In 1864, just after William Makepeace Thackeray's death, a literary commentator said of Catherine: A Story that it was one of Thackeray's "best, and least known works."1 Not many critics have agreed with the first part of this assessment, but it would be difficult to dispute the second part of it. Catherine is a work virtually unknown outside academic circles, and even within those circles knowledge of Thackeray's first novel is restricted for the most part to specialists in Thackeray. This is unfortunate, for a good case an be made for seeing the novel as one of Thackeray's best.

Thackeray's first attempt at a full-length work of fiction has flaws, of course. There is some heavy-handedness in the satire on aristocrats in the later chapters. There is perhaps an excess of gore in the description of the climactic murder in the final chapter. And there is a loss of narrative control in the over-excited commentary in that chapter.

However, especially in the first half of the novel, Thackeray is at his light-hearted best, and the narrative control that goes missing at the end of the novel is one of its strong points at the beginning. Thackeray presents a narrative which, in the manner of Vanity Fair ten years later, shifts effectively between various levels: the level of the fictional events in the story; the level of the narrator's own world a hundred years later (seen in the story of his brother Aminadab in Chapter 7); the level of the imagined readers of the story, who at one point are husbands with importunate wives (Chapter 7) but at another are mothers with daughters (Chapter 3); and the level of the real world of rival authors and Fraser's Magazine.2

It is also an extremely playful narrative, playing with language in an exuberant, even outrageous manner, punning not only in English but in Latin and Greek and introducing probably the worst joke ever found in a serious work of literature: the "wusser" anecdote in Chapter 9. The narrative also plays with the historical record, first of all with the account of the eighteenth-century murder of John Hayes on which the story is based, and also with the historical situations Thackeray introduces as the backdrop to his tale. Thackeray's command of the historical scene, his ability to give an eighteenth-century feel to his story by referring to eighteenth-century fashions, songs, politics, and persons, is another aspect of his narrative control and looks forward to the historical tours de force of his later works such as Esmond and Barry Lyndon. But Thackeray does not restrict himself to the historical facts; instead, just as he plays with the language, so he plays with history, shifting the date of Isaac Newton's tutorship, for instance, to increase the sense of time having passed since the period he is writing about, or transforming Helen of Troy into an old hag to suit his satirical purposes.

This is a narrative that toys with its material, pretending to have to follow the historical record even when it deviates from it, pretending at another point that it is not a narrative at all but a dramatic presentation in which there will be an intermission with refreshments. It is also a narrative that teases its readers by pretending to reveal the ending, but then stopping short. And it is a narrative that contains such clevernesses as the conversational "duet" between Corporal Brock and Count von Galgenstein, in which their two parallel conversations interact to humorous effect.

So much for the machinery of Thackeray's tale, which may be of special interest to those tracing the development of Thackeray's techniques. As for the substance of what Thackeray presents, this is an interesting combination of satire and the picaresque. The narrator of Catherine, like his successor in Vanity Fair, specializes in exposing the foibles of humanity, such as the disinclination of an innkeeper to give up his profits from a paying customer simply because he suspects the customer of being a horse thief (see Chapter 6). Also like the narrator of Vanity Fair, the narrator of Catherine applies his satire both widely and lightly. Not for him the heavy-handed attack on private targets as in Thackeray's other early fiction, but instead, especially in the early episodes of the novel (those episodes published before the two-month break in serial publication),3 a light-hearted mockery of everything, from the "flourishing of trumpets" that novelists are wont to indulge in (Chapter 1) to Catherine's farcical attempt to poison the Count (Chapter 3) to the Count's own "helpfulness" to Catherine when, deciding she needs quiet, he absents himself from home "morning, noon, and night" (Chapter 2).

Combined with this satirical irreverence from the narrator is a presentation of a crew of charming rogues, including a heroine who at times, as in her manipulation of the slow-witted Dr. Dobbs in Chapter 4, demonstrates the sort of appealing wickedness later seen more fully in Becky Sharp. And in addition to the heroine there is Corporal Brock, who seduces men into the army and masquerades as a gentleman in high society; Ensign Macshane, who has an invincible belief in the legitimacy of his criminal activities; and even Count von Galgenstein in the early episodes, when he is able to startle the reader with audacious denials of paternal responsibility (the quasi-senile Count of the later episodes is a different and much less interesting character).

There is a problem with making Catherine a tale of charming rogues, however, and that is that the declared intention of the novel's narrator is to present a tale of charmless, villainous rogues.4 There is thus an inconsistency in Catherine which has bothered some readers5 and indeed bothered its author, who for this and other reasons seems to have decided that his first full-length work of fiction was not worth reprinting.6 Perhaps as a result Catherine has sunk virtually without a trace, but it is the main goal of this edition to salvage the novel and let a new generation of readers judge whether, despite its inconsistency and other problems, there is value in its narrative virtuosity and its carrying on of the satirical and picaresque traditions.

This edition of Catherine also fulfills a number of other aims. First of all, it provides the first critical and scholarly handling of the text of the novel. What is provided here is the complete text as originally published, with the addition of an illustration by Thackeray that was omitted from the first published version of the novel. In this edition, all the passages expurgated in the posthumous editions have been restored. Also restored are certain first edition readings which later editors thought were garbled but which seem actually to have been what Thackeray intended. On the other hand, several passages which were indeed garbled in the original serialized version, and which have never before been presented correctly (e.g., the "Masters mount" crux in Chapter 12 and the intended reference to Bulwer's Historical Odes in Chapter 7), are here presented correctly for the first time.

Aside from such changes, this edition closely follows the original serialized version and its styling practices, even though, as is pointed out in the Textual Commentary, these practices are often the compositors' rather than Thackeray's. The Textual Commentary provides a detailed rationale for believing these practices to be non-Thackerayan, and there is a glossary of Thackeray's usual spelling and capitalization practices which will enable users of this edition to see where the spelling and capitalization in the original serialized version most likely varied from that in the now lost manuscript. This is the first time any detailed work has been done on Thackeray's spelling and capitalization;7 the resulting glossary may thus be of interest not only to readers of Catherine, but also to students of Thackeray generally. There are also notes that record and, where appropriate, explain the emendations made for this edition; these also record some of the expurgations and additions made in the posthumous editions, and contain discussions of difficult passages in the text for which no emendation has been possible.

This edition also contains a complete set of annotations, which fulfill two basic functions: to make the text of the novel intelligible where it is obscure and to provide information on Thackeray's authorial habits. To these ends, all unfamiliar words and phrases are explained, as are all references to historical figures and events from the eighteenth century, the period in which Catherine is set; also explained are literary allusions and references to persons, places, and events of Thackeray's own time, including such obscurities as "the man who murdered the Italian boy," "the Duchess of Phalaris," and "the celebrated Wilks of Paris." In some cases, identifying an allusion or quotation has made clear certain hidden suggestions in the novel: thus, when Thackeray uses the phrase "upon this hint" to describe the elopement of Catherine and John Hayes, it has been possible, in identifying the phrase as a quotation from Othello, to point out the ominous parallels with Shakespeare's play about spouse-murder.

Throughout the annotations, the aim has been not simply to identify references in a general way, but where possible to indicate Thackeray's purpose in making the references. Thus, when Thackeray speaks of an aging and unattractive Helen running off with Prince Alexander (i.e., Prince Paris), it has not seemed sufficient to say that this is a reference to Helen of Troy: instead, it is noted that though Helen is traditionally seen as young and beautiful, Thackeray may have chosen to follow a less traditional description of her as being old enough to be Paris's mother because of his anti-Romanticism and his interest in Oedipal relationships.

In addition to explaining obscure passages in the text, the annotations to this edition provide information, where possible, about Thackeray's compositional practices. It has been possible at times to indicate the sources Thackeray drew on for information and inspiration and to point out how Thackeray used certain ideas, names, and turns of phrase from Catherine elsewhere in his works. It is noted, for example, that Thackeray probably derived his information on the Duchess of Marlborough from a published collection of her letters which he reviewed for The Times a year and a half before Catherine began appearing. Another annotation points out that Ensign Macshane's ability to live on nothing anticipates the much more developed discussion in Vanity Fair on "How to Live Well on Nothing A-Year." In another annotation, an anecdote discovered in the Morning Post is pointed to as a possible source of the story of "the wusser." And the presentation of the multiple sources of inspiration for the character Peter Brock in another note reveals how Thackeray could combine ideas from different sources.

Another major feature of this edition is the appended documentation for the event on which Thackeray based his novel: the 1726 murder of John Hayes by his wife Catherine. Readers seeking to compare Thackeray's fictionalized account of that murder with the accounts found in the newspapers of the day and in the later collections of crime stories can do so by consulting Appendix 1. This is the first time all the available accounts of the Hayes murder, including the 1837 newspaper account which may have introduced Thackeray to the story, have been gathered in one place.

There are two other appendices in this edition. One contains contemporary newspaper comments on the original version of Catherine as it appeared in serial form, most of these being reprinted here for the first time. The other contains a discussion of Thackeray's references to Catherine Hayes in works subsequent to Catherine, including the reference in Pendennis that sparked a minor controversy concerning the Irish singer Catherine Hayes; appended to this discussion is the poem Thackeray wrote about the Hayes murder and the Pendennis controversy.

Also found in this edition is an essay on the politics of Catherine, in which it is argued that Thackeray disguised and distorted his actual political attitudes of the time in order to align what he wrote with the ultra-Tory politics of Fraser's Magazine, where the novel was appearing. This edition also provides a list of characters in Catherine, indicating which were drawn from the historical record and which were invented by Thackeray. Finally, this edition contains a detailed Historical Commentary on Catherine, in which can be found a discussion of how Thackeray came to write the novel, what he set out to achieve, what he actually achieved, and how he felt about the result.


George Augustus Sala, cit. Wilson 2: 31.COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_1

For an analysis of this sort of shifting narrative in Vanity Fair, see Daleski 6-9. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_2

In September/October 1839. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_3

See the narrator's comments at the end of Chapter 1, in Chapter 3, Chapter 13, and at the very end of the novel. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_4

See, for example, Monsarrat 95. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_5

See Thackeray's comment that owing to his "sneaking kindness" for his heroine, he did not make the story "disgusting enough" (Letters 1: 433). For further details, see the Historical Commentary. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_6

The recent work on Thackeray's accidentals by Peter Shillingsburg, Edgar Harden, and Natalie Maynor has focused primarily on his punctuation. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Introduction_Footnote_7

Published @ COVE

March 2022