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little suburban villas, in ancient comfortable old Bloomsbury,
or in back parlours behind the shop. It has been my
fortune to meet with excellent English ladies in every one
of these places wives graceful and affectionate, matrons
tender and good, daughters happy and pure-minded, and I



436 THACKERAY.

urge the society of such to you, because I defy you to think
evil in their company. Walk into the drawing-room of
Lady Z., that great lady : look at her charming face, and
hear her voice. You know that she can't but be good, with
such a face and such a voice. She is one of those fortunate
beings on whom it has pleased Heaven to bestow all sorts
of its most precious gifts and richest worldly favours. With
what grace she receives you ; with what a frank kindness
and natural sweetness and dignity ! Her looks, her motions,
her words, her thoughts, all seem to be beautiful and
harmonious quite. See her with her children, what woman
can be more simple and loving ? After you have talked to
her for a while, you very likely find that she is ten times as
well read as you are : she has a hundred accomplishments
which she is not in the least anxious to show off, and makes
no more account of them than of her diamonds, or of the
splendour round about her to all of which she is born, and
has a happy, admirable claim of nature and possession
admirable and happy for her and for us too ; for is it not a
happiness for us to admire her ? Does anybody grudge her
excellence to that paragon ? Sir, we may be thankful to be
admitted to contemplate such consummate goodness and
beauty : and as, in looking at a fine landscape or a fine work
of art, every generous heart must be delighted and improved,
and ought to feel grateful afterwards, so one may feel
charmed and thankful for having the opportunity of knowing
an almost perfect woman. Madam, if the gout and the
custom of the world permitted, I would kneel down and
kiss the hem of your ladyship's robe. To see your gracious
face is a comfort to see you walk to your carriage is a
holiday. Drive her faithfully, thou silver- wigged coach-
man ! drive to all sorts of splendours and honours and Eoyal
festivals. And for us, let us be glad that we should have
the privilege to admire her.

"Now, transport yourself in spirit, my good BOB, into
another drawing-room. There sits an old lady of more than
fourscore years, serene and kind, and as beautiful in her age
now, as in her youth, when History toasted her. What has
she not seen, and is she not ready to tell ? All the fame and
wit, all the rank and beauty, of more than half a century,
have passed through those rooms where you have the honour



THACKERAY. 437

of making your best bow. She is as simple now as if she
had never had any flattery to dazzle her : she is never tired
of being pleased and being kind. Can that have been any-
thing but a good life which after more than eighty years of
it are spent, is so calm ? Could she look to the end of it so
cheerfully, if its long course had not been pure ? Eespect
her, I say, for being so happy, now that she is old. We do
not know what goodness and charity, what affections, what
trials, may have gone to make that charming sweetness of
temper, and complete that perfect manner. But if we do
not admire and reverence such an old age as that, and get
good from contemplating it, what are we to respect and
admire ?

" Or shall we walk through the shop (while K is recom-
mending a tall copy to an amateur, or folding up a two-
pennyworth of letter-paper, and bowing to a poor customer
in a jacket and apron with just as much respectful gravity
as he would show while waiting upon a Duke), and see Mrs.
N. playing with the child in the back parlour until N. shall
come in to tea? They drink tea at five o'clock; and are
actually as well-bred as those gentlefolks who dine three
hours later. Or will you please to step into Mrs. J.'s lodgings,
who is waiting, and at work, until her husband comes home
from the Chambers ? She blushes and puts the work away oil
hearing the knock, but when she sees who the visitor is, she
takes it with a smile from behind the sofa cushion, and
behold it is one of J.'s waistcoats on which she is sewing
buttons. She might have been a Countess blazing in
diamonds, had Fate so willed it, and the higher her station
the more she would have adorned it. But she looks as
charming while plying her needle, as the great lady in the
palace whose equal she is, in beauty, in goodness, in high-
bred grace and simplicity : at least, I can't fancy her better,
or any Peeress being more than her peer."

But then lie is accused of not having represented
this. " It is said," to quote a friendly critic in the
"Edinburgh Keview" for 1848, "that having with
great skill put together a creature of which the prin-
cipal elements are indiscriminating affection, ill-



458 THACKERAY.

requited devotion, ignorant partiality, a weak will and
a narrow intellect, he calls on us to worship his poor
idol as the type of female excellence. This is true."
Feminine critics enforce similar charges yet more
vehemently. Thus, Miss Bronte says,- "As usual,
he is unjust to women, quite unjust. There is hardly
any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady
Castlewood peep through a key-hole, listen at a door,
and be jealous of a boy and a milk-maid." Mrs.
Jameson criticises him more elaborately : " No woman
resents his Eebecca inimitable Becky ! No woman
but feels and acknowledges with a shiver the com-
pleteness of that wonderful and finished artistic
creation ; but every woman resents the selfish inane
Amelia. . . . Laura in ' Pendennis ' is a yet more
fatal mistake. She is drawn with every generous
feeling, every good gift. We do not complain that
she loves that poor creature Pendennis, for she
loved him in her childhood. She grew up with
that love in her heart ; it came between her and
the perception of his faults ; it is a necessity indi-
visible from her nature. Hallowed, through its con-
stancy, therein alone would lie its best excuse, its
beauty and its truth. But Laura, faithless to that
first affection ; Laura waked up to the appreciation of
a far more manly and noble nature, in love with
Warrington, and then going back to Pendennis and
marrying 'him ! Such infirmity might be true of some
women, but not of such a woman as Laura ; we resent
the inconsistency, the indelicacy of the portrait. And
then Lady Castlewood, so evidently a favourite of
the author, what shall we say of her 1 The virtuous
woman, par excellence, who ( never sins and never for-
gives ;' who never resents, nor relents, nor repents ; the
mother who is the rival of her daughter ; the mother,
who for years is the confidante of a man's delirious



THACKERAY. 439

passion for her own child, and then consoles him by
marrying him herself ! Mr. Thackeray ! this will
never do I Such women may exist, but to hold them
up as examples of excellence, and fit objects of our
best sympathies, is a fault, and proves a low standard
in ethics and in art."

But all these criticisms, even if sound, go to this
only, that Mr. Thackeray's representations of women
are unjust: they are confined solely to his novels.
Now, if the view we have taken of Mr. Thackeray's
genius be the true one, such a limitation is unfair. He
is not to be judged only by his novels as a representer
of character, he must be judged also by all his
writings together as a describer and analyser of
character. In the next place, the said criticisms are
based upon wonderfully hasty generalisations. Miss
Bronte knew that she would not have listened at the
key-hole, and she jumps at once to the conclusion that
neither would Lady Castlewood. But surely the
character of that lady is throughout represented as
marred by many feminine weaknesses falling little
short of unamiability. Is the existence of a woman
greedy of affection, jealous, and unforgiving, an im-
possibility ? Her early love for Esmond we cannot
quite approve ; her later marriage with him we
heartily disapprove ; but neither of these things is
the fault of the writer. With such a woman as Lady
Castlewood, deprived of her husband's affection, the
growth of an attachment towards her dependant into
a warmer feeling, was a matter of extreme probability ;
and her subsequent marriage to Esmond, affectionate,
somewhat weak, and above all, disappointed elsewhere,
was, in their respective relations, a mere certainty.
Not to have married them would have been a mistake
in art. Thus, when a friend remonstrated with him
for having made Esmond " marry his mother-in-law,"



440 THACKERAY.

he replied, " / didn't make him do it ; they did it them-
selves." But as to Lady Castle wood's being a favourite
with the author, and being " held up as an example of
excellence, and a fit object of our best sympathies,"
which is the gravamen of the charge, that is a pure
assumption on the part of Mrs. Jameson. We confess
to having always received, in reading the book, a
clear impression to the contrary. Laura, again, we
do not admire vehemently ; but we cannot regard her
returning to her first love, after a transient attach-
ment to another, as utterly unnatural. Indeed, we
think it the very thing a girl of her somewhat com-
monplace stamp of character would certainly have
done. She never is much in love with Pendennis
either first or last, but she marries him nevertheless.
She might have loved Warrington had the Fates
permitted it, very differently ; and as his wife, would
never have displayed those airs of self-satisfaction and
moral superiority which make her so tediously dis-
agreeable. But all this fault-finding runs up into the
grand objection, that Thackeray's good women are
denied brains ; that he preserves an essential alliance
between moral worth and stupidity ; and it is curious
to see how women themselves dislike this how, in
their admiration of intellect, they admit the truth of
Becky willingly enough, but indignantly deny that of
Amelia. On this question, ]$r. Brown thus expresses
himself :

" A set has been made against clever women from all times.
Take all Shakespeare's heroines ; they all seem to me pretty
much the same, affectionate, motherly, tender, that sort of
thing. Take Scott's ladies, and other writers, each man
seems to draw from one model : an exquisite slave is what
we want for the most part, a humble, flattering, smiling,
child-loving, tea-making, pianoforte-playing being, who
laughs at our jokes however old they may be, coaxes and



THACKERAY. 441

wheedles us in our humours, and fondly lies to us through
life."

In the face of Kosalind, Beatrice, and Portia, it is
impossible to concur with Mr. Brown in his notions
about Shakspere's women ; but otherwise he is right.
Yet it is but a poor defence for the deficiencies
of a man of genius, that others have shown the
like shortcomings. And on Mr. Thackeray's behalf
a much better defence may be pleaded ; though
it may be one less agreeable to the sex which he is
said to have maligned. That defence is a simple plea
of not guilty ; a denial that his women, as a class,
want intellectual power to a greater extent than is
consistent with truth. They vary between the ex-
tremes of pure goodness and pure intellect Becky
and Amelia just as women do in real life. The
moral element is certainly too prominent in Amelia ;
but not more so than in Colonel Newcome, and we
can't see anything much amiss in Helen Pendennis.
Laura, as Miss Bell, is clever enough for any man ;
and, though she afterwards becomes exceedingly tire-
some and a prig, she does not become a fool. And
what man would be bold enough to disparage the
intellectual powers of Ethel Newcome? Her moral
nature is at first incomplete owing to a faulty educa-
tion ; but when this has been perfected through
sorrow, wherein is the oharacter deficient ? Besides,
we must bear in mind that virtue in action is un-
doubtedly "slow." Goodness is not in itself enter-
taining, while ability is ; and the novelist, therefore,
whose aim is to entertain, naturally labours most with
the characters possessing the latter, in which characters
the reader too is most interested. Hence they acquire
greater prominence both as a matter of fact in the
story and also in our minds. Becky, Blanche Amory,
Trix are undeniably more interesting, and in their



442 THACKERAY.

points of contrast and resemblance afford far richer
materials for study than Amelia, Helen Pendennis,
and Laura. But this is in the nature of things ; and
the writer must not be blamed for it any more than
the readers. Taking, however, the Thackerean gallery
as a whole, we cannot admit that either in qualities of
heart or head, his women are inferior to the women
we generally meet. Perhaps he has never not even in
Ethel combined these qualities in their fullest perfec-
tion ; but then how often do we find them so combined 1
It seems to us that Thackeray has drawn women more
carefully and more truly than any novelist in the lan-
guage, except Miss Austen ; and it is small reproach to -
any writer, that he has drawn no female character so
evenly good as Anne Elliot or Elizabeth Bennet.

If this is true of his women, we need not labour in
defence of his men. For surely it cannot be questioned
that his representations of the ruder sex are true, na}^,
are on the whole an improvement on reality ? The
ordinary actors who crowd his scene are not worse
than the people we meet with every day ; his heroes,
to use a stereotyped expression, are rather better than
the average ; while one such character as George
Warriugton is worth a wilderness of commonplace
excellence called into unnatural life. But then it is
said his general tone is bitter ; he settles at once on
the weak points of humanity, and to lay them bare is
his congenial occupation. To a certain extent this
was his business. " Dearly beloved," he says, ' ( neither
in nor out of this pulpit do I profess to be bigger, or
cleverer, or wiser, or better than any of you." Never-
theless he was a preacher, though an unassuming one ;
and therefore it lay upon him to point out faults, to
correct rather than to flatter. Yet it must be con-
fessed that his earlier writings are sometimes too bitter
in their tone, and too painful in their theme. This



THACKERAY. 443

may be ascribed partly to the infectious vehemence of
" Fraser " in those days, partly to the influence of such
experiences as are drawn upon in some parts of the
" Paris Sketch-Book ; " but however accounted for, it
must be condemned as an error in art. As a disposi-
tion to doubt and despond in youth betrays a narrow
intellect or a perverted education ; so in the beginning
of a literary career, a tendency towards gloom and
curious research after hidden evil, reveals artistic error,
or an unfortunate experience. Both in morals and art
these weaknesses are generally the result of years and
sorrow; and thus the common transition is from the
joyousness of youth to sadness, it may be to morose -
ness, in old age. But theirs is the higher and truer
development, who reverse this process, who, begin-
ning with false tastes or distorted views, shake these
off as they advance into a clearer air, in whom know-
ledge but strengthens the nobler powers of the sou],
and whose kindliness and generosity, based on a firmer
foundation than the buoyancy of mere animal life, are
purer and more enduring. Such, as it appears to us,
was the history of Thackeray's genius. Whatever
may have been the severity of his earlier writings, it
was latterly laid aside. In the "Newcomes" he
follows the critical dogma which lays down, that
" fiction has no business to exist unless it be more
beautiful than reality ; " and truthful kindliness marks
all his other writings of a later date, from the letters
of Mr. Brown and Mr. Spec in " Punch," down to the
pleasant egotism of the "Boundabout Papers." He
became disinclined for severe writing even where
deserved : " I have militated in former times, and not
without glory, but I grow peaceable as I grow old."
The only things towards which he never grew peace-
able were pretentiousness and falsehood. But he
preferred to busy himself with what was innocent and



444



THACKERAY.



brave, to attacking even these ; he forgot the satirist,
and loved rather honestly to praise or defend. The
" Koundabout Papers " show this on every page,
especially, perhaps, those on Tunbridge Toys, on
Eibbons, on a Joke I heard from the late Thomas
Hood, and that entitled Nil nisi bonum. The very
last paper of all was an angry defence of Lord Clyde
against miserable club gossip, unnecessary perhaps,
but a thing one likes now to think that Thackeray
felt stirred to do. " To be tremblingly alive to gentle
impressions," says Foster, " and yet be able to preserve,
when occasion requires it, an immovable heart, even
amidst the most imperious causes of subduing emotion,
is perhaps not an impossible constitution of mind, but
it is the utmost and rarest condition of humanity."
These words do not describe the nature of a man who
would pay out of his own pocket for contributions he
could not insert in the " Cornhill ; " but if for heart we
substitute intellect, they will perfectly describe his
literary genius. He was always tremblingly alive to
gentle impressions, but his intellect amidst any
emotions remained clear and immovable ; so that good
taste was never absent, and false sentiment never
came near him. He makes the Sorrows of Werther
the favourite reading of the executioner at Strasbourg. 1
Few men have written so much that appeals directly
to our emotions, and yet kept so entirely aloof from
anything tawdry, from all falsetto. " If my tap," says
he, "is not genuine, it is naught, and no man should

1 Among his ballads we have the following somewhat literal analysis of
this work :



Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter ;

Would you know how first he met her ?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,

And, for all the wealth of Indies,
Would do nothing for to hurt her.



So he sighed a/id pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,

Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,

Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter. "



THACKERAY. 445

give himself the trouble to drink it." It was at all
times thoroughly genuine, and is therefore everything
to us. Truthfulness, in fact, eager and uncompromis-
ing, was his main characteristic ; truthfulness not only
in speech, but, what is a far more uncommon and
precious virtue, truth in thought. His entire mental
machinery acted under this law of truth. He strove
always to find and show things as they really are
true nobleness apart from trappings, unaffected sim-
plicity, generosity without ostentation ; confident that
so he should best convince every one that what is truly
good pleases most, and lasts longest, and that what
is otherwise soon becomes tiresome, and, worst of
all, ridiculous. A man to whom it has been given
consistently to devote to such a purpose the highest
powers of sarcasm, ridicule, sincere pathos, and, though
sparingly used, of exhortation, must be held to have
fulfilled a career singularly honourable and useful. To
these noble ends he was never unfaithful. True, he
made no boast of this. Disliking cant of all kinds, he
made no exception in favour of the cant of his own
profession. " What the deuce," he writes to a friend,
" our twopenny reputations get us at least twopence-
halfpenny ; and then comes nox fabulceque manes, and
the immortals perish." The straightforward Mr.
Yellowplush stoutly maintains, in a similar strain,
that people who write books are no whit better, or
actuated by more exalted motives, than their neigh-
bours : " Away with this canting about great motifs !
Let us not be too prowd, and fansy ourselves marters
of the truth, marters or apostels. We are but trades-
men, working for bread, and not for righteousness'
sake. Let's try and work honestly ; but don't let us
be pray ting pompisly about our ' sacred calling.'"
And George Warrington, in " Pendennis," is never
weary of preaching the same wholesome doctrine.

2 G



446 THACKERAY.

Thackeray had no sympathy with swagger of any
kind. His soul revolted from it; he always talked
under what he felt. At the same time, indifference
had no part in this want of pretence. So far from
being indifferent, he was peculiarly sensitive to the
opinions of others ; too much so for his own happiness.
He hated to be called a cynical satirist ; the letter we
have quoted to his Edinburgh friends shows how he
valued any truer appreciation. Mere slander he could
despise like a man ; he winced under the false estimates
and injurious imputations too frequent from people
who should have known better. But he saw his pro-
fession as it really was, and spoke of it with his innate
simplicity and dislike of humbug. And in this matter,
as in the ordinary affairs of life, those who profess
little, retaining a decent reserve as to their feelings
and motives, are far more to be relied on than those
who protest loudly. Whether authors are moved by
love of fame, or a necessity for daily bread, does not
greatly signify. The world is not concerned with this
in the least ; it can only require that, as Mr. Yellow-
plush puts it, they should " try to work honestly ; "
and herein he never failed. He never wrote but in
accordance with his convictions ; he spared no pains
that his convictions should be in accordance with
truth. For one quality we cannot give him too great
praise ; that is the sense of the distinction of right and
of wrong. He never puts bitter for sweet, or sweet
for bitter, never calls evil things good, or good things
evil ; there is no haziness or muddle ; no " topsyturvi-
fications," like Madame Sand's, in his moralities :
with an immense and acute compassion for all suffering,
with a power of going out of himself, and into almost
every human feeling, he vindicates at all times the
supremacy of conscience, the sacredness and clearness
of the law written in our hearts.



THACKERAY. 447

His keenness of observation and his entire truthful-
ness found expression in a style worthy of them in its
sharpness and distinctness. The specimens we have
quoted of his earlier writings show that these qualities
marked his style from the first. He laboured to im-
prove those natural gifts. He steadily observed Mr.
Yellowplush's recommendation touching poetical com-
position : " Take my advise, honrabble sir listen to
a humble footmin : it's genrally best in poatry to
understand puffickly what you mean yourself, and to
ingspress your meaning clearly afterwoods in the
simpler words the better, praps." He always expressed
his meaning clearly and in simple words. But as, with
increasing experience, his meanings deepened and
widened, his expression became richer. The language
continued to the last simple and direct, but it became
more copious, more appropriate, more susceptible of
rhythmical combinations : in other words, it rose to be
the worthy vehicle of more varied and more poetical
ideas. This strange peculiarity of soberness in youth,
of fancy coming into being at the command and for
the service of the mature judgment, has marked some
of the greatest writers. The words in which Lord
Macaulay has described it with regard to Bacon may
be applied, with little reservation, to Thackeray :
" He observed as vigilantly, meditated as deeply, and
judged as temperately, when he gave his first work to
the world, as at the close of his long career. But in
eloquence, in sweetness and variety of expression, and
in richness of illustration, his later writings are far
superior to those of his youth." Confessedly at the
last he was the greatest master of pure English in our
day. His style is never ornate, on the contrary is
always marked by a certain reserve which surely be-
tokens thought and real feeling; is never forced or
loaded, only entirely appropriate and entirely beautiful.



448 THACKERAY.

We quote two passages, both from books written in
his prime, not merely as justifying these remarks,
but because they illustrate qualities of his mind second
only to his truthfulness his sense of beauty, and his
sense of pathos. And yet neither passage has any
trace of what he calls the " sin of grandiloquence,
or tall-talking." The first is the end of the " Kickle-
burys on the Khine : "

" The next morning we bad- passed by the rocks and



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 35 of 38)