Thursday, 24 September 2015

The History of Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray

Ever since I read Vanity Fair by Thackeray, I am one of his fans. So, when the Brontë Reading Group in Brussels had his The History of Pendennis on the list, I was happy. Until I realised that it is a book of over 900 pages and I only had four days to read it! A slight misjudgment on my part, you could say! I read the e-book that is.

Since the discussions in the Reading group are always very lively and interesting, I don’t like to go there if I have not read the book. A big effort and an eight hour read the same day as the meeting was the cure. I managed to finish it in time to take a shower and get dressed!

As usual Jones had prepared us with questions to consider while reading the book. Here are just a few of them with my comments.

Does Pendennis qualify as one of the "loose baggy monsters'' that Henry James criticised among nineteenth-century novels?

I like this question, and I understand exactly what Henry James meant. There are so many thick books from this time. Of course we have to remember that normally a book at that time came out in three instalments, so they had to fill it out (think of Dickens!). Henry James was the total opposite with his rather thin books. But, what books! As an answer to the question; I would not include this book in  “loose baggy monsters”.

The book is about Arthur “Pen” Pendennis. Born in the countryside, to middle class parents, although the mother’s status was higher than his apothecary father who, by hard work, earned money enough to climb in the world. When he dies, there is enough money to send Pen to university. But fate is around and he falls in love with an actress in the local theatre and his uncle (father’s brother) with the same name, Arthur Pendennis, major, makes a reluctant and uncomfortable trip from London to talk sense into his nephew.

The Content Reader
A small group this Tuesday, but what a discussion!
From here the story of his life enrolls; university, party life, wasting of money, no studies concluded and returning home to his mother and foster sister with a terribly bad conscience. They have sacrificed their life so he could study. Pen does understand and takes a grip of his life. He goes to London to find a job and lands one as a journalist. He even writes a book and find himself rather famous on the London scene.
"When two women get together to like a man, they help each other on - each pushes the other forward - and the second, out of sheer sympathy, becomes as eager as the principal: - at least, so it is said by philosophers who have examined this science."
The novel is all about Pen’s struggles to find himself. After his first love for the actress, and the disappointment that her actions caused him, he thinks he will never be able to fall in love again. There are a lot of different characters surrounding him and very dramatic events that effects his life. We see all parts of society at the time, the snobbishness of the higher society, the struggle by the lower classes to find a decent life, intrigues, criminal actions, it is all there.
"...and according to the way of the world as it seems to us, is occupied about Number One. So Warrington selfishly devoted himself to Helen, who selfishly devoted herself to Pen, who selfishly devoted himself to himself at this present period, having no other personage or object to occupy him, except, indeed, this mother's health, which gave him a serious and real disquiet; but though they, sate together, they did not talk much, and the cloud was always between them."
There are several characters that are satirical portraits of types at the time. One is Pen’s uncle major Arthur Pendennis, who is, what I would say with a modern expression; a cool type. His is very humorously portrayed and keeps up appearance to the very end. There is also the gambler who manages to make his wife’s dowry disappear, who is living on credits and somehow manages to survive nevertheless. There is a scheming young lady who is looking for a prosperous marriage, young men looking for suitable ladies and several imposters to put some extra spice to the story.

The Content Reader
Helen's copy from around 1900    
Who is Pen's "greatest enemy'', as mentioned in the sub-title?

The full title of the book is The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy. The title very well describes the story with a few words, and his greatest enemy is himself. He is a very vague character and it is difficult to get a grip on him. You think he gets his act together, will do what is right, and then…oops he walks off in another direction. I think that the end though (which I will not reveal here) will make him take the long awaited grip on his life and live by it.

Why do you think Charlotte Bronte preferred the character of Warrington to that of Pen?

Charlotte Brontë was a great admirer of Thackeray and she dedicated one edition of Jane Eyre to him. Thackeray had been given a favourable view on Jane Eyre, even before it was publicly known that Charlotte was the author. There was a slight complication, since she did not know that Thackeray, like Mr. Rochester in the novel was estranged from his insane wife. However, Thackeray was gracious about it.

Why she would prefer Warrington, Pen’s best friend, to Pen himself, I do fully understand. As did all of us. Warrington is a wonderful character and very easy to like, unlike  Pen. His life had had its hiccups and he is just taking the days as they come. It is only in the end of the novel that we get to know the whole sad story. How much better he seemed than Pen.
"Do you think Blanche would make a good wife for a petty country gentleman? Do you think I should become the character very well, Laura?" Pen asked. "Remember temptation walks about the hedgerows as well as the city streets: and idleness is the greatest tempter of all."
Pendennis is more autobiographical than Vanity Fair. Jones asked us if the characterisations/characters are more realistic in this novel than in Vanity Fair. In a way I think they are, but I also found that characters of Vanity Fair rather realistic. Both novels show different layers of the society at the time and different characters with their advantages and disadvantages. I would say though that the emotional parts of Pendennis are more realistic than in Vanity Fair.

The Content Reader
Old edition
All in all I enjoyed this book. I think it could have been shorter, because from time to time, he lingers about matters that does not really have anything to do with the story. Having said that, they do give an overall view of the times. I still love Thackeray after this book. He did write quite a lot of novels, but these two are his most famous works. After this I think it is time to read a biography about the man himself.


  1. I do so miss the BBG's book club!one of the things I miss most about Brussels, believe me :)

    1. Yes, they are great. The discussions are fantastic, just because people are so involved. We miss you to!