A big part of my reserach for 1848 has involved reading the fiction of the period. Most of my research for other projects had focused on the late 19th century, but this time I’ve had to step fifty years back in time. The 1830s and 1840s are associated in the popular imagination with quaint images of Dickensian London: honourable beggars, penniless yet happy paupers, magnanimous old gentlemen, and romantic gaslighting. Although Dickens has a big part to play in developing my understanding of the period, I wanted to broaden my perspective a little and try to find some alternative views of the fiction being produced in the period.
Enter W.M. Thackeray. A contemporary of Dickens, and in many respects his rival, Thackeray produced several lengthy novels in the serialised format popular at the time. His two greatest works are Vanity Fair and The History of Pendennis. I read Vanity Fair first of all, and although I initially found it a little difficult to get into (possibly because the style jarred with the Dickens I had been reading immediately beforehand) I soon came to appreciate that, in fact, Thackeray’s more cynical view of the world offers the perfect counterpart to Dickens’ slightly implausible storylines.
I’m now reading Pendennis and the impression is strengthened: Thackeray has striven to create novels without heroes; his main characters are deeply flawed and exhibit unpleasant behaviour. Dickens’ heroes, for example David Copperfield, are often portrayed as having superficial flaws only. While Dickens is the champion for the beautiful aspects of the human spirit, and has created novels of tremendous power, I can’t help thinking that Thackeray arrives at deeper truths by being more willing to accept the darker side of every character.
While factual research is very important in the prewriting stage for any novel, I’m a firm believer in the power of fiction to bring the facts to life in the writer’s mind. No textbook on the grimy conditions of industrial London can compare with a vivid description in a contemporary novel.