Henry A. Beers.

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of prose fiction, of the novel of real life. The novel has become to the
solitary reader of to-day what the stage play was to the audiences of
Elizabeth's reign, or the periodical essay, like the _Tatler_ and
_Spectator_, to the clubs and breakfast-tables of Queen Anne's. And if
its criticism of life is less concentrated and brilliant than the drama
gives, it is far more searching and minute. No period has ever left in
its literary records so complete a picture of its whole society as the
period which is just closing. At any other time than the present, the
names of authors like Charlotte Bronté, Charles Kingsley, and Charles
Reade - names which are here merely mentioned in passing - besides many
others which want of space forbids us even to mention - would be of
capital importance. As it is, we must limit our review to the three
acknowledged masters of modern English fiction, Charles Dickens
(1812-1870), William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), and "George
Eliot" (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880).

It is sometimes helpful to reduce a great writer to his lowest term, in
order to see what the prevailing bent of his genius is. This lowest term
may often be found in his early work, before experience of the world has
overlaid his original impulse with foreign accretions. Dickens was much
more than a humorist, Thackeray than a satirist, and George Eliot than a
moralist; but they had their starting-points respectively in humor, in
burlesque, and in strong ethical and religious feeling. Dickens began
with a broadly comic series of papers, contributed to the _Old Magazine_
and the _Evening Chronicle_, and reprinted in book form, in 1836, as
_Sketches by Boz_. The success of these suggested to a firm of
publishers the preparation of a number of similar sketches of the
misadventures of cockney sportsmen, to accompany plates by the comic
draughtsman, Mr. R. Seymour. This suggestion resulted in the _Pickwick
Papers_, published in monthly installments in 1836-1837. The series
grew, under Dickens's hand, into a continuous though rather loosely
strung narrative of the doings of a set of characters, conceived with
such exuberant and novel humor that it took the public by storm and
raised its author at once to fame. _Pickwick_ is by no means Dickens's
best, but it is his most characteristic and most popular book. At the
time that he wrote these early sketches he was a reporter for the
_Morning Chronicle_. His naturally acute powers of observation had been
trained in this pursuit to the utmost efficiency, and there always
continued to be about his descriptive writing a reportorial and
newspaper air. He had the eye for effect, the sharp fidelity to detail,
the instinct for rapidly seizing upon and exaggerating the salient
point, which are developed by the requirements of modern journalism.
Dickens knew London as no one else has ever known it, and, in
particular, he knew its hideous and grotesque recesses, with the strange
developments of human nature that abide there; slums like
Tom-all-Alone's, in _Bleak House_; the river-side haunts of Rogue
Riderhood, in _Our Mutual Friend_; as well as the old inns, like the
"White Hart," and the "dusky purlieus of the law." As a man, his
favorite occupation was walking the streets, where, as a child, he had
picked up the most valuable part of his education. His tramps about
London - often after nightfall - sometimes extended to fifteen miles in a
day. He knew, too, the shifts of poverty. His father - some traits of
whom are preserved in Mr. Micawber - was imprisoned for debt in the
Marshalsea prison, where his wife took lodging with him, while Charles,
then a boy of ten, was employed at six shillings a week to cover
blacking-pots in Warner's blacking warehouse. The hardships and
loneliness of this part of his life are told under a thin disguise in
Dickens's masterpiece, _David Copperfield_, the most autobiographical of
his novels. From these young experiences he gained that insight into the
lives of the lower classes and that sympathy with children and with the
poor which shine out in his pathetic sketches of Little Nell, in _The
Old Curiosity Shop_; of Paul Dombey; of poor Jo, in _Bleak House_; of
"the Marchioness," and a hundred other figures.

In _Oliver Twist_, contributed, during 1837-1838, to _Bentley's
Miscellany_, a monthly magazine of which Dickens was editor, he produced
his first regular novel. In this story of the criminal classes the
author showed a tragic power which he had not hitherto exhibited.
Thenceforward his career was a series of dazzling successes. It is
impossible here to particularize his numerous novels, sketches, short
tales, and "Christmas Stories" - the latter a fashion which he
inaugurated, and which has produced a whole literature in itself. In
_Nicholas Nickleby_, 1839; _Master Humphrey's Clock_, 1840; _Martin
Chuzzlewit_, 1844; _Dombey and Son_, 1848; _David Copperfield_, 1850,
and _Bleak House_, 1853, there is no falling off in strength. The last
named was, in some respects, and especially in the skillful
construction of the plot, his best novel. In some of his latest books,
as _Great Expectations_, 1861, and _Our Mutual Friend_, 1865, there are
signs of a decline. This showed itself in an unnatural exaggeration of
characters and motives, and a painful straining after humorous effects;
faults, indeed, from which Dickens was never wholly free. There was a
histrionic side to him, which came out in his fondness for private
theatricals, in which he exhibited remarkable talent, and in the
dramatic action which he introduced into the delightful public readings
from his works that he gave before vast audiences all over the United
Kingdom, and in his two visits to America. It is not surprising, either,
to learn that upon the stage his preference was for melodrama and farce.
His own serious writing was always dangerously close to the
melodramatic, and his humor to the farcical. There is much false art,
bad taste, and even vulgarity in Dickens. He was never quite a
gentleman, and never succeeded well in drawing gentlemen or ladies. In
the region of low comedy he is easily the most original, the most
inexhaustible, the most wonderful, of modern humorists. Creations such
as Mrs. Nickleby, Mr. Micawber, Sam Weller, Sairy Gamp, take rank with
Falstaff and Dogberry; while many others, like Dick Swiveller, Stiggins,
Chadband, Mrs. Jellyby, and Julia Mills, are almost equally good. In the
innumerable swarm of minor characters with which he has enriched our
comic literature there is no indistinctness. Indeed, the objection that
has been made to him is that his characters are too distinct - that he
puts labels on them; that they are often mere personifications of a
single trick of speech or manner, which becomes tedious and unnatural by
repetition. Thus, Grandfather Smallweed is always settling down into his
cushion, and having to be shaken up; Mr. Jellyby is always sitting with
his head against the wall; Peggotty is always bursting her buttons off,
etc. As Dickens's humorous characters tend perpetually to run into
caricatures and grotesques, so his sentiment, from the same excess,
slops over too frequently into "gush," and into a too deliberate and
protracted attack upon the pity. A favorite humorous device in his style
is a stately and roundabout way of telling a trivial incident, as where,
for example, Mr. Roker "muttered certain unpleasant invocations
concerning his own eyes, limbs, and circulating fluids;" or where the
drunken man who is singing comic songs in the Fleet received from Mr.
Smangle "a gentle intimation, through the medium of the water-jug, that
his audience were not musically disposed." This manner was original with
Dickens, though he may have taken a hint of it from the mock heroic
language of _Jonathan Wild_; but as practiced by a thousand imitators,
ever since, it has gradually become a burden.

It would not be the whole truth to say that the difference between the
humor of Thackeray and Dickens is the same as between that of Shakspere
and Ben Jonson. Yet it is true that the "humors" of Ben Jonson have an
analogy with the extremer instances of Dickens's character sketches in
this respect, namely, that they are both studies of the eccentric, the
abnormal, the whimsical, rather than of the typical and universal;
studies of manners, rather than of whole characters. And it is easily
conceivable that, at no distant day, the oddities of Captain Cuttle,
Deportment Turveydrop, Mark Tapley, and Newman Noggs will seem as
far-fetched and impossible as those of Captain Otter, Fastidious Brisk
and Sir Amorous La-Foole.

When Dickens was looking about for some one to take Seymour's place as
illustrator of _Pickwick_, Thackeray applied for the job, but without
success. He was then a young man of twenty-five, and still hesitating
between art and literature. He had begun to draw caricatures with his
pencil when a school-boy at the Charter House, and to scribble them with
his pen when a student at Cambridge, editing _The Snob_, a weekly
under-graduate paper, and parodying the prize poem _Timbuctoo_ of his
contemporary at the university, Alfred Tennyson. Then he went abroad to
study art, passing a season at Weimar, where he met Goethe and filled
the albums of the young Saxon ladies with caricatures; afterward living
a bohemian existence in the Latin quarter at Paris, studying art in a
desultory way, and seeing men and cities; accumulating portfolios full
of sketches, but laying up stores of material to be used afterward to
greater advantage when he should settle upon his true medium of
expression. By 1837, having lost his fortune of five hundred pounds a
year in speculation and gambling, he began to contribute to _Fraser's_,
and thereafter to the _New Monthly_, Cruikshank's _Comic Almanac_,
_Punch_, and other periodicals, clever burlesques, art criticisms by
"Michael Angelo Titmarsh," _Yellowplush Papers_, and all manner of
skits, satirical character sketches, and humorous tales, like the _Great
Hoggarty Diamond_ and the _Luck of Barry Lyndon_. Some of these were
collected in the _Paris Sketch-Book_, 1840, and the _Irish Sketch-Book_,
1843; but Thackeray was slow in winning recognition, and it was not
until the publication of his first great novel, _Vanity Fair_, in
monthly parts, during 1846-1848, that he achieved any thing like the
general reputation that Dickens had reached at a bound. _Vanity Fair_
described itself, on its title-page, as "a novel without a hero." It was
also a novel without a plot - in the sense in which _Bleak House_ or
_Nicholas Nickleby_ had a plot - and in that respect it set the fashion
for the latest school of realistic fiction, being a transcript of life,
without necessary beginning or end. Indeed, one of the pleasantest
things to a reader of Thackeray is the way which his characters have of
re-appearing, as old acquaintances, in his different books; just as, in
real life, people drop out of mind and then turn up again in other years
and places. _Vanity Fair_ is Thackeray's masterpiece, but it is not the
best introduction to his writings. There are no illusions in it, and,
to a young reader fresh from Scott's romances or Dickens's sympathetic
extravagances, it will seem hard and repellent. But men who, like
Thackeray, have seen life and tasted its bitterness and felt its
hollowness know how to prize it. Thackeray does not merely expose the
cant, the emptiness, the self-seeking, the false pretenses, flunkeyism,
and snobbery - the "mean admiration of mean things" - in the great world
of London society; his keen, unsparing vision detects the base alloy in
the purest natures. There are no "heroes" in his books, no perfect
characters. Even his good women, such as Helen and Laura Pendennis, are
capable of cruel injustice toward less fortunate sisters, like little
Fanny; and Amelia Sedley is led, by blind feminine instinct, to snub and
tyrannize over poor Dobbin. The shabby miseries of life, the numbing and
belittling influences of failure and poverty on the most generous
natures, are the tragic themes which Thackeray handles by preference. He
has been called a cynic, but the boyish playfulness of his humor and his
kindly spirit are incompatible with cynicism. Charlotte Bronté said that
Fielding was the vulture and Thackeray the eagle. The comparison would
have been truer if made between Swift and Thackeray. Swift was a cynic;
his pen was driven by hate, but Thackeray's by love, and it was not in
bitterness but in sadness that the latter laid bare the wickedness of
the world. He was himself a thorough man of the world, and he had that
dislike for a display of feeling which characterizes the modern
Englishman. But behind his satiric mask he concealed the manliest
tenderness, and a reverence for every thing in human nature that is good
and true. Thackeray's other great novels are _Pendennis_, 1849; _Henry
Esmond_, 1852, and _The Newcomes_, 1855 - the last of which contains his
most lovable character, the pathetic and immortal figure of Colonel
Newcome, a creation worthy to stand, in its dignity and its sublime
weakness, by the side of Don Quixote. It was alleged against Thackeray
that he made all his good characters, like Major Dobbin and Amelia
Sedley and Colonel Newcome, intellectually feeble, and his brilliant
characters, like Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne and Blanche Amory, morally
bad. This is not entirely true, but the other complaint - that his women
are inferior to his men - is true in a general way. Somewhat inferior to
his other novels were _The Virginians_, 1858, and _The Adventures of
Philip_, 1862. All of these were stories of contemporary life, except
_Henry Esmond_ and its sequel, _The Virginians_, which, though not
precisely historical fictions, introduced historical figures, such as
Washington and the Earl of Peterborough. Their period of action was the
18th century, and the dialogue was a cunning imitation of the language
of that time. Thackeray was strongly attracted by the 18th century. His
literary teachers were Addison, Swift, Steele, Gay, Johnson, Richardson,
Goldsmith, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, and his special master and
model was Fielding. He projected a history of the century, and his
studies in this kind took shape in his two charming series of lectures
on _The English Humorists_ and _The Four Georges_. These he delivered in
England and in America, to which country he, like Dickens, made two
several visits.

[Illustration: Carlyle, Ruskin, Thackeray, Dickens.]

Thackeray's genius was, perhaps, less astonishing than Dickens's; less
fertile, spontaneous, and inventive; but his art is sounder, and his
delineation of character more truthful. After one has formed a taste for
his books, Dickens's sentiment will seem overdone, and much of his humor
will have the air of buffoonery. Thackeray had the advantage in another
particular: he described the life of the upper classes, and Dickens of
the lower. It may be true that the latter offers richer material to the
novelist, in the play of elementary passions and in strong native
developments of character. It is true, also, that Thackeray approached
"society" rather to satirize it than to set forth its agreeableness.
Yet, after all, it is "the great world" which he describes, that world
upon which the broadening and refining processes of a high civilization
have done their utmost, and which, consequently, must possess an
intellectual interest superior to any thing in the life of London
thieves, traveling showmen, and coachees. Thackeray is the equal of
Swift as a satirist, of Dickens as a humorist, and of Scott as a
novelist. The one element lacking in him - and which Scott had in a high
degree - is the poetic imagination. "I have no brains above my eyes" he
said; "I describe what I see." Hence there is wanting in his creations
that final charm which Shakspere's have. For what the eyes see is not
all.

The great woman who wrote under the pen-name of George Eliot was a
humorist, too. She had a rich, deep humor of her own, and a wit that
crystallized into sayings which are not epigrams only because their
wisdom strikes more than their smartness. But humor was not, as with
Thackeray and Dickens, her point of view. A country girl, the daughter
of a land agent and surveyor at Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, her early
letters and journals exhibit a Calvinistic gravity and moral severity.
Later, when her truth to her convictions led her to renounce the
Christian belief, she carried into positivism the same religious
earnestness, and wrote the one English hymn of the religion of humanity:

O, let me join the choir invisible, etc.

Her first published work was a translation of Strauss's _Leben Jesu_,
1846. In 1851 she went to London and became one of the editors of the
Radical organ, the _Westminster Review_. Here she formed a connection - a
marriage in all but the name - with George Henry Lewes, who was, like
herself, a freethinker, and who published, among other things, a
_Biographical History of Philosophy_. Lewes had also written fiction,
and it was at his suggestion that his wife undertook story writing. Her
_Scenes of Clerical Life_ were contributed to _Blackwood's Magazine_ for
1857, and published in book form in the following year. _Adam Bede_
followed in 1859, the _Mill on the Floss_ in 1860, _Silas Marner_ in
1861, _Romola_ in 1863, _Felix Holt_ in 1866, and _Middlemarch_ in 1872.
All of these, except _Romola_, are tales of provincial and largely of
domestic life in the midland counties. _Romola_ is an historical novel,
the scene of which is Florence in the 15th century; the Florence of
Macchiavelli and of Savonarola.

George Eliot's method was very different from that of Thackeray or
Dickens. She did not crowd her canvas with the swarming life of cities.
Her figures are comparatively few, and they are selected from the
middle-class families of rural parishes or small towns, amid that
atmosphere of "fine old leisure;" whose disappearance she lamented. Her
drama is a still-life drama, intensely and profoundly inward. Character
is the stuff that she works in, and she deals with it more subtly than
Thackeray. With him the tragedy is produced by the pressure of society
and its false standards upon the individual; with her, by the malign
influence of individuals upon one another. She watches "the stealthy
convergence of human fates," the intersection at various angles of the
planes of character, the power that the lower nature has to thwart,
stupefy, or corrupt the higher, which has become entangled with it in
the mesh of destiny. At the bottom of every one of her stories there is
a problem of the conscience or the intellect. In this respect she
resembles Hawthorne, though she is not, like him, a romancer, but a
realist.

There is a melancholy philosophy in her books, most of which are tales
of failure or frustration. The _Mill on the Floss_ contains a large
element of autobiography, and its heroine, Maggie Tulliver, is, perhaps,
her idealized self. Her aspirations after a fuller and nobler existence
are condemned to struggle against the resistance of a narrow, provincial
environment, and the pressure of untoward fates. She is tempted to seek
an escape even through a desperate throwing off of moral obligations,
and is driven back to her duty only to die by a sudden stroke of
destiny. "Life is a bad business," wrote George Eliot, in a letter to a
friend, "and we must make the most of it." _Adam Bede_ is, in
construction, the most perfect of her novels, and _Silas Marner_ of her
shorter stories. Her analytic habit gained more and more upon her as she
wrote. _Middlemarch_, in some respects her greatest book, lacks the
unity of her earlier novels, and the story tends to become subordinate
to the working out of character studies and social problems. The
philosophic speculations which she shared with her husband were
seemingly unfavorable to her artistic growth, a circumstance which
becomes apparent in her last novel, _Daniel Deronda_, 1877. Finally in
the _Impressions of Theophrastus Such_, 1879, she abandoned narrative
altogether, and recurred to that type of "character" books which we have
met as a flourishing department of literature in the 17th century,
represented by such works as Earle's _Microcosmographie_ and Fuller's
_Holy and Profane State_. The moral of George Eliot's writings is not
obtruded. She never made the artistic mistake of writing a novel of
purpose, or what the Germans call a _tendenz-roman_; as Dickens did, for
example, when he attacked imprisonment for debt, in _Pickwick_; the poor
laws, in _Oliver Twist_; the Court of Chancery, in _Bleak House_; and
the Circumlocution office, in _Little Dorrit_.

Next to the novel, the essay has been the most overflowing literary form
used by the writers of this generation - a form characteristic, it may
be, of an age which "lectures, not creates." It is not the essay of
Bacon, nor yet of Addison, nor of Lamb, but attempts a complete
treatment. Indeed, many longish books, like Carlyle's _Heroes and Hero
Worship_ and Ruskin's _Modern Painters_, are, in spirit, rather literary
essays than formal treatises. The most popular essayist and historian of
his time was Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), an active and
versatile man, who won splendid success in many fields of labor. He was
prominent in public life as one of the leading orators and writers of
the Whig party. He sat many times in the House of Commons, as member for
Calne, for Leeds, and for Edinburgh, and took a distinguished part in
the debates on the Reform bill of 1832. He held office in several Whig
governments, and during his four years' service in British India, as
member of the Supreme Council of Calcutta, he did valuable work in
promoting education in that province, and in codifying the Indian penal
law. After his return to England, and especially after the publication
of his _History of England from The Accession of James II.,_ honors and
appointments of all kinds were showered upon him. In 1857 he was raised
to the peerage as Baron Macaulay of Rothley.

Macaulay's equipment, as a writer on historical and biographical
subjects, was, in some points, unique. His reading was prodigious, and
his memory so tenacious that it was said, with but little exaggeration,
that he never forgot any thing that he had read. He could repeat the
whole of _Paradise Lost_ by heart, and thought it probable that he could
rewrite _Sir Charles Grandison_ from memory. In his books, in his
speeches in the House of Commons, and in private conversation - for he
was an eager and fluent talker, running on often for hours at a
stretch - he was never at a loss to fortify and illustrate his positions
by citation after citation of dates, names, facts of all kinds, and
passages quoted _verbatim_ from his multifarious reading. The first of
Macaulay's writings to attract general notice was his article on
_Milton_, printed in the August number of the _Edinburgh Review_ for
1825. The editor, Lord Jeffrey, in acknowledging the receipt of the
manuscript, wrote to his new contributor, "The more I think, the less I
can conceive where you picked up that style." That celebrated
style - about which so much has since been written - was an index to the
mental character of its owner. Macaulay was of a confident, sanguine,
impetuous nature. He had great common sense, and he saw what he saw
quickly and clearly, but he did not see very far below the surface. He
wrote with the conviction of an advocate, and the easy omniscience of a
man whose learning is really nothing more than "general information"
raised to a very high power, rather than with the subtle penetration of
an original or truly philosophic intellect, like Coleridge's or De
Quincey's. He always had at hand explanations of events or of characters
which were admirably easy and simple - too simple, indeed, for the
complicated phenomena which they professed to explain. His style was
clear, animated, showy, and even its faults were of an exciting kind. It
was his habit to give piquancy to his writing by putting things
concretely. Thus, instead of saying, in general terms - as Hume or Gibbon
might have done - that the Normans and Saxons began to mingle about 1200,
he says: "The great-grandsons of those who had fought under William and
the great grandsons of those who had fought under Harold began to draw
near to each other." Macaulay was a great scene painter, who neglected
delicate truths of detail for exaggerated distemper effects. He used the
rhetorical machinery of climax and hyperbole for all that it was worth,
and he "made points" - as in his essay on _Bacon_ - by creating


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Online LibraryHenry A. BeersFrom Chaucer to Tennyson → online text (page 16 of 23)