“A wandering minstrel I
A thing of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And dreamy lullaby!
My catalogue is long,
Through every passion ranging,
And to your humors changing
I tune my supple song!”
When I was in high school and first seriously interested in literature, I heard these lyrics from Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. They speak, to me at least, of a concept of art I’ve always found deeply appealing. An art that, while potentially serious, has something slightly informal and occasional about it. For some reason, I’ve always yearned after that minstrel, who could make us laugh one day and then, on request, spin a grand, heroic tragedy. The next day, everyone would gather for a fairy tale. It’s not that the minstrel wouldn’t care about the song but he or she would recognize it as potentially somewhat fleeting.
Almost immediately, I connected that imaginary minstrel to Thackeray. While he was an author with a major reputation, there definitely seemed to be something of those shreds and patches about him. I formed this impression primarily from reading ABOUT Thackeray. I tried some of his work but, at that point in my development, his prose was too much for me.
My ideas about literature are broader and maturer these days but that minstrel still enchants me sometimes. I recently decided to try Thackeray again. I picked The Four Georges because I have read quotes from it for years in books on the history of the British monarchy. Those passages were always charming and humorous and I’d long wondered about the whole piece. It was a wonderful read but it does demonstrate some of the issues that, I think, held Thackeray back as a writer.
To begin with, any potential reader should know that this is not a straight work of biography or history. Thackeray writes about what he wants to and ignores what he doesn’t like. He also digresses constantly to comment on various aspects of life in the reigns of the Georges. Anyone seeking more serious and accurate information about any of these kings and their eras should look elsewhere. Thackeray also assumes the audience knows a lot about British and European history and culture. As an Anglophile and a history buff, this was no problem for me. However, other readers might well find it frustrating.
The scattered nature of Thackeray’s narrative can be distracting but it gives The Four Georges a deliciously individual taste. It also aids Thackeray in achieving his stated goal of giving us a kind of panorama of activity during the lives and reigns of Kings George I-IV. That panorama is vivid and never less than convincing although, as I mentioned earlier, readers should consult more scholarly works to get a balanced look at these periods.
In terms of his reputation as a humorist, Thackeray more than measures up here. There are several laugh out loud moments. The chapter on George III, probably the strongest part of the book overall, contains some of the best chuckles. Thackeray is a gentle comedian. He can be sharp but never comes across as nasty, even when calling someone dreary and stupid! Naturally, this isn’t easy. Part of the explanation is that Thackeray frequently tempers his satire with a very Victorian brand of sentimentality. Surprisingly, this works quite well, especially in the sections about George II’s wife Caroline of Ansbach and George III’s descent into madness. When mixing humor and sentiment, Thackeray showed great aesthetic discipline, never tipping too far one way or the other. The overall effect is quite beguiling.
While I loved this book, it certainly is not without its flaws. Thackeray’s ambiguous reaction (assuming I read it correctly) to George I’s despicable and vile treatment of his wife is rather disturbing. There are also unpleasant moments of antisemitism and, especially, anti-Catholicism. Thackeray does however attack cruelty and fanaticism. In a passage condemning religious persecution, he includes actions against Jews and Catholics on his list of moral outrages.
Another problem with The Four Georges is Thackeray’s apparent confusion about what he felt and thought. There were moments when I wasn’t TOTALLY sure whether or not Thackeray was kidding or being serious. Some of that may have been me missing the point but I don’t think all of it was. Thackeray was a confirmed Victorian, valuing honor and morality above all. However, he was also a man captivated by the perceived carelessness and fun of a very un-Victorian past. Nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter on George IV. Thackeray’s tone is very confusing. For several pages, he can’t seem to decide if his fascination with George IV outweighs his contempt for that rake of a monarch. I applaud Thackeray’s treasuring of simple humility and virtue. There is not nearly enough of that now, in my opinion. Aesthetically however, it seems to me that Thackeray felt he needed to translate that reverence for virtue into serious, monumental writing. This is simply not where his talent lay. The Four Georges is great when it is just funny. It’s still great when it’s funny and poignant. When Thackeray drops the humor altogether, the book becomes cloying and irksome. Luckily, this doesn’t happen that often but it reveals the problem with Thackeray’s art. I think he WAS that wandering minstrel. Ironically, if he’d just embraced the nature of his gifts and had fun, he would probably be much better remembered. Thackeray might have argued that he was bound to promote virtue. I honor and respect his wishes. Still, I just don’t think he was cut out to promote virtue in any brow-furrowing way. The sad thing is, his skill with gentle laughter and quiet tears might well have promoted virtue better than any serious and “important” writing he felt he had to do.
“A wandering minstrel I