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!

I Finish “Vanity Fair” & Dobbin Writes His Name in a Dictionary

Dobbin reading in “Vanity Fair”

The other day I raised the question of whether we should write our name in books.  While I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an  urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  I did write my name in my Latin dictionary.

I was finding VF a bit of a slog until I wrote my name.  Is it magic?  Then I began to enjoy it.

Thackeray spins a rip-roaring story of love and war.  His whimsical style can be a little coy,  but the characterization is peerlessly vivid.   I relished the wit of Becky Sharp, an artist’s daughter and con artist who rises from governess to a belle of high society.  Becky seems extraordinarily modern.  Today, with her business sense, she would control Wall Street.   She has a knack for twisted economics, as she schemes to cheat creditors and friends.   She might have survived the financial crash of 2008. There is even a bit of #metoo exploitation about Becky:  she spins convincing tales about being victimized by men she victimizes. (Yes, they say you must believe what people tweet, but you can’t believe Becky!)  My favorite character is her husband, Rawdon Crawley, a gambler and a libertine who eventually reforms for the sake of their son.

Sometimes Thackeray’s satire is a little too 18th-century.  (N.B.  He is a Victorian writer.)   And I tired of his authorial asides as he skewers the Vanity Fair of life.  Still, he satirizes all the characters.  Even the morally upright William Dobbin, a Major in the Army,  goes too far in his idealization of sappy Amelia, the widow of his best friend, George Osborne.  And Amelia foolishly idealizes George, who, unbeknownst to her, did not just flirt with Becky but wanted to run away with her.

And then in the last chapter, after Dobbin quarrels with Amelia, we learn the most important fact.  Dobbin writes his name in books!

Some books still subsisted, after Dobbin’s departure, with his name written in them:  a German dictionary, for instance, with ‘William Dobbin, – th Reg.’, in the flyleaf; a guide-book with his initials, and one or two other volumes which belonged to the Major.

I mentioned that I’d written my name in a Latin dictionary.  Dobbin writes his name in a dictionary too–my doppelgänger!

Mellie (Olivia de Haviland) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) in “Gone with the Wind”

By the way,  I recommend VF to fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell obviously lifted signficant bits from Thackeray:  Scarlett O’Hara has a lot of Becky in her, and Amelia is Mellie.

Do You Write Your Name in Books? On Rereading Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

The other day, while I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an irresistible urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  At 12, I scribbled my name in Jane Eyre.  I also wrote it in  my Latin dictionary.

Then I broke the habit. Some years ago, I was irritated when a librarian wrote my name in a  novel I’d lent her.  It seemed impudent, because it wasn’t her book.

Perhaps I wrote my name in Vanity Fair because I was enjoying it less than I hoped. When I first read it at 17, I  found Becky Sharp hilarious and Dobbins charming, but I was disappointed in the book.   I was a Victorian novel nut, but I  preferred Dickens’s  pyrotechnics and Trollope’s plain style to Thackeray’s pointed wit and stylistic bibelots.  In  the introduction to the Penguin, John Carey compares Vanity Fair to War and Peace.  I do not see the similarities.

I enjoyed Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and The Newcomes.  So why  does the clever, nimble prose of Vanity Fair not delight me?

I wrote my name in the book, so now I have to like it.

Do you write your name in books?