Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

“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 author’s pity. After Barnes Newcome, the colonel’s longtime nemesis, is humiliated in the family election, he promises not to mistreat his wife any longer and finally comes to terms with Clive. The coldhearted Lady Kew leaves the bulk of her estate to Ethel. Ethel herself, psychologically the most interesting personality in the book, develops from a charming but calculating young lady to a woman capable of self-sacrifice and deep love. Unlike Rosey, who is simple, innocent, but vacuous, Ethel is sophisticated and clever. Her virtue is tested by life and consequently earned. She becomes a worthy mate for Clive, and the tender-hearted author promises his readers that the couple will be both happy and wealthy.

Clive, too, must earn the reader’s approval. Spoiled by his doting father, he makes the most of his good looks, his modest talents as an artist, and the honorable reputation of his family. His young manhood, however, is spent in prodigality. Thwarted in his desire to marry Ethel, he chooses the sweet but dull Rosey Mackenzie and then chafes at the restraints of wedlock. Nevertheless, like Ethel, he is educated by life, learns his limitations, and grows in self-respect. In chapter 68, the emotional climax of the novel, Clive and his father come to regard each other as equals without recriminations and with mutual respect and affection. Clive comes into his own as a person of worth and a true gentleman.

The Newcomes is a social novel...

(This entire section contains 957 words.)

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of manners that teaches the Victorian reader how to recognize and, if possible, become a true gentleman or gentlewoman. Colonel Newcome, the epitome of English gentility, is almost too perfect, that is to say, too proper, innocent, and augustly virtuous; his very rectitude becomes a subject for unconscious satire. Some of Thackeray’s reviewers detected in the author’s creation of the colonel an element of cynicism; one London critic went so far as to attack the book on the grounds of “morality and religion.” Thackeray’s avowed intention, however, was certainly not to satirize the true gentleman and his outmoded virtues but rather to expose the parvenu, the snob, and the ingrate. He ridicules the upstart middle-class, especially Anglo-Indian, society by revealing it to be ill-bred, vulgarly assertive, and materialistic.

The thrust of Thackeray’s satire is above all toward women. Barnes Newcome is a rascal, to be sure, but not a fool; Thackeray’s obnoxious women, however, manipulate their men and lead them into folly, either through aggressiveness or their simpering, smiling domestic tyranny. “Theirs is a life of hypocrisy,” concludes Pendennis, speaking for his author, and their chief wile is flattery. Even Ethel, the virtuous and clever heroine, does not wholly escape Thackeray’s censure. When he criticizes her for prolonging her romance with Clive, he attributes her weakness to a fault of her gender rather than to a personal folly. Rosey, Clive’s unfortunate wife, never transgresses the social prohibitions but is, like Amelia of Vanity Fair, a foolish innocent, to be protected and cherished like a pet. Her opposite is her mother, Mrs. Mackenzie, a mean and fearful woman.

The reader’s final impression of The Newcomes is not one of abrasive social satire but rather one of reconciliation. At the end of the novel, Ethel and Clive are reunited and the good Colonel Newcome dies as nobly as he had lived in a scene that is touching in its restrained dignity. The reader is left hoping that the Newcome family, despite its human folly, will endure. To Thackeray, that hope—“Fable-land”—is the harmless anodyne to the pain of living.