William Allingham (1824–1889) was a minor poet from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, and a close friend of many of the famous people of the day – in particular Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti and Thomas Carlyle. He was a humane and curious man, and his diary offers often amusing glimpses into the lives of his Victorian contemporaries.
The following is an extract from August 1858.
Returning to Paris, after a short tour in Switzerland and North Italy, I found Thackeray in the Hotel Bristol with his two daughters. He not well — often in bed till mid-day or later — struggling with (Pendennis), but in the evening usually recovering himself.
I told him I had been with the Brownings (who were then in Paris, staying in the Rue Castiglioni, No. 6).
‘Browning was here this morning,’ Thackeray said, ‘ what spirits he has — almost too much for me in my weak state. He almost blew me out of bed!’
‘A wonderful fellow, indeed!’
‘Yes, and he doesn’t drink wine.’
‘He’s already screwed up to concert pitch.’
‘Far above it. But I can’t manage his poetry. What do you say?’
(I spoke highly of it),
‘Well, you see, I want poetry to be musical, to run sweetly.’
‘So do I.’
‘Then that does for your friend B.!’
I spoke of Browning’s other qualities as so splendid as to make him, as it were, a law in himself. But Thackeray only smiled and declined further discussion.
‘He has a good belief, in himself, at all events. I suppose he doesn’t care whether people praise him or not.’
‘I think he does, very much.’
‘O does he? Then I’ll say something about him in a number.’
Thackeray took me to dine with him in the Palais Royal. He noticed with quiet enjoyment every little incident — beginning with the flourish with which our waiter set down the dishes of Ostend oysters. After tasting his wine Thackeray said, looking at me solemnly through his large spectacles, ‘One’s first glass of wine in the day is a great event.’
That dinner was delightful. He talked to me with as much ease and familiarity as if I had been a favourite nephew.
After dinner Thackeray proposed that we should go to the Palais Royal Theatre, but on issuing forth he changed his mind, and said we would call up Father Prout. ‘His quarters are close by. You know him, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know that singing priest a little.’
He was then Paris Correspondent of the Globe, and his letters were much admired. It was said that the Globe had been obliged to buy a fount of Greek type by reason of Mahony’s fondness for classical quotations.
In a narrow street at the back of the Palais Royal, in a large lowish room on the ground floor, we found the learned and witty Padre, loosely arrayed, reclining in front of a book and a bottle of Burgundy. He greeted us well, but in a low voice and said, ‘ Evening boys, there’s a young chap asleep there in the corner.’ And in a kind of recess we noted something like bed-clothes.
Thackeray was anxious to know who this might be, and Prout explained that it was a young Paddy from Cork or thereabouts, who had been on a lark in Paris and spent his money. Prout found him ‘hard up,’ and knowing something of his friends in Ireland had taken him in to board and lodge, pending the arrival of succour.
This piece of humanity was much to Thackeray’s taste, as you may suppose. Thackeray said the Burgundy was ‘too strong,’ and had brandy and water instead.
We talked among other things of Dickens. I said how much a story of Dickens might be improved by a man of good taste with a pencil in his hand, by merely scoring out this and that.
Says Thackeray (with an Irish brogue), ‘Young man, you’re threadin’ on the tail o’ me coat!’
I did not understand at first.
‘What you’ve just said applies very much to your humble servant’s things.’
I disclaimed this, and Prout said emphatically, ‘Not a word too much in them!’