William Makepeace Thackeray – Cruel to be Kind

‘Rebecca and Rowena’ by William Makepeace Thackeray (1850) – 88 pages

 “The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?”  – William Makepeace Thackeray,  ‘Vanity Fair’ 


Relax.  I am not going to tell you that you must read ‘Rebecca and Rowena’ by William Thackeray.  Your lists of novels to be read are probably already bulging at the seams, and I can think of no compelling reason why you should read this book.

Not that ‘Rebecca and Rowena’ is a bad book.  There are just so many other books that deserve to be read ahead of it.  William Thackeray wrote this bright shiny little bauble of a book as a Christmas book to spur sales during the holiday season.  Thackeray’s wife Isabella had suffered severe depression after the birth of their third child, so she had to be institutionalized for the rest of her long life, and Thackeray had to pay the costs.

Thackeray wrote ‘Rebecca and Rowena’ about two years after his satirical masterpiece ‘Vanity Fair’ which came out in 1848.  ‘Vanity Fair’ had established Thackeray as Charles Dickens’ main competition for writing of serialized novels for the magazines which was a lucrative business at the time.  At this point the public was ready to read just about anything Thackeray wrote.

28‘Rebecca and Rowena’ is also a satire.  Thackeray wrote it as a parody sequel to the chivalric novel ‘Ivanhoe’ which was written by Sir Walter Scott in 1820. ‘Ivanhoe’ takes place in the time of knights in 12th century England.  At the end of ‘Ivanhoe’, Ivanhoe has courageously and soundly defeated the enemy and married the beautiful Christian Lady Rowena.  Ivanhoe is only 30 years old at the end of ‘Ivanhoe’, and Thackeray imagines what happened to Ivanhoe after that.  Does he re-encounter the bewitching Jewess Rebecca who had nursed him back to health after one of his severe battle injuries? Thackeray has great fun spoofing the conceits of this romantic novel of the Middle Ages, ‘Ivanhoe’.

‘Rebecca and Rowena’ is a humorous little read but nothing more than that.   If you like to read about knights and battles and such, you might like it.

images (2)But before we leave William Thackeray for good, there is one thing of which you should be aware.   I read ‘Vanity Fair’ about twenty years ago and consider it along with ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot the two finest English-language novels of all time.  Originally called ‘A Novel Without a Hero’, ‘Vanity Fair’ is set in Napoleonic times, and no novel has ever captured its tumultuous time better.  Leo Tolstoy was influenced by ‘Vanity Fair’ when he wrote ‘War and Peace’.   The cynical social climber Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’ is one of the liveliest female characters in all of fiction.   If you like biting but clever lines and wicked but loveable characters, you will love ‘Vanity Fair’ like I did.

No, I’m not going to urge you to read the 88-page ‘Rebecca and Rowena’. Instead you really must read the 800+ page ‘Vanity Fair’.  


4 responses to this post.

  1. Yes, absolutely. Vanity Fair is a must-read.
    But *musing* it is the only Thackeray I’ve read. So maybe … I just might add R&R to my wishlist!


    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, ‘Rebecca and Rowena’ is a quick little read, satirical and humorous enough to be enjoyable. I’ve also read Thackeray’s novel ‘Pendennis’ which was quite good but no ‘Vanity Fair’.


  2. I do want to read or, in some cases, reread some Thackeray. Perhaps Rebecca and Rowena would be good for a laugh, but in general I don’t like these shorter works by the Victorians. Still, you remind me that Thackeray is on my list…


    • Hi Kat,
      ‘Rebecca and Rowena’ is a fine enough satire of the chivalrous novel, but I think there are other short works by Thackeray. Probably the best short novel by a Victorian is ‘The Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens or also ‘Cranford’ by Mrs. Gaskell.


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