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William Makepeace Thackeray to Harriet Leslie, February 27, 1860


36 Onslow Sq


My dear Mrs. Leslie

I have bad news about the article wh. I proposed. That other wh. I promised is so urgently required that it must be done. I was too unwell to go away to day to the country but hope to go tomorrow and to see you on my return.

Believe me ever yours

W M Thackeray.


The letter is mounted on a second piece of paper that makes it clear that Bliss bought it from a dealer (note the misspelling of Thackeray’s middle name as “Makepiece”). This brief note from Thackeray is dated only “Monday,” but a close look at the postmark on the accompanying envelope reveals that the letter was posted on February 28, 1860 (a Tuesday); he must have written it on the 27th and sent it the following day.

The letter is addressed to a “Mrs. Leslie” at 2 Abercorn Place, St. John’s Wood, in London (just north of the current site of Abbey Road Studios). This was Harriet Leslie (née Harriet Honor Stone), widow of the painter Charles Robert (C. R.) Leslie, who had died the previous year on May 5th. Thackeray was a friend of both the Leslies, and he wanted to write a tribute after the painter’s death.

Thackeray was well positioned to do so. In January 1860, the famous novelist had begun his tenure as the first editor of the Cornhill Magazine, one of Victorian Britain’s most popular periodicals, which sold 120,000 copies of its first issue. Anthony Trollope wrote in his biography of Thackeray, “It will be well remembered still how much The Cornhill was talked about and thought of before it first appeared, and how much of that thinking and talking was due to the fact that Mr. Thackeray was to edit it.” In the first year, contributors included Alfred Tennyson, George Henry Lewes, Leigh Hunt, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Ruskin, Anthony Trollope, and even a posthumous fragment by Charlotte Brontë. Thackeray wrote this letter to Harriet Leslie on Cornhill letterhead (which must have been quite new at the time), but he used his home address, then 36 Onslow Square in South Kensington.

In the letter, Thackeray seems to be referring to two articles. The first, which he proposed to Harriet Leslie, was almost certainly a tribute to her late husband; it ultimately ran in the April 1860 Cornhill under the title “The Last Sketch.” It commemorated C. R. Leslie’s artistic career in effusive terms (“the good, the gentle, the beloved Leslie”) while also setting the stage for a posthumous fragment of Charlotte Brontë’s, the story “Emma,” which ran in the same issue. This must have been delayed so that Thackeray could finish the “urgently required” article for the March Cornhill, which seems to have been the second installment of his “Roundabout Papers” column—a genially rambling essay in a manner that he himself identifies as Montaignesque. It is unclear from content alone why it was so urgent to finish this piece. (The early issues of the Cornhill are available at the HathiTrust Digital Library.)

The letter is accompanied in the Rare Book Collection by an unrelated drawing, cut and mounted and titled (presumably by the dealer) “New York Loafer.” Thackeray was as well-known for his caricatures and drawings as he was for his writing. The fact that the drawing is mounted in such a different manner from the letter suggests that Bliss might have acquired them from different dealers. Thackeray would have seen, and presumably drawn, this cab driver on one of his two American tours: the first began in November 1852, the second in 1855. New York was the first stop in both cases.

Letter from William Makepeace Thackeray to Harriet Leslie, February 27, 1860

Back of envelope accompanying letter from William Makepeace Thackeray to Harriet Leslie, February 27, 1860

“New York Loafer” caricature by William Makepeace Thackeray.

This gentleman is the driver of a hack. He wears a ruby pin a gold neck-chain a gold ring on his dirty forefinger: and he has just been overcharging a passenger in his carriage, and he says at the bar that no man shall call him a loafer and he wont stand it