Catherine (novel)

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For the novel by Anya Seton, see Katherine (novel).

Catherine: A Story was the first full-length work of fiction produced by William Makepeace Thackeray. It first appeared in serialized installments in Fraser's Magazine between May 1839 and February 1840. Thackeray's original intention in writing it was to criticize the Newgate school of crime fiction, exemplified by Bulwer-Lytton and Harrison Ainsworth, whose works Thackeray felt glorified criminals. Thackeray even criticized Dickens for this failing for his portrayal of the good-hearted streetwalker Nancy and the charming pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, in Oliver Twist. The appearance of the first installments of Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard at the beginning of 1839 seems to have been what spurred Thackeray into action.

Jack Sheppard portrayed a real life prison breaker and thief from the eighteenth century in flattering terms. In contrast, Thackeray sought out a real life criminal whom he could portray in as unflattering terms as possible. He settled on Catherine Hayes, another eighteenth-century criminal, who was burned at the stake for murdering her husband in 1726. However, as he told his mother, Thackeray developed a "sneaking kindness" for his heroine,[1] and the novel that was supposed to present criminals as totally vile, without any redeeming characteristics, instead made Catherine and her roguish companions seem rather appealing. Thackeray felt the result was a failure,[citation needed] and perhaps as a result did not republish it in his lifetime. It has thus suffered from neglect,[citation needed] despite its good qualities,[citation needed] such as its rollicking sense of fun,[citation needed] its satirical touches, and a heroine who in some ways anticipates the much more famous Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair.[citation needed]

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Thackeray himself, in the last installment of the novel, has his narrator say that the newspapers, reporting on earlier installments, had abused Catherine by calling it "one of the dullest, most vulgar and immoral works extant."[2] In a private letter, Thackeray also said that the story was not well liked, though he also reported that Thomas Carlyle had said it was wonderful and that others had lauded it highly.[3] Thackeray's own feeling seems to have been that he had failed in Catherine; he told his mother that the subject matter was disgusting, and at the same time said that he had not made the novel disgusting enough; that is, he had not fulfilled his intention of showing the true brutality of criminals.[4]

Probably for this reason[citation needed] Thackeray did not allow the novel to be republished during his lifetime, and it all but vanished from sight.[citation needed] When later commentators did notice it, they were likely to say negative things like the following: "This interminable tale is often cited as an early example of a takeoff on mystery fiction. If it parodies anything, it is the author's novelistic talent. Written in pompous language to suggest an irony that never raises a smile, the tale has to do with an unfaithful wife who cuts off her husband's head. The facts are historical (1726) and to spice the effort we encounter Swift, Dr. Johnson, et al. A final chapter moralizes about the harm of sensational literature in the 1840s and criticizes Dickens for pandering to that taste in Oliver Twist.[5]

On the other hand, one of Thackeray's contemporaries, George Sala, said Catherine was one of Thackeray's best works, and when Catherine first appeared in serialized form, some of the newspaper reviews were fairly positive, despite what Thackeray suggests in the last pages of the novel itself. For instance, the Morning Post called Catherine an "amusing story," and the Observer said it was "a very interesting and well-told tale."[6]

In Sheldon Goldfarb's edition of the novel, in the new edition of Thackeray's works edited by Peter Shillingsburg, Goldfarb argues that Thackeray's negative views of his own creation helped to bury "a tale that arguably deserves better."[7]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Goldfarb, Sheldon F. "Historical Commentary." In Catherine: A Story. Edited by Sheldon F. Goldfarb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 144. ISBN 0-472-11041-1
  2. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace. Catherine: A Story. Edited by Sheldon Goldfarb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 131. ISBN 0-472-11041-1
  3. ^ Goldfarb, Sheldon F. "Historical Commentary." In Catherine: A Story. Edited by Sheldon Goldfarb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 146. ISBN 0-472-11041-1
  4. ^ Goldfarb, Sheldon F. "Historical Commentary." In Catherine: A Story. Edited by Sheldon F. Goldfarb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 144. ISBN 0-472-11041-1
  5. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  6. ^ Goldfarb, Sheldon F. "Historical Commentary." In Catherine: A Story. Edited by Sheldon F. Goldfarb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 145. ISBN 0-472-11041-1
  7. ^ Goldfarb, Sheldon F. "Historical Commentary." In Catherine: A Story. Edited by Sheldon F. Goldfarb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 146. ISBN 0-472-11041-1

External links[edit]