Preface to COVE Edition

This Cove edition of William Makepeace Thackeray's first novel, Catherine, is the third version I have produced. I first became interested in Catherine while working on my master's at the University of Manitoba. In a course given by Judith Flynn, I first encountered Thackeray--via Vanity Fair, of course--and was struck by how interesting that novel was because of its mix of cynicism and sentimentality. I resolved to do my master's thesis, ultimately called "The Road to Vanity Fair" (under the supervision of R.P. O'Kell) on the process that led Thackeray to produce such a hybrid creation.

As I toiled along the road to Vanity Fair, one of the more appealing way-stations was Catherine, Thackeray's first full-length novel, though because of its shortness some have dismissed it as a mere novella. In any case, whether novel or novella, it seemed to me that Catherine was the first of Thackeray's works to demonstrate mastery of the craft, so much so that I have always ranked it next to Vanity Fair itself among his creations.

It thus felt natural to me to embark on an edition of Catherine for my Ph.D dissertation at the University of British Columbia. This was completed in 1992 under the supervision of Ira Nadel, and included the production of a scholarly text and an accompanying set of annotations. In 1999 a version of this edition was published in the collection of Thackeray's works edited by Peter Shillingsburg for the University of Michigan Press. The Michigan edition omitted the annotations, however, and I have long wanted to produce an edition that would include these explanations of Thackeray's historical and literary allusions.

That has now been made possible by Dino Felluga and Ken Crowell at Cove Editions, and what follows is an edition that combines my attempts to establish a definitive text of the novel along with the explanatory annotations. There are some textual differences between the three versions of the novel that I have produced. In 1992 I was more keen to emend supposed errors in the text; in 1999 I was more conservative; and for Cove I have been closer to 1999 than 1992, mostly. Sometimes, though, I have suddenly seen something that seems to demand emendation and have introduced one, notably in the passage that talks of the drowning of kittens, which I now am fairly sure is meant to refer not to Catherine herself (or Cat), but to her son (the kitten). This required a mere alteration of a "she" to a "he," and I think brings out the full resonance of Thackeray's intentions.

The most important emendation I have made to the text was something I discovered in 1992, when I realized that Thackeray's account of a boxing match at Figg's Amphitheatre was based on an account of an actual event, in which the main bout was preceded by a cudgelling match in which the cudgellers would take the stage before the "masters." What Thackeray meant to write, copying an advertisement from 1726, was that the cudgellers would compete "before the Masters mount." The "s" in "Masters" somehow got dropped, however, so for over 150 years Catherine contained the phrase "before the Master mount," which was puzzling to say the least.

Sometimes I have realized that an emendation from 1992 was wrong, for instance changing "tow-periwig" to "tie-periwig" because I could not find any evidence of tow-periwigs in 1992. But such wigs did exist, and so I have restored "tow-periwig" in this edition.

Sometimes I have corrected the 1992 annotations, realizing for instance that Nan Fantail's last name does not allude to the coal-heaver meaning of fantail but to a type of bird. Other times I have added annotations, realizing that something I simply passed over in 1992 needs an explanation: for instance, calling Tom Billings the "Chevalier de Galgenstein."

All in all I hope this edition can provide a useful entrée into a much neglected Victorian novel and forerunner of Thackeray's Vanity Fair masterpiece, complete with outrageous heroine and cynical narrator. What's missing is the sentimental side of Vanity Fair, but that is not a great loss. There is no Amelia here. There is still a hybrid quality, though, resulting from confusion over whether to write an anti-Newgate novel excoriating villains or to portray such villains as charming and appealing. Just as one can trace psychological roots for the presence of both cynicism and sentimentality in Vanity Fair, there may be a psychological basis for the combination of anti and pro Newgate elements here, resulting from Thackeray's deeper desire to go against the flow, épater les bourgeois, or just be contrarian. Newgate novels celebrating criminals were popular, and Thackeray was drawn to subverting the popular-but he was also drawn to outsiders like the criminals in the fiction of his day, and hence the confusion. At least that is my analysis in 2022. For more on this, though from the perspective of 1992, see the Historical Commentary.

In composing this new Preface, it has occurred to me that Catherine is much more focused than the novels Thackeray produced later in life, the loose baggy monsters that Henry James lamented. Even Vanity Fair can be thought of in that light-but Catherine has a clear endpoint, a murder, and so cannot digress as much. And yet it digresses still. What is the tale of Brock in high society doing in a murder story? What even is the kidnap adventure of Macshane doing here? And all the father-son antagonisms? Not to mention the derogatory depiction of the Count in later life. Motifs that draw on Thackeray's interests show up in quite interesting forms and perhaps lead us into loose baggy territory‚ although of course in a novel of less than 200 pages there is less room for digression than in Thackeray's later 800-page tales.

In any case, Catherine I think rewards both light and close reading. It is an entertaining tale and yet also one that presents some typical Thackerayan attitudes and themes. It will work especially well with undergraduate students and for instructors seeking a digestible way into the world of the Victorian novel.

Published @ COVE

March 2022