A Psychedelic Experience: Thucydides & Thackeray

Barry Lyndon (A Stanley Kubrick Film)

It was a psychedelic experience to read Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War and Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon the same week. The pairing is not what I call ideal, but at least the drunken revels of Barry Lyndon temper the graves and gore of Thucydides.

“Twenty-seven years!” I jotted at the bottom of a page of Thucydides. Yes, the war between Athens and Sparta lasted twenty-seven years (431- 404 B.C), and a careful reading might take even longer. Maps have been involved: “Athenian Naval Raids,” “Origins of the Plague; Athenian Raids in the Peloponnesus.” I imagine myself still dragging this book around in my dotage (in 27 years). I am fascinated, however, by Thucydides’ description of the Plague, which he caught and survived. Many were less lucky. “On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect: indeed, many houses were emptied of inmates for the want of of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence.”

I was very happy to turn from Thucydides to Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (or The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.). But, Dear Reader, It is nothing like Vanity Fair, his comic masterpiece. Barry Lyndon is mildly funny, somewhat bawdy, and a relatively fast read at 311 pages in the Oxford edition (349 counting endnotes). It grew on me, after a slow start.

Written in the form of a witty autobiography, boastful Barry Lyndon, who is born Redmond Barry, relates his swashbuckling adventures from Irish boyhood to impecunious old age. Set in the eighteenth century, this picaresque novel is reminiscent of Fielding’s Tom Jones: the sensibility is eighteenth-century, not Victorian. Barry is most sympathetic as an idealistic youth in love with his flirtatious older cousin. When he learns she plans to marry an English soldier, he challenges him to a duel and goes on the run after killing him. (So he thinks: the cousins substituted fake bullets so he wouldn’t interfere with the wedding) .

And then things go wrong. It is one mishap after another. In Dublin, he falls in with a bad crowd, who swindle him until he has run up many bad debts he doesn’t understand he has to pay. From there, he escapes into the British army to fight in the Seven Years’ War, which he confesses he doesn’t understand. (Thank God! I’d already done Thucydides 27-year-war!). He deserts, befriends one of the enemy, becomes a spy, and then a successful gambler, who learns about cards from a renegade uncle. Traveling around Europe together, they are popular at many courts.

Amusing as Barry is, we are aware that he tweaks the truth, and if we don’t suspect, we are interrupted by footnotes to that effect by the (fictional) commentator G. S. Fitz-Boodle. But am I interested in Barry’s exaggerated accounts of sword-fighting and gambling? No, not particularly. What I like is the voice of the narrator. And then since I always like love scenes, even when they go badly, I was thrilled by his courtship of the rich and beautiful Lady Lyndon – while her husband is still alive! When she is a widow, he bullies her favorite suitor so he daren’t go near her and tricks her into agreeing to marriage. And from this point, things go downhill for Barry -who now calls himself Barry Lyndon.

I do find Lady Lyndon a sympathetic character, even though she is pretentious and haughty. But Barry simply beats her down pyschologically. Thackeray’s wife apparently went mad after five years of marriage, so I wonder if he gave Lady Lyndon some of her characteristics . It is truly horrible to see Barry change from a sunny young man into a callous, brutal middle-aged man, and Lady Lyndon into a wreck.

A perfect book! I realized only at the end that this will become one of my rereads.

Any thoughts on Thackeray or Thucydides?

Happy Weekend!