Tuesday, 12 July 2016

William Thackeray's The memoirs of Barry Lyndon

Prepared by Sue B.

Our classic novel this year was The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. A select group of four of us gathered on a winter’s night to discuss it. Our responses to it varied considerably. A couple found it a tedious read, particularly the period in Europe with his uncle, but they were glad they'd read it,  One noting that it showed how literature has moved on. Another enjoyed it as a rollicking romp and yet another enjoyed the recreation of the period and sense of an era conveyed. 

Historical details mentioned included the hair treatments such as pomander. The book was set at the time of the Seven Years War in Europe in the 1760s, but Thackeray actually wrote it about 80 years later in 1844, so it was an historical novel. One member suggested that the novel also describes the transition from the times when the aristocracy was in control to the rise of the bourgeoisie.

It was originally written as a serial so we discussed the effect this had on the style and structure of the finished book and thought this might account for some of the repetition, and thus the tediousness.

The book’s “hero” Barry Lyndon himself is the narrator and we noticed that Thackeray left us in no doubt that he was a very unreliable narrator, reminding us of this at least 3 times in footnotes. Despite his strong sense of his own "honourability", Barry is a real anti-hero, a scoundrel - even a sociopath. We compared him with the hero of the ABC TV series Rake who we thought was a much more lovable rogue, and with another Thackeray anti-hero, Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. We wondered to what extent our opinion of him was coloured by changing social mores. For example the blurb on a 1970s edition of the book listed his offences. Missing was any mention of the blatant wife and child abuse which is so much more on our radar and so much less forgivable these days. 

We thought that Thackeray was satirising the romantic novels so popular at the time and even the clich├ęd idea of a gentleman exemplified by the novels of Sir Walter Scott for example. Barry Lyndon says of his wife: “Novel reading and vanity had turned her brain” and in a long footnote towards the end of the book Thackeray says

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? 

One of us noted that the character of Barry Lyndon was inspired by real people, including Andrew Robertson Stoney-Bowes who married the Countess of Strathmore. Another found the first line memorable: “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” – which of course says more about our hero than any of the women in his story! Barry Lyndon was, as one member said, a great self-justifier. We wondered to what extent Barry Lyndon was actually in control of his own future, and whether he was addicted to gambling – which was effectively his profession.

Finally, we couldn’t help talking about the 1970s movie starring Ryan O’Neal. We remembered it mainly just as being gorgeously filmed and with a beautiful soundtrack of contemporary music.


  1. I was sorry to miss the discussion. Barry Lyndon was such a rogue and his opinion of himself so much at odds with his behaviour that it was hard not to smile while reading. It is an interesting portrayal of a very different time. I'm glad to have read it.

  2. We missed you too Anne. I must say I did find it tedious at times - now you know who one of the two is! - but I did smile at times and am glad I read it!


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