Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 10, 1858 --- A Garrick Squabble

To adjudicate one of the more memorable literary contretemps of the period, the Garrick Club - home to London's arts community - conducts a General Meeting. At issue is a recent rather cruel profile of Mr. Thackeray (left) published in Town Talk, a little-read weekly. The author of Vanity Fair was described as a "cold and uninviting" man now "deservedly ashamed" of much of his work. Worse, Thackeray was accused of hypocrisy, "No one succeeds better than Mr. Thackeray in cutting his coat according to his cloth." The profile concluded, "Our own opinion is that his success is on the wane."

The piece was written by Edmund Yates, a young friend of Mr Dickens. Thackeray's anger was directed at the latter.  Yates was inconsequential; Thackeray told a friend, "I am hitting the man behind him." Although publicly cordial, Thackeray was jealous of Dickens. He felt his work was superior but found less success with the public. He no doubt feared that his talent was on the wane; he'd had no success to match Vanity Fair, published in a decade earlier.

When Yates refused to apologise, Thackeray appealed to the Garrick, where both were members, inquiring "Whether the practice of publishing such articles ... is not intolerable in a society of gentlemen." The directors of the Club ordered Yates to apologise or resign. Under the by-laws, Yates could and did seek a General Meeting. Neither principle attends. During the debate, Dickens who called the whole thing a "frightful mess, muddle, complication and botheration" - speaks highly of Thackeray but stands by Yates. In the end, Yates loses by a 70-46 vote. Yates must go.

After an embarrassing scene when Yates tried to force his way into the club, the matter died away but it closed the long friendship between England's two leading authors. They did not speak for three years. Finally, meeting one day at the Athenaeum, Thackeray approached Dickens, declaring, "It is time this foolish estrangement should cease." They shook hands and chatted amiably for several minutes. A few days later, Thackeray dropped dead.

1 comment:

  1. Edmund Yates! Don't forget the rather coincidental timing - Dickens had just left his wife and causing a stir may have taken the attention off the master from Yates's point of view. There is no way - despite his protestations - that he ran this piece off without putting much thought into it. He may have done it with others but he was an intelligent man - he wouldn't have written such a poisonous piece about Thackeray without weighing up the cost first. Though I think he assumed his place at the Garrick was safe because of his parental history.

    There you go, you got me rambling on my favourite subject!