- The Inheritance of Genius: A Thackeray Family Biography, 1798–1875
Of the making of biographies there is no end, and this is almost inevitable, for every age sees the past differently and wants to tell its story in its own way. Biographies, then, can say more about the age in which they are written than about their ostensible subject, or in John Aplin’s case, subjects.
Aplin has chosen to write not just about William Makepeace Thackeray, but about his family, beginning with a brief prelude about his father, [End Page 331] Richmond Thackeray, but focusing primarily on his mother and his daughters. His aim indeed is not to focus on the author of Vanity Fair at all, but to “foreground his domestic circle, and the effect his life, death and legacy had on those closest to him.”
Aplin is also quick to point out that Thackeray had “all too evident weaknesses,” and so we have a biography that focuses on the great man’s connections, sits in judgment of the great man, prefers the domestic sphere to the sphere of public achievement, and also is prone to recycling sensationalist gossip. It is a book very much rooted in the early twenty-first century.
In a recent review of a biography of George Washington, noted historian Gordon S. Wood lays out some of the requirements for a successful biography. Wood notes that the new biographer of Washington, Ron Chernow, “has made himself at home in the very different eighteenth century,” adding that before looking into Washington’s papers “he seems to have grounded himself in the secondary histories of the eighteenth century,” with the result that he produces no anachronisms and “none of the present-minded judgments that that sometimes afflict popular histories of the eighteenth century.”
Aplin’s book is what Wood would call a popular rather than an academic history. It falls prey to anachronism on the verbal level, speaking of “cholesterol” in reference to sumptuous meals and also quite deliberately refusing to use the term “mad wife” to speak of Isabella Thackeray, calling it too much part of “the harsh language of the time.” He prefers to use terms like “puerperal psychosis” and “intermittent schizophrenia.”
Aplin also gives way to judgmentalism, though he is by no means as prosecutorial as some biographers in our time. He mainly sees fit to criticize Thackeray and to take the side of the women in his life, notably his mother, and also his friend, Jane Brookfield, with whom he had a passionate but Platonic relationship that caused tensions between Thackeray and Jane’s husband. An earlier biographer of Thackeray’s daughter Anny (Winifred Gérin) sympathizes with Thackeray’s situation as the husband of a woman who could not really be his wife, criticizing Jane Brookfield for leading him on. Aplin, in contrast, criticizes Thackeray for pursuing a relationship that on his side was “illicit in intent.”
In general, it is hard to trust Aplin. He gets dates and ages wrong, his book contains far too many typos, and he betrays a lack of understanding of the age he is trying to evoke. In seeking to defend Minny Thackeray’s taking the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, he says that was a standard English position, though recent scholarly work suggests otherwise. On the other hand, he criticizes Minny for not commenting on the poor steerage passengers on her trip to America, as if that was something a Victorian lady would be expected to do. [End Page 332]
And yet who is to be trusted after all? The standard biographies of Thackeray (and Gordon Ray’s two volumes from the 1950s still remain unsurpassed) present his mother as a narrow-minded bigot trying to force fundamentalist Christianity on him and his daughters. Winifred Gérin suggests that really the differences between Thackeray and his mother were minor and that the two were fairly close. Aplin tries to humanize Thackeray’s mother to show that she cared about her son and her...