the mass media changed everything.

Among those who were set on holding back the tide of popular journalism was William Makepeace Thackeray. The author of Vanity Fair was at the height of his powers when he came up against what he regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on his privacy.

The perpetrator was Edmund Yates, a rising star of the gossip columns that were proving to be the biggest draw for readers of society journals. Images of the young Yates are at odds with the typical Victorian portrayal of a literary gent. Not for him the sombre look of a man of letters. Instead the wicked smile, the twinkle in the eye suggests a loveable rogue which is precisely what he set out to be. Yates loved an argument and revelled in controversy.

In 1856, he was in serious trouble when he quoted a “usually accurate source” claiming that William Palmer, doctor, gambler and convicted murderer, had bought stable secrets from employees of Lord Derby, the doyen of the racing fraternity. Only a grovelling apology saved Yates from a spell in prison. Thereafter, he was marked as a chancer, one who broke the boundaries of Victorian propriety.

His chief sources of gossip were the dining clubs and drinking dens frequented by the bookish fraternity. He and his fellow journalists had only to stand and listen for juicy titbits of copy to flow their way. Indeed, Yates’s regular column in the Illustrated Times was called “Lounger in the Clubs”.

His encounter with Thackeray took place at the Garrick Club, then housed in a converted hotel in King Street, Covent Garden but already a prestigious club for literary and theatre people. Thackeray was one of the leading members. So too was Charles Dickens.

Inclined to take himself rather too seriously, Thackeray was a big man in all senses. By his own estimation a cultural giant used to having the last word, he was also tall, well over six feet, with a broadening waistband to match. Like many larger-than-life personalities, Thackeray was sensitive. While he felt free to say whatever he liked about others, he reacted badly to adverse criticism. He was happiest in a closed circle of best buddies—at the Punch round table, for example, or at the Garrick, “the dearest of places” as he liked to call it. Both were havens in the rough, tough world of publishing. But both were threatened by the likes of Yates.

At a Garrick committee meeting on April 17, 1858 the subject of confidentiality was top of the agenda. While there is no detailed record, we do know that Dickens attended and it is a fair assumption that Thackeray, incensed by recent leakages, had his views represented. In any event, a notice went up warning members that the affairs of the club were not to be shared with the press.

Yates, one of the youngest members, was certainly among those targeted. But the young man on the make was not easily deterred. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that if he did take the notice seriously, it was within narrow limits. He felt no restraint in writing about public figures who happened to be Garrick members though this is precisely what Thackeray had in mind when he talked about the exclusive nature of club conviviality.

Oblivious to the danger signals, Yates launched off on a new venture with a
feature  for Town Talk, the latest periodical to titivate the public appetite. His subject was “the celebrated novelist” William Makepeace Thackeray.

Yates judged Thackeray to be a “cool, suave, well-bred gentleman” whose “biting wit” disguised a vulnerable personality. His manner, said Yates, “was cold and uninviting. Praise was lavished on Vanity Fair, the product of a “great genius”, and The Newcomes, “perhaps the best of all Thackeray’s books”. However, The Virginians “lacks interest and plot and is proportionally unsuccessful”. Fair comment, we might say.

But then the tone sharpened, the result, it has been suggested, of Yates having to deliver late copy in a hurry. Whatever the reason, in so many words Yates accused Thackeray of “cutting his cloak according to his cloth”. By this he meant that while the author was happy to snuggle up to fashionable society at home, he reversed his position when he was out of sight and mind touring America. Unkind perhaps but again not entirely unjustified. Thackeray made much of his living parodying the society of which he longed to be part. The coup de grâce was to conclude that Thackeray’s popularity was on the wane. “There is a want of heart in all he writes,” said Yates, “which is not to be balanced by the most brilliant sarcasm.”

Thackeray’s anger at this put-down was all the greater for knowing that Yates was an adoring fan of his deadly rival Dickens. Just a few days before the Thackeray piece appeared in Town Talk, Yates had enthused over Dickens’s talents as an actor, mimic and public speaker. Though unspoken, the comparison between Dickens and Thackeray was all too apparent. Thackeray was a rotten speaker, liable to freeze at critical moments. He was best in small groups where his wit could flourish.

Ignoring the advice of friends, Thackeray over-reacted to Yates. A stinging rebuke accused his tormentor of basing his article on what he had heard in the Garrick. Yates was told bluntly to “refrain from printing comments upon my private conversations . . . [to] forego discussions, however blundering, upon my private affairs and . . . henceforth to consider every question of my personal truth and sincerity as quite out of the province of your criticism”.

What on earth was Thackeray on about? Yates had made no intrusion on Thackeray’s privacy and there was nothing to suggest that he had betrayed confidences shared in the Garrick. But there was more to it than this: Yates was simply not the sort of person Thackeray wanted to see in his club. Over-familiar, never knowing when he was not wanted, unable to take a hint, Yates, according to Thackeray, was a social climber with no claim to distinction. How dare he criticise his betters! The chance to take him down a peg was too good to miss.

Yates was inclined to respond flippantly, reminding Thackeray of the many occasions he had caused upset with his caricatures. But then he too over-reacted. He sought advice from Charles Dickens.

Dickens was godfather to one of his children. Though not a regular contributor to Dickens’s journal Household Words, Yates was part of the informal collective known as Dickens’s Young Men, where he rubbed shoulders with other combative journalists.

While conceding that the Town Talk piece was in “bad taste”, Dickens could not resist having a dig at Thackeray. He had several reasons to be angry with his fellow writer. He despised pomposity and he believed Thackeray to be exceedingly pompous. Although Thackeray liked to think he was a hero to the rising generation—Pendennis, the story of a young writer making his way in London society, was an inspiration to aspiring authors—he did not seek the company of his juniors, while Dickens was happiest when surrounded by embryonic talent. Moreover, his sympathy was with the underdog.

But his animosity towards Thackeray went much deeper. In the throes of a breakup of his marriage, he blamed Thackeray for siding with his wife, Catherine, mother of his 10 children, and for spreading rumours about his relationship with an 18-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan.

The rumours had a firm foundation. Dickens was behaving disgracefully in his increasingly desperate efforts to extricate himself from a loveless marriage, accusing Catherine of neglecting her maternal duties and suggesting that she was mentally unstable, a candidate for admission to an asylum. The recent discovery of letters in which Catherine gives her side of the story, confirm what has long been suspected­—that Catherine was the victim not the cause of Dickens’s emotional crisis. Moreover, the claim that his relationship with Ellen Ternan was purely platonic beggars belief.

So it was that Dickens, with his judgment impaired by family turmoil, was a poor counsellor to Yates. He urged his young protégé to raise the stakes with a summary rejection of what he called a “curiously bitter outburst of personal feeling”. Thackeray’s complaints were dismissed as “slanderous and untrue”.

What next? From Thackeray’s corner there was one obvious means of retaliation. The dispute was to be referred to the Garrick committee. A special meeting was called for June 26 to “take Mr Thackeray’s complaint into consideration”.

Yates asked for a postponement to give him time to prepare a defence. When this was refused, he wrote again with Dickens leaning over his shoulder, to question the right of the club to intervene in what was essentially a private dispute. But, the committee was on a roll. Yates had to apologise unreservedly to Thackeray. When he refused, a general meeting of the club was called for July 10.


Literary giant who reacted badly to criticism: William Makepeace Thackeray, by Samuel Laurence, c.1864


At this critical point we might pause to ask why, in all conscience, the Garrick establishment was prepared, even eager, to risk adverse publicity and ridicule over such a trivial matter. Fear of the thin end of the wedge comes to mind. We know enough of the double standards in the upper reaches of Victorian society to recognise the terror of exposure threatened by the popular press.

With much to hide, Thackeray was well aware of the risks. In a misspent youth he chose to forget, he had worked his way through an inherited fortune while, along the way, contracting a dose of gonorrhoea. Like Dickens and so many others of their generation, the young Thackeray had been ill-prepared for marriage. He had set out to find an attractive, intelligent lover who would settle for a relationship dictated by his self-centred terms.

It was an impossible dream. The 18-year-old Isabella Shaw was unable to cope with a husband who “gets up early, works all day and . . . then gads of an evening”. After the birth of their third daughter (the middle one died in infancy), Isabella succumbed to what was almost certainly severe post-natal depression, aggravated by some form of autism.

In the days before any sort of mental illness was properly diagnosed, let alone treated, Thackeray resorted to various quack remedies without giving much of himself to solving the problem. In 1840, on a trip to Ireland, Isabella threw herself over the side of the boat. Her rescue, after 20 minutes in the water, led to drastic “cures” with the possibility, seriously considered by Thackeray, of putting his wife into an asylum.

We might wonder at this tendency of frustrated artists to resort to such extreme measures. It tells us something of the Victorian male arrogance that it could be assumed that discord between spouses should be settled by incarceration of the wife, often on the say-so of doctors who made up the rules of diagnosis to suit the paying client.

But Thackeray drew back from having Isabella certified, in part because it was too expensive. Instead, she was packed off to the care of a Mrs Bakewell in Camberwell. This cost Thackeray a modest £2 a week at a time when he earned around £5,000 a year.

With the children sent to live with Thackeray’s doting mother, the now-famous writer was soon able to put Isabella out of his mind. He became, in his words, “a widower with a wife alive”. If this was not enough food for sensationalism, there were rumours of an affair with Charlotte Brönte, who paid tribute to Thackeray in the second edition of Jane Eyre, a novel which featured a heroine who discovers that her prospective husband has a mad wife.

There can be little doubt that Thackeray’s fight with Yates was a blow against all gossips. Yates just happened to be first in the firing line. It is also a reasonable assumption that there were those on the Garrick committee and in the membership at large who, in supporting Thackeray, thought, “There but for the grace of God . . .”

That Dickens was not of that number says much about the contrast between the two star writers. The author of The Pickwick Papers relied on his enormous popularity with his readers and on his reputation as a public performer, to quash rumours. To his surprise, his appeals for sympathy and respect for his privacy were counter-productive. The more he spoke out, the greater the public interest in his affairs and the more widespread the rumours, including that of an improper relationship with his sister-in-law which, if proved, could have landed him in prison for incest. Whatever his own tribulations, Dickens stuck by his view that the Garrick affair was a trivial side issue.

Thackeray chose to be abroad when the Special General Meeting was held on July 10. Close on half the membership attended. Letters were read from Thackeray (sanctimonious in tone) and from Yates who repeated his offer to apologise to the club but not to Thackeray. Dickens, along with his friend Wilkie Collins, spoke up on behalf of Yates. Thackeray’s supporters included Anthony Trollope who described Yates as “a literary gutter scraper”.

The vote went in favour of Thackeray by 70 to 46 with 11 abstentions. Yates had 10 days to reflect. A failure to apologise would lead to expulsion. That is what happened, though not before lawyers were called in on both sides. At this point, Dickens pulled the rug. If the case went to court he would have to appear as a witness. This was the last thing he wanted. If Yates had relied on the backing of his illustrious friend, he was disappointed.

Instead, Dickens wrote Thackeray a pacifying letter which Thackeray promptly shared with the Garrick committee to show that Dickens was at the root of all the trouble. The rift between the two authors was now wider than ever. Dickens resigned from the committee and later from the club.

But Thackeray’s Pyrrhic victory over Yates came back to haunt him for the rest of his short life. With Yates snapping at his heels Thackeray snarled back only to be told by friends that by taking Yates seriously he was making himself look ridiculous. As his daughter recorded, “Everybody has been bullying him over his susceptibility.”

As for Yates, expulsion from the Garrick questioned his right to call himself a gentleman. But he soon bounced back. Like so many of his kind, he thrived on controversy, being welcomed in high society by the very people who complained bitterly at journalistic intrusion on their lives. Even a four-month prison sentence for criminal libel did little to dent his popularity. Appointed European correspondent of the New York Herald at the princely sum of £1,200 a year, he set up his own periodical, The World, which could boast George Bernard Shaw as art and music critic.

It was not until 1863, five years after the Garrick Affair, that Thackeray and Dickens managed to shake hands, some say on the steps of the Athenaeum, others that the encounter was at Drury Lane Theatre. In any event, neither said more than a few curt words. There was no further opportunity to achieve a reconciliation. Overweight and short of breath, a prodigious eater and drinker, Thackeray died on Christmas Eve 1863, aged 52, of a burst blood vessel in his brain.

What then are we to make of the Garrick Affair? With hindsight, it seems like a lot of fuss over very little, though literary critics and biographers disagree. One Thackeray admirer calls the Town Talk article a “vicious attack”, which suggests she has never read it. Another biographer describes Isabella as “hopelessly insane”. Really? Yates is too easily dismissed as a mediocre talent.

However, the fear of private conversations entering the public domain was real enough. As the editor of the Literary Gazette commented, “As political gossip oozes out of the Carlton and Reform, so theatrical gossip oozes out of the Garrick.” Literary gossip too, he might have added.

Dickens and Thackeray were among the first to face up to the contradictions inherent in modern celebrity. They enjoyed their fame while resisting journalistic probing into matters they considered to be off the record. But it was the inside story that appealed to readers of the public prints. For journalists who endeavoured to satisfy the popular taste, gossip was golden. Those who had something to hide were bound to be vulnerable. Thackeray and Dickens were assuredly of that number.

The lesson, as true now as it was then, is for those who are offended by press attention to think carefully before reacting. To protest too much is to invite further speculation. A story greeted in silence will soon die of inertia. The public memory is remarkably short.

Men of Letters: The Story of Garrick Writers” by Barry Turner is available from the Garrick Club, £25. To purchase a copy, please contact the Secretary, Garrick Club, 15 Garrick Street, London WC2E 9AY;

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