John Sutherland on Charles Lever, in Times Literary Supplement (15 Dec. 2007)

Details: John Sutherland, ‘Lever’s Columns’: a novelist who contributed to great fiction without becoming great’, in Times Literary Supplement (15 Dec. 2007), p.14.

The bicentenary of the Irish novelist Charles Lever earlier this year was celebrated at a conference in Bagni di Lucca, a spa town in the hills above Pisa, where Lever held a series of consular sinecures in his later years, taking the waters and playing the tables, when his fiction no longer sold well. He was, for a decade, Ireland’s great novelist. Nowadays he is little read. If, however, one’s ear is attuned, echoes of Lever’s fiction still resonate loudly in canonical places. His distinctive contribution can be traced from Thackeray to Tolstoy: Vanity Fair and War and Peace would have been different, had Charles Lever never written.

Lever was born in Dublin on August 31, 1806, the son of a building contractor from Lancashire, and he was brought up with the social advantages of his Anglo-Irish class. After Trinity College Dublin, he travelled around Europe and North America, gaining a reputation as a good fellow. He studied medicine in a desultory way, and acquired the nickname Dr Quicksilver. Having settled down and married his childhood sweetheart, Kate, he was encouraged to apply himself to literature by the novelist William Hamilton Maxwell, and in 1836, at the age of thirty, he became editor of the Dublin University Magazine. Fifteen years his senior, Maxwell was, like Lever, the son of a prosperous merchant with little inclination to drudgery. He too had attended Trinity College “in a somewhat desultory manner”. He claimed to have seen action in the Peninsular War (modern commentators question this) and at Waterloo where he served as a captain of infantry. Maxwell then married an heiress, took orders, and settled down to the fife of a hunting parson. His most popular works were the semi-autobiographical Stories of Waterloo (1829) and The Bivouac: Or Stories of the Peninsular War (1834). Captain Maxwell would have a formative influence on his protégé’s later career. The winter of 1836-7 was the height of Bozinania. The proprietor of the DUM, William Curry, persuaded Lever to write a serial, Harry Lorrequer, which ran in the magazine from February 1837 and in monthly parts, with full-page etchings by “Phiz” (Hablôt Knight Browne), the illustrator of Pickwick Papers, who went on to work with Lever on fourteen novels.

”You ask me how I write”, Lever once replied to John Blackwood: “my reply is, just as I live - from hand to mouth.” Harry Lorrequer began as a single anecdote, and.continues as a sequence of improvised Pickwickian episodes that take the military hero from Cork all over peacetime Europe. It caught the public taste, and Curry went on to suggest a variation on the theme. As Lever recalled, thirty years later:

my publishers asked me could I write a story in the Lorrequer vein, in which active service and military adventure could figure more prominently than mere civilian life and where the achievements of a British army might form the staple of the narrative ... I was ready to reply: “not one, but fifty”.

The first of the fifty was Charles O’Malley, serialized in the DUM in parts (illustrated by Phiz) from March 1840 to December 1841. The hero is a bravo from Galway who duels and enjoys himself at Trinity before enlisting to fight in the Peninsula and rising to the rank of captain. By a series of unlikely, adventures Charley finds himself at the shoulder of Napoleon at the beginning of Waterloo and by the side of Wellington (to whom he gives the battle-winning instruction) at the climax. Then it is peace, prosperity and marriage to an heiress. It was natural for Lever to choose Waterloo. He was living in Brussels while he was writing Charles O’Malley, whose hero is a version of his patron, Maxwell. (Phiz’s father had also fought at Waterloo, and the illustrations are as dramatic as the text.) It was a time when the victories of the Napoleonic Wars were being triumphantly celebrated in Britain. Nelson’s Column was erected in 1843 and subscriptions were being gathered for the memorial arch to Wellington at the south-east entrance to Hyde Park.

While Dickens and Lever were enjoying success, Thackeray still had to make his mark as anything other than a penny-a-liner. Hungry for fame, he had proposed to Chapman and Hall a volume of “Cockney Sketches of Ireland”, clearly aiming at the success of the firm’s Sketches by Boz. He got letters of introduction to Lever, who was living in some style in his country house, Templeogue, outside Dublin : a convivial visit took place in early June 1842. The Waterloo chapters of O’Malley, still fresh on the printed page, were an inevitable topic of conversation. “Thackeray seemed much inclined to laugh at martial might”, Lever later recalled; “although he still. held to the idea that something might be made of Waterloo, even without the smoke and action being introduced.” This was five years before the serialization of Thackeray’s “Waterloo Novel”, Vanity Fair. But relations between the two writers were uneasy after this beginning. Thackeray dedicated The Irish Sketch Book to Lever, who was much criticized in Ireland for accepting the compliment. Lever continued his winning streak with his third military novel, Jack Hinton the Guardsman (January-December 1842), and with Tom Burke of “Ours” (February 1843-September 1844), in which the Napoleonic War grandiosity of O’Malley reached its highest pitch: it was illustrated by six of Phiz’s portraits of the Emperor, who takes a paternal interest in his fire-eating Irish dragoon and awards him the Legion of Honour for gallantry in his service.

Meanwhile, Thackeray was going sour on things Irish. His wife, Isabella, had descended into suicidal madness on a trip to her family in Ireland in September 1840. Her family, particularly his Irish mother-in-law, were savage against him - a sentiment he returned with interest. He was a founder member of the newly-launched Punch which, under the influence of the little Robespierre Douglas Jerrold, was militantly pacifist. In January 1844 Thackeray began the serial publication of The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a satire on Irish military braggadocio. It was conceived during the publication of Tom Burke of “Ours”, which Thackeray reviewed, mockingly, along with the whole “Lorrequerian cyclus”, with its comical addiction to the “blunderbuss and drum”, in February 1844. Thackeray would allude, sarcastically, to Lever’s novel in the title of chapter five, “Dobbin of Ours”, in Vanity Fair. Lever was bitterly hurt by this “rascality”. Nor can he have taken pleasure in a sketch of a visit to Waterloo Thackeray published in January 1845:

Let an Englishman go to that field and he never forgets it ... I will wager there is not one of them but feels a glow as he looks at the place, and remembers that he, too, is an Englishman. It is a wrong, egotistical, savage, unchristian feeling, and that’s the truth of it. A man of peace has no right to be dazzled by that red-coated glory, and to intoxicate his vanity with those remembrances of carnage and triumph.

More salt was rubbed in the wound with a review in January 1845 of Lever’s Christmas Book, St Patrick’s Eve, a melancholy “social problem” story set in Ireland’s starving 1830s. “If we want instruction”, Thackeray grandly declared, “we prefer to take it from fact rather than fiction.”

Thackeray began writing Vanity Fair a month later. It would be “a novel without a hero”, but also - he had decided - a Waterloo novel without Waterloo, an anti-Leveriad. Serialization of the novel was delayed until January 1847, and the Waterloo numbers, nine and ten, did not appear until August and September of that year. As he prepared these instalments for press, Thackeray fired off for Punch, in that same August, a scathing satire, “Phil Fogarty. A Tale of the Fighting Onety-Oneth. By Harry Rollicker”, a burlesque which makes fun of Lever’s trademark battlefield joffity (”Ha! There goes poor Jack Delamere’s head off. The Ball chose a soft one, anyhow”) and of the hobnobbery with Napoleon. Battle lines were now drawn. Lever introduced a scurrilous pen portrait of Thackeray as Elias Howle in his November 1848 number of Roland Cashel. Thackeray retorted with an offensive Irish caricature, Captain Corrigan in Pendennis. There was a clear winner in this literary brawl, for Lever never wrote another military tale in the Lorrequer-O’Malley vein - or, indeed, another bestseller; and Thackeray was now at the top of the tree with Dickens.

Two distinct ways of writing about war emerged from the quarrel. On the one side was the eyewitness technique which dealt with Waterloo directly. On the other was the Thackerayan sidestep: or, as he puts it in Vanity Fair: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly”. Nevertheless, Thackeray could write well about fighting, as can be seen in chapters four to six of Barry Lyndon, which he was writing virtually up to the month he began Vanity Fair. His decision not to describe the Battle of Waterloo in the latter work was an aesthetic choice.

Eight years after the publication of Vanity Fair, the young Leo Tolstoy was in besieged Sebastopol. He was thinking about his first works of fiction - war stories, of course. His diary for 8-9 June, 1855, records: “Laziness, laziness. Health bad. Reading Vanity Fair all day”. The same lazy week he also read Henry Esmond and Pendennis, but it was clearly the Waterloo Novel which most affected him. In the story he was writing up at that time, “ Sevastopol in May” (1855), we find the following blatant echo of Vanity Fair ’s last paragraph (“Ah Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world?”) and The Book of Snobs:

Vanity! Vanity! Vanity! Everywhere, even on the brink of the grave and among men ready to die for a noble cause. Vanity! It seems to be the characteristic feature and special malady of our time ... . Why did the Homers and Shakespeares speak of love, glory, and suffering, while the literature of today is an endless story of snobbery and vanity?

It was not merely the Thackerayan rhetoric, but the Thackerayan. tactic, the “sidestep”, which Tolstoy followed in his own narrative. The influence of Stendhal on the battle scenes in War and Peace has been commented on: that of Vanity Fair less so. But Tolstoy’s constant deflection, or retreat, from the battlefield to what is going on with “the girl I left behind me” ( Vanity Fair, chapter thirty) recalls Thackeray and, by opposition, Lever. So too do the strategically brief, ironic and un-Leverian appearances of Napoleon. There are no heroes in War and Peace ; no Carlylean great men; it is distinctly Thackerayan.

Influence is a clumsy analytical tool. Very often in nineteenth-century fiction we seem to overhear a sort of subdued conversation between novelists. Progressing from Charles O’Malley, to Vanity Fair, to War and Peace, the reader can pick up some disagreeable exchanges between Lever and Thackeray before finding agreement between Thackeray and Tolstoy over how to treat the big battle scenes at the centres of their narratives. There is other talk (between Thackeray, Dickens and Tolstoy, for example). But Lever, one would like to think, was a participant in this great fictional conversation. This year seems the right time to acknowledge his presence. A novelist may make a contribution to great fiction without himself being great.

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