The Politics of Catherine

Catherine is not a political novel in the sense of focusing on political or social issues in the manner of Dickens's Hard Times or Disraeli's Sybil, but it does contain several passing references to the political events of the early nineteenth century, all of which tend to suggest that the author is a Tory, even an ultra-Tory. Judging from the political asides in Catherine, one might conclude that Thackeray in 1839 was resolutely anti-Whig from a conservative standpoint and was opposed to the Reform Bill of 1832 and perhaps even to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. However, an examination of Thackeray's political statements and activities in the late 1830s reveals a quite different picture of a young man supporting radical political reform and attacking the Whigs not from the right, but from the left. At the same time, the evidence suggests that Thackeray's political partisanship was not very strong and that, if he had not been writing for the politically partisan Fraser's Magazine, he might not have mentioned politics in Catherine at all.

The two leading political parties in England in the late 1830s were the Tories and the Whigs, led respectively by Sir Robert Peel, who had succeeded the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Melbourne. Melbourne's Whigs were the governing party from 1835 until 1841, holding power thanks to the support of a small group of MP's known as Radicals. The Radicals were followers of Jeremy Bentham and advocates of political reform going beyond the terms of the Whig Reform Bill of 1832: they wanted to extend the franchise, introduce the secret ballot, and increase the frequency of elections. Many of them had connections with the extra-Parliamentary Anti-Corn Law League, the organization of merchants and manufacturers who sought to repeal the Corn Laws which protected the landed aristocracy. The Radicals and the Anti-Corn Law League were quite distinct from, and often at odds with, the other major extra-Parliamentary group of this period, the Chartists, who launched two violent but abortive uprisings in 1839 on behalf of the working class.1

The position of Fraser's Magazine in this period was clearly Tory, even ultra-Tory, to use the term applied to that section of the Tory party that felt betrayed when Wellington and Peel reluctantly introduced Catholic Emancipation as a means of averting civil war in Catholic Ireland.2 Fraser's continually attacked Lord Melbourne and his party, and was particularly critical of the Whigs' attempts to find allies to the left so as to create "a confederacy of Whigs, Radicals, Republicans, Chartists, Socialists, and Atheists" (Jan. 1840, 21: 121). And despite its unhappiness with the Tory leaders over Catholic Emancipation, what Fraser's longed to see was "Toryism . . . in the ascendant" (Jan. 1840, 21: 31.

Thackeray had once been an ultra-Tory in the Fraser's mould. When Catholic Emancipation came in, the seventeen-year-old Thackeray wrote articles against it and expressed "great grief & consternation" at its passage (Letters 1: 34, 34n, 55). At the time of the Reform Bill of 1832, he wrote in his diary that "the country [has] gone to the Devil!" He worried that "to morrow perhaps a king may be pulled off his throne," and he looked on the Duke of Wellington as a "hero" for his opposition to the Reformers (Letters 1: 199, 200, 189).

By the late 1830's, however, Thackeray's political attitudes had changed. No longer did he stand against Reform; on the contrary, he embraced it and criticized the Whigs for not going far enough with it. Writing as the Paris correspondent of the Radical paper, the Constitutional, in 1836-1837, he criticized the "so-called liberal ministry" in England for not promoting the liberal cause in Spain and Portugal; attacking the "lazy Whigs," he praised instead the Radicals and celebrated Daniel O'Connell, the Irish agitator for Catholic Emancipation, saying that it was thanks to O'Connell that "freedom in Ireland and Radicalism in England . . . [had] advanced" as they had. He warned that the French government of Louis-Philippe would try to stop the progress of British reform, but expressed confidence that the French would not succeed: "We are luckily too strong . . . to be bullied back into Toryism."3 While he was writing Catherine, in 1839, he made two drawings to assist a campaign by the Anti-Corn Law League. And in 1840, he wrote his mother that he hoped the day would come when "the rascally Whigs and Tories . . . [would] disappear from among us" (Letters 1: 385-86, 458). He disavowed Chartism, and indeed seemed terrified of Chartist violence and working-class revolution (Letters 1: 410-11, 458), but he declared himself to be a "republican" and said he would like to see "all men equal, and this bloated aristocracy blasted to . . . the winds" (Letters 1: 458).

This anti-aristocratic attitude can be found in Catherine, stripped of its political significance, in the unflattering portrayal of the senile Count von Galgenstein in the latter part of the novel. Similarly, Thackeray's attack on gentlemen as drunken, gambling womanizers (in the account of Corporal Brock's progress in high society in Chapter 5) accords with the anti-establishment political attitude he was expressing in the late 1830's outside the pages of Catherine. However, within Catherine there is no hint of Thackeray's political Radicalism.

It is true that there is an attack, in the opening paragraph of the novel, on the Whig government's roguery which could come from a Radical position as easily as from a Tory one, but later in the novel, when Thackeray associates the Reform Bill with corruption and contrasts the Duke of Wellington and another Tory politician, Lord Lyndhurst, with O'Connell and the Whig Lord Melbourne, the attitude of the novel seems clearly Tory. And if the narrator's comment in Chapter 6 on the popularity of Catholicism is meant to be a veiled attack on the Catholic Emancipation Act, then Thackeray in Catherine is in effect putting himself forward as an ultra-Tory, taking a position completely in accord with that of Fraser's.

Indeed, one is forced to conclude that the reason Thackeray's politics in Catherine appear to be Tory or ultra-Tory is that he was trying to accommodate himself to the politics of Fraser's. If the novel had not been written for Fraser's, it might not have contained Tory political statements; in fact, it might not have contained political statements at all, for Thackeray did not generally take up political issues in his fiction. He did not write about the plight of factory workers in the manner of Dickens or Elizabeth Gaskell; nor did he present proposals for reorganizing society in the manner of Disraeli. Indeed, in two reviews he wrote in 1845 of books by Disraeli and Charles Lever, he expressed disapproval of novelists who wandered into "the crabbed labyrinths of political controversy" and who used their novels as platforms to "tell us that society is diseased, the laws unjust, the rich ruthless, the poor martyrs, the world lop-sided, and vice versa." He did not want such "instruction," he said, but preferred "romances which do not treat of algebra, religion, political economy, or other abstract science."4

Of course, one could say that Thackeray was being political himself, if one defines the term broadly, in attacking corruption and ineptitude among the higher orders, as he does in his depiction of Lord Steyne and Sir Pitt Crawley in Vanity Fair. And to the extent that his attacks express a desire to eliminate class distinction, one could say that there is a political element to them. However, since the attacks on the upper classes are usually coupled with fantasies about rising into their ranks (consider Becky Sharp, Barry Lyndon, and in the opening pages of Catherine itself Corporal Brock and of course Catherine herself), the strongest message that emerges from Thackeray's fiction is not that aristocracy should be abolished but that the aristocrats should open their ranks to certain deserving but currently excluded individuals.

In any case, what is clearly not found in Thackeray's fiction are political programs, examinations of specific political or social issues, or advocacy of the rights of one social class against another. Nor, in his fiction outside of Catherine, does Thackeray generally make the sort of partisan political comments found in his first novel. It was more typical of him to write mockingly of political partisans in general than to join one side or the other. Thus, in a story he began publishing in the New Monthly Magazine even before Catherine completed its run in Fraser's, he makes fun of one political activist who becomes a Radical solely because his sweetheart leaves him for a Tory and of another who deserts the Tories as soon as they lose power.5 Similarly, in Vanity Fair, he mocks the political trimming of the Crawley family (57-58, Chapter 7), and in Catherine itself he invites the reader to laugh at the political shifts of Corporal Brock's mother.

Thackeray was never a very good political partisan. Even when an ultra-Tory in his youth, he could denounce Reform in his diary and then go off to Cornwall to campaign in an election for his Radical friend Charles Buller against the Tories (Letters 1: 246). Later, in his Radical period, while writing his pro-Reform articles from Paris for the Constitutional, he confided to his mother that he found the Paris version of the Radical party to be "the most despicable I ever knew" and that as a result he was in danger of becoming a Tory.6 "I am a very weak & poor politician," he confessed a few years later, "only good for outside articles and jeux d'esprit" (Letters 2: 225).

It seems, therefore, that the Tory partisanship of Catherine was not Thackeray's but Fraser's and this partisanship misrepresents Thackeray's views not simply because he was a Radical rather than a Tory at the time, but because essentially he was not a political partisan of any sort and did not approve of harnessing literature to politics. As he put it in a letter to his mother in December 1839, while still working on Catherine, using a phrase that would become a battle cry at the end of the century: "Criticism has been a party matter with us till now, and literature a poor political lackey – please God we shall begin ere long to love art for art's sake" (Letters 1: 396).


See Halevy 3: 65-71, 183, 192, 198, 307, 332-33; Briggs 271, 319; Woodward 96; Llewellyn 147-52. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Politics_Footnote_1

Woodward 77. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Politics_Footnote_2

Mr. Thackeray's Writings 193, 194, 172, 213, 130, 135, 128. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Politics_Footnote_3

William Makepeace Thackeray: Contributions to the Morning Chronicle 72, 71, 77-78. 4 COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Politics_Footnote_4

"The Bedford-Row Conspiracy," Works 3: 595, 617, 631-32. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Politics_Footnote_5

See Ray, Adversity 191. COVE_Goldfarb_Catherine_Politics_Footnote_6


Published @ COVE

March 2022