April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
“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.
On his first visit to the United States, William Makepeace Thackeray discovered the truth of Carlyle’s characterization of America as “the never-resting, locomotive country”; he discovered Americans who were a hundred times more likable than the tourists he had encountered in London, “sulking or pushing”; and he discovered Beatrix Esmond and fell in love with her.
To him the most important discovery was that he could still fall in love. When he arrived in November of 1852, a very tall man of forty-one with burly, slightly stooping shoulders, gray hair, and hazel eyes that peered out at the world through steel-rimmed spectacles, he was suffering from the wrench of a final parting from Jane Brookfield, the married woman he had loved for years. Jane loved him, but had submitted to her husband’s demand that she break oft the association. Their passion was all the more tormenting for being unfulfilled: both were proper Victorians, and both were married. Thackeray’s wife was insane. She had developed schizophrenia after the birth of his youngest daughter in 1840, and had never recovered.
The American tour had been undertaken to provide money for the care of his wife and the future of his young daughters, Anny and Minny. Vanity Fair and Pendennis had made him famous but they had not made him rich, for there were then no international copyrights and no American royalties; and little more could be expected from his new novel, Henry Esmond , just oft the press. From a series of six lectures in New York, already arranged, and from possible engagements elsewhere in America, he hoped to make £4,000.
The trip began well. Leaving his daughters with his mother and stepfather in Paris and traveling with his secretary, Eyre Crowe, he had a pleasant thirteen-day crossing from Liverpool to Boston on the Royal Mail Ship Canada . His fellow passengers were at first a little in awe of the great man, for his novels had given him the reputation of being a snob, and his manner with strangers was reserved; but they discovered that with people he liked he could be a most amusing companion. And there were indeed congenial souls aboard, among them two writers. James Russell Lowell, a handsome young man of thirty-three, was returning with his wife and child from a holiday in Italy; Arthur Hugh dough was on his way to America to stay with Emerson at Concord and look for a tutoring job at Harvard. Later Clough wrote, “Thackeray doesn’t sneer; he is really very sentimental .” And with a poet’s insight he added, “but he sees the silliness sentiment runs into and so always tempers it by a little banter or ridicule.”
At dinner in Boston on November 12, the evening the Canada docked, during a glorious sunset, Thackeray soon had the whole table laughing. Gulping down his first huge American oyster, he announced that he felt as if he had swallowed a baby. This was the beginning of a series of dinners with the literary gentlemen of Boston before he went on to New York to begin his lectures. Everyone, of course, was eager for his first impressions of America. Boston, for example? Well, it surprised him by its look of age. He had naturally not anticipated log huts and wigwams, but he had not expected to find a city so settled and solid. It was rather like Edinburgh. Yet even here everybody seemed to be in a hurry. In the dining room of the Tremont House, Thackeray’s secretary found his plate being whisked away before he had had time to eat; he discovered that he had inadvertently sat down at an “express table” for people anxious to catch trains.
The rapid pace of American life was most striking in New York. Down Broadway, more than two miles long from Union Square to the Battery, there was a rush of traffic such as Thackeray had never seen: omnibuses, carriages with Negro coachmen and footmen upright on the box, vans, drays, all clattering and rushing somewhere. Trains ran slap into the middle of the city. The air was sharp, clear, and exhilarating; he felt almost young again in this young air.
Along Broadway the sun flashed brilliantly on a great gilded eagle over a jewelry store, on the silvered, dolphin-shaped spouts of a sidewalk soda fountain where soda water and ginger beer were being dispensed by a bearded man in a stovepipe hat—the great emblem of equality, the Britishers noted, universally worn. There were other evidences that every American thought himself as good as any other. Clerks in stores never said “Sir”; coachmen never offered to help with luggage. There were indeed some shocking instances of bad manners. When Thackeray said to a roughlooking man in the Bowery, “Please, sir, I want to go to Brooklyn,” he was told, “Well, why the hell don’t you go?” Men chewed tobacco and spat it out wherever it pleased them. In restaurants and lunch rooms he saw men and women eating with their knives. When a heavy snow fell in December and out came the huge omnibus sleighs, the passengers amused themselves by hurling snowballs, ice, and anything at hand at other sleighs, the conductor himself joining in the fun.
These exuberant New Yorkers were building a new city. Shop fronts of white marble were replacing oldfashioned brick; everywhere there were barricades and scaffoldings, old buildings coming down and new ones going up, Broadway itself being dug up to replace cobblestones with granite. The restlessness was evident even in the private houses. Thackeray never went into a house in New York that was not undergoing some change—hammering in the hall, a wall or staircase being altered, or the family packing up to move.
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.
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.”
Dinner at the British minister’s, a reception at the White House, a ball at the Assembly Room, a sightseeing trip to Mount Vernon—all these Thackeray held out as inducements when he begged Mrs. Baxter to bring Sally down to Washington so he could see her before he started south, offering to put them up in his own rooms. “What fun we will have! What dismal little queer bedrooms to sleep in!”
They did not come, and he had to do his sightseeing alone or with his secretary, being shown over the Capitol by Senator Sumner and the War Department by old General Winfield Scott. Sauntering through Lafayette Square, he saw the new equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson and afterward convulsed Washington dinner tables by his description of “the hero sitting in an impossible attitude, on an impossible horse with an impossible tail.” At a dinner given by Senator Hamilton Fish, Senator Seward asked Thackeray how “Seward” would be pronounced in England. Thackeray’s reply, “Like sewer, I think,” was relished in some circles—but not by Seward.
One cold day there was an excursion down the Potomac aboard John Ericsson’s new “caloric ship.” In the party were not only Thackeray and Washington Irving, who was in town doing research in government archives^ but the two Presidents—Mr. Fillmore, who was still in the White House, and General Pierce, who had not yet been inaugurated. It was the custom for the outgoing President to accompany the incoming President everywhere, to introduce him to Washington; they came together to the last night of Thackeray’s lectures.
At the end of his three weeks in Washington he left to fill engagements in Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. On the journey he saw for the first time the Rappahannock River, where the Esmonds had their estates, and it gave him the queerest sensation: for a moment or two he imagined that the story was actually true, and that if he rode over the hills he would come upon the old Mansion House where the little Colonel lived with his jealous wife. And the southern cities were like a journey into the past. The streets and houses had an antiquated charm; the people’s voices were more like English voices than any he had heard, because for generations boys of good families had been sent back to England to school; and the southerners were more leisurely and more mannerly than the people of the northern cities.
In Richmond he had his first encounter with the reality of slavery. His young secretary indeed got into what Thackeray regarded as a dreadful scrape over it. Crowe went into the atiction rooms of a slave dealer and began sketching—a field hand who was being made to walk up and down to show off his paces, like a horse; a woman with her baby on her lap; a row of house servants neatly dressed in gray with white aprons and white collars fastened by scarlet bows. When the aucioneer and dealers saw what he was doing, he came very near being mobbed.
Thackeray’s greatest concern was that the incident might hurt the lectures. He had been warned on his arrival in Boston not to commit himself on one side or the other of the slavery question. After his southern tour he confessed to English friends that slavery had not shocked him as much as perhaps it ought to. In the good families in southern cities he saw no evidences of mistreatment; on the contrary he observed that the masters took good care not only of the Negroes who could work, but of the old, the sick, and the young. This was a heavy burden. He believed that slaveowners generally wanted to get rid of slavery (except perhaps on the vast cotton plantations in the Deep South); and that common sense rather than Mrs. Stowe and the abolitionists would certainly before long destroy it. The slaves themselves seemed to him to be comfortable, lazy, and happy. He went to a Negro ball in Charleston and was fascinated by the finery, the laughter, the waltzes and quadrilles danced to the music of bull fiddle, tambourine, and bones.
A slave auction in Charleston, held out-of-doors in the soft spring sunshine against a background of palmettos, was much less horrifying to young Crowe than the one in Richmond, and nobody objected this time when he got out his pencil and began sketching. Charleston was sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The ships whose tall masts rose almost as high as the towering steeples of the beautiful churches brought passengers and commerce from New York, Havana, and more distant ports. In the elegant, balconied houses the society was excellent.
But the new scenes were beginning to pall. For some time Thackeray had been sick of the “stale old lectures”; he was now, he wrote the Baxters, “very brownhouse-sick,” and impatient for the end of his tour. After a week in sleepy little Savannah, where Spanish moss hung down over wide, unpaved, sandy streets, he started north. By April 2 he was back in New York at the Clarendon.
He had made as yet only £2,500 of the £4,000 he had expected, but he still had an engagement in Montreal in May. In the meantime he was constantly at the Brown House, writing verses for Lucy’s birthday, going to balls and to the theater with the Baxters. But this time things were not quite the same. He could never get Sally alone; there was always the milliner or the dressmaker. Was she avoiding him?
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.”
He spent the winter in Rome working on The Newcomes . He was ill most of the time and was glad to escape in the spring to Naples. From there he sent Mrs. Baxter a drawing of the island of Capri—“It is as purple, as purple as the pelisse Miss Baxter used to wear this time last year.” Still hoping to return to America, he asked her, “Shall I come and see you in the fall? Can’t you coax Felt [the sponsor of his 1852 lectures in New York] to make me an offer?” Later on in the year he learned that the secretaryship of the British Legation in Washington was vacant and in- stantly applied for it. Nothing came of these efforts; but in 1855 he did receive an attractive offer to lecture, and that summer he was making plans to go to the United States in late October to deliver a series of lectures on the Hanoverian kings, “The Four Georges.” With the eagerness of a boy he wrote the Baxters urging them to meet him in Boston and proposing that they all take a trip to Niagara before going on to New York.
The Baxters met him in Boston with the news that Sally was going to be married on December 12 to Frank Hampton, a young South Carolinian.
She had made a journey south in the spring of 1854 to recuperate from her illness and had returned the next spring to visit the family of Langdon Cheves (a noted senator in his youth) at their plantation, Lang Syne, near Columbia, South Carolina. Down she went along an avenue of live oaks in a big carriage drawn by four mules, passing fertile cottonfields and the wellkept slave quarters—a little whitewashed village from which the Negroes rushed out to welcome their mistress with a warmth of affection that no northerner could believe, Sally thought, without seeing it. From the moment she arrived, stepping down from the carriage before a big columned house of astonishing beauty and charm, she was enchanted by plantation life, so leisurely, so unostentatious, and yet so luxuriously comfortable after the bustle of New York.
Frank Hampton and his family were magnificent specimens of the sort of human beings that this way of life could produce. His father, Colonel Wade Hampton, son of one of the richest men in America, owner of the great Millwood Plantation near Columbia and vast cotton plantations in the Deep South, had been a hero of the War of 1812; Frank’s brother Wade was to become a famous general in the Civil War. Like all the Hampton men, Frank was big and strikingly handsome, a noted sportsman, yet with a gentleness and consideration in his manner toward women that Sally found irresistible. He worshipped her.
Thackeray was stunned by the news of the engagement. He took the marriage hard. Lecturing in Boston when the time approached, he refused the Baxters’ invitation to come down to New York for the wedding, claiming his busy lecture schedule and (untruthfully) that he was suffering from chills and fever. On the day of the wedding he took to his bed with what he called an attack of spasms and lay there two days, reading a biography of Goethe, pondering on Goethe’s unhappy attachment at seventyfive for a schoolgirl, and relieving his feelings by writing an ill-tempered letter about Sally to his daughters: Sally Baxter’s marriage went off very smartly on the 12th & I hope she will get over her passion for an old fogey who shall be nameless—It began to be a newsance at last to the old party, & very likely to the young one. My girls I suppose must undergo the common lot; but I hope they wont Sallify—Indulge in amours de tête I mean. …
The second lecture tour was not as successful as the first. Thackeray was lionized as before; he made money; but the newspapers were more critical than they had been in 1852. He himself was tired and ill, and this time the oddities of American life oppressed rather than amused him. He saw little of the Baxters. Mrs. Baxter urged him to write to Sally but he replied that he couldn’t—“there’s a something between us.”
He saw her briefly in Charleston when he went there to lecture in February, and met Frank Hampton, whom he thought a fine fellow, “a grand seigneur in these parts … good looking burly honest not a literairy cove.” Sally was more beautiful than ever in a blue ball gown with magnificent lace. Just before sailing for home from New York in May, he relented and sent her a belated wedding present from Tiffany’s—a silver tea set with “a pretty little sulky tea-pot” and a message, “God bless her and all her belongings.”
On Christmas Day of 1860, a bitter cold day in London, but a day as always of memories and sentimentalities, Thackeray’s thoughts were with the Baxters. He had heard alarming reports from America that the southern states were going to secede and asked anxiously, “Aren’t you in a fright at the separation?”
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. …
This was what philanthropy had done for the Negro, she wrote, and abolition for the slave, and civil war for the white man. And what does it do for me? Do you care to know? Apart from home and friends, alone amongst strangers, the husband for whom I left all, in arms against the country where are still all I love,—dying slowly of a disease which baffles all physic and all care, I am far different from the gay girl you perhaps remember, years and years ago. I have been at death’s door for many months now with one hemorrhage after another wasting my little remaining strength. My poor Father and Mother, my only sister, do not even know that I live, or if they do, only that,—for a year we have had little intercourse,—for six months, none. … If you get this, write and tell them of me, or send the letter. If you care to write to me, and you will care, I am sure, when you think how doubly dear the letter will be to me now, send it enclosed to the house of Fraser, Trenholm and Co., Liverpool, directed inside to me, Charleston. It will run the blockade, and come to me safely and secretly, or go to the bottom of the fathomless ocean, that tells no tales.
Thackeray’s reply may have rotted in the hold of a sunken blockade-runner, for it has not survived.
This was the last letter from Sally. Sometime in the fall Thackeray heard in a roundabout way that she had died at Millwood Plantation on September 10, 1862. Later there was a letter from the Baxters. When her family heard that she was dying, Mr. Baxter and Lucy had traveled south to be with her, but were refused permission by the Federal authorities to pass through the Confederate lines. Telling the story of their sad journey to young Henry Adams (who had met and admired Sally), Thackeray’s voice trembled and his eyes filled with tears: he broke out into violent denunciations of the “coarse cruelty” of the Federals. Many days went by before he was able to write to the Baxters. When he did, he dwelt on his memories of Sally that first winter in New York—“What a bright creaturel What a laugh, a life, a happiness! And it is all gone.” How well he remembered that first look of her, with the red ribbon in her hair.
On the wall of his sitting room in London there always hung a print that he had bought long ago because it looked like Sally when he first saw her. In his new house in Kensington, furnished superbly with Queen Anne pieces and hung with old and valuable paintings, the cheap colored print must have seemed as out of place as those he had seen on damask walls in New York mansions. It was a Currier lithograph of a girl with an oval face in a drooping feathered hat, entitled The Belle of the West —a reminder, as poignant as Sally’s Strauss waltzes, of the gaieties and absurdities and sentimentalities—and love—he had found in America.