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two papers especially good called " Caricatures and
Lithography in Paris," and "Meditations at Ver-
sailles," the former of which gives a picture of Parisian
manners and feeling in the Orleans times in no way
calculated to make us desire those days back again ;
the latter an expression of the thoughts called up by
the splendour of Versailles and the beauty of the Petit



THACKERAY. 423

Trianon, in its truth, sarcasm, and half- melancholy,
worthy of his best days. All these the public, we
think, would gladly welcome in a more accessible
form. Of the rest of the "Sketch-Book" the same
can hardly be said, and yet we should ourselves much
regret never to have seen, for example, the four grace-
ful imitations of Beranger.

The appreciative and acquisitive tendencies of our
Yankee friends forced, we are told, independent
authorship on Lord Macaulay and Sir James Stephen.
We owe to the same cause the publication of the
" Comic Tales and Sketches" in 1841 ; Mr. Yellow-
plush's memoirs having been more than .once reprinted
in America before that date. The memoirs were ac-
companied with " The Fatal Boots " (from the " Comic
Almanack") ; the " Bedford Eow Conspiracy," and the
Eeminiscences of that astonishing Major Gahagan
(both from the "New Monthly Magazine," 1838-40,
a periodical then in great glory, with Hood, Marryat,
Jerrold, and Laman Blan chard among its contributors) ;
all now so known and so appreciated that the failure
of this third effort seems altogether unaccountable.
In 1843, however, the "Irish Sketch-Book " was, we
believe, tolerably successful; and in 1846 the " Journey
from Cornlrill to Grand Cairo " was still more so ; in
which year also "Vanity Fair" began the career
which has given him his place and name in English
literature.

We have gone into these details concerning Mr,
Thackeray's early literary life, not only because they
seem to us interesting and instructive in themselves ;
not only because we think his severe judgment re-
jecting so many of his former efforts should in several
instances be reversed ; but because they gave us much
aid in arriving at a true estimate of his genius. He
began literature as a profession early in life about



424 THACKERAY.

the age of twenty-five but even then he was, as he
says of Addison, " full and ripe." Yet it was long
before he attained the measure of his strength, or
discovered the true bent of his powers. His was no
sudden leap into fame. On the contrary, it was by
slow degrees, and after many and vain endeavours,
that he attained to anything like success. Were it
only to show how hard these endeavours were, the
above retrospect would be well worth while ; not that
the retrospect is anything like exhaustive. In addition
to all we have mentioned, he wrote for the "West-
minster," for the "Examiner," and the "Times ;" was
connected with the " Constitutional," and also, it is
said, with the " Torch " and the " Parthenon " these
last three being papers which enjoyed a brief existence.
No man ever more decidedly refuted the silly notion
which disassociates genius from labour. His industry
must have been unremitting, for he worked slowly,
rarely retouching, writing always with great thought
and habitual correctness of expression. His writing
would of itself show this ; always neat and plain ;
capable of great beauty and minuteness. He used to
say that if all trades failed, he would earn sixpences
by writing the Lord's Prayer and the Creed (not the
Athanasiau) in the size of one. He considered and
practised caligraphy as one of the fine arts, as did
Porson and Dr. Thomas Young. He was continually
catching new ideas from passing things, and seems
frequently to have carried his work in his pocket, and
when a thought, or a turn, or a word struck him, it
was at once recorded. In the fulness of his experi-
ence, he was well pleased when he wrote six pages of
" Esmond " in a day; and he always worked in the
day, not at night. He never threw away his ideas ;
if at any time they passed unheeded, or were carelessly
expressed, he repeats them, or works them up more



THACKERAY. 425

y

tellingly. In these earlier writings we often stumble
upon the germ of an idea, or a story, or a character
with which his greater works have made us already
familiar ; thus the swindling scenes during the sad
days of Becky's decline and fall, and the Baden
sketches in the "Newcomes," the Deuceaces, and
Punters, and Loders, are all in the "Yellowplush
Papers " and the " Paris Sketch-Book ; " the Univer-
sity pictures of " Pendennis " are sketched, though
slightly, in the " Shabby- Genteel Story ;" the anecdote
of the child whose admirer of seven will learn that
she has left town "from the newspapers," is trans-
ferred from the " Book of Snobs " to Ethel Newcome ;
another child in a different rank of life, whose
acquisition of a penny gains for her half-a-dozen
sudden followers and friends, appears, we think, three
times; "Canute," neglected in "Punch," is incor-
porated in "Kebecca and Bowena," And his names,
on which he bestowed no ordinary care, and which
have a felicity almost deserving an article to them-
selves, are repeated again and again. He had been
ten years engaged in literary work before the concep
tion of " Vanity Fair " grew up. Fortunately for him
it was declined by at least one magazine, and, as we
can well believe, not without much anxiety and many
misgivings he sent it out to the world alone. Its
progress was at first slow ; but we cannot think its
success was ever doubtful. A friendly notice in the
" Edinburgh," when eleven numbers had appeared, did
something, the book itself did the rest ; and before
" Vanity Fair " was completed, the reputation of its
author was established.

Mr. Thackeray's later literary life is familiar to all.
It certainly was not a life of idleness. " Vanity Fair,"
"Pendennis," "Esmond," "The Newcomes," "The
Virginians," " Philip ; " the Lectures on the " Humor-



426 THACKERAY.

ists " and the " Georges ; " and that wonderful series
of Christmas stories, "Mrs. Perkins' Ball/' "Our
Street," "Dr. Birch," "Rebecca and Kowena," and
" The Rose and the Ring," represent no small labour
on the part of the writer, no small pleasure and im-
provement on the part of multitudes of readers. For
the sake of the " Cornhill Magazine " he reverted to
the editorial avocations of his former days, happily
with a very different result both on the fortunes of the
periodical and his own, but, we should think, with
nearly as much discomfort to himself. The public,
however, were the gainers, if only they owe to this
editorship the possession of "Lovel the Widower."
We believe that Lovel was written for the stage, and
was refused by the management of the Olympic about
the year 1854. Doubtless the decision was wise, and
Lovel might have failed as a comedy. But as a tale
it is quite unique full of humour, and curious
experience of life, and insight ; with a condensed
vigour, and grotesque effects and situations which
betray its dramatic origin. The tone of many parts
of the book, particularly the description of the emotions
of a disappointed lover, shows the full maturity of the
author's powers ; but there is a daring and freshness
about other parts of it which would lead us to
refer the dramatic sketch even to an earlier date than
1854. This imperfect sketch of his literary labours
may be closed, not inappropriately, with the descrip-
tion which his " faithful old Gold Pen " gives us of the
various tasks he set it to :

" Since he my faithful service did engage
To follow him through his queer pilgrimage,
I Ve drawn and written many a line and page.

Caricatures I scribbled have, and rhymes,
And dinner- cards, and picture pantomimes,
And merry little children's books at times.



THACKERAY. 427

I 've writ the foolish fancy of his brain ;

The aimless jest that, striking, hath caused pain ;

The idle word that he 'd wish back again.

I Ve help'd him to pen many a line for bread ;

To joke, with sorrow aching in his head ;

And make your laughter when his own heart bled.

Feasts that were ate a thousand days ago,
Biddings to wine that long hath ceased to flow,
Gay meetings with good fellows long laid low :

Summons to bridal, banquet, burial, ball,
Tradesman's polite reminders of his small
Account due Christmas last I 've answered all.

Poor Diddler's tenth petition for a half-
Guinea ; Miss Bunyan's for an autograph ;
So I refuse, accept, lament, or laugh,

Condole, congratulate, invite, praise, scoff,
Day after day still dipping in my trough,
And scribbling pages after pages off.

Nor pass the words as idle phrases by ;

Stranger ! I never writ a flattery,

Nor sign'd the page that registered a lie."

" En realite," says the writer of an interesting notice
in " Le Temps," " 1'auteur de ' Vanity Fair ' (la ' Foire
aux vanites ') est un satiriste, un moraliste, un humor-
iste, auquel il a manque*, pour etre tout-a-fait grand,
d'etre un artiste. Je dis tout-a-fait grand ; car s'il
est douteux que, comme humoriste, on le puisse com-
parer soit a Lamb, soit a Sterne, il est bien certain, du
moins, que comme satiriste, il ne conn ait pas de
superieurs, pas meme Dryden, pas meme Swift,' pas
meme Pope. Et ce qui le distingue d'eux, ce qui 1'^leve
au dessus d'eux, ce qui fait de lui un genie essentielle-
ment original, c'est que sa colere pour qui est capable
d'en pene*trer le secret, n'est au fond que la reaction
d'une nature tendre, furieuse d' avoir ete desappointee."



428 THACKERAY.

Beyond doubt the French critic is right in holding
Thackeray's special powers to have been those of a satir-
ist or humorist. We shall form but a very inadequate
conception of his genius if we look at him exclusively,
or even chiefly, as a novelist. His gifts were not those
of a teller of stories. He made up a story in which his
characters played their various parts, because the re-
quirement of interest is at the present day imperative,
and because stories are well paid for, and also because
to do this was to a certain extent an amusement to him-
self ; but it was often, we suspect, a great worry and
puzzle to him, and never resulted in any marked success.
It is not so much that he is a bad constructor of a plot,
as that his stories have no plot at all. We say nothing
of such masterpieces of constructive art as Tom Jones ;
he is far from reaching even the careless power of the
stories of Scott. None of his novels end with the
orthodox marriage of hero and heroine, except " Pen-
dermis," which might just as well have ended without
it. The stereotyped matrimonial wind-up in novels
can of course very easily be made game of ; but it has
a rational meaning. When a man gets a wife and a
certain number of hundreds a year, he grows stout,
and his adventures are over. Hence novelists natur-
ally take this as the crisis in a man's life to which all
that has gone before leads up. But for Mr. Thack-
eray's purposes a man or a woman is as good after
marriage as before it indeed rather better. To some
extent this is intentional ; a character, as he says
somewhere, is too valuable a property to be easily
parted with. Besides, he is not quite persuaded that
marriage concludes all that is interesting in the life of
a man : " As the hero and heroine pass the matri-
monial barrier, the novelist generally drops the curtain,
as if the drama were over then, the doubts and
struggles of life ended ; as if, once landed in the



THACKERAY. 429

marriage country, all were green and pleasant there, and
wife and husband had nothing but to link each other's
arms together, and wander gently downwards towards
old age in happy and perfect fruition." But he de-
murs to this view ; and as he did not look on a man's
early life as merely an introduction to matrimony, so
neither did he regard that event as a final conclusion.
Kejecting then this natural and ordinary catastrophe,
he makes no effort to provide another. His stories
stop, but they don't come to an end. There seems
no reason why they should not go on further, or why
they should not have ceased before. Nor does this
want of finish result from weariness on the part of the
writer, or from that fear of weariness on the part of
readers which Mr. Jedediah Cleishbotham expresses to
Miss Martha Buskbody : "Keally, madam, you must
be aware that every volume of a narrative turns less
and less interesting as the author draws to a conclu-
sion ; just like your tea, which though excellent hyson,
is necessarily weaker and more insipid in the last cup.
Now, as I think the one is by no means improved by
the luscious lump of half-dissolved sugar usually
found at the bottom of it, so I am of opinion that a
history, growing already vapid, is but dully crutched
up by a detail of circumstances which every reader
must have anticipated, even though the author ex-
haust on them every flowery epithet in the language."
It arises from the want of a plot, from the want often
of any hero or heroine round whom a plot can centre.
Most novelists know how to let the life out towards
the end, so that the story dies quite naturally, having
been wound up for so long. But his airy nothings,
if once life is breathed into them, and they are made
to speak and act, and love and hate, will not die ; on
the contrary, they grow in force and vitality under
our very eye ; the curtain comes sheer down upon

2 F



430 THACKERAY.

them when they are at their best. Hence his trick of
re-introducing his characters in subsequent works, as
fresh and life-like as ever. He does not indeed carry
this so far as Dumas, whose characters are traced with
edifying minuteness of detail from boyhood to the
grave ; Balzac or our own Trollope afford, perhaps, a
closer comparison, although neither of these writers
certainly not Mr. Trollope rivals Thackeray in the
skill with which such re-appearances are managed.
In the way of delineation of character we know of few
things more striking in its consistency and truth than
Beatrix Esmond grown into the Baroness Bernstein :
the attempt was hazardous, the success complete.

Yet this deficiency in constructive art was not
inconsistent with dramatic power of the highest order.
Curiously enough, if his stories for the most part end
abruptly, they also for the most part open well. Of
some of them, as " Pendennis " and the " Newcomes,"
the beginnings are peculiarly felicitous. But his
dramatic power is mainly displayed in his invention
and representation of character. In invention his
range is perhaps limited, though less so than is com-
monly said. He has not, of course, the sweep of Scott,
and even where a comparison is fairly open, he does
not show Scott's creative faculty ; thus, good as his
high life below stairs may be, he has given us no
Jenny Dennison. He does not attempt artisan life
like George Eliot, nor, like other writers of the day,
affect rural simplicity, or delineate provincial pecu-
liarities (the Mulligan and Costigan are national), or
represent special views or opinions. But he does
none of these things, not so much because his range
is limited, as because his art is universal. There are
many phases of human life on which he has not
touched ; few developments of human nature. He
has caught those traits which are common to all man-



THACKERAY. 431

kind peer and artisan alike, and he may safely omit
minor points of distinction. It is a higher art to draw
men, than to draw noblemen or working men. If the
specimen of our nature be brought before us, it matters
little whether it be dressed in a lace coat or a fustian
jacket. Among novelists he stands, in this particular,
hardly second to Scott. His pages are filled with
those touches of nature which make the whole world
kin. Almost every passion and emotion of the heart
of man finds a place in his pictures. These pictures
are taken mainly from the upper and middle classes
of society, with an occasional excursion into Bohemia,
sometimes even into depths beyond that pleasant land
of lawlessness. In variety, truth, and consistency,
they are unrivalled. They are not caricatures, they
are not men of humours ; they are the men and women
whom we daily meet ; they are, in the fullest sense of
the word, representative ; and yet they are drawn so
sharply and finely that we never could mistake or
confound them. Pendennis, Clive Newcome, Philip,
are all placed in circumstances very much alike, and
yet they are discriminated throughout by delicate and
certain touches, which we hardly perceive even while
we feel their effect. Only one English writer of
fiction can be compared to Mr. Thackeray in this
power of distinguishing ordinary characters the
authoress of "Pride and Prejudice." But with this
power he combines, in a very singular manner, the
power of seizing humours, or peculiarities, when it so
pleases him. Jos Sedley, Charles Honeyman, Fred
Bay ham, Major Pendennis, are so marked as to be
fairly classed as men of humours ; and in what a
masterly way the nature in each is caught and held
firm throughout! In national peculiarities he is
especially happy. The Irish he knows well : the
French, perhaps, still better. How wonderfully clever



432 THACKERAY.

is the sketch of "Mary Queen of Scots" and the
blustering Gascon, and the rest of her disreputable
court at Baden ! And what can those who object to
Thackeray's women say of that gentle lady Madame
de Florae a sketch of ideal beauty, with her early,
never- forgotten sorrow, her pure, holy resignation \
To her inimitable son no words can do justice. The
French-English of his speech would make the fortune
of any ordinary novel. It is as unique, and of a more
delicate humour, than the orthography of Jeames.
Perhaps more remarkable than even his invention is
the fidelity with which the conception of his characters
is preserved. This never fails. They seem to act, as
it were, of themselves. The author having once pro-
jected them, appears to have nothing more to do with
them. They act somehow according to their own
natures, unprompted by him, and beyond his control.
He tells us this himself in one of those delightful and
most characteristic Eoundabout Papers, which are far
too much and too generally undervalued : " I have
been surprised at the observations made by some of
my characters. It seems as if an occult power was
moving the pen. The personage does or says some-
thing, and I ask, How the dickens did he come to
think of that \ . . . We spake anon of the inflated
style of some writers. What also if there is an afflated
style ; when a writer is like a Pythoness, or her oracle
tripod, and mighty words, words which he cannot
help, come blowing, and bellowing, and whistling, and
moaning through the speaking pipes of his bodily
organ?" Take one of his most subtle sketches
though it is but a sketch Elizabeth, in " Lovel the
Widower/' The woman has a character, and a strong
one ; she shows it, and acts up to it ; but it is as great
a puzzle to us as the character of Hamlet ; the author
himself does not understand it. This is, of course,



THACKERAY. 433

art ; and it is the highest perfection of art ; it is the
art of Shakespeare ; and hence it is that Thackeray's
novels are interesting irrespective of the plot, or story,
or whatever we choose to call it. His characters
come often without much purpose : they go often
without much reason ; but they are always welcome ;
and for the most part we wish them well. Dumas
makes up for the want of a plot by wild incident and
spasmodic writing ; Thackeray makes us forget a like
deficiency by the far higher means of true concep-
tions, and consistent delineations of human nature.
" Esmond," alone of all his more important fictions,
is artistically constructed. The marriage indeed of
Esmond and Lady Castlewood marks no crisis in their
lives ; on the contrary, it might have happened at any
time, and makes little change in their relations ; but
the work derives completeness from the skill with
which the events of the time are connected with the
fortunes of the chief actors in the story the historical
plot leading up to the catastrophe of Beatrix, the
failure of the conspiracy, and the exile of the conspira-
tors. In " Esmond," too, Thackeray's truth to nature
is especially conspicuous. In all his books the dialogue
is surprising in its naturalness, in its direct bearing on
the subject in hand. Never before, we think, in fiction
did characters so uniformly speak exactly like the men
and women of real life. In " Esmond " owing to
the distance of the scene this rare excellence was not
easy of attainment, yet it has been attained. Every
one not only acts, but speaks in accordance certainly
with the ways of the time, but always like a rational
human being ; there is no trace of that unnaturalness
which offends us even in Scott's historical novels,
and which substitutes for intelligible converse loDg
harangues in pompous diction, garnished with strange
oaths, a style of communicating their ideas never



434 THACKERAY.

adopted, we may be very sure, by any mortals upon
this earth. Add to these artistic excellencies, a ten-
derness of feeling and a beauty of style which even
Thackeray has not elsewhere equalled, and we come
to understand why the best critics look on " Esmond "
as his masterpiece.

Nor, in speaking of Thackeray as a novelist, should
we forget to mention though but in a word his
command of the element of tragedy. The parting of
George Osborne with Amelia ; the stern grief of old
Osborne for the loss of his son ; the later life of Beatrix
Esmond ; the death of Colonel Newcome, are in their
various styles perfect, and remarkable for nothing
more than for the good taste which controls and
subdues them all.

But, as we said before, to criticise Mr. Thackeray
as a novelist, is to criticise what was in him only an
accident. He wrote stories, because to do so was the
mode ; his stories are natural and naturally sustained,
because he could do nothing otherwise than naturally ;
but to be a teller of stories was not his vocation. His
great object in writing was to express himself his
notions of life, all the complications and variations
which can be played by a master on this one everlast-
ing theme. Composite human nature as it is, that
sins and suffers, enjoys and does virtuously, that was
" the main haunt and region of his song/' To estimate
him fairly, we must look at him as taking this wider
range ; must consider him as a humorist, using the
word as he used it himself. "The humorous writer
professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity,
your kindness ; your scorn for untruth, pretension,
imposture ; your tenderness for the weak, the poor,
the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means
and ability, he comments on all the ordinary actions
and passions of life almost. He takes upon himself



THACKEEAY. 435

to be the week-day preacher, so to speak. Accord-
ingly, as he finds and speaks and feels the truth best,
we regard him, esteem him sometimes love him."
Adopting this point of view, and applying this standard,
it seems to us that no one of the great humorists of
whom he has spoken is deserving equally with himself
of our respect, esteem, and love ; respect for intellec-
tual power, placing him on a level even with Swift
and Pope ; esteem for manliness as thorough as the
manliness of Fielding, and rectitude as unsullied as
the rectitude of Addison ; love for a nature as kindly
as that of Steele. Few will deny the keen insight,
the passion for truth of the week-day preacher we have
lost ; few will now deny the kindliness of his disposi-
tion, but many will contend that the kindliness w r as
too much restrained ; that the passion for truth was
allowed to degenerate into a love of detecting hidden
faults. The sermons on women have been objected
to with especial vehemence and especial want of
reason. No one who has read Mr. Brown's letters to
his nephew next to the Snob Papers and Sydney
Smith's Lectures, the best modern work on moral
philosophy will deny that Mr. Thackeray can at least
appreciate good women, and describe them :

" Sir, I do not mean to tell you that there are no women
in the world, vulgar and ill-humoured, rancorous and narrow-
minded, mean schemers, son-in-law hunters, slaves of fashion,
hypocrites ; but I do respect, admire, and almost worship
good women ; and I think there is a very fair number of
such to be found in this world, and I have no doubt in every
educated Englishman's circle of society, whether he finds
that circle in palaces in Belgravia and May Fair, in snug



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 34 of 38)