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Thackeray In Love
“You may marry anybody you please & I don’t care.” Thus the famous English author to wild, pretty Sally Baxter of New York; which is to say that he—and his American love—never got over it at all.
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
Sally professed to be weary of balls and belledom. She seemed to welcome evenings of conversation with Thackeray in the library of the Brown House. She had read widely, but she had never talked wiih an author before; she was curious to know whether authors were different from people “in society”; she asked why Thackeray gave such bad characters Io women in his novels—“Don’t you know any good ones?”
On his part, he questioned her about life in New York society. What, for example, did a young gentleman talk about when he sat by her on a sofa at a ball? She answered, “What a man knows and talks of best—himself.” Her use of short, direct words (in that age of affectation) enchanted him; he found her American pronunciation adorable. He lectured her for being “forward and commanding” but explored her mind with increasing delight. The loves of his life—his wife and Jane-had been soft, submissive women, quite different from this spirited girl. His talks with Sally usually developed into a skirmish and ended in laughter.
At the end of his mom h in New York he knew he was in love with her. She was in the audience on the last lecture night, December 17, and as he talked of Oliver Goldsmith’s Jessamy Bride and Laurence Sterne’s Eliza, he looked straight into her eyes. On December 20 he wrote his mother, “I have been actually in love for 3 days with a pretty, wild girl of 19 (and was never more delighted in my life than by discovering that I could have this malady over again).”
The next day he went on to Boston to lecture, writing on arrival a note addressed to “The Viscountess Castlewood and the Honbl Beatrix Esmond” imploring, “Now will you and You write tomorrow?” and adding, “Poor B! [Bingham] 1 feel for him now.” He came back to spend Christmas with the Baxters and kissed Sally good-by when he left (being careful to kiss Lucy too). On New Year’s Day, the traditional time in New York for a gentleman to call with a box of candy, he sent his secretary down from Boston to the Brown House with a box of bonbons and a ring of American pearls set in American gold “for Miss Sally or Sallie—it’s the most absurd way of spelling your name, Miss. Fancy Abraham calling Sarah Sally! It doesn’t become his age.” To Mrs. Baxter he sent a letter: Isn’t it all written before in the Chronicle of Esmond the son of Esmond? That wcik and elderly gentleman saw a number of faults in a curtain bright & beautiful Mistress Beatrix, who nevertheless played the mischief with his heart; and I don’t think he was ever more glum than I at this present sitting alone and looking at the bleak and sulky snow coming down on my prospect at the commencement of this happy New Year. Do all the victims I wonder write and pour out their griefs to you?
After he went on to Philadelphia to lecture he returned again to New York before departing to fill his engagements in Baltimore, Washington, and southern cities. In conversations with Sally he was now referring to Jane Brookfield as l’autre : Jane was the “frying-pan,” and Sally was the “fire.” And Sally, who had never known a man so witty, so wise, and so understanding, was confessing to an amour de tête for him.
There was gossip about them that winter in New York, and he knew that it was spreading when ladies came up to him at receptions in other cities inquiring with a knowing look, “How is Miss Baxter?” Afraid that the gossip would get back to England and wound Jane, he wrote friends at home that he had had a mild attack of love but had completely recovered. To Jane he wrote, “Have you heard that I have found Beatrix at New York? I have basked in her bright eyes, but Ah me! I don’t care for her and shall hear of her marrying a New York buck with a feeling of perfect pleasure.” Yet the letter was full of Beatrix, and one sentence might well have startled Jane: “J can’t live without the tenderness of some woman; and expect when I am sixty I shall be marrying a girl of eleven or twelve, innocent, barley-sugar-loving, in a pinafore.”
Thackeray saw little of Baltimore, since he was not staying there but commuting to his lectures from Washington, where he had taken lodgings over Mr. Anderson’s Music Store on Pennsylvania Avenue. By comparison with Baltimore, which had an Old World air, with stepping stones in the streets, huge trees, and quaint buildings that might have belonged to Queen Anne’s time, Washington was new and small, but gay. There were receptions and dinners, concerts and balls, oysters and champagne every night—so much entertaining that (he lectures had to be postponed until Lent. He thought the little city was rather like Wiesbaden, with politics and gaieties straggling all over it.
There were also some of the crudities of a young society. For the Baxters’ private amusement he described a grand dinner at the British minister’s, where the menservants’ yellow plush liveries were objects of lively curiosity to the American guests. Thackeray sat by a Miss Smith, a young beauty, “who told me she admired my beautiful hands—all Englishmen kept their nails well! (upon my word) and my way of ‘conveying my food to my mouth,’ all Englishmen, &c.” He also had a disconcerting conversation with Baroness de Bodisco, the American girl whose marriage at sixteen to the seventy-two-year-old Russian minister had been a sensation in Washington society. In the course of the evening the Baroness happened to remark that her husband did not belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. “‘Is he a Lithuanian?’ says I (where there are many Catholics). ‘He leaves me to do the religion,’ says Her Excellency, thinking Lithuanian was a form of belief.”