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theater. The fragrance of Home, of the homely kindness and
tenderness of the human heart, is in them, especially in the
Carol, which is the best tale of its kind in the tongue and
likely to remain so. It permanently altered the feeling of the
race for Christmas. Irving preceded him in the use of the
Christmas motive, but Dickens made it forever his own. By a
master's magic evocation, the great festival shines brighter,
beckons more lovingly than it did of old. Thackeray felt this
when he declared that such a story was "a public benefit." Such
literature lies aside from our main pursuit, that of the Novel,
but is mentioned because it is the best example possible, the
most direct, simple expression of that essential kindness, that
practical Christianity which is at the bottom of Dickens'
influence. It is bonhomie and something more. It is not Dickens
the reformer, as we get him when he satirizes Dotheboys hall, or
the Circumlocution Office or the Chancery Court: but Dickens as
Mr. Greatheart, one with all that is good, tender, sweet and
true. Tiny Tim's thousand-times quoted saying is the
quintessence, the motto for it all and the writer speaks in and
through the lad when he says: "God bless us, every one." When an
author gets that honest unction into his work, and also has the
gift of observation and can report what he sees, he is likely to
contribute to the literature of his land. With a sneer of the
cultivated intellect, we may call it elementary: but to the
heart, such a view of life is royally right.

This thought of Dickens' moral obligation in his work and his
instinctive attitude towards his audience, leads to one more
point: a main reason for this Victorian novelist's strong hold
on the affections of mankind is to be found in the warm personal
relation he establishes with the reader. The relationship
implies obligation on the part of the author, a vital bond
between the two, a recognition of a steady, not a chance,
association. There goes with it, too, an assumption that the
author believes in and cares much for his characters, and asks
the reader for the same faith. This personal relation of author
to reader and of both to the imagined characters, has gone out
of fashion in fiction-making: in this respect, Dickens (and most
of his contemporaries) seem now old-fashioned. The present
realist creed would keep the novelist away and out of sight both
of his fictive creations and his audience; it being his business
to pull the strings to make his puppets dance - up to heaven or
down to hell, whatever does it matter to the scientist-novelist?
Tolstoy's novel "Resurrection" is as a subject much more
disagreeable than Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"; but it is
beautiful where the other is horrible, because it palpitates
with a Christ-like sympathy for an erring woman, while the
French author cares not a button whether his character is lost
or not. The healthy-minded public (which can be trusted in
heart, if not in head) will instinctively choose that treatment
of life in a piece of fiction which shows the author kindly
cooperative with fate and brotherly in his position towards his
host of readers. That is the reason Dickens holds his own and is
extremely likely to gain in the future, while spectacular
reputations based on all the virtues save love, continue to die
the death. What M. Anatole France once said of Zola, applies to
the whole school of the aloof and unloving: "There is in man an
infinite need of loving which renders him divine. M. Zola does
not know it.... The holiness of tears is at the bottom of all
religions. Misfortune would suffice to render man august to man.
M. Zola does not know it."

Charles Dickens does know these truths and they get into his
work and that work, therefore, gets not so much into the minds
as into the souls of his fellow-man. When we recite the sayings
which identify his classic creations: when we express ourselves
in a Pickwickian sense, wait for something to turn up with Mr.
Micawber, drop into poetry with Silas Wegg, move on with little
Joe, feel 'umble after the manner of Uriah Heap, are willin'
with Barkis, make a note of, in company with Captain Cuttle, or
conclude with Mr. Weller, Senior, that it is the part of wisdom
to beware of "widders," we may observe that what binds us to
this motley crowd of creatures is not their grotesquerie but
their common humanity, their likeness to ourselves, the mighty
flood-tide of tolerant human sympathy on which they are floated
into the safe haven of our hearts. With delightful
understanding, Charles Dudley Warner writes: "After all, there
is something about a boy I like." Dickens, using the phrasing
for a wider application, might have said: "After all, there is
something about men and women I like!" It was thus no accident
that he elected to write of the lower middle classes; choosing
to depict the misery of the poor, their unfair treatment in
institutions; to depict also the unease of criminals, the
crushed state of all underlings - whether the child in education
or that grown-up evil child, the malefactor in prison. He was a
spokesman of the people, a democratic pleader for justice and
sympathy. He drew the proletariat preferably, not because he was
a proletariat but because he was a brother-man and the fact had
been overlooked. He drew thousands of these suppressed humans,
and they were of varied types and fortunes: but he loved them as
though they were one, and made the world love them too: and love
their maker. The deep significance of Dickens, perhaps his
deepest, is in the social note that swells loud and insistent
through his fiction. He was a pioneer in the democratic sympathy
which was to become so marked feature in the Novel in the late
nineteenth century: and which, as we have already seen, is from
the first a distinctive trait of the modern fiction, one of the
explanations of its existence.




CHAPTER IX


THACKERAY

The habit of those who appraise the relative worth of Dickens
and Thackeray to fall into hostile camps, swearing by one, and
at the other, has its amusing side but is to be deprecated as
irrational. Why should it be necessary to miss appreciation of
the creator of "Vanity Fair" because one happens to like "David
Copperfield"? Surely, our literary tastes or standards should be
broad enough to admit into pleasurable companionship both those
great early Victorian novelists.

Yet, on second thought, there would appear to be some reason for
the fact that ardent lovers of Thackeray are rarely devotees of
the mighty Charles - or vice versa. There is something mutually
exclusive in the attitude of the two, their different
interpretation of life. Unlike in birth, environment, education
and all that is summed up in the magic word personality, their
reaction to life, as a scientist would say, was so opposite that
a reader naturally drawn to one, is quite apt to be repelled by
(or at least, cold to) the other. If you make a wide canvass
among booklovers, it will be found that this is just what
happens. Rarely does a stanch supporter of Dickens show a more
than Laodicean temper towards Thackeray; and for rabid
Thackerians, Dickens too often spells disgust. It is a rare and
enjoyable experience to meet with a mind so catholic as to
welcome both. The backbone of the trouble is personal, in the
natures of the two authors. But I think it is worth while to say
that part of the explanation may be found in the fact that
Thackeray began fiction ten years later than his rival and was
in a deeper sense than was Dickens a voice of the later century.
This means much, because with each decade between 1830 and 1860,
English thought was moving fast toward that scientific faith,
that disillusionment and that spirit of grim truth which
culminated in the work of the final quarter of the century.
Thackeray was impelled more than was Dickens by the spirit of
the times to speak the truth in his delineations of contemporary
mankind: and this operated to make him a satirist, at times a
savage one. The modern thing in Dickens - and he had it - was the
humanitarian sympathy for the submerged tenth; the modern thing
in Thackeray, however, was his fearlessness in uncovering the
conventional shams of polite society. The idols that Dickens
smashed (and never was a bolder iconoclast) were to be seen of
all men: but Thackeray's were less tangible, more subtle, part
and parcel of his own class. In this sense, and I believe
because he began his major novel-writing about 1850, whereas the
other began fifteen years before, Thackeray is more modern, more
of our own time, than his great co-mate in fiction. When we
consider the question of their respective interpretations of
Life it is but fair to bear in mind this historical
consideration, although it would be an error to make too much of
it. Of course, in judging Thackeray and trying to give him a
place in English fiction, he must stand or fall, like any other
writer, by two things: his art, and his message. Was the first
fine, the other sane and valuable - those are the twin tests.

A somewhat significant fact of their literary history may be
mentioned, before an attempt is made to appreciate Thackeray's
novels. For some years after Dickens' death, which, it will be
remembered, occurred six years after Thackeray's, the latter
gained in critical recognition while Dickens slowly lost. There
can be little question of this. Lionized and lauded as was the
man of Gadshill, promptly admitted to Westminster Abbey, it came
to pass in time that, in a course on modern English literature
offered at an old and famous New England college, his name was
not deemed worthy of even a reference. Some critics of repute
have scarce been able to take Dickens seriously: for those who
have steadily had the temerity to care for him, their patronage
has been vocal. This marks an astonishing shift of opinion from
that current in 1870. Thackeray, gaining in proportion, has been
hailed as an exquisite artist, one of the few truly great and
permanent English figures not only of fiction but of letters.
But in the most recent years, again a change has come: the
pendulum has swung back, as it always does when an excessive
movement carries it too far beyond the plumb line. Dickens has
found valiant, critical defenders; he has risen fast in
thoughtful so well as popular estimation (although with the
public he has scarcely fluctuated in favor) until he now enjoys
a sort of resurrection of popularity. What is the cause of this
to-and-fro of judgment? The main explanation is to be found in
the changing literary ideals from 1850 to 1900. When Dickens was
active, literature, broadly speaking, was estimated not
exclusively as art, but as human product, an influence in the
world. With the coming of the new canon, which it is convenient
to dub by the catch-phrase, Art for Art's Sake, a man's
production began to be tested more definitely by the technique
he possessed, the skilled way in which he performed his task.
Did he play the game well? That was the first question. Often it
was the first and last. If he did, his subject-matter, and his
particular vision of Life, were pretty much his own affair. And
this modern touchstone, applied to the writings of our two
authors, favored Thackeray. Simple, old-fashioned readers
inclined to give Dickens the preference over him because the
former's interpretation of humanity was, they averred, kindlier
and more wholesome. Thackeray was cynical, said they; Dickens
humanitarian; but the later critical mood rebounded from
Dickens, since he preached, was frankly didactic, insisted on
his mission of doing good - and so failed in his art. Now,
however, that the l'art pour art shibboleth has been sadly
overworked and is felt to be passing or obsolete, the world
critical is reverting to that broader view which demands that
the maker of literature shall be both man and artist: as a
result, Dickens gains in proportion. This explanation makes it
likely that, looking to the future, while Thackeray may not
lose, Dickens is sure to be more and more appreciated. A return
to a saner and truer criterion will be general and the confines
of a too narrow estheticism be understood: or, better yet, the
esthetic will be so defined as to admit of wider application.
The Gissings and Chestertons of the time to come will insist
even more strenuously than those of ours that while we may have
improved upon Dickens' technique - and every schoolboy can tinker
his faults - we shall do exceedingly well if we duplicate his
genius once in a generation. And they will add that Thackeray,
another man of genius, had also his malaises of art, was
likewise a man with the mortal failings implied in the word. For
it cannot now be denied that just as Dickens' faults have been
exaggerated, Thackeray's have been overlooked.

Thackeray might lose sadly in the years to come could it be
demonstrated that, as some would have it, he deserved the title
of cynic. Here is the most mooted point in Thackeray
appreciation: it interests thousands where the nice questions
concerning the novelist's art claim the attention of students
alone. What can be said with regard to it? It will help just
here to think of the man behind the work. No sensible human
being, it would appear, can become aware of the life and
personality of Thackeray without concluding that he was an
essentially kind-hearted, even soft-hearted man. He was keenly
sensitive to praise and blame, most affectionate and constant
with his friends, generous and impulsive in his instincts,
loving in his family, simple and humble in his spiritual nature,
however questioning in his intellect. That is a fair summary of
Thackeray as revealed in his daily walk - in his letters, acts
and thoughts. Nothing could be sweeter and more kindly than the
mass of his writings in this regard, pace "The Book of Snobs" - even
in such a mood the satire is for the most part unbitter.
The reminiscential essays continually strike a tender note that
vibrates with human feeling and such memorials as the paper he
wrote on the deaths of Irving and Macaulay represent a frequent
vein. Thackeray's friends are almost a unit in this testimony:
Edward Fitzgerald, indeed - "dear old Fitz," as Tennyson loved to
call him - declares in a letter to somebody that he hears
Thackeray is spoiled: meaning that his social success was too
much for him. It is true that after the fame of "Vanity Fair,"
its author was a habitue of the best drawing-rooms, much sought
after, and enjoying it hugely. But to read his letter to Mrs.
Brookfield after the return home from such frivolities is to
feel that the real man is untouched. Why Thackeray, with such a
nature, developed a satirical bent and became a critic of the
foibles of fashion and later of the social faults of humanity,
is not so easy perhaps to say - unless we beg the question by
declaring it to be his nature. When he began his major fiction
at the age of thirty-seven he had seen much more of the seamy
side of existence than had Dickens when he set up for author.
Thackeray had lost a fortune, traveled, played Bohemian, tried
various employments, failed in a business venture - in short, was
an experienced man of the world with eyes wide open to what is
light, mean, shifty and vague in the sublunary show. "The Book
of Snobs" is the typical early document expressing the
subacidulous tendency of his power: "Vanity Fair" is the full-length
statement of it in maturity. Yet judging his life by and
large (in contrast with his work) up to the day of his sudden
death, putting in evidence all the testimony from many sources,
it may be asserted with considerable confidence that William
Makepeace Thackeray, whatever we find him to be in his works,
gave the general impression personally of being a genial, kind
and thoroughly sound-hearted man. We may, therefore, look at the
work itself, to extract from it such evidence as it offers,
remembering that, when all is said, the deepest part of a man,
his true quality, is always to be discovered in his writings.

First a word on the books secondary to the four great novels. It
is necessary at the start in studying him to realize that
Thackeray for years before he wrote novels was an essayist, who,
when he came to make fiction introduced into it the essay touch
and point of view. The essay manner makes his larger fiction
delightful, is one of its chief charms and characteristics. And
contrariwise, the looseness of construction, the lack of careful
architecture in Thackeray's stories, look to the same fact.

It can not justly be said of these earlier and minor writings
that, taken as a whole, they reveal a cynic. They contain many
thrusts at the foolishness and knavery of society, especially
that genteel portion of it with which the writer, by birth,
education and experience, was familiar. When Thackeray, in the
thirties, turned to newspaper writing, he did so for practical
reasons: he needed money, and he used such talents as were his
as a writer, knowing that the chances were better than in art,
which he had before pursued. It was natural that he should have
turned to account his social experiences, which gave him a power
not possessed by the run of literary hacks, and which had been
to some extent disillusioning, but had by no means soured him.
Broadly viewed, the tone of these first writings was genial, the
light and shade of human nature - in its average, as it is seen
in the world - was properly represented. In fact, often, as in
"The Great Hoggarty Diamond," the style is almost that of
burlesque, at moments, of horse-play: and there are too touches
of beautiful young-man pathos. Such a work is anything rather
than tart or worldly. There are scenes in that enjoyable story
that read more like Dickens than the Thackeray of "Vanity Fair."
The same remark applies, though in a different way, to the
"Yellowplush Papers." An early work like "Barry Lyndon," unique
among the productions of the young writer, expresses the deeper
aspect of his tendency to depict the unpleasant with satiric
force, to make clear-cut pictures of rascals, male and female.
Yet in this historical study, the eighteenth century setting
relieves the effect and one does not feel that the author is
speaking with that direct earnestness one encounters in
"Pendennis" and "The Newcomes." The many essays, of which the
"Roundabout Papers" are a type, exhibit almost exclusively the
sunnier and more attractive side of Thackeray's genius. Here and
there, in the minor fiction of this experimental period, there
are premonitions of he more drastic treatment of later years:
but the dominant mood is quite other. One who read the essays
alone, with no knowledge of the fiction, would be astonished at
a charge of cynicism brought against the author.

And so we come to the major fiction: "Vanity Fair," "Pendennis,"
"The Newcomes," and "Esmond." Of "The Adventures of Philip" a
later word may be said. "The Virginians" is a comparatively
unimportant pendant to that great historical picture, "Henry
Esmond." The quartet practically composes the fundamental
contribution of Thackeray to the world of fiction, containing as
it does all his characteristic traits. Some of them have been
pointed out, time out of mind: others, often claimed, are either
wanting or their virtue has been much exaggerated.

Of the merits incontestable, first and foremost may be mentioned
the color and motion of Life which spread like an atmosphere
over this fiction. By his inimitable idiom, his knowledge of the
polite world, and his equal knowledge of the average human being
irrespective of class or condition, Thackeray was able to make
his chronicle appear the very truth. Moreover, for a second
great merit, he was able, quite without meretricious appeals, to
make that truth interesting. You follow the fortunes of the folk
in a typical Thackeray novel as you would follow a similar group
in actual life. They interest because they are real - or seem to
be, which, for the purposes of art, is the same thing. To read
is not so much to look from an outside place at a fictive
representation of existence as to be participant in such a piece
of life - to feel as if you were living the story. Only masters
accomplish this, and it is, it may be added, the specialty of
modern masters.

For another shining merit: much of wisdom assimilated by the
author in the course of his days is given forth with pungent
power and in piquant garb in the pages of these books: the
reader relishes the happy statements of an experience profounder
than his own, yet tallying in essentials: Thackeray's remarks
seem to gather up into final shape the scattered oracles of the
years. Gratitude goes out to an author who can thus condense and
refine one's own inarticulate conclusions. The mental palate is
tickled by this, while the taste is titillated by the grace and
fitness of the style.

Yet in connection with this quality is a habit which already
makes Thackeray seem of an older time - a trifle archaic in
technique. I refer to the intrusion of the author into the story
in first-personal comment and criticism. This is tabooed by the
present-day realist canons. It weakens the illusion, say the
artists of our own day, this entrance of an actual personality
upon the stage of the imagined scene. Thackeray is guilty of
this lovable sin to a greater degree than is Dickens, and it may
be added here that, while the latter has so often been called
preacher in contrast with Thackeray the artist, as a matter of
fact, Thackeray moralizes in the fashion described fully as
much: the difference being that he does it with lighter touch
and with less strenuosity and obvious seriousness: is more
consistently amusing in the act of instruction.

Thackeray again has less story to tell than his greatest
contemporary and never gained a sure hand in construction, with
the possible exception of his one success in plot, "Henry
Esmond." Nothing is more apparent than the loose texture of
"Vanity Fair," where two stories centering in the antithetic
women, Becky and Amelia, are held together chronicle fashion,
not in the nexus of an organism of close weave. But this very
looseness, where there is such superlative power of
characterization with plenty of invention in incident, adds to
the verisimilitude and attraction of the book. The impression of
life is all the more vivid, because of the lack of proportioned
progress to a climax. The story conducts itself and ends much as
does life: people come in and out and when Finis is written, we
feel we may see them again - as indeed often happens, for
Thackeray used the pleasant device of re-introducing favorite
characters such as Pendennis, Warrington and the descendants
thereof, and it adds distinctly to the reality of the ensemble.

"Vanity Fair" has most often been given precedence over the
other novels of contemporary life: but for individual scenes and
strength of character drawing both "Pendennis" and "The
Newcomes" set up vigorous claims. If there be no single triumph
in female portraiture like Becky Sharp, Ethel New-come (on the
side of virtue) is a far finer woman than the somewhat insipid
Amelia: and no personage in the Mayfair book is more successful
and beloved than Major Pendennis or Colonel Newcome. Also, the
atmosphere of these two pictures seems mellower, less sharp,
while as organic structures they are both superior to "Vanity
Fair." Perhaps the supremacy of the last-named is due most of
all to the fact that a wonderfully drawn evil character has more
fascination than a noble one of workmanship as fine. Or is it
that such a type calls forth the novelist's powers to the full?
If so, it were, in a manner, a reproach. But it is more
important to say that all three books are delightfully authentic
studies of upper-class society in England as Thackeray knew it:
the social range is comparatively restricted, for even the
rascals are shabby-genteel. But the exposure of human nature
(which depends upon keen observation within a prescribed
boundary) is wide and deep: a story-teller can penetrate just as
far into the arcana of the human spirit if he confine himself to
a class as if he surveyed all mankind. But mental limitations
result: the point of view is that of the gentleman-class: the
ideas of the personal relation to one's self, one's fellow men
and one's Maker are those natural to a person of that station.
The charming poem which the author set as Finis to "Dr. Birch
and His Young Friends," with its concluding lines, is an
unconscious expression of the form in which he conceived human
duty. The "And so, please God, a gentleman," was the cardinal


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Online LibraryRichard BurtonMasters of the English Novel A Study of Principles and Personalities → online text (page 12 of 19)