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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
While he was in Washington she had written him a melancholy letter, showing him “tears which no one else ever sees,” confiding to him her doubts about marriage. Her father’s business was not prospering; his income was no longer enough to meet the formidable expenses of life in New York. Wasn’t it her duty to marry for money? Thackeray had not taken the letter seriously, but now he began to suspect that she was in earnest. There was possibly a final skirmish in the Brown House library that ended in some form of defeat for him, for on the morning of April 20 he suddenly decided to go home, sailed the same day, and on the return voyage wrote three bitter letters to Sally, so bitter that he tore them up.
As soon as he got back to London, he signed a contract for a new book—not a book on his American travels (with the outcry over Dickens’ not-always-friendly American Notes in mind, he refused to write a book on America)—but a novel. From Paris in July he wrote Sally, “Suppose I make the hero of the new book in love with some one? And then suppose I make him jilted? He won’t break his heart. I don’t think he’ll have much of a heart.” Remembering the last lecture in New York in December, he told her that he had just spent a night at Calais in the very room that Laurence Sterne had slept in—“wasn’t it queer? I wonder whether all literary men are humbugs and have no hearts. I know one who has none. Why you may marry anybody you please & I don’t care: I dare say there is some young fellow at Newport or Saratoga at this very minute—and I’m amused, I give you my honour I’m amused.”
When Sally replied that she was thinking of marrying Bingham Mildmay, he was far from amused. He was sure it would be a mistake. There was a difference, his American visit had convinced him, between people like the Baxters and their British counterparts, and it was mainly that the Americans were more romantic, more sentimental, more tenderhearted. The heartlessness of London, he wrote Sally, was awful to contemplate, and Bingham had been spoiled by it. The London great world was respectable—and godless; prosperous, content, and base. It was dismaying to imagine his brave young Sarah transplanted to that world. “No!” he exhorted her. “Go and live in a clearingmarry a husband masticatory, expectoratory, dubious of linen, but with a heart below that rumpled garment—let the children eat with their precious knives—help the help, and give a hand to the dinner yourself—yea, it is better than to be a woman of fashion in London.”
He thought about her constantly. He saw a pretty American girl in a carriage in the Rue Vivienne who looked like her, and he wrote Sally: a great gush of feelings came tumbling out of this bussam at the sight. I wanted to run after the carriage and stop it and speak to her and say “Do you know anything of one S. B. of New York?” The carriage whisked away leaving me alone with my feelings—O ye old ghostsl I declare I saw nothing of the crowded city for a minute or two so completely did the revenans hem me in—Nothing is forgotten. We bury ‘em but they pop out of their graves now and again and say Here we are Master. Do you think we are dead? No, no, only asleep. We wake up sometimes we come to you we shall come to you when you are ever so old; we shall always be as fresh and mischievous as we are now. We shall say Do you remember S. B. do you remember her eyes? Do you think she had 2 dimples in her cheeks and don’t you recollect this was the note of her laugh, that used to be quite affected at times but you know the music of it, you poor old rogue? Yes the laugh and the looks flash out of the past every now and then and whisk by me just like that carriage in the Rue Vivienne. …
At the hour of sunset, his heart “which knows that much of geography, flies over to the West, and lands amongst you.” On a late summer holiday in Switzerland with his daughters, one day while he and Anny were walking up a little hill near Fribourg, from a passing carriage an American voice called out, “How is Miss Baxter?”—and the lonely cavities of his heart echoed, “How is Miss Baxter?” He was already planning to return to America to lecture in 1854. By that time, he surmised, Lucy would be married “and Sarah—ah where will Sarah be?”
She did not marry Bingham. Her mother wrote Thackeray that she was refusing suitor after suitor; she seemed to care for nobody. Sally’s letters to Thackeray at this period were burned by his daughter after his death; but they seem to have been sad, troubled letters. “What is it that makes you miserable?” he wrote her. “I wish I could hear. On a certain subject you told me I was not to write to you. It’s that one I suppose. Now that I am thousands of miles away from them, I opine that the tears of twenty years dry up very quickly.” That winter he heard that she had been quite seriously ill; and then the sad letters became fewer, and stopped.
In the meantime he was deep in his new novel. It was The Newcomes . In fashioning its heroine he drew upon his recollections of Sally, his love, and some of his bitterness. Ethel, “a flighty young enchantress,” with bright eyes, black hair, and solemn eyebrows, “a girl of great beauty, high temper, and strong natural intellect,” refuses the hero, Clive, and dissipates her youth in the pursuit of a rich husband. Painting an unforgettable picture of her at a ball dressed as gaudily as a French actress, astonishing all beholders by her beauty, he drew a moral: “What a confession it is, in the very outset of life and blushing brightness of youth’s morning, to own that the aim with which a young girl sets out, and the object of her existence, is to marry a rich man.”