The Irish characters in Thackeray's fiction
Payne, Evelyn Powell
Master of Arts
In Thackeray's fiction, the Irish characters compose a group with a number of common traits. Each of them has several of these qualities, the most common are belligerence, boastfulness about family and country, claims to descent from Irish kings, brogue speech, tendency to distort facts, fondness for drink, and self-delusion, A comparison of his fictional characters with Thackeray's observations in his Irish Sketch Book reveals that the author deliberately exaggerates the eccentricities of Irishmen for his fictional purposes. The Sketch Book is a fairly unbiased account of the country and its citizens and is often complimentary to the Irish, Thackeray's portrayal of Irish characters in his novels and stories derives in part from a literary stereotype for which such nineteenth-century Irish writers as Charles Lever are largely responsible. Thackeray's experiences with Irish acquaintances also contributed to his delineation of his characters. Most significant are his association in his professional life with Irish writers, and in his personal life with his wife's relatives, the Shawe family. Most of Thackeray's Irishmen, and some of the women, are comic characters, following the literary tradition of the stage Irishman. They range from extravagant and fanciful characters in his shorter works, such as Mrs. Perkins's Ball, a Christmas book, to almost equally extravagant but realistic Irishmen in the novels. Pendennis has the largest assortment of these comic characters, among whom is the vivid Captain Costigan. This novel describes the Irish Journalists in London and sketches William Mag inn, under whom Thackeray served his apprenticeship as a writer for periodicals, as Captain Shandon. A special variation on the Irish type is found in Thackeray's mothers-in-law based on his wife's mother, Mrs.-Matthew Shawe. Her unstable disposition and the eventual open hostility between Thackeray and Mrs. Shawe are traced in his letters, which serve as a guide to the development of the type in his fiction. External details disguise Mrs. Shawe somewhat in the novels, but her personality emerges, with the traits that the author came to associate with the Irish. Thackeray uses essentially the characteristics of his comic Irishmen for a villain, Barry Lyndon. The same self-delusion that he elsewhere turns to comic effect, Thackeray here employs to show a man with distorted ethical standards. Thus, with a similar set of qualities, Thackeray creates a varied group of Irish characters. He achieves the variation by such techniques of presentation as exaggeration or a change in the viewpoint from which characters are seen.