The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 3. Michael Angelo Titmarsh; Barry Lyndon
The pseudonym of Michael Angelo Titmarsh, which was assumed by the author of The Great Hoggarty Diamond, and had been first used in 1840 for The Paris Sketch Book, also appeared, in 1841, on the title-page of Comic Tales and Sketches as the name of the editor of The Yellowplush Correspondence, Major Gahagan and other previously published stories. In Fraser of June, 1842, Thackeray took the name George Savage Fitz-Boodle. For the Confessions of this middle-aged clubman, a younger son without a fixed profession, he drew freely upon his German experiences, and autobiography may have been mingled with farce in these records of misdirected affection. The impressionable Fitz-Boodle supplemented his reminiscences of German damsels in Men’s Wives, a series of which the longest and most important member was The Ravenswing. Unequal and hastily written as is this story, and although its most laughable incident, the evening ride of Mr. Eglantine beside the carriage which took Mrs. and Miss Crump and Mr. Woolsey home from Richmond, is, confessedly, not wholly original, it contains one of Thackeray’s most diverting adventurers, captain Howard (or Hooker) Walker, the promoter of the scheme for draining the Pontine marshes, while the portrait of the British composer Sir George Thrum anticipates the best chapters of The Book of Snobs. In January, 1844, Fitz-Boodle, playing the part of editor, began to supply Fraser with the remarkable autobiography called The Luck of Barry Lyndon, Thackeray’s most substantial work of fiction before Vanity Fair. An Irish adventurer, Redmond Barry, fallen upon evil days, tells the story of his life, his calf-love for his cousin Nora, his flight from home after a duel in which he is deluded into believing that he has killed his man, his career as a soldier of fortune, his meeting with his uncle the chevalier de Balibari, his desertion from the Prussian army, his wanderings as a gamester, his flirtation and marriage with the wealthy lady Lyndon, his miserable married life and his final defeat at the hands of the woman whom he has beguiled and ill-treated. Apology forms no part of this record: like Stubbs in The Fatal Boots, Barry is satisfied with himself and disgusted with a world in which he has been the sport of chance. Nor does he leave us altogether disgusted with him: if he is impudent, he is, at any rate, no coward, and he and his uncle the chevalier are the most companionable people in a society whose prevailing passion is cold selfishness. They are genuinely attached to each other: the old rascal is proud of the young one, and, while Barry himself richly deserved his fate, it is a relief to know that the chevalier, at last, was able to devote himself to the practice of piety in the Minorite convent at Brussels. It is only towards the close of the book and after the death of his spoiled child, which provokes a sincere outburst of grief, that Barry altogether forfeits our sympathy. While he quite convinces us that “if any woman deserved a strait-waistcoat, it was my Lady Lyndon,” his frank disclosure of his brutality to that vain and selfish woman and her son leaves him without excuse. If, in Catherine, Thackeray felt his subject too disagreeable for consistent irony, he felt that Barry Lyndon was too entertaining a scoundrel to be made wholly destestable. The revelations of his conduct as a husband, possibly intended as an antidote to the easy-going narrative of his earlier career, occur at a point where the story has already reached its height. The tragedy of the ducal court of X—— displays Thackeray’s powers of telling a story with a historical complexion at their best; and, after this digression is passed, the tale of Barry’s misdeeds is resumed with less energy and more prolixity.