As Jacqueline Banerjee has pointed out in her introduction to Charterhouse School and its architecture, Thackeray, who attended the school from 1822 to 1828, "gradually softened in his stance towards the place and left a sentimental account of it as Grey Friars in The Newcomes." The sentimentality she mentions appears in the novel when the narrator describes one of the characters "thinking about his youth — the golden time — the happy, the bright, the unforgotten." Like many Victorian autobiographers, Thackeray looks back on childhood as a time simultaneously wonderful and dreadful, full of pain and joy alike. Some of the supposed delights of Grey Friars that make Thomas Newcome "not care to go home for a holiday" make it seem, at least to this modern reader who attended a boarding school, as much like Golding's Lord of the Flies as Jefferies' Bevis, a later Victorian novel about an ideal boyhood. When Thomas Newcome leaves home for Grey Friars, he exchanges with "delight," we are told,
the splendour of Clapham for the rough, plentiful fare of the place, blacking his master's shoes with perfect readiness, till he rose in the school, and the time came when he should have a fag of his own: tibbing out and receiving the penalty therefore: bartering a black eye, per bearer, against a bloody nose drawn at sight, with a schoolfellow, and shaking hands the next day; playing at cricket, hockey, prisoners' base, and football, according to the season; and gorging himself and friends with tarts when he had money (and of this he had plenty) to spend. I have seen his name carved upon the Gown Boys' arch: but he was at school long before my time; his son showed me the name when we were boys together, in some year when George the Fourth was king.
Reading this passage, one realizes the oddness of the novel's temporal setting, for the narrator presents the many specific details of the experience of someone who "was at school long before my time." The voice of Thackeray himself, rather than that of his narrator, seems to come through, and that voice seems a little forced.
Later, in Chapter 75, the narrator explains that the school is "an ancient foundation of the time of James I., still subsisting in the heart of London city" — that is, before the real school's move to Surrey. In an elaborate set piece, Thackeray describes Founder's Day as a beautiful coming together of youth and age, an occasion for alumni to return in memory to a supposedly wonderful period of their lives. (The Cistercians in the following passage are not the thousand-year-old order of Catholic monks, who wear a black and white habit, but alumni of the fictional Grey Friars; Charterhouse, the model for Grey Friars, had an historical connection to the Carthusians, a different religious order.)
The death-day of the founder of the place is still kept solemnly by Cistercians. In their chapel, where assemble the boys of the school, and the fourscore old men of the Hospital, the founder's tomb stands, a huge edifice: emblazoned with heraldic decorations and clumsy carved allegories. There is an old Hall, a beautiful specimen of the architecture of James's time; an old Hall? many old halls; old staircases, passages, old chambers decorated with old portraits, walking in the midst of which we walk as it were in the early seventeenth century. To others than Cistercians, Grey Friars is a dreary place possibly. Nevertheless, the pupils educated there love to revisit it; and the oldest of us grow young again for an hour or two as we come back into those scenes of childhood.
The custom of the school is, that on the 12th of December, the Founder's Day, the head gown-boy shall recite a Latin oration, in praise of Fundatoris Nostri, and upon other subjects; and a goodly company of old Cistercians is generally brought together to attend this oration: after which we go to chapel and hear a sermon; after which we adjourn to a great dinner, where old condisciples meet, old toasts are given, and speeches are made. Before marching from the oration-hall to chapel, the stewards of the day's dinner, according to old-fashioned rite, have wands put into their hands, walk to church at the head of the procession, and sit there in places of honour. The boys are already in their seats, with smug fresh faces, and shining white collars; the old black-gowned pensioners are on their benches; the chapel is lighted, and Founder's Tomb, with its grotesque carvings, monsters, heraldries, darkles and shines with the most wonderful shadows and lights. There he lies, Fundator Noster, in his ruff and gown, awaiting the great Examination Day [i.e. the Day of Judgment]. We oldsters, be we ever so old, become boys again as we look at that familiar old tomb, and think how the seats are altered since we were here, and how the doctor — not the present doctor, the doctor of our time — used to sit yonder, and his awful eye used to frighten us shuddering boys, on whom it lighted; and how the boy next us would kick our shins during service time, and how the monitor would cane us afterwards because our shins were kicked. Yonder sit forty cherry-cheeked boys, thinking about home and holidays to-morrow. Yonder sit some threescore old gentlemen pensioners of the hospital, listening to the prayers and the psalms. You hear them coughing feebly in the twilight, — the old reverend blackgowns. . . . A plenty of candles lights up this chapel, and this scene of age and youth, and early memories, and pompous death. How solemn the well-remembered prayers are, here uttered again in the place wherein childhood we used to hear them! How beautiful and decorous the rite; how noble the ancient words of the supplications which the priest utters, and to which generations of fresh children and troops of bygone seniors have cried Amen! under those arches!
What is the effect of Thackeray's use of first- and second-person pronouns in the previous passage?
How does the passage's emphasis on the narrator's personal experience of returning to an earlier period in his own life resemble — or not resemble — the novelist's use of the historical novel form?
How does Thackeray's sentimental tone here similarly resemble or not resemble his often satiric approach to his characters.
Thackeray, W. M. The Newcomes (e-text at Project Gutenberg).
Last modified 21 June 2006