Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Bibliographical Note

Barry Lyndon — far from the best known, but by some critics acclaimed as the finest, of Thackeray’s works — appeared originally as a serial a few years before VANITY FAIR was written; yet it was not published in book form, and then not by itself, until after the publication of VANITY FAIR, PENDENNIS, ESMOND and THE NEWCOMES had placed its author in the forefront of the literary men of the day. So many years after the event we cannot help wondering why the story was not earlier put in book form; for in its delineation of the character of an adventurer it is as great as VANITY FAIR, while for the local colour of history, if I may put it so, it is no undistinguished precursor of ESMOND.

In the number of FRASER’S MAGAZINE for January 1844 appeared the first instalment of ‘THE LUCK OF BARRY LYNDON, ESQ., A ROMANCE OF THE LAST CENTURY, by FitzBoodle,’ and the story continued to appear month by month — with the exception of October — up to the end of the year, when the concluding portion was signed ‘G. S. FitzBoodle.’ FITZBOODLE’S CONFESSIONS, it should be added, had appeared occasionally in the magazine during the years immediately precedent, so that the pseudonym was familiar to FRASER’S readers. The story was written, according to its author’s own words, ‘with a great deal of dulness, unwillingness and labour,’ and was evidently done as the instalments were required, for in August he wrote ‘read for “B. L.” all the morning at the club,’ and four days later of ‘“B. L.” lying like a nightmare on my mind.’ The journey to the East — which was to give us in literary results NOTES OF A JOURNEY FROM CORNHILL TO GRAND CAIRO— was begun with BARRY LYNDON yet unfinished, for at Malta the author noted on the first three days of November —‘Wrote Barry but slowly and with great difficulty.’ ‘Wrote Barry with no more success than yesterday.’ ‘Finished Barry after great throes late at night.’ In the number of Fraser’s for the following month, as I have said, the conclusion appeared. A dozen years later, in 1856, the story formed the first part of the third volume of Thackeray’s MISCELLANIES, when it was called MEMOIRS OF BARRY LYNDON, ESQ., WRITTEN BY HIMSELF. Since then, it has nearly always been issued with other matter, as though it were not strong enough to stand alone, or as though the importance of a work was mainly to be gauged by the number of pages to be crowded into one cover. The scheme of the present edition fortunately allows fitting honour to be done to the memoirs of the great adventurer.

To come from the story as a whole to the personality of the eponymous hero. Three widely-differing historical individuals are suggested as having contributed to the composite portrait. Best known of these was that very prince among adventurers, G. J. Casanova de Seingalt, a man who in the latter half of the eighteenth century played the part of adventurer — and generally that of the successful adventurer — in most of the European capitals; who within the first five-and-twenty years of his life had been ‘abbe, secretary to Cardinal Aquaviva, ensign, and violinist, at Rome, Constantinople, Corfu, and his own birthplace (Venice), where he cured a senator of apoplexy.’ His autobiography, MEMOIRES ECRIT PAR LUI MEME (in twelve volumes), has been described as ‘unmatched as a self-revelation of scoundrelism.’ It has also been suggested, with I think far less colour of probability, that the original of Barry was the diplomatist and satiric poet Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, whom Dr Johnson described as ‘our lively and elegant though too licentious lyrick bard.’ The third original, and one who, there cannot be the slightest doubt, contributed features to the great portrait, is a certain Andrew Robinson Stoney, afterwards Stoney-Bowes.

The original of the Countess Lyndon was Mary Eleanor Bowes, Dowager Countess of Strathmore, and heiress of a very wealthy Durham family. This lady had many suitors, but in 1777 Stoney, a bankrupt lieutenant on half pay, who had fought a duel on her behalf, induced her to marry him, and subsequently hyphenated her name with his own. He became member of Parliament, and ran such extravagant courses as does Barry Lyndon, treated his wife with similar barbarity, abducted her when she had escaped from him, and then, after being divorced, found his way to a debtors’ prison. There are similarities here which no seeker after originals can overlook. Mrs Ritchie says that her father had a friend at Paris, ‘a Mr Bowes, who may have first told him this history of which the details are almost incredible, as quoted from the papers of the time.’ The name of Thackeray’s friend is a curious coincidence, unless, as may well have been the case, he was a connection of the family into which the notorious adventurer had married. It is not unlikely that Thackeray had seen the work published in 1810 — the year of Stoney-Bowes’s death — in which the whole unhappy romance was set forth. This was ‘THE LIVES OF ANDREW ROBINSON BOWES ESQ., and THE COUNTESS OF STRATHMORE. Written from thirty-three years’ Professional Attendance, from letters and other well authenticated Documents by Jesse Foot, Surgeon.’ In this book we find several incidents similar to ones in the story. Bowes cut down all the timber on his wife’s estate, but ‘the neighbours would not buy it.’ Such practical jokes as Barry Lyndon played upon his son’s tutor were played by Bowes on his chaplain. The story of Stoney and his marriage will be found briefly given in the notice of the Countess’s life in the DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY.

Whence that part of the romantic interlude dealing with the stay in the Duchy of X— — dealt with in chapter x., etc., was inspired, Thackeray’s own note\books (as quoted by Mrs Ritchie) conclusively show: ‘January 4,1844. Read in a silly book called L’EMPIRE, a good story about the first K. of Wurtemberg’s wife; killed by her husband for adultery. Frederic William, born in 1734 (?), m. in 1780 the Princess Caroline of Brunswick Wolfenbuttel, who died the 27th September 1788. For the rest of the story see L’EMPIRE, OU DIX ANS SOUS NAPOLEON, PAR UN CHAMBELLAN: Paris, Allardin, 1836; vol. i. 220.’ The ‘Captain Freny’ to whom Barry owed his adventures on his journey to Dublin (chapter iii.) was a notorious highwayman, on whose doings Thackeray had enlarged in the fifteenth chapter of his IRISH SKETCH BOOK.

Despite the slowness with which it was written, and the seeming neglect with which it was permitted to remain unreprinted, BARRY LYNDON was to be hailed by competent critics as one of Thackeray’s finest performances, though the author himself seems to have had no strong regard for the story. His daughter has recorded, ‘My father once said to me when I was a girl: “You needn’t read BARRY LYNDON, you won’t like it.” Indeed, it is scarcely a book to LIKE, but one to admire and to wonder at for its consummate power and mastery.’ Another novelist, Anthony Trollope, has said of it: ‘In imagination, language, construction, and general literary capacity, Thackeray never did anything more remarkable than BARRY LYNDON.’ Mr Leslie Stephen says: ‘All later critics have recognised in this book one of his most powerful performances. In directness and vigour he never surpassed it.’


Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07