[The following has been taken, with permission of its author, from the Victoria discussion list.]

A Response to Ellen Moody: Your observations about biography show, as you note, that the "art" of biography is an individual one and that the biographer "creates" the biographee in serious ways. Consequently, I'd be surprised, in answer to your question, if consensus amongst biographers or biography readers were ever reached. Furthermore, the question of whether a biographer has any responsibility to respect the "truth as the subject saw it" raises serious problems. How can anyone know how the subject saw it? We might know how the subject said he saw it, or how he (or she) wanted it to be thought that he/she saw it, or how the subject seems to wish to be seen. I think when biographees are caught in unguarded moments we might think we see them as they saw themselves, but I don't think any of these necessary removes from the truth are likely to lead modern viewers to a consensus.

Views of Thackeray tend to be divided, as I tried to suggest in the introduction to the Norton Critical Edition of Vanity Fair, between those who see him as refusing to accept any simple or essentialist views of the world and human behavior because he distrusted the capacity for evil and error done by the good, and those who see him as failing to have a clear moral vision because of some moral or intellectual weakness. These views are incompatible and will lead to disagreements about how he viewed or treated his wife. Readers of the letters from the time Isabella's affliction first revealed itself to the time Thackeray ceased to visit her in the home where he paid for her care will see a range of attitudes revealed, beginning with fear and remorse mingled with hope and ending in a kind of despair — always in those years mingled with a great deal of financial anxiety. How this evidence is understood will probably depend a great deal on how one has constructed Thackeray — as cynic, sentimentalist, opportunist, waffler, domestic philosopher, free thinker, or what have you. It is hard, however, to erase from one's consciousness the vision of Thackeray and Isabella in Ireland next door to his hated mother-in- law, spending nights tied together in case Isabella should awaken and wander off by herself, or the bitter-humor of the water treatments in Germany with Thackeray in a petticoat undergoing the treatments with Isabella in his arms.

As for Gordon Ray's biography, it is hard to imagine it being replaced, though there have been at least four biographies written since: Margaret Forster's novelized autobiography of Thackeray, Catherine Peters's Thackeray's Universe, Ann Monsarrat's An Uneasy Victorian, and Ina Ferris's Twayne series critical biography. Each is shorter, less detailed, less comprehensive than Gordon Ray's and each constructs Thackeray differently and yet sympathetically. There are significant ways in which recent scholarship has differed from Ray's views: Ray considered Thackeray very much a man of his time with solid male Victorian views of women and preferences for good weak dependent women of the Amelia Sedley type. He does not construct Thackeray as a free thinker or rejector of dogmas or essentialist views. He accepts Thackeray's own valuation of the late fiction as demonstrating (with the exception of Denis Duval) a diminution of imaginative powers. Recent scholarship has granted Thackeray a more detached view of Amelia, a more existentialist view of the world, and has viewed the late fiction as philosophical inquiry into the imaginative nature of narrative histories — the constructedness and thus unreality of reality — that is/was incompatible with popular fiction, which is the genre to which he was "condemned."

I don't see how these new constructions can be said to be any nearer the "truth" than Ray's or that they will last unchallenged any longer than his view of Thackeray. What we might say is that they are currently more interesting.


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Last modified 28 June 2000