Henry H Lancaster.

Essays and reviews online

. (page 32 of 38)
Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 32 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

through the senses. Even the sentimentalism of
Bulwer is better than this. His Godolphins and
Maltraverses make some effort to appeal to the

"The Mill on the Floss " abounds with instances of
George Eliot's failure to hit the true note of connec-
tion between circumstances and conduct. Maggie
Tulliver yields in the first instance without even a
struggle. We are told indeed that her struggles are
terrible, but she never does anything to assist her
efforts. Then again her refusal to marry Stephen,
after the whole mischief is done by her running or
rather rowing off with him, is a strong example of the
false morality to be met with in George Eliot's works.
There is no reason for this resolution ; every con-
sideration of what is due to herself as well as to others
is the other way. It springs merely from irrational
impulse. She shows just as much want of self-control
after the elopement as she did before it forgets what

2 D


she owes to her own reputation and the reputation of
her family, not less than she forgot what she owed to
the feelings of her cousin. There may be great self-
ishness in self-sacrifice. The true lesson would have
been to make her bear the natural consequences of
her conduct, showing how the fact of being compelled
to secure her own gratification itself formed part of
her punishment; to elevate a selfish and unavailing
renunciation into a sort of martyrdom is altogether
false teaching. People can never really redeem error
by acting like fools.

It would not be difficult to show in George Eliot's
writings traces of faults very prevalent among writers
of a lower grade. But the limits of our space forbid
this, and we gladly spare ourselves the ungrateful
task. It is right, moreover, to observe that from the
more serious blemishes we have indicated her earlier
writings are exempt. The " Scenes of Clerical Life "
are sorrowful pictures indeed, but they are true to
nature and free from any taint of impurity. In the
delicacy and beauty of Mr. GilfiTs love-story we think
her genius has achieved its most perfect triumph.
"Komola," deficient in interest as a story, is truly
noble in tone. There is no reason, therefore, to sup-
pose that the graver faults on which we have dwelt
so long cannot be laid aside at will. Deficiency in
constructive power would seem to make George Eliot's
entire success as a novelist doubtful, but this is a slight
drawback. She has it easily within her reach to win
no passing reputation, and gain, with general consent,
a place among the classics of the English language,
and she owes it to her rare genius to consider well,
whether some sobriety in incident, a closer truth to
nature, a greater respect for ordinary morality, would
not aid her in the achievement of this great ambition.


Mr. Thackeray was born in India in 1811 ;
JL that he was educated at Charter House and
Cambridge ; that he left the University after a few
terms' residence without a degree ; that he devoted
himself at first to art ; that in pursuit thereof he lived
much abroad " for study, for sport, for society;" that
about the age of twenty-five, married, without fortune,
without a profession, he began the career which has
made him an English classic ; that he pursued that
career steadily till his death, all this has, within the
last few weeks, been told again and again.

It is a common saying that the lives of men of
letters are uneventful. In an obvious sense this is
true. They are seldom called on to take part in events
which move the world, in politics, in the conflicts of
nations; while the ex citing incidents of sensation novels
are as rare in their lives as in the lives of other men.
But men of letters are in no way exempt from the
changes and chances of fortune ; and the story of these,
and of the effects which came from them, must possess
an interest for all. Prosperity succeeded by cruel
reverses ; happiness, and the long prospect of it, sud-
denly clouded ; a hard fight, with aims as yet uncertain,

1 This paper was the joint production of Mr. Lancaster and Dr. John
Brown. [Reprinted from the " North British Review," No. 79. Feb-
ruary 1864.]


and powers unknown ; success bravely won ; the
austerer victory of failure manfully borne ; these things
make a life truly eventful, and make the story of that
life full of interest and instruction. They will all fall
to be narrated when Mr. Thackeray's life shall be
written ; we have only now to do with them so far as
they illustrate his literary career, of which we propose
to lay before our readers an account as complete as is
in our power, and as impartial as our warm admiration
for the great writer we have lost will allow.

Many readers know Mr. Thackeray only as the
Thackeray of " Vanity Fair," " Pendennis," " The
Newcomes," and " The Virginians," the quadrilateral
of his fame, as they were called by the writer of an
able and kindly notice in the " Illustrated News." The
four volumes of " Miscellanies" published in 1857,
though his reputation had been then established, are
less known than they should be. But Mr. Thackeray
wrote much which does not appear even in the Mis-
cellanies ; and some account of his early labours may
not be unacceptable to our readers.

His first attempt was ambitious. He became con-
nected, as editor, and also, we suspect, in some mea-
sure, as proprietor, with a weekly literary journal, the
fortunes of which were not prosperous. V? believe
the journal to have been one which bore the imposing
title of " The National Standard and Journal of Litera-
ture, Science, Music, Theatricals, and the Fine Arts."
Thackeray's editorial reign began about the 19th
Number, after which he seems to have done a good
deal of work reviews, letters, criticisms, and verses.
As the " National Standard " is now hardly to be met
with out of the British Museum, we give a few speci-
mens of these first efforts. There is a mock sonnet by
W. Wordsworth, illustrative of a drawing of Braham
in stage nautical costume, standing by a theatrical


sea-shore ; in the background an Israelite, with the
clothes'- bag and triple hat of his ancient race ; and in
the sky, constellation-wise, appears a Jew's harp, with
a chaplet of bays round it. The sonnet runs :

" Say not that Judah's harp hath lost its tone,
Or that no bard hath found it where it hung
Broken and lonely, voiceless and unstrung,
Beside the sluggish streams of Babylon :
Slowman 1 repeats the strain his fathers sung,
And Judah's burning lyre is Braham's own !
Behold him here ! Here view the wondrous man,
Majestical and lonely, as when first,
In music on a wondering world he burst,
And eharm'd the ravish'd ears of Sov'reign Anne. 2
Mark well the form, reader ! nor deride
The sacred symbol Jew's harp glorified

Which, circled with a blooming wreath, is seen
Of verdant bays ; and thus are typified
The pleasant music, and the baize of green,
Whence issues out at eve Braham with front serene."

We have here the germ of a style in which Thackeray
became famous, though the humour of attributing this
nonsense to Wordsworth, and of making Braham
coeval with Queen Anne, is not now very plain.
There is a yet more characteristic touch in a review
of Montgomery's " Woman the Angel of Life," wind-
ing up with a quotation of some dozen lines, the order
of which he says has been reversed by the printer, but
as they read quite as well the one way as the other, he
does not think it worth while to correct the mistake !
A comical tale, called the " Devil's Wager," afterwards
reprinted in the Paris Sketch-Book, also appeared in

1 " It is needless to speak of the eminent vocalist and improvisatore.
He nightly delights a numerous and respectable audience at the Cider
Cellar ; and while on this subject I cannot refrain from mentioning the
kindness of Mr. Evans, the worthy proprietor of that establishment.
JST.B. A table-d'hdte every Friday." W. WORDSWORTH.

2 " Mr. Braham made his first appearance in England in the reign of
Queen Anne." W. W.


the "National Standard," with a capital woodcut,
representing the devil as sailing through the air,
dragging after him the fat Sir Roger de Rollo by means
of his tail, which is wound round Sir Roger's neck.
The idea of this tale is characteristic. The venerable
knight already in the other world, has made a foolish
bet with the devil, involving very seriously his future
prospects there, which he can only win by persuading
some of his relatives on earth to say an Ave for him.
He fails to obtain this slight boon from a kinsman
successor for obvious reasons ; and from a beloved
niece, owing to a musical lover whose serenading quite
puts a stop to her devotional exercises ; and succeeds
at last, only when, giving up all hope from compassion
or generosity, he appeals by a pious fraud to the self-
ishness of a brother and a monk. The story ends
with a very Thackerean touch : " The moral of this
story will be given in several successive numbers ;" the
last three words are in the Sketch-Book changed into
" the second edition/'

Perhaps best of all is a portrait of Louis Philippe,
presenting the Citizen King under the Robert Macaire
aspect, the adoption and popularity of which Thackeray
so carefully explains and illustrates in his Essay on
" Caricatures and Lithography in Paris." Below the
portrait are these lines, not themselves very remark-
able, but in which, especially in the allusion to Snobs
by the destined enemy of the race, we catch glimpses
of the future :

" Like ' the king in the parlour ' he 's fumbling his money,
Like ' the queen in the kitchen ' his speech is all honey,
Except when he talks it, like Emperor Nap,
Of his wonderful feats at Fleurus and Jemappe ;
But alas ! all his zeal for the multitude 's gone,
And of no numbers thinking except Number One !
No huzzas greet his coming, no patriot club licks
The hand of ' the best of created republics : '


He stands in Paris, as you see him before ye,

Little more than a snob. That 's an end of the story."

The journal seeins to have been an attempt to sub-
stitute vigorous and honest criticism of books and of
art for the partiality and slipslop, general then, and
now not perhaps quite unknown. It failed, however,
partly, it may be, from the inexperience of its man-
agers, but doubtless still more from the want of the
capital necessary to establish anything of the sort in
the face of similar journals of old standing. People
get into a habit of taking certain periodicals uncon-
sciously, as they take snuff. " The National Standard,"
etc. etc., came into existence on the 5th January 1833,
and ceased to be on the 1st February 1834.

His subsequent writings contain several allusions to
this misadventure ; from some of which we would
infer that the break-down of the journal was attended
with circumstances more unpleasant than mere literary
failure. Mr. Adolphus Simcoe, 1 when in a bad way
from a love of literature and drink, completed his ruin
by purchasing and conducting for six months that
celebrated miscellany called the " Lady's Lute," after
which time " its chords were rudely snapped asunder,
and he who had swept them aside with such joy went
forth a wretched and heart-broken man." And in
" Lovel the Widower," Mr. Batchelor narrates similar
experiences :

" I daresay I gave myself airs as editor of that confounded
"Museum," and proposed to educate the public taste, to diffuse

1 " Punch," vol. iii. The portrait of Mr. Adolphus, stretched out,
" careless diffused," seedy, hungry, and diabolical, in his fashionable
cheap hat, his dirty white duck trowsers strapped tightly down, as
being the mode, and possibly to conceal his bare legs ; a half-smoked,
probably unsmokeably bad cigar, in his hand, which is lying over the
arm of a tavern bench, from whence he is casting a greedy and ruffian
eye upon some unseen fellows, supping plenteously and with cheer, is,
for power and drawing, not unworthy of Hogarth.


morality and sound literature throughout the nation, and to
pocket a liberal salary in return for my services. I daresay
I printed my own sonnets, my own tragedy, my own verses
(to a being who shall be nameless, but whose conduct has
caused a faithful heart to bleed not a little). I daresay I
wrote satirical articles, in which I piqued myself on the
fineness of my wit and criticisms, got up for the nonce, out
of encyclopaedias and biographical dictionaries; so that I
would be actually astonished at my own knowledge. I dare-
say I made a gaby of myself to the world ; pray, my good
friend, hast thou never done likewise ? If thou hast never
been a fool, be sure thou wilt never be a wise man."

Silence for a while seems to have followed upon this
failure ; but in 1836 his first attempt at independent
authorship appeared simultaneously in London and
Paris. This publication, at a time when he still
hoped to make his bread by art, is, like indeed every-
thing he either said or did, so characteristic, and has
been so utterly forgotten, that an account of it may
not be out of place, perhaps more minute than its
absolute merits deserve.

It is a small folio, with six lithographs, slightly
tinted, entitled " Fiore et Zephyr, Ballet Mythologique
dedie a par Theophile Wagstaffe." Between "a" and
" par " on the cover is the exquisite "Flore" herself, all
alone in some rosy and bedizened bower. She has the
old jaded smirk, and, with eyebrows up and eyelids
dropt, she is looking down oppressed with modesty
and glory. Her nose, which is long, and has a ripe
droop, gives to the semicircular smirk of the large
mouth, down upon the centre of which it comes in
the funniest way, an indescribably sentimental ab-
surdity. Her thin, sinewy arms and large hands are
crossed on her breast, and her petticoat stands out like
an inverted white tulip of muslin out of which
come her professional legs, in the only position which
human nature never puts its legs into ; it is her


special pose. Of course, also, you are aware, by that
smirk, that look of being looked at, that though alone
in maiden meditation in this her bower, and sighing
for her Zephyr, she is in front of some thousand pairs
of eyes, and under the fire of many double-barrelled
lorgnettes, of which she is the focus.

In the first plate, "La Danse fait ses offrandes sur
1'autel de Harmonic," in the shapes of Flore and
Zephyr coming trippingly to the footlights, and pay-
ing no manner of regard to the altar of harmony,
represented by a fiddle with an old and dreary face,
and a laurel wreath on its head, and very great regard
to the unseen but perfectly understood "house." Next
is "Triste et abattu, les seductions .des Nymphes le
(Zephyr) tentent en vain," Zephyr looking theatrically
sad. Then "Flore (with one lower extremity at more
than a right angle to the other) deplore 1' absence de
Zephyr." The man in the orchestra endeavouring to
combine business with pleasure, so as to play the
flageolet and read his score, and at the same time miss
nothing of the deploring, is intensely comic. Next
Zephyr has his turn, and dans un pas seul exprime sa
supreme desespoir the extremity of despair being
expressed by doubling one leg so as to touch the knee
of the other, and then whirling round so as to suggest
the regulator of a steam-engine run off. Next is the
rapturous reconciliation, when the faithful creature
bounds into his arms, and is held up to the house by
the waist in the wonted fashion. Then there is " La
Ketraite de Flore," where we find her with her mother
and two admirers Zephyr, of course, not one. This
is in Thackeray's strong unflinching line. One lover
is a young dandy without forehead or chin, sitting
idiotically astride his chair. To him the old lady,
who has her slight rouge, too, and is in a homely shawl
and muff, having walked, is making faded love. In


the centre is the fair darling herself still on tiptoe, and
wrapped up, but not too much, for her Jiacre. With
his back to the comfortable fire, and staring wickedly
at her, is the other lover, a big, burly, elderly man,
probably well to do on the Bourse, and with a wife and
family at home in their beds. The last exhibits " Les
d&assements de Zephyr/' That hard-working and
homely personage is resting his arm on the chimney-
piece, taking a huge pinch of snuff from the box of
a friend, with a refreshing expression of satisfaction,
the only bit of nature as yet. A dear little innocent
pot-boy, such as only Thackeray knew how to draw, is
gazing and waiting upon the two, holding up a tray
from the nearest tavern, on which is a great pewter-
pot of foaming porter for Zephyr, and a rummer of
steaming brandy and water for his friend, who has
come in from the cold air. These drawings are
lithographed by Edward Morton, son of " Speed the
Plough," and are done with that delicate strength and
truth for which this excellent but little known artist
is always to be praised. In each corner is the mono-
gram > >37", which appears so often afterwards with the

M added, and is itself superseded by the well-known
pair of spectacles. Thackeray must have been barely
five-and-twenty when this was published by Mitchell
in Bond Street. It can hardly be said to have sold.

Now it is worth noticing how in this, as always, he
ridiculed the ugly and the absurd in truth and pure-
ness. There is, as we may well know, much that is
wicked (though not so much as the judging com-
munity are apt to think) and miserable in such a life.
There is much that a young man and artist might
have felt and drawn in depicting it, of which in after
years he would be ashamed ; but * * Theophile Wagstaffe "
has done nothing of this. The effect of looking over


these juvenilia these first shafts from that mighty
bow, now, alas ! unbent is good, is moral ; you are
sorry for the hard-wrought slaves ; perhaps a little
contemptuous towards the idle people who go to see
them ; and you feel, moreover, that the Ballet, as
thus done, is ugly as w^ell as bad, is stupid as well as
destructive of decency.

His dream of editorship being ended, Mr. Thackeray
thenceforward contented himself with the more lowly,
but less responsible, position of a contributor, especi-
ally to " Fraser's Magazine." The youth of " Fraser "
was full of vigour and genius. We know no better
reading than its early volumes, unsparing indeed, but
brilliant with scholarship and originality and fire. In
these days, the staff of that periodical included such
men as Maginn, " Barry Cornwall," Coleridge, Carlyle,
Hogg, Gait, Theodore Hook, Delta, Gleig, Edward
Irving, and, now foremost of them all, Thackeray.
The first of the " Yellowplush Correspondence "
appeared in November 1837. The world should be
grateful to Mr. John Henry Skelton, who in that year
wrote a book called " My Book, or the Anatomy of
Conduct/' for to him is owing the existence of Mr.
Charles Yellowplush as a critic, and as a narrator of
" fashnable fax and polite annygoats." Mr. Yellow-
plush, on reading Mr. Skelton's book, saw at once that
only a gentleman of his distinguished profession could
competently criticise the same ; and this was soon suc-
ceeded by the wider conviction that the great subject
of fashionable life should not be left to any " common
writin creatures," but that an authentic picture thereof
must be supplied by " ONE OF us." In the words of
a note to the first paper, with the initials 0. Y., but
which it is easy to recognise as the work of Mr. Charles
himself without the plush : " He who looketh from
a tower sees more of the battle than the knights and


captains engaged in it ; and, in like manner, he who
stands behind a fashionable table knows more of society
than the guests who sit at the board. Itjs from this
source that our great novel-writers have drawn their
experience, retailing the truths which they learned.
It is not impossible that Mr. Yellowplush may con-
tinue his communications, when we shall be able to
present the reader with the only authentic picture of
fashionable life which has been given to the world in
our time/' The idea was not carried out very fully.
The only pictures sketched by Mr. Yellowplush were
the farce of " Miss Shum's Husband," and the terrible
tragedy of "Deuceace," neither of them exactly
" pictures of fashionable life." We rather fancy that,
in the story of Mr. Deuceace, Mr. Yellowplush was
carried away from his original plan, a return to which
he found impossible after that wonderful medley of
rascality, grim humour, and unrelieved bedevilry of
all kinds. But in 1838 he reverted to his original
critical tendencies, and demolished all that " The
Quarterly " had left of a book which made some noise
in its day, called " A Diary Illustrative of the Times
of George the Fourth ;" and wrote from his pantry one
of the " Epistles to the Literati/' expressing his views
of Sir Edward Lytton's " Sea Captain," than which we
know of no more good-natured, trenchant, and con-
clusive piece of criticism. All the Yellowplush papers
except the first are republished in the Miscellanies.

In 1839, appeared the story of "Catherine," by
Ikey Solomon. This story is little known, and it
throws us back upon one still less known. In 1832,
when Mr. Thackeray was not more than twenty-one,
" Elizabeth Brownrigge : a tale," was narrated in the
August and September numbers of "Fraser." This
tale is dedicated to the author of "Eugene Aram,"
and the author describes himself as a young man who


has for a length of time applied himself to literature,
but entirely failed in deriving any emoluments from
his exertions. Depressed by failure he sends for the
popular novel of " Eugene Aram " to gain instruction
therefrom. He soon discovers his mistake :

" From the frequent perusal of older works of imagination
I had learnt so to weave the incidents of my story as to
interest the feelings of the reader in favour of virtue, and to
increase his detestation of vice. I have been taught by
' Eugene Aram ' to mix vice and virtue up together in such
an inextricable confusion as to render it impossible that any
preference should be given to either, or that the one, indeed,
should be at all distinguishable from the other. ... In
taking my subject from that walk of life to which you had
directed my attention, many motives conspired to fix my
choice on the heroine of the ensuing tale ; she is a classic
personage, her name has been already ' linked to immortal
verse ' by the muse of Canning. Besides, it is extraordinary
that, as you had commenced a tragedy under the title of
' Eugene Aram/ I had already sketched a burletta with the
title of 'Elizabeth Brownrigge.' I had, indeed, in my
dramatic piece, been guilty of an egregious and unpardon-
able error : I had attempted to excite the sympathies of the
audience in favour of the murdered apprentices, but your
novel has disabused me of so vulgar a prejudice, and, in my
present version of her case, all the interest of the reader and
all the pathetic powers of the author will be engaged on the
side of the murderess."

According to this conception the tale proceeds, with
incidents and even names taken directly from the
"Newgate Calendar," but rivalling " Eugene Aram"
itself in magnificence of diction, absurdity of senti-
ment, and pomp of Greek quotation. The trial-scene
and the speech for the defence are especially well hit
off. If " Elizabeth Brownrigge " was written by
Thackeray, and the internal evidence seems to us
strong, the following is surprising criticism from a


youth of twenty-one the very Byron and Bulwer

"I am inclined to regard you (the author of 'Eugene
Aram') as an original discoverer in the world of literary
enterprise, and to reverence you as the father of a new
' lusus naturae school.' There is no other title by which
your manner could be so aptly designated. I am told, for
instance, that in a former work, having to paint an adulterer,
you described him as belonging to the class of country
curates, among whom, perhaps, such a criminal is not met
with once in a hundred years ; while, on the contrary, being
in search of a tender-hearted, generous, sentimental, high-
minded, hero of romance, you turned to the pages of the
' Newgate Calendar,' and looked for him in the list of men
who have cut throats for money, among whom a person
in possession of such qualities could never have been met
with at all Wanting a shrewd, selfish, worldly, calculating

Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 32 of 38)