Vanity Fair was Thackeray’s greatest success so far, and put him in a league, for many contemporary readers, with Dickens, whose Dombey and Son came out in monthly parts alongside it. The monthly parts of his next novel, The History of Pendennis. His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and Greatest Enemy, appeared between November 1848 and December 1850, to be swiftly succeeded by its book form, to which Thackeray added an important preface, dated 26 November 1850:

I have found many thousands more readers than I ever looked for. I have no right to say to these, You shall not find fault with my art, or fall asleep over my pages; but I ask you to believe that this person writing strives to tell the truth. If there is not that, there is nothing. (xii, pp. xxxv–xxxxvi)

This novel of personal development had some similarities with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, translated by Carlyle under the title Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in 1824. Both novels entangle their eponymous protagonist with an actress at the beginning, offer him a variety of temptations and opportunities for growth in the middle, and marry him off to a noble-minded lady at the end. All this hardly amounts to the ‘influence’ of Goethe’s Bildungsroman on Thackeray’s novel which some German critics have claimed. A much better case may be made out for the co-presence of Goethe’s ballad of the fisherman and the water-sprite in a drawing Thackeray made for the covers of the monthly parts and then adapted for Volume I of the two-volume book edition. This sets its hero between the joys and sorrows of Victorian family life to his left and temptations symbolized by a naked mermaid and attendant imps and riches on his right. On the monthly covers Pendennis’s eyes are directed towards family life; in 303the frontispiece for Volume I of the book edition they have strayed to the mermaid. It is also noteworthy that in this later version the church at the back of the first has been replaced by suggestions of a river and a castle ruin—a Rhine landscape, in fact. John Sutherland, in the introduction of his valuable edition of Pendennis, has related these two versions to Thackeray’s own dilemma in 1848: ‘Was he to remain a “serious” writer or let himself become a mere crowd pleaser?’ and has commented on the erotic content of the two drawings:

On the one side of the Pen/Thackeray figure is the ‘world’ (mermaids, sexuality, Blanche, the major’s selfish philosophy). On the other side is the home (wife, children, the church, Laura). The salient feature of the frontispiece version is that the young man at the centre is fascinatedly eyeing the siren’s breasts, which clearly exert a stronger fascination than her traditionally bewitching song. And he is clearly trying to break free from his mute, dull-looking wife… The young rogue has, one feels, already committed the act of sexual betrayal in his mind. In the serial-cover version, the Pen/Thackeray figure is older by some years and now made of sterner stuff. He flinches away from the… temptress, with a look of stern disgust on his face, and two children clamping his leg …

Of course, in both cases, Pen does, in the end, opt for family and virtuous responsibility; the title-page illustration of Volume II of the book edition shows him penitently burying his head in the arms, and against the bosom, of the archetypal motherly wife. The open book on the reading-stand behind him may well be the Bible, matching the church behind the wife-and-children group on the monthly wrappers (Figs. 9.1, 2, 3). The drawings thus provide a modern version of the choice of Hercules, actualized in the eighteenth century by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his painting of Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy.