Critical Evaluation

“I am about a new story,” William Makepeace Thackeray wrote an American friend shortly after his first visit to the United States (1852-1853), “but don’t know as yet if it will be any good. It seems to me I am too old for story-telling.” At the age of forty-three, with the success of Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book), The History of Pendennis (1848-1850), and The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire (1852) behind him, Thackeray’s strength was ebbing, and to his friends he had the physical appearance of an old man broken in health. Because, however, he needed money (his own estimate was the equivalent of thousands of dollars), he began writing The Newcomes. He wrote while living in various places in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and throughout the project he was often in ill health.

The novel was published serially between October, 1853, and August, 1855. Extensive even by Victorian standards, The Newcomes is a typical mid-nineteenth century family chronicle, replete with cogent observations of manners and morals. Despite its gentle comedy, it satirizes the human follies that Thackeray particularly scorned: snobbery, greed, and misguided romantic idealism.

The chronicle is narrated by Arthur Pendennis, an older friend of Clive Newcome, who purports to “edit” the memoirs of “a most respectable family.” At first a mere spokesman for the author, Pendennis gradually becomes a character in his own right, participating in as well as commenting on the action. Prudish, smug, and whimsical, Pendennis provides ironical insight into the other characters. His admiration for Colonel Newcome (“so chivalrous, generous, good looking”) is uncritical to the point that it becomes amusing. Moreover, his fulminations on folly, especially in the famous parody of moral anecdotes in chapter 1, ring hollow at last, in view of the narrator’s own punctilious regard for class and status, his social snobbery, and his moralizing.

As is typical of Thackeray’s fiction, the novel’s heroes and heroines (Colonel Thomas Newcome, his son Clive, and Ethel and Rosey) are true-blue, the villains (Barnes Newcome, Lady Kew, and Mrs. Mackenzie) quite dastardly; yet even some of the unpleasant characters are redeemed, if not always completely successfully, by the...

(The entire section is 957 words.)