The Victorian novelist Thackeray stayed with his mother and step-father in Tunbridge Wells in the summer of 1823, when he read many Gothic novels. He loved drawing, and used to cover the margins of his schoolbooks with caricatures from The Italian, The Castle of Otranto and other novels. His childhood is described in the autobiographical excerpt from his novel The Newcomes and in his recollections published in the Cornhill magazine during 18602.

(Copyright © 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton

The Newcomes

There is a kind lady in the neighbourhood, who . . . has a stock of novels for the ladies of the upper servants’ table. Next to Miss Cann, Miss Flinders is John James’s greatest friend and benefactor. She has remarked him when he was quite a little man, and used to bring his father’s beer of a Sunday. Out of her novels he has taught himself to read, dull boy at the day-school though he was, and always the last in his class there. Hours, happy hours, has he spent cowering behind her counter, or hugging her books under his pinafore when he had leave to carry them home. The whole library has passed through his hands, his long, lean, tremulous hands, and under his eager eyes. He has made illustrations to every one of those books, and been frightened at his own pictures of Manfroni or the One-handed Monk, Abellino the Terrific Bravo of Venice, and Rinaldo Rinaldino Captain of Robbers. How he has blistered Thaddeus of Warsaw with his tears, and drawn him in his Polish cap, and tights, and Hessians.

[SOURCE: William Makepeace Thackeray, The Newcomes. Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, 2 vols (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1854), vol. 1, p. 117]

A Shabby Genteel Story

I think it may be laid down as a pretty general rule, that most romantic little girls of Caroline’s age have such a budding sentiment as this young person entertained; quite innocent, of course; nourished and talked of in delicious secrecy to the confidante of the hour. Or else what are novels made for? Had Caroline read of Valancourt and Emily for nothing, or gathered no good example from those five tear-fraught volumes which describe the loves of Miss Helen Mar and Sir William Wallace? Many a time had she depicted Brandon in a fancy costume such as the fascinating Valancourt wore; or painted herself as Helen, tying a sash round her knight’s cuirass, and watching him forth to battle. Silly fancies, no doubt; but consider, madam, the poor girl’s age and education; the only instruction she had ever received was from these tender, kind-hearted, silly books: the only happiness which Fate had allowed her was in this little silent world of fancy.

[SOURCE: William Makepeace Thackeray, A Shabby Genteel Story (1840) (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1971; facsimile of the 1879 edition), p. 49]

Roundabout Papers

Yonder comes a footman with a bundle of novels from the library. Are they as good as our novels? Oh! how delightful they were! Shades of Valancour[t], awful ghost of Manfroni, how I shudder at your appearance! Sweet image of [Jane Porter’s] Thaddeus of Warsaw, how often has this almost infantile hand tried to depict you in a Polish cap and richly embroidered tights! . . . Who knows? They may have kept those very books at the library still – at the well-remembered library on the Pantiles, where they sell that delightful, useful Tunbridge ware. I shall go and see. . . . As for the library, its window is full of pictures of burly theologians, and their works, sermons, apologues, and so forth. Can I go in and ask the young ladies at the counter for [Mary Anne Radcliffe’s] Manfroni, or the One-Handed Monk, and [Pierce Egan’s] Life in London, or the Adventures of Corinithian Tom, Jeremiah Hawthorn, Esq., and their friend Bob Logic? – absurd. I turn away abashed from the casement – from the Pantiles – no longer Pantiles, but Parade. . . . [My eyes] are looking backwards, back into forty years off, into a dark room, into a little house hard by on the Common here, in the Bartlemy-tide holidays. The parents have gone to town for two days: the house is all his own, his own and a grim old maid-servant’s, and a little boy is seated at night in the lonely drawing-room, poring over Manfroni, or the One-Handed Monk, so frightened that he scarcely dares to turn round. . . .
          For our amusements, besides the games in vogue, which were pretty much in old times as they are now (except cricket, par exemple [sic] – and I wish the present youth joy of their bowling, and suppose Armstrong and Whitworth will bowl at them with light field-pieces next), there were novels – ah! I trouble you to find such novels in the present day! O Scottish Chiefs, didn’t we weep over you! O Mysteries of Udolpho, didn’t I and Briggs minor draw pictures out of you, as I have said? This was the sort of thing; this was the fashion in our day: – Efforts, feeble indeed, but still giving pleasure to us and our friends. ‘I say, old boy, draw us Vivaldi tortured in the Inquisition,’ or, ‘Draw us Don Quixote and the windmills, you know,’ amateurs would say, to boys who had a love of drawing. . . .
          ‘Valancourt, and who was he?’ cry the young people. Valancourt, my dears was the hero of one of the most famous romances which ever was published in this country. The beauty and elegance of Valancourt made your young grandmammas’ gentle hearts to beat with respectful sympathy. He and his glory have passed away. Ah, woe is me that the glory of novels should ever decay; that dust should gather round them on the shelves; that the annual cheques from Messieurs the publishers should dwindle, dwindle! Inquire at Mudie’s, or the London Library, who asks for the Mysteries of Udolpho now? Have not even the Mysteries of Paris ceased to frighten? Alas, our novels are but for a season; and I know characters whom a painful modesty forbids me to mention, who shall go to limbo along with Valancourt and Doricourt, and Thaddeus of Warsaw.

[William Makepeace Thackeray, Roundabout Papers, ed. John Edwin Wells (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925), pp. 69–70, 80I–1, 255]

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