Thackeray's Original Illustration for Pendennis

Much of the loosely autobiographical novel Pendennis (1850) is set in and around Clavering St. Mary—Thackeray’s version of Ottery St. Mary, eight miles east of Exeter.  His stepfather owned the estate Larkbeare in Ottery, rechristened “Fairoaks” in the novel, which the author visited frequently during his schoolyears.  


Thackeray’s loving satire of the raucous youth of a country squire, Pendennis follows its eponymous hero through the comic rites of provincial passage. Pen reads “every possible kind of book which did not fall into his school course,” makes an early mark on the literary life of Devon by publishing in the County Chronicle’s Poet’s Corner such pearls as “To Madame Caradori singing at the Assize Meetings,” and falls madly in love with a touring actress about whom his friend observes “’She is a crusher, aint she now?’”


 In the quieter moments in the comic plot, especially in early chapters, the reader catches glimpses of daily life in 19th-century Devon. Snatches of music from the afternoon service vie with the rumble of the London coaches in the Cathedral Yard of Chatteris (Exeter) while a garden party is held nearby in the Dean’s garden.  The River Otter is transformed into the “little river [which] ran off noisily westward and was lost in a somber wood, behind which the towers of the old abbey church of Clavering (whereby that town is called Clavering St. Mary’s to the present day) rose up in purple splendour” (Ch II).  Thackeray’s tour of the center of Ottery/Clavering St Mary reveals that not much has changed in the intervening 150 years:  the  “Rectory is a stout, broad-shouldered brick house of the reign of Anne” which “communicates with the church and market by different gates, and stands at the opening of Yewtree Lane, where the Grammar School is;” nearby is Yew-Tree Cottage, and standing next to “the butcher’s slaughterhouse, [is] an old barn or brewhouse of the Abbey times, and the Misses Finucane’s establishment for young ladies” (Ch. XV). Thackeray’s own illustrations, one of which is reproduced at left,  punctuate the 1910 Smith, Elder and Company edition.




© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007