Thackeray In Love


The day he arrived, November 16, the din was increased by a funeral procession in honor of Daniel Webster, who had recently been buried in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The funeral car, bearing a symbolic urn and a bronze eagle holding a laurel wreath, followed by floats with banners fluttering in the autumn breeze, rumbled down Broadway past hotels and shops festooned with black and white velvet, plumes, busts, and vivid tableaux. On the front of P. T. Barnum’s Museum there was a wax statue of Webster, life-size in full color. All day there was the clang of tolling bells, and in the afternoon the heavy booming of a seventy-gun salute fired by the Veterans of ’76.

“Nobody is quiet here …” Thackeray wrote Jane Brookfield. “The rush and restlessness pleases me.”

He could not help being pleased by the warmth of his reception in America. The New York Tribune hailed him as “the most thoughtful critic of manners and society, the subtlest humorist, and the most effective, because the most genial, satirist the age has known.” Everybody had read Vanity Fair; one pretty girl told him she had read it twelve times. He discovered that Americans read Thackeray and Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton as if they were Shakespeare. Everywhere, in this new society, he found a respect for England that was curious and touching—at his lectures he would notice people writing down words that he pronounced differently.

His course of lectures, “The English Humourists of Queen Anne’s Reign,” was sold out before it began, and a second course had to be announced. Sales of reprints of his books soared, and the appearance of Henry Esmond in a paper-backed edition at fifty cents added to the Thackeray furor. Invitations poured in to lecture in other cities. He was the lion of the hour. At the parlors of his hotel, the Clarendon, there was a stream of callers—George Bancroft, the distinguished historian; Horace Greeley and other newspapermen; Barnum’s business agent, who came with a handsome offer for a contribution to a magazine Barnum was starting; a man with a letter from an enterprising hatter, who offered to make Mr. Thackeray a stovepipe hat free of charge. The most celebrated visitor was Washington Irving, a very old gentleman in a brown wig, with wide, humorous blue eyes.

One of the earliest callers at the Clarendon was a Mr. George Baxter, brought by a young English visitor to New York named Henry Bingham Mildmay, the nephew of Thackeray’s friend Lady Ashburton. Mr. Baxter was a businessman, a warehouse owner with offices in Wall Street. He seemed somewhat nervous, and it was apparent that it had taken some urging by young Mildmay (who as it turned out was a suitor of Mr. Baxter’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Sally) to persuade him to come at all. His family had been reading Henry Esmond . Would Mr. Thackeray do him the honor to accompany him to his house, a few blocks away on Second Avenue? He was so modest and so likable that Thackeray found himself accepting.

At the Baxters’ tall brownstone house (which he always afterward called the Brown House) Thackeray had the strange experience of meeting one of his own characters in the flesh: he encountered Beatrix Esmond. Sally Baxter was Beatrix to the life, with Beatrix’ bright eyes, high color, imperious manner, and wayward, maddening charm. He never forgot how beautiful she looked that day, with a red ribbon in her dark hair.

Fascinated by Sally and attracted to the whole family, which included sixteen-year-old Lucy and two little boys, he came again and again to the Brown House. Mrs. Baxter, a gentle, warmhearted woman whom he was soon calling “Lady Castlewood,” saw to it that a place was always set for him in the dining room with a pitcher of claret, where lie coidd have a quiet dinner before his lecture. Lucy mended his shirts. On the evenings when there were no lectures he sat in his own special yellow armchair by the fire in the parlor, leasing young Lucy or drawing sketches to amuse the boys, or confiding in Mrs. Baxter—and all the lime listening for the sound of Sally’s sten on the stair.

She usually came down dressed for a ball, for she was one of the great belles that season. He began going to balls to watch her. His eyes followed her as she whirled by in a Strauss waltz or a polka, the gold or silver threads in her tulle skirts catching the light from the blazing gas chandeliers; or as she sat on a sofa surrounded by admirers. And as he studied Sally, he studied New York society. The balls were more extravagant than any he remembered in England: masses of flowers everywhere, supper tables groaning under foie gras , canvasback duck, and superb wines. He wrote home, “I never saw such luxury and extravagance, such tearing polkas, such stupendous suppers and fine, fine clothes.” Not even in France—except on actresses—had he seen such elaborate ball gowns, in stripes and all colors of the rainbow. Usually the balls were at Delmonico’s, but some of [he big mansions being built on Fifth Avenue had ballrooms covered with gilding and damask. The houses all seemed to be new, some of them not yet even papered; and on damask-covered walls he was surprised to find, instead of oil paintings, cheap colored prints. The society seemed very fluid—the nouveaux riches gave the most elaborate balls, and the best families all came.