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National Histories, International Genre: Thackeray, Balzac, and the Franco-British Bildungsroman

  • Sarah Rose Cole

…plus d’informations

  • Sarah Rose Cole
    Columbia University

Corps de l’article

In 1859, the critic David Masson set out to identify the main types of the current British novel in his treatise, British Novelists and Their Styles. Masson, who was Professor of English at University College, London, as well as a prolific periodical critic, was one of the Victorians who helped to establish the British novel as a respectable academic subject and to shape a national novelistic canon that we can still recognize. After confidently describing novelistic genres which were then held to be self-evident, such as the “historical novel,” “the fashionable novel” and the “military novel,” Masson somewhat hesitantly identified a new genre which, he predicted, would become increasingly important. With the self-consciousness of a critic introducing a new term, Masson suggested that this new fictional type “may be called THE ART AND CULTURE NOVEL, in which the purpose is to exhibit the growth and education of an individual character of the more thoughtful order. By far the greatest example of this species of fiction in modern literature is the ‘Wilhelm Meister’ of Goethe; and there can be no doubt that that work, since it was translated, has had some influence on the aims of British novel-writing” (225). Here, more than one hundred years before Jerome Buckley took the controversial step of importing the term Bildungsroman into modern English criticism, Masson describes something that sounds very like a British Bildungsroman[1] Prefiguring some recent critical debates about what makes the Bildungsroman distinct from any other kind of novel with a central protagonist, Masson observes, “In all novels whatsoever, of course, the hero passes through a series of mental stages, the usual goal or consummation being an all-consoling, all-illuminating marriage. But, in the Art and Culture novel, as I consider it, the design is to represent a mind of the thoughtful order, struggling through doubt and error toward certainty and truth” (266). Even in placing more emphasis on individual development than on aesthetic culture, Masson seems once again surprisingly modern in his understanding—or misunderstanding—of Goethe’s novelistic model. But when Masson chooses and analyzes his main example of the contemporary British “Art and Culture Novel,” his choice may be somewhat more surprising to modern readers: William Makepeace Thackeray’s History of Pendennis (published in serial form from 1848 to 1850). [2]

In choosing Thackeray’s novel of youthful education, Masson passes over works such as David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, which are now more often cited as examples of the British Bildungsroman. Masson’s choice seems to reflect Thackeray’s high status in the 1850s, when Thackeray was seen as the great rival of Charles Dickens; before the advent of Anthony Trollope and George Eliot, Thackeray regularly appeared in Victorian criticism as Britain’s foremost “realistic” novelist, providing a worldly-wise alternative to the more fantastical and polemical works of Dickens. Thus, from Masson’s point of view, Thackeray was the contemporary novelist best qualified for depicting the complex experiences of a young protagonist of “the thoughtful order, struggling through doubt and error.” I am taking Masson’s cue: in the present paper, I will be using Thackeray’s Pendennis as my main example of the British Bildungsroman. But I am motivated by slightly different reasons. What interests me is how Pendennis can be interpreted as a site of Victorian internationalism. Although Thackeray has never received more than a passing mention in comparative accounts of the Bildungsroman genre, I suggest that Pendennis forms a point of intersection between the British and French national traditions of the Bildungsroman, thus allowing us to see how a genre with a German name was modified in its passage between France and Britain.

Among the major Victorian novelists, Thackeray was the one most immersed in French culture; he was fluent in French, and regularly wrote on French literature and society for British periodicals. [3] Thus, it seems to me no coincidence that Pendennis eschews the domestic settings and moral idealism of so many nineteenth-century British Bildungsromane, and instead tells a story strikingly close to Balzac’s Lost Illusions (1837-1843)—a story of urban exploration and personal disillusionment, in which a young writer from the provinces goes to the capital city (Paris or London) and gradually gives up his artistic ideals to become a dandy and a journalist. Pendennis, of course, does not end with that disillusionment—or with the hero descending into criminality and suicide, as happens in Balzac’s sequel to Lost Illusions[4] Instead, Thackeray’s hero Arthur Pendennis grows to some kind of maturity only after giving up his pretensions to special artistic vocation (in this sense, rather like Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister), and he is allowed to have the happy ending that is part of David Masson’s definition of the “Art and Culture Novel.” But I think that both the similarities and the differences between Pendennis and Lost Illusions point to a moment of active intersection and struggle between the French and British Bildungsroman: I propose that Thackeray constructed his concept of Britishness, as well as his concept of youthful education, in response to the “significant other” of French literature and French revolutionary politics. Scholars have long recognized how the French Revolution of 1789 led to a “consolidation of national consciousness” in Britain (Deane 2); in Thackeray’s Pendennis, I argue, we can see how a later revolution—that of February 1848—both challenged and confirmed a conception of British national identity that relied on imagined contrasts to the French “national character.” [5] Although Thackeray is often thought of as an apolitical writer—a satirist concerned only with the manners and morals of the middle and upper classes—I argue that Pendennis was crucially shaped by his engagement with the revolutionary politics of 1848. In order to face and exorcise the threat of revolution, I further suggest, Thackeray turned to the French Bildungsroman tradition; my hypothesis is that Thackeray reworked Balzac’s Lost Illusions, transforming Balzac’s narrative of revolutionary dislocation into a self-consciously British narrative of peaceful change. By working both with and against French literary models, Thackeray reveals the formation of British identity as a complex process of cross-Channel negotiation, rather than a simple negation of the French “other.”

By examining how Pendennis responds to French literature and politics, I aim to raise a larger question: can the Bildungsroman genre usefully be seen as a product of the “Channel zone”? I owe that term to Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever, who argue that the modern novel “developed through intersections among texts, readers, writers, and publishing and critical institutions that linked together Britain and France” (2). Urging scholars of the novel to “recover the terms of its passage through the Channel zone, the specific history of its cross-Channel construction and consumption” (2-3), Cohen and Dever have recently inaugurated this project with their edited collection The Literary Channel. Contributors to The Literary Channel examine the processes of Franco-British exchange that shaped genres such as the sentimental novel, the historical novel, and the detective novel. But the Bildungsroman is missing. Although the absence of the Bildungsroman from the Literary Channel might simply be an oversight, an omission due to lack of space or interest, I find this absence thought-provoking. Unlike the genres examined in The Literary Channel, the Bildungsroman bears a German name that advertises an origin outside of the two Channel zone nations, and that still resists accurate translation (culture novel? education novel? formation novel?). Yet, in practice, critics in English and Comparative Literature departments are likely to define the Bildungsroman through examples from Dickens and James Joyce, or Stendhal and Balzac, perhaps after a brief nod to Goethe. Two things thus seem obvious: first, that the Bildungsroman must not be a product of the Channel zone, and second, that it must be.

Caught between two such equally obvious, yet incompatible positions, the Bildungsroman genre thus poses a potentially productive challenge for the study of Victorian internationalisms. In fact, the internationalism of the Bildungsroman remains an open question. On the one hand, half a century of scholarly practice has linked the term “Bildungsroman” to novels of personal education across Europe and beyond; on the other hand, scholars of German literature often contend that the genre is inextricably tied to German concepts of culture and nationhood, and that the very term “Bildung” (culture, education, formation) implies the cult of the inner life which has marked modern Germany for better and for worse. [6] To make matters yet more complicated, some prominent scholars of German literature also question whether the Bildungsroman ever actually existed in the time of Goethe, or whether it is instead a “critical fiction” launched by German nationalist critics after the unification of the German empire in 1870, the period when the term “Bildungsroman” first came into common usage (Amrine 126). [7] In this short paper, I cannot enter more fully into these debates, but I would like to acknowledge the complex history of the term “Bildungsroman,” and to make a few provisional suggestions. First, we can understand the migration of the term “Bildungsroman” into English criticism by keeping in mind Fredric Jameson’s argument that “genres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public” (106). Perhaps, then, we can see the Bildungsroman as the product of a slightly different kind of contract: a contract between critics, which enables us at once to recognize and to raise questions about an international novel tradition centering on youthful formation. Second, by de-essentializing the Bildungsroman, acknowledging it as a “phantom genre” without a single origin even in Goethe’s Germany, we may be able to rediscover the nineteenth-century novel of youthful development (if not the term “Bildungsroman” itself) as a product of the Channel zone. [8] In the rest of my paper, I will look at one such example of passage through the Channel zone: the possible transmutation of Balzac’s Lost Illusions into Thackeray’s Pendennis, in the context of the revolutionary year 1848.

Although scholars have long taken an interest in Thackeray’s relationship to French literature, they have focused mainly on his most celebrated work, Vanity Fair (1847-1848). [9] In this novel, which immediately precedes Pendennis, the presence of France is most immediately obvious in the central figure of Becky Sharp, the half-French upstart who is textually associated with Napoleon. However, according to several critics, French influence on Vanity Fair goes beyond theme and characterization, to structure the very mode of Thackeray’s social satire. Robert Colby, in a classic study of Thackeray’s literary context, concludes that Becky’s half-French background symbolizes the union of British and French literary traditions in Vanity Fair, the “wedding of the Silver Fork novel with the French Etudes de moeurs” (251). More recently, in her article on Thackeray’s critique of domestic ideology, Julia Kent has argued that Vanity Fair appropriates “French representations of marriage and domesticity” in order to question “the ideological claims made on behalf of English intimacy at both the domestic and national levels.” [10] Although Kent persuasively shows how Thackeray uses French literary techniques to grapple with British ideologies, her model does not entirely fit Pendennis, a novel that—for all its attention to the pitfalls of domestic sentiment—ultimately abandons Vanity Fair’s unrelenting satire in favor of a more conciliatory stance. Between Vanity Fair and Pendennis, we can see a shift in both genre and social message: in his transition from a multi-plot “Novel without a Hero” to a hero-centered Bildungsroman, Thackeray also moves from anti-aristocratic social critique to a celebration of the “true gentleman” (Pendennis 912), and from an attack on marriage-plot conventions to an ultimate embrace of these conventions. [11] Although the weak and often dislikable character of Arthur Pendennis puzzled Victorian reviewers, who complained that Pendennis was yet another Thackerayan “novel without a hero,” the redemptive claims of Pendennis lie in what the protagonist learns, rather than in his own qualities: the hero’s relationships with more idealized characters continually teach lessons in conventionally British virtues. [12] In his friendship with the “true gentleman” Warrington (912), a bohemian aristocrat whose gentility is borne in his inner character rather than his careless and shabby clothing, Pen learns to distinguish the moral qualities of the gentleman from the mere trappings of social prestige. And in his marriage to his adopted “sister” Laura, Pen finally overcomes his disillusionment about love, literature, and politics, learning to appreciate that there are indeed true values: those of a natural, domestic wife and a small country estate. [13]

Unlike Vanity Fair, then, Pendennis seems to fit Margaret Cohen’s description of Victorian realism, in which, “while ethical principles are not implemented in society, they are nonetheless preserved as an ideal,” leading to “those numerous endings in which characters retreat into their private spheres” (“Sentimental Communities” 123). For Cohen, this preservation of a purely private ethical sanction distinguishes British realism from the French realism of Balzac, which undertakes a “description of contemporary society utterly devoid of ethical force” (123). Yet, I would suggest, the British realism of Pendennis is constructed in relation to precisely that French realism of Balzac, a relation no longer of allegiance—as in Vanity Fair—but of complicated negotiation, tribute and disavowal. I would further like to suggest a missing link between the two issues I have just introduced: on the one hand, the difference between Pendennis and Vanity Fair and, on the other hand, the urgent yet ambivalent relationship of Pendennis to French literature. That missing link, I will argue, is the French Revolution of 1848, whose impact on both Thackeray’s work and the larger political culture of Britain needs to be further explored. [14] Although later Victorian myths cast 1848 as the year that confirmed Britain’s insular immunity from continental revolution, in fact the events of 1848 connected Britain and France more powerfully—and, for the British ruling classes, more threateningly—than at any other time in the Victorian era. In the discussion that follows, then, I will be considering the relationship between two kinds of Victorian internationalism: first, the middle-class literary internationalism of the Bildungsroman genre, represented by Thackeray and Balzac; and second, the working-class political internationalism of the year 1848, when the Channel zone once again became the conduit for hopes and fears of a British revolution.

Let me say at once that I have not yet found any external proof that Thackeray was setting out to rewrite Lost Illusions: in his critical essays and surviving personal papers, he discusses other Balzac novels but never that one. It is possible to read this silence as a tactful elision, as evidence of a struggle with the anxiety of influence; but, luckily, my argument does not depend on proving that Thackeray was consciously thinking about Balzac when writing Pendennis. Certainly the two novels have some rather extraordinary similarities in their plotting and cast of characters: in both novels, the hero is the son of a class-crossing marriage between an apothecary and an aristocratic lady; grows up in the provinces where he is spoiled by his angelic widowed mother and his only sister (or foster-sister, in Pendennis); and later impoverishes his mother and sister through his debts. While still in the provinces, he writes poems and one novel, but—once in the big city—he ends up as a journalist producing ephemeral texts. During his urban adventures, he is torn between two male mentors, one worldly and corrupting, the other high-minded and ascetic, who try to form him in their own images; however, Arthur Pendennis is ultimately saved by preferring his high-minded mentor Warrington, while Balzac’s Lucien Chardon is lost once he gives in to his corrupting mentor Lousteau. It is possible that I have merely listed a series of extraordinary coincidences, but in any case the more important issue is that Balzac and Thackeray used the same overall pattern of plot and character to construct two very different concepts of national identity.

To take only one example: let us start with the back story, and look at how each novelist endows his hero with a family history that symbolically enacts dominant myths of French or British national history. Thus, Balzac uses his hero’s mixed social class background to invoke France’s history of revolution and social class conflict, while Thackeray uses the same hybrid class position to register the British history of peaceful union between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. In Lost Illusions, Lucien’s father is a revolutionary army doctor turned apothecary, and his mother is a countess whom the doctor rescued from the guillotine during the Terror. In Pendennis, however, the hero’s apothecary father is a wealthy bourgeois with a “secret ambition [ ... ] to be a gentleman” (11), who marries an aristocratic lady too poor to make a better match; and they meet not at the foot of the guillotine, but in the social no-man’s land of spa society at Bath.

Following its origin in the Revolution of 1789, the plot of Lost Illusions hinges on the dangerous split in Lucien’s class identity, a split signaled by the instability of his very name; as readers of Lost Illusions will remember, different characters address Lucien either by his father’s plebian surname Chardon or his mother’s aristocratic title de Rubempré. Vacillating between the “resentful Republicanism” of a poor middle-class artist and the “fever for social distinction” awakened by his affair with a society lady, Lucien is ultimately crushed between the two main political factions of post-Napoleonic France (Lost Illusions 52, 59). [15] The plot of Lost Illusions, in which disillusionment never makes Lucien wise enough to negotiate the clash between royalists and revolutionaries, thus links the Bildungsroman inextricably to the treatment of contemporary history which, according to Georg Lukács, is Balzac’s great contribution to the historical novel tradition. In Lukács’ words, Balzac moves from “the portrayal of past history to the portrayal of the present as history,” seeking to capture “the volcanic character of social forces, concealed by the social calm of the Restoration period” (83-84).

When Lucien first enters into high society despite being mocked as an “apothecary’s son,” his success is described by Balzac as “in itself a minor revolution” (Lost Illusions 34). [16] In contrast, Thackeray portrays the social rise of Arthur Pendennis as merely business as usual in the flexible class structure of Britain’s ruling order. Although the narrator himself mocks Arthur’s genteel self-image, ironically calling him “this lofty young aristocrat, the apothecary’s son” (Pendennis 328), the novel’s plot nonetheless traces the steps by which British bourgeoisie rise successfully to the status of gentlemen: for the father, the purchase of a country estate; for the son Arthur, education at public school and Oxbridge, followed by residence at the Inns of Court, where his less than gentlemanly adventures in journalism are excused by his nominal connection to the profession of the Bar. Not for nothing is Pendennis the novel that coined the term “Oxbridge,” the now indispensable word that casts aside the individuality of the ancient universities with a knowing wink, and instead shows them as a united institution of social prestige. In Pendennis, Thackeray celebrates the British class system even while seeming to mock it: by tracing the social rise of Arthur Pendennis through the traditional institutions of British gentility, Thackeray constructs a novelistic world in which all class difference is harmless and all social change is peaceful and gradual—the more so for being comic.

That a British Bildungsroman should seek to deny the possibility of revolution will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the influential work of Franco Moretti, who proposes that the “classical Bildungsroman narrates how the French Revolution could have been avoided” (64). In the similar plot structures of Wilhelm Meister and Pride and Prejudice—where the protagonist gains happiness at the expense of freedom, and is rewarded with marriage to an aristocrat—Moretti discerns the counter-revolutionary project of the “classical Bildungsroman,” which valorizes the “existing order” (68) by narrating a “convergence” between a reformed aristocracy and a submissive bourgeoisie (64-65). Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Moretti’s comparative framework has no place for the kind of literary process that I am sketching in my interpretation of Pendennis: the construction of a British Bildungsroman within the Channel zone, in response to French literary and political models. Although Moretti exempts both Jane Austen and George Eliot from his condemnation, he otherwise dismisses the “English Bildungsroman from Fielding to Dickens” as “one long fairy tale with a happy ending, far more elementary and limited than its continental counterparts” (213). Underlying this negative literary judgment is a contrast between British and French history, centering on the opposition between the French Revolution of 1789 and the earlier English Revolution of 1688. Drawing on the work of the Marxist historian Perry Anderson, Moretti sees the British bourgeoisie—and thus the British Bildungsroman form—as permanently shaped by an “immature revolution,” which “gradually emasculated the hegemonic potential of the industrial bourgeoisie and the cultural autonomy of the workers’ movement” (Moretti 207). [17]

According to Moretti’s model, the British Bildungsroman (with the exception of Austen and Eliot) is actually too unchanging, too disengaged from the shocks of modernity, even to react against the French revolutions of 1789 or 1848. By emphasizing Britain’s exceptional immunity from revolutionary change, Moretti’s Marxist critique paradoxically ends up promoting the same model of British national history that we have seen in Pendennis—a model that has its origins in the counter-revolutionary discourses of the 1790s. For Edmund Burke and his contemporaries, as Seamus Deane notes, it was “tempting to compare the relatively peaceful English revolution of 1688 with the increasingly sanguinary character of 1789, and to derive from that a detailed account of the essentially stable and traditional features of the English system” (2). In Moretti’s account of the Bildungsroman, a comparable contrast between national “systems” redounds to the credit of the French and the detriment of the British. Thus, while the French Bildungsroman gains its dynamism from a bourgeoisie that is the “‘sociological’ equivalent of youth: unsettled, enterprising, mobile, alive,” the British Bildungsroman remains static because it represents the weakness of a middle class that is simply a “class ‘in the middle,’” a way-station between a dominant aristocracy and a passive working class (Moretti 191).

Although Moretti’s account of the Bildungsroman genre is the one most often cited by Victorianists, we have not yet risen to the challenges posed by his comparison between the British and French Bildungsroman. Not only does he actually exclude the British tradition from his well-known definition of the Bildungsroman as “the ‘symbolic form’ of modernity” (Moretti 5), but he also runs directly counter to the dominant scholarly belief that Victorian Britain was characterized by “bourgeois hegemony.” [18] I would suggest that, if we are to re-examine the relationship between the British and French Bildungsroman, we need to give more serious attention to Moretti’s arguments about social class; but, at the same time, we should move beyond the “either-or” concept of British ruling-class history that informs both Moretti’s work and the opposing New Historicist works on bourgeois hegemony. Instead of asking whether the bourgeoisie or aristocracy was the hegemonic class of nineteenth-century Britain, we can learn from more recent scholarship that examines the myriad and complex interactions between the landed, commercial, and professional elites who, together, made up Britain’s ruling class. In recent books ranging from Lauren Goodlad’s Victorian Literature and the Victorian State to Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter, we find a new form of theoretically informed attention to the category of the “gentleman,” the term that allows a collaboration—even a merger—between the bourgeois and aristocratic ruling classes. Seeking to align my reading of Pendennis with these ongoing explorations of the British “gentleman” class, I take my cue particularly from Penelope Corfield’s observation that the gentlemanly ideal served to “blur divisions among England’s elite, divisions that otherwise might have been more rigid: between titled and untitled society; between business and land; between professionals and non-professionals; between town and country; and between the upper class and bourgeoisie” (23).

It is, I suggest, the fact of these unclear boundaries—not either the strength or weakness of the British bourgeoisie—that distinguished the British middle classes from the French, and thus helped to shape the respective national forms of the Bildungsroman in the nineteenth century. Such a comparison, and its connection to the idea of the “gentleman,” follows implicitly from the observations of nineteenth-century analysts such as Alexis de Toqueville, who observed in 1856,

[I]f we follow the mutations in time and place of the English word “gentleman” (a derivative of our gentilhomme), we find its connotation being steadily widened in England as the classes draw nearer to each other and intermingle. In each successive century we find it being applied to men a little lower in the social scale [...] In France, however, there has been no question of enlarging the application of the word gentilhomme, which as a matter of fact has, since the Revolution, dropped out of common use. This is because it has always been employed to designate the members of a caste—a caste that has never ceased to exist in France and is still as exclusive as it was when the term was coined many centuries ago.


Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Thackeray’s Pendennis, as Bildungsromane that turn the class histories of France and Britain into the conditions of personal education for their young protagonists, register this difference as well: if the story of Arthur Pendennis provides a primer in the formation of the hybrid “gentleman” class, Lost Illusions narrates the ultimately fatal folly of a bourgeois trying to join the narrow caste of the landed gentry. Yet, although the merger of bourgeoisie and aristocracy into a class of “gentlemen” and “ladies” is one of the main conditions that shape the nineteenth-century British Bildungsroman, that process of merger—and the Bildungsroman it produced—is not merely the unchanging convention suggested by Moretti. Just as Pride and Prejudice responds to the first French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, negotiating within a British literary field that had become divided into “Jacobin” and “anti-Jacobin” factions, so do other Bildungsromane register both the national and the international changes affecting the British ruling classes. [19] The era of the 1848 revolutions is another period when these national and international changes are inextricably linked. Pendennis, one of the novels conceived in that year, emerges from a key moment of transition in British class relations—a transition crucially shaped by the passage of French ideas and politics across the Channel.

According to the historian John Saville, “what makes 1848 unusual, and in some respects unique, in nineteenth-century history, is the extraordinary impact and influence of revolutionary Paris upon the whole of the United Kingdom” (2). For the first time since the 1790s (when Britain was rocked by naval mutinies and the uprising of the United Irishmen, and when the government tried radical reformers for treason), the possibility of a French-influenced revolution was the crucial determinant in the relations between the disenfranchised and the governing classes of Britain. [20] On the one hand, Britain’s native working-class movement, the Chartists, embraced the French cause in 1848, convening a series of massive political rallies that explicitly linked the Charter to the international revolutionary movement. On the other hand, fear of a workers’ revolution drove the British middle classes to close ranks with the aristocracy, thereby healing the rift that had opened up earlier in the 1840s, when middle-class radicals sought working-class support in their struggle against the aristocratic Corn Laws. Thus, although Britain was spared any large-scale violence, the example of revolutionary Paris had a transformative effect on both working-class and middle-class politics in 1848. [21] Yet, by the early 1850s (and for more than a hundred years afterward), Britain’s engagement with the 1848 revolution was virtually forgotten; instead, compensatory myths cast 1848 as the moment that finally confirmed Britain’s unique and inevitable social stability. As historians of the Chartist movement have shown, this convenient mid-Victorian amnesia drew on the discourse produced during the 1848 crisis itself, when middle-class newspapers and upper-class government leaders sought to rally support by convincing the British public that they were living in an exceptionally fortunate country which could not possibly experience a revolution. [22] Among the writers who participated in this public-relations campaign, one of the most deeply engaged—and deeply ambivalent—was Thackeray himself. Even while he wrote patriotic newspaper reports reassuring the British public in 1848, his private letters dwelt on the possibility of international revolution. And even while he turned to the Bildungsroman form, in Pendennis, to promote the British national myth of gradual and peaceful development, he nonetheless continued his dialogue with French literary models.

Thackeray’s most immediate and explicit response to the French Revolution of 1848 appears in his articles for the Morning Chronicle, a liberal London newspaper that the historian Margot Finn identifies as a leading voice of “metropolitan and Anglican reform” during the 1848 crisis (75). According to Finn, the Morning Chronicle “advocated moderate reform of England’s electoral system,” but condemned any efforts by the French revolutionary workers and their Chartist supporters to “effect social reform through politics” (75). Thackeray, whose skills were those of a story-teller and cultural critic rather than a political theorist, contributed to the newspaper’s anti-revolutionary program through anecdotal reportage. In his descriptions of Chartist rallies in March 1848 (less than a month after the Paris revolution), Thackeray at once emphasizes and ironizes the link between the British working-class demonstrators and the French revolutionaries. When he reported on the March 14 rally at which the Chartists voted to “send a congratulatory address to the French Republicans,” Thackeray dutifully transcribed the speeches, but focused his novelistic eye on visual details that undercut the speakers’ call to “establish liberty, equality, and fraternity, as they now had in France” (“Meeting” 197). Describing how a group of working-men arrived in a wagon draped with a French tri-color flag, only to find the “parti-colored rag pitilessly pelted with mud and stones” by the crowd waiting outside the Chartist meeting, Thackeray concludes, “This was intended as a grand coup-de-théâtre, but the failure was signally ludicrous” (“Meeting” 195). By taking a stance of sophisticated, tolerant amusement, without any invective against revolution, Thackeray manages to reduce this particular working-class form of Victorian internationalism to a mere nuisance. He further reassures his readers that the Chartist meeting, far from being violent, was “dull, tame, and uninteresting [ ... ], and about as orderly and well-conducted as a Borough meeting at the Town Hall of Southwark, under the presidency of the High Bailiff” (“Meeting” 193). In its very lack of obvious class antagonism, as well as its calm assertion of an essential British character, Thackeray’s article provides a particularly effective example of the British ruling-class propaganda unleashed against the Chartists’ internationalist aspirations.

Yet Thackeray’s private letters from the same period take a very different stance: instead of writing as a British patriot humorously asserting his country’s immunity from revolution, Thackeray writes as a self-declared “republican” anxious to determine what Britain might learn from revolutionary France. In letters to his mother—who lived in Paris and who evidently supported the revolutionary government—Thackeray writes about re-reading Louis Blanc’s treatise The Organization of Labor, declares himself to be “for a social republic” but “not communism,” and admits that “I can’t find the end of the question between property and labour” (Letters 355-57). [23] In his attempt to engage intimately with the French politics of 1848, Thackeray also grapples with his own literally intimate relationship to Paris, his own former home and now the home of his expatriate mother and stepfather. As Thackeray suggests in a letter to a British friend, his family connection to Paris could potentially challenge the conventional opposition between British domestic order and French revolutionary chaos: “My step father writes this minute from Paris. He is in the greatest state of alarm about the riots which are taking place in this country [Britain], believes that a bloody revolution is imminent here and begs that I should send the children over to him for protection! This is the greatest thing I have yet heard come out of the Revolution” (Letters 358). It is in response to this offer of a Parisian domestic shelter that Thackeray writes his most detailed private evaluation of the British political crisis. Apologizing for being a “sad lukewarm reformer” in his skepticism about the February Revolution, Thackeray attempts to assure his “dear old parents” that he and his children are completely safe in London: “We won’t have an armed or violent revolution here, please God—and if we do every man of orderly feelings and peaceful notions in the country would be on the Government side. Republicans and all. [ ... ] I think the collision of poverty against property is begun in France, but not here as yet” (Letters 357). “Please God,” and “not here as yet”: in this letter, written at the same time as his report on the Chartist meeting, Britain’s exemption from revolution is a hope, rather than a certainty, and Thackeray is visibly forced to articulate his conception of an “orderly” and “peaceful” Britain in response to the pro-French and republican views of his own family.

By quoting from Thackeray’s personal letters, I do not mean to suggest that his private voice tells the real story that is hidden in his public writings. After all, given that he was writing to expatriate family members who supported the 1848 Revolution, his letters too are clearly a performance that seeks to please an audience. However, what his letters do reveal is that any apparent insularity in his published writings is just that: apparent. When his topical journalism dismisses French revolutionaries and their English admirers as merely ludicrous, or when his novel Pendennis—in a more complex strategy—turns a Bildungsroman narrative of gradual personal growth into a national narrative of Britain’s peaceful progress, these apparently self-confident assertions of Britain’s special immunity from revolutionary change are constructed within and against Thackeray’s intimate concern with France and its revolutions. His private letters recognize a possibility that his published writings work to deny: that the issue at stake in 1848 was not the difference between British and French national characters, but rather a “collision of poverty against property” that transcended national boundaries. It is precisely such a vision of international class conflict that Pendennis works to dispel, using the resources of literary narrative to reassert the supposed distinctiveness of Britain’s “peaceful” and “orderly” social system. But by working within the international genre of the Bildungsroman, and paying an apparent tribute to the specifically French example of Balzac, Thackeray chooses a provocatively indirect route toward the affirmation of British national identity. Rather than following the direct line of the Burkean tradition, in which writers celebrate British virtues in opposition to a demonized French “other,” Thackeray instead places his novel in dialogue with French literary models. In this dialogue, Thackeray makes sure that Britain gets the last word: by transforming Balzac’s story of class conflict into a story of “gentlemanly” collaboration between Britons of different classes, Pendennis suggests that British literature—and, by implication, British society itself—is cohesive enough to absorb French disturbances. Yet several meanings of “absorb” are relevant here: in Pendennis, the British Bildungsroman may be seen encompassing and neutralizing the French Bildungsroman tradition, but also being permeated and transformed by that tradition.

To capture that process of negotiation, which cannot be reduced to a mere rejection of a French “other,” I would like to close with a curious and suggestive moment in Pendennis. When the coquettish Blanche Amory pretends to be melancholy and world-weary, the novel’s narrator reports that she spoke of her “disillusionments, as she called them in her pretty French jargon” (285). Preceding the OED’s earliest citation for “disillusionment” by half a decade, this may well be the first appearance of the word in an English text. [24] While the possibility that Pendennis is a rewriting of Lost Illusions remains only a hypothesis, what is certain is that Thackeray presents disillusionment itself—the theme that many critics have seen as an over-riding concern of the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman—as a legacy of the French.  [25] Typically, Thackeray has given the French word to a comic character, a pretentious girl who has steeped herself in the novels of George Sand and changed her name from Betsy to Blanche. Yet it is also typical that Thackeray signals his own knowledge of French language and literature in the process. The same dynamic of disillusionment that Thackeray mocks as a French affectation turns out to structure both the personal experience of Arthur Pendennis, whose most tenacious illusion is the belief that he has already outgrown his illusions, and the narrative trajectory of the novel itself. This trajectory may be summed up by Arthur’s two marriage proposals to Laura: in his first, cynical and unsuccessful proposal, he declares that he has “lost many an illusion and ambition” and that he has “hardly got a heart to offer” (344-45); after the second, sincere and successful proposal, his “heart was humbled by the prospect of his happiness; it stood awe-stricken in the contemplation of [Laura’s] sweet goodness and purity” (942). Rediscovering the “heart” that he had prematurely written off as just another illusion, Arthur Pendennis is allowed to take shelter in the encompassing virtues of the domestic woman, achieving one of those distinctively British “endings in which characters retreat into their private spheres” (Cohen 123). However, for Thackeray—the author who had recently been offered a Parisian domestic shelter from the feared class warfare of London—such a self-consciously British retreat from politics is less simple than it might seem. Although the ending of Pendennis ultimately affirms British domestic ideology, it does so by adapting and revising a Balzacian narrative of disillusionment. Only by passing through a process of disillusionment identified as French does the text of Pendennis, or its eponymous hero, reach the security of the private ethical realm that marks the British realist tradition. In Thackeray’s hands, the British Bildungsroman thus reveals the larger pattern of British culture in the era of the French revolutions: the construction of a national identity that seems to repudiate, but cannot exist without, the Channel zone.

Parties annexes