William Makepeace Thackeray, The luck of Barry Lyndon Review)

By the time I reached about the 30% mark (on my Kindle) of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel, The luck of Barry Lyndon, I was reminded of a monologue by English comedian Cyril Fletcher which my father had on an old gramophone record. It’s about a “lunatic” (this was in less linguistically-sensitive times) who decided to write a novel. I won’t spoil the fun because you can watch Fletcher perform it himself on YouTube (it’s the first short story):

If you’ve watched it, you might see my point, because Barry Lyndon does go on and on and on, reporting adventure after adventure after adventure, with no apparent change or development in his character (except that he gets older!). I am exaggerating a bit, but …

So, why did I persevere? Firstly, it was my reading group’s June book, and I always like to do my homework; secondly, it is a classic that I haven’t read; and thirdly, I sensed satire, and was intrigued to see just where it was going. As a reading experience though it’s a challenge, one that was perhaps less so for contemporary readers in 1844 because they received it in serial form over 10 months or so. Still, I’m not sorry I read it.

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Anyhow, enough introductory patter. Let’s get down to it, starting with a little about the story. It’s a picaresque tale, a popular form in the 18th century in which the story is set, and spans many countries from Ireland and England to much of Europe. Its “hero”, Redmond Barry, pretends to be (believes, indeed, he is) a gentleman – he knows how to speak, dress, and duel – but, see how I enclosed “hero” in quotation marks? That’s because he is, in fact, an anti-hero – a conman and consummate rake (another great 18th century type!). Having lost the hand of his cousin, and then his money through gambling in Dublin, he ends up a soldier fighting the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War. While in Europe, he teams up with an uncle and together they manage to live the high life, gambling their way around Europe. “Luck”, of course, runs out, and he’s penniless again but he manages to essentially bully the wealthy and widowed Countess of Lyndon into marriage. However, things again go bad as Redmond Barry (now renamed Barry Lyndon) mismanages his wife’s money – and so the story continues to its inevitable conclusion.

The “luck” of Barry Lyndon?

One of the questions the book raises is that of “luck”. To what extent is Lyndon master of his own fate and to what extent does luck come into play. As one of the members of my reading group said, Lyndon is one of literature’s greatest justifiers. He can justify (excuse) just about everything he does, but he’s also the consummate unreliable narrator. He continually asserts the “truth” of his story, even though, early on, he’s told us that the “Irish gentry . . . tell more fibs than their downright neighbours across the water.”

The novel opens with:

Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it …

And there it starts. Whatever happens to Lyndon is always someone else’s fault – nothing to do with his gambling, his inability to manage money, or his insensitivity to the needs of anyone but himself. There is a strong misogynistic thread through the novel – but this is part of the satire, which is common in picaresque novels. The targets are many, but a major one is idea of the 18th century gentleman, the sort of person Barry Lyndon proclaims throughout that he is but that he shows by his actions he is not!

The novel is, overall, a romp, albeit a rather tedious one at times, but it does have some things to tell us, besides what a “gentleman” should be. One of these, I think, is that it chronicles social change in Europe, the change from the chivalric life of aristocracy to a more bourgeois life of the middle classes. I’ll give one little example. Lyndon spends his life settling scores through the “gentleman’s” method, a duel (though to be fair he “pinks” people rather than kills them). However, late in the novel, as things close in, he is brought to account for one of his schemes. He writes:

Of course I denied the charge, I could do no otherwise, and offered to meet any one of the Tiptoffs on the field of honour, and prove him a scoundrel and a liar: as he was; though, perhaps, not in this instance. But they contented themselves by answering me by a lawyer, and declined an invitation which any man of spirit would have accepted.

We are talking late eighteenth century, you see – the time of the American War of Independence and the lead into the French Revolution. The times, they were a-changing.

Truth or fiction?

So, there’s the issue of Lyndon asserting the “truth” of his story, asking us to trust that he is the decent, good guy he says he is. His misfortunes, he says, are due to

the consequences of villainy in others, and (I confess it, for I am not above owning to my faults) my own too easy, generous, and careless nature…

Hmm … not quite the “faults” we readers would ascribe to this wife and child-beater, profligate spender, and keen duellist.

However, there’s another angle to this “truth” idea. It’s related to the idea that this is a “memoir”, not a novel. He writes:

Were these Memoirs not characterised by truth, and did I deign to utter a single word for which my own personal experience did not give me the fullest authority, I might easily make myself the hero of some strange and popular adventures, and, after the fashion of novel-writers, introduce my reader to the great characters of this remarkable time. These persons (I mean the romance-writers) …

Later, we find, in one of the occasional “footnotes”, which are part of the novel and provide the occasional corrective to Lyndon’s narrative:

[Footnote: From these curious confessions, it would appear that Mr. Lyndon maltreated his lady in every possible way; that he denied her society, bullied her into signing away her property, spent it in gambling and taverns, was openly unfaithful to her; and, when she complained, threatened to remove her children from her. Nor, indeed, is he the only husband who has done the like, and has passed for ‘nobody’s enemy but his own:’ a jovial good-natured fellow. The world contains scores of such amiable people; and, indeed, it is because justice has not been done them that we have edited this autobiography. Had it been that of a mere hero of romance one of those heroic youths who figure in the novels of Scott and James there would have been no call to introduce the reader to a personage already so often and so charmingly depicted. Mr. Barry Lyndon is not, we repeat, a hero of the common pattern; but let the reader look round, and ask himself, Do not as many rogues succeed in life as honest men? more fools than men of talent? And is it not just that the lives of this class should be described by the student of human nature as well as the actions of those fairy-tale princes, those perfect impossible heroes, whom our writers love to describe? There is something naive and simple in that time-honoured style of novel-writing by which Prince Prettyman, at the end of his adventures, is put in possession of every worldly prosperity, as he has been endowed with every mental and bodily excellence previously. The novelist thinks that he can do no more for his darling hero than make him a lord. Is it not a poor standard that, of the summum bonum? The greatest good in life is not to be a lord; perhaps not even to be happy. Poverty, illness, a humpback, may be rewards and conditions of good, as well as that bodily prosperity which all of us unconsciously set up for worship. But this is a subject for an essay, not a note; and it is best to allow Mr. Lyndon to resume the candid and ingenious narrative of his virtues and defects.] (Ch. 17)

I love the satire here of romance-adventure novels, epitomised by writers like Sir Walter Scott, and note Thackeray’s plea for what became the great social novels of the nineteenth century. (You have to wonder, though, at the idea of “Poverty, illness, a humpback” being “rewards”!)

And here I will end because many have written eloquently about this classic. All I wanted to do was to make a couple of points! Have you read Barry Lyndon, and did you enjoy it?

William Makepeace Thackeray
Barry Lyndon (orig. The luck of Barry Lyndon)
Goldfish Classics Publishing, 2012
[339pp.]