Thackeray and Bohemia

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Harland-Lang, Antonia 

Whether as a counter-cultural phenomenon or a sociological myth, Bohemia has long eluded concrete definitions. In the last thirty years, however, there has been a noticeable contrast between the ambitious theoretical concerns of cultural historians of nineteenthcentury Continental Bohemianism and the more staunchly biographical approaches of critics concerned with Bohemian writers in mid-Victorian England. In the absence of the Latin Quarter, attempts to define the English Bohemianism of Thackeray‘s era have been somewhat reductive, revolving around London establishments such as the Garrick Club and disparate groupings such as the metropolitan novelists, journalists, and playwrights who are sometimes pigeonholed as 'Dickens‘s Young Men'. This thesis uses the work of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63) to argue that such readings have lost sight of the profound impact which mid-Victorian ideas of Bohemianism had on a far wider section of middle-class Englishmen.

Chapter 1 explores the pivotal role which Thackeray played in the translation of Bohemian behavioural ideals from France to England. Beginning and ending with his seminal Bohemian protagonist in Vanity Fair (1847–48), it surveys his engagement with the still-evolving ideas of Bohemianism at home and on the Continent. The chapter interrogates the relationship between the anglicized brand of homosociality which characterizes Thackeray‘s later fiction and the often contradictory images of Bohemianism which were circulating in 1830s and 40s Paris while he was an art student and then a foreign correspondent in the city. In the process, it considers the significant influence which these factors have exerted over later conceptions of Thackeray‘s biography and personality. As a whole, the chapter argues that his increasing focus on more anglicized spheres of masculine interaction in the late 1840s contributed to the emergence of a de-radicalized brand of middle-class English Bohemia.

The second chapter considers the parallels between the impact of Thackeray‘s work and the contemporaneous writings of the famous chronicler of Parisian Bohemianism, Henry Murger (1822–61). Through analysis of cultural reception and literary form, this chapter investigates the way in which these writers have been both criticized and revered for perpetuating particularly inclusive myths of Bohemianism. It then explores the way in which Thackeray‘s Bildungsroman, The History of Pendennis (1848–50), helped to shape other myths of collective homosocial unconventionality — in particular, those which came to surround Fleet Street journalism.

Chapters 3 and 4 are companion chapters, surveying the way in which ideas of Bohemianism developed post-Pendennis in the course of the 1850s and 60s. They demonstrate that the myths of 'fast' Bohemian life which came to be associated with particular journalists, playwrights, and performers, were as much the product of critical attacks as any form of Bohemian self-representation. Exploring the work of 'Bohemian‘ writers such as George Augustus Sala (1828–95) and Edmund Yates (1831–94), as well as the dynamics of London‘s eclectic club scene, these chapters conclude that ideas of a 'fast‘ disreputable Bohemianism always coexisted with more widely accepted and understated Bohemian ideals which thrived on remaining undefined.

Sutton-Long, Peter
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge