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LONDON AS A SYSTEM OF SIGNS IN THACKERAY'S THE NEWCOMES' R.D. McMaster University ofAlberta The Newcomes is among the most richly allusive novels in English. One of its many allusive strains is urban; indeed, in The Newcomes Thackeray shows himself to be worthy of comparison with Dickens, Balzac, and Zola in the evocation of a great city's complex cultural life. As with everything else in his fiction, Thackeray's evocation of London oscillates between romance and reality, eternal recurrence and present singularity. Though a recognizable historical place, his London is also an elaborate construction of social imagination. At the beginning of The Newcomes, Thackeray presents a "farago of old fables" to underscore his proposition that "all types of all characters march through all fables" including novels, that the thing that has been is that which shall be, and that there is nothing new under the sun. On this level of narration, he resorts to the Hogarthian moral progress, identifying Thomas Newcome, the founder of the family fortunes, both with Hogarth's virtuous apprentice (see the headletter for Chapter 2) and with Dick Whittington: like Whittington and many other London apprentices, he began poor; and ended by marrying his master's daughter, and becoming sheriff and alderman of the City of London" (18). The city as a cluster of intertexts is realized further in the images of paradise with which the novel begins, first among the young rakes of the Cave of Harmony, and second in the description of the religious gravity of the Newcome estate in Clapham, "a serious paradise" where even the head gardener is "a Scotch Calvinist, after the strictest order, only occupying himself with the melons and pines provisionally, and until the end of the world" (22). This article will appear in slightly different form in Rowland McMaster's Thackeray's Cultural Frame of Reference: Allusion In The Newcomes, to be published by Macmillan (England), and McGill-Queen's University Press, spring 1990. Victorian Review 16.1 (Summer 1990). Victorian Review¥k Headletterfor Chapter 2 The location in Clapham, however, "five miles from the standard at Cornhill" (21)—that is, from the Bank of England— registers another mode of ?1conveying the evolutions of ? Thackeray's characters and their Vi-. era. Wealth, religious zeal and 1I¡:'Clapham superimpose on the narrative another intertext, the historical and social lore of the Clapham Sect, who from their comfortable mansions in Clapham pursued missionary activity, the abolition of the slave trade, assistance and education to the poor, the improvement of conditions in factories, and the amelioration of criminal law and the state of prisons. They are a perfect paradigm for that coalescence of capitalist and evangelical virtues described by R.H. Tawney and chosen by G.M. Young as the starting point for his masterly summary of the whole Victorian age. As the novel develops, London's topography provides a semiological matrix through which Thackeray registers status, profession, cultural and moral interest, and evolutions both in character and in the organism of the city by simply chronicling addresses and migrations. The building up of London in this period involved not just distinctions of new and old but modulations of social status and outlook according to the infinitelygradated English class-consciousness. Topography, thus, becomes a social code, a system of meanings and interpretive forms enriching the narrative as do other forms of intertextuality. To savour such nuances modern readers probably need help.1 Those well-read in Victorian literature will no doubt pick up much of what is implied. Others, especially non-Londoners and foreigners, will probably miss a great deal. One editor commenting on Henry James's The Tree of Knowledge," for example, and perhaps already exasperated by James's complicated style, says tartly: "We may wonder even more whether James supposes he is really giving us a picture of the landscape when he says Brench and the Mallows live where 'the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to Saint John's Wood'" (Cassill 100). Well, he is and he isn't. As an account of location and contour the sentence is unobjectionable, but to a contemporary it would have R...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-21
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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