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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
How changed things were; how long ago it seemed since the Christmas he had kissed the girls in the Brown House. His own affairs had prospered, he had never had so great a reputation or so much money. He was planning to build for himself and his daughters a fine new house in the Queen Anne style in Kensington. Yet he was not looking forward to the future with much anticipation of happiness. He had made fatherhood the chief interest of his life; but there were times when he acknowledged that a man without a woman was “a lonely wretch.” His health had not been good for some time, and he felt so old (his hair was now white) that it was an effort to get on with his new novel, The Adventures of Philip . He quoted the Baxters the last sentence he had written: “When I was a girl I used always to be reading novels, she said, but IaI they’re mostly nonsense. There’s Mr. Pendennis, I wonder how a married man can go on writing about love and all that stuff!” And he admitted that it was rather absurd for elderly fingers to be still twanging Cupid’s toy bow and arrows.
Still, he was deeply concerned about Sally. Was she no longer to be a countrywoman of the Baxters? And were her children—she had produced three in the first five years of her marriage—not to be Americans? There was already more than enough cause for concern about her. She had never really recovered from her illness in 1853; her infrequent, despairing letters (to which he had replied, “There Miss Sally you howl on your seashore and I will roar from mine”) showed that her health was steadily getting worse. “A lovely lady, with pathetic dark eyes and a look of ill health” was the way she appeared to Julia Ward Howe, who met her in Havana early in 1859. Frank had brought Sally to Cuba in the hope that the climate would help her. The Hamptons knew now that she was suffering from consumption.
After Christmas, 1860, Thackeray found it increasingly hard to write to the Baxters, because of the news of Secession. In the face of the grief that must be in their house, what was he to say? How could you write twopenny gossip to a people undergoing a revolution? The Civil War seemed to him too horrible to contemplate. He had never been able to believe that the friends he had made in America, North and South, would be hating and fighting each other; that the bright promise, the hopes and aspirations of the restless, aspiring, achieving people would come to this.
How tragic it was for them all he learned from Sally herself, in a letter written from Charleston on April 5, 1862. In May of 1861 Frank had joined his brother’s brigade, leaving her expecting her fourth child. With her baby, born in November, and her three little children she had spent the first year of the war alone, in a land that had begun to seem strange to her. She had not even the consolation of patriotism, for her sympathies were not with either side, South or North. Both were wrong, and both were suffering. In her sorrow for her country and for herself, her heart turned to Thackeray, and old memories came back: While I write, the Fort Sumter band is serenading in the street below some military chief returned freshly from some battlefield, or wending his way to another. As I listen to the Adelaide, Strauss waltzes, the Schoensten Augen , memory carries me back ten, perhaps twenty years, who knows? to the days of my ball-room belledom. I feel the hot breath of the glaring gas, the choking fragrance of the flowers, the quiver of the dancer’s steps. I see you, head and shoulders above the crowd, looking through those [and here she drew a pair of spectacles], as you were wont to do in certain moods (not over them as in certain others) with a smile, half cynical, half pitying, at the Ethel of the evening, with her little court about her.
Where were they all now? That slender youth, with the close-cut black mustache and big melancholy eyes, that gave such emphasis to his social nothings, he, the petted darling of society for all these years, is dead on a sand-bar, of a fever, in sight of the country he had come to devastate, if he could. The mother who weeps for him at home was born on that very shore, her home in youth might have been his first prize,—her brother is in waiting behind that distant earthwork. … Another—“the little gentleman” you called him—he has married since, and carried to the snows of New York a girl nurtured on Carolina jessamine and sunshine. He has left her now … to bring fire and sword to the house where she was born, and where their first born lies buried.
These two stories were enough to show him the sorrows among which all lived and against which all must struggle—none were exempt, for to those who have no divided hearts, comes the dread division of Death, the widow and orphan mourn their dead, and the destitute the happy homes now in ruins, or the campground of an enemy. Upon the fertile smiling islands are marauding bands of runaways who have spurned the old masters, and, in turn, refuse the new. In every swamp and thicket are fugitives, fleeing from they know not what,—dreading like death the “Yankee soger,” yet seeking to leave the master they love, and the home they have adored , in a vague and nameless terror. …