W. C. (William Crary) Brownell.

Victorian prose masters : Thackeray--Carlyle--George Eliot--Matthew Arnold--Ruskin--George Meredith online

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Feench Traits. An Essay in Compara-
tive Criticism $1.50

French Art. Classic and Contemporary
Painting and Sculpture $1.25

The Same. New and Enlarged Edition with
Forty-eight Illustrations .... $3.75 net








Copyright, 1901, by
Charles Scribner's Sons

Published October, 1901




I innftB






I Vogue 3

II Art 5

III Personality 15

IV World 24

V Philosophy 37

VI Style 41


I Vogue 49

II Personality 52

III Agitated Thinking 58

IV Reactionary Philosophy 64

V History 72

VI Art 77

VII Style 82

VIII Moral Cogency 88


I Vogue 99

II Psychology 101

III Action 105

IV Imagination 108

V Style 120

VI Personality 125

VII Development 130

VIII Philosophy 138




I Influence 149

n Personality 152

ni Literary Criticism 157

rv Social ant) Political Criticism 169

V Religious Writings 176

Yi Style 185

VII Poetry 191


I Life and Work 205

n Medievalism 209

m Didacticism 213

IV Art ANT) Nature 217

V Influence on the Public 221

VI Influence on Art 224

VII Style 226


I Vogue 233


in Characters 243

IV Perversity 253

V The Comic Spirit 259

VI Passion 264

VII Women 267

VIII Imagination 278

IX Intellectual Eminence 282




The vogue of Thackeray has steadily increased since
his death. He has taken his niche in the pantheon
of English prose by unanimous consent, and it is
well-nigh universally admitted to be a very high
one. He is already a classic. He is the representa-
tive English man of letters of his time, and one of the
few great novelists of the world. Nothing of the kind
is more striking than the change that has come over
popular feeling with regard to his works. Instead of
cynicism, he is now reproached with sentimentality by
his censors. Time has brought about a better under-
standing of the man, and at the same time has modi-
fied the popular craving for the representation of life
as a fairy-tale, and the popular disposition to resent
portraiture as calumny. On the other hand, with the
increase of his vogue, Thackeray has inevitably become
to an appreciable extent, during the past few years, the
prey of critical pedantry; and the elect, who once
plumed themselves on being his apologists, have begun
to look into his case with closer scrutiny, and in some
cases with touchingly disillusioning results. Twenty-



five years ago Taine's essay was translated, and since
then his view has been gradually filtering through the
Anglo-Saxon criticism that of recent years has tended
so exclusively to interest itself in and insist on art as
such in all its manifestations. Taking hold of the
subject somewhat tardily, perhaps, it has felt a cor-
responding obligation to treat it drastically, and what-
ever has seemed to obstruct the easy working of ma-
chinery laboriously constructed, to elude definitions
painfully arrived at, has had to sufifer. Taine pointed
out that Thackeray had the temper of the satirist
which is the opposite of that of the artist ; that this
was fatal to the form of his works, which were con-
sequently greatly disfigured by morahzing extraneities ;
and that the artistic perfection of " Henry Esmond " —
the single and striking exception among his works —
illustrated with melancholy vividness the loss art had
suffered by the absorption in satire of such artistic
talents. This conclusion — based on assumption novel,
and therefore attractive in itself, French, and therefore
definite and consistent, and tending to the exaltation
of art as such — had but to be stated to be adopted by
those among us who, "in these days of confusion of
doctrine and lessening of faith," to cite the words of a
popular magazine, "are turning for something stable
and indisputable, not to science, but to art." More-
over, fiction having become a " finer art " since Thack-
eray's day, owing to the vigorous filing and sand-
papering no doubt which it has received in the



course of our critics' and craftsmen's culture evolution,
the artistic vulnerability of Thackeray as an old
practitioner is logically deduced. " Perhaps Vol-
taire was not bad-hearted," says Emerson, "yet he
said of the good Jesus, even, *I pray you let me
never hear that man's name again.'" And living
in our day, and in contact with much of our criti-
cism, such a consummate artist as Voltaire, ab-
sorbed in satire as Voltaire indisputably was, might
conceivably be moved to similar blasphemy against
the name of "art." The instinctive would at all
events exhibit impatience with the systematic critic
for deploring as inartistic and rudimentary the fiction
of the foremost artist of English prose.


In any case, the gospel of art for art's sake is
reduced to absurdity when it is applied to the novel.
The novel is not its own excuse for being. It is
a picture of life, but a picture that not only por-
trays but shows the significance of its subject.
Its form is particularly, uniquely elastic, and it
possesses epic advantages which it would fruitlessly
forego in conforming to purely dramatic canons. Its
art is the handmaid of its purpose — which is to illus-
trate the true and aggrandize the good, as well as to
express the beautiful. Like literature taken in the
mass, it includes, rather than is identical with, so much



of " art " — in the sense in which we use the word with
reference to inarticulate art — as suits this purpose. Its
sole artistic standard is fitness ; its measure, the adapt-
edness of means to end. And dealing thus with all of
life, it is not sufficient for the novelist to " love," like
Keats, "the principle of beauty in all things." He
must love equally the principle of the true and the
principle of the good. To force the note of " art " in
the novel is to circumscribe its area of interest and
limit its range of expression. It is a sacrifice to
formalism that is at once needless and useless. " The
bust outlasts the throne, the coin Tiberius," but the
subject of the novel being rather Tiberius and the
throne than busts and coins, it is not modelling and
chasing as such and for their own sweet sake that
endue it with enduring vitality, but qualities more
significant and more profound. And these qualities
depend upon the artist's personahty and are insep-
arable from it. They are essentially human in dis-
tinction from purely intellectual or sensuous qualities.
They are qualities without which purely intellectual
or sensuous qualities produce a result that is often
sterile and always incomplete. Wherein lies the
superiority of "Don Quixote" to "Le Capitaine Fra-
casse," that interesting, ingenious, and really imagina-
tive masterpiece of Gautier, the devotee, the slave,
indeed, of art, and the author of the phrase about the
permanence of the bust and coin just now cited in
Mr. Dobson's words ? In its human quality personally



expressed. " Is " Gil Bias " truly or misleadingly to be
called a more " artistic " performance than " Don Qui-
xote " because there is so much Cervantes in the latter
and no Le Sage at all in the former ? Why is there
such a sense of life in "The Newcomes," compared
with TurgeniefiTs "Virgin Soil/' that the story of the
latter seems by comparison to vibrate idly in vacuo ?
Because Thackeray enwraps and embroiders his story
with his personal philosophy, charges it with his
personal feehng, draws out, with inexhaustible per-
sonal zest, its typical suggestiveness, and deals with
his material directly instead of dispassionately and
disinterestedly, after the manner of the Eussian
master. Can the reader do all this for himself? If
he can, and can do it as well as Thackeray does it for
him, he may consider it surplusage, as he may con-
sider surplusage the Cervantes in " Don Quixote " ;
otherwise, in wishing it away he must reflect that
" art " is an exacting mistress.

The question is, after all, mainly one of technic.
When Thackeray is reproached with "bad art" for
intruding upon his scene, the reproach is chiefly the
recommendation of a different technic. And each
man's technic is his own, and that of a master may
be accepted as possessing some inner principle of pro-
priety which any suggested improvement would com-
promise. But it may also be said that for the novel
on a large scale, the novel as Thackeray understood
and produced it, Thackeray's technic has certain clear



advantages. In order to deal with life powerfully,
persuasively, and successfully, the direct method is in
some respects superior to the detached. It is a com-
monplace in painting that the scale of subject and the
kind of effect sought legitimately dictate technic ; and
the contention, once common among academic painters,
for the same treatment of subordinate spaces and ob-
jects as that given to the salient ones, to the end that
you might enjoy the result one way in the mass and
then another way in the detail, has perhaps ceased to
be widely held. A miniature demands a unified treat-
ment, whereas even the intrusive " Doge Praying " of a
Venetian canvas is not too great a strain on the im-
aginative appreciation of the beholder. And, similarly,
the famous " short story," the writing of which has be-
come " a finer art " since the day of " The Kickleburys
on the Ehine," demands a treatment appropriate to its
episodic or microcosmic character which the novel does
not. And among its requisites is, very likely, — be-
yond all question, when one considers the personal
force of most practitioners of the art, — the attitude of
reserve and detachment in the writer. But Thackeray
wrote novels. He was not one of the " Little Masters."
He could do Dutch painting with the most adept of the
cherry-stone carvers, on occasion, but he never lost sight
of relations and atmosphere, and for these — in which
the sense of reality resides — a freer technic is salutary.
Now the one reason for insisting on " objectivity "
in art is that it is often the condition of illusion — the



illusion of reality in virtue of which art is art and not
itself reaUty, the mere material of art. If Thackeray's
" subjectivity " destroyed illusion it would indeed be in-
artistic. The notable thing about it is that it deepens
illusion. The reality of his "happy, harmless fable-
land " is wonderfully enhanced by the atmosphere with
which his moralizing enfolds it, and at the same time
the magic quality of this medium itself enforces our
sense that it is fable-land, and enables us to savor as
illusion the illusion of its art. Nothing could establish
the edifice of his imaginative fiction on so sound a
basis as those confidences with the reader — subtly
inspired by his governing passion for truth — in which
he is constantly protesting that it is fiction after all.
The artistic service of this element of his fiction is
aptly indicated by such a contrast as that furnished
by Maupassant — a master of objective technic if there
ever was one. When Maupassant exchanges the short
story, in which his touch and his attainment are per-
fection, for a larger canvas his atmosphere evaporates.
Mr. James says of " Une Yie " that if its subject had
been the existence of an English lady, " the air of veri-
similitude would have demanded that she should have
been placed in a denser medium." He would have her
surrounded with more figures, with more of the
"miscellaneous remplissage of life." The suggestion
is that of the practitioner, and in harmony with
Mr. James's impersonal practice ; and, aside from the
point about the nationality of the heroine, which is



not very apposite, it is very just. Mr. James would
have successfully condensed the medium by the " mis-
cellaneous remplissage of life." But there is also the
short cut to verisimilitude of a technic with more color,
more personal feeling — the technic that provides a
medium of sensible density by attuning the reader to
the rhythm of the subject, and establishes between them
a mutuality of relationship, the technic of Thackeray.

And it is to be observed that this atmosphere,
which exists to such serviceable artistic ends in Thack-
eray's fiction, exists invariably as atmosphere. It ac-
centuates the impression of verisimilitude, and consti-
tutes in itself an element of magical artistic charm ;
but it is not used constructively in either character or
composition. The reticulation of personal comment
that rests so lightly and decoratively on the fabric of
his story, all the imaginative connotation, so to say,
philosophical and sentimental, of his novels, has but an
auxiliary function and plays no structural part. It is
not used to fill out the substance and round the out-
lines of his personages, who exist quite independently
of it. It serves, on the contrary, to detach them from
the background, to detach them from their creator him-
self. It is absolutely true that Thackeray's " subjec-
tivity " in this way subtly increases the objectivity of
his creations. They are in this way definitely "ex-
teriorized." In this way we get the most vivid, the
most realizing sense of them as independent existences ;
and in this way we get Thackeray too.



In the well-known preface to his " Pierre et Jean,"
Maupassant maintains that only by carefully preserv-
ing the objective attitude can a novelist avoid putting
himself into his characters. Mr. James, analyzing this
production with all the acuteness of the analyst who is
also a craftsman, asserts that to avoid putting himself
into his characters is "the difficulty of the novelist"
in general, whether he pursues the impersonal manner
or not, and maintains that the impersonal manner has
notably failed to remove this difficulty for Maupassant
himself. And he insists, as from his works one would
expect him to insist, that the difficulty " only increases
the beauty of the problem." Now, speaking as one
must entirely for one's self, I confess that I for one
have never felt in reading any of his books that this
"difficulty of the novelist" existed for Thackeray at
all. It was not an obstacle he had to circumvent.
Whether we agree with Maupassant that in general it
can best be circumvented by the impersonal attitude,
or with Mr. James that there is no reliance to be
placed upon any mere attitude, we may at least note
that in the work of novelists of indisputably the first
rank this difficulty does not have to be circumvented,
since for them it does not exist. It exists for novelists
impressed by " the beauty of the problem.' Criticism
is certainly legitimately occupied with discovering the
laws of artistic production, and to these laws certainly
the production of the greatest artists, as well as that of
the least, is legitimately subject. But if these laws



are only approximately to be arrived at by formulat-
ing the practice of the masters, since the ideal in any
art is only indicated and never perfectly illustrated in
practice, they are surely not to be rigidly induced from
the expedients of others in surmounting the difficulties
of their "problems." And whether the novel be, as
Mr. James and M. Bourget agree in calling it, the ex-
pression of " a personal view of life," or, as Taine and
Maupassant maintain, a colorless view, the question as
to the art of any particular novel will always be, How
successful is it in giving us the illusion of the life it
purports to portray ?

Thackeray's characters were so little reflections of
himself, they were so real to him, that, as he says in
" De Finibus," " I know the sound of their voices." And
it is to his sense of their reality that his constant talk
of them is in no small degree to be ascribed. It is to
the same sense on the reader's part that is to be at-
tributed no small part of the reader's enjoyment in this
talk. AU this commentary and discursiveness, this
arguing from Philip or Amelia to men and women in
general, this moralizing over their traits and conduct,
has the zest for us that similar criticism and gossip
about real people, if any such were attainable, would
possess. If it displeases any reader whose sense for
" art " is keener than his interest in life, there is per-
haps no more to be said — except that a sense of humor
is a good thing, too, and not inapposite in any consider-
ation of one of the greatest of humorists. But any one



but a pedant more interested in the rules than in the
result of novel- writing can see that this familiar com-
mentary not only attests but greatly enhances the sense
of reality, of life, in the characters that furnish its text.
Even technically considered, it is in this respect the
acme of art. In Thackeray's hands it does not distract
the attention, but concentrates it upon the representa-
tive, the typical, the vital traits of his personages.
Taine himself having occasion to censure what he
deems Thackeray's cruel irony in his treatment of
Eebecca, and oppose to it Balzac's attitude toward
Valerie Marneffe, explains the superiority of the latter
by the assertion that " Balzac loves his Valerie." To
his assertion that the great artists always exhibit his
lauded impartial detachment, a critic far less the slave
of his abstract inductions, Matthew Arnold, replies that
the burden of all the great works of literature, from
the " Agamemnon " down, is a desire that the good may
prevail. I am not sure how far his love for Madame
Marneffe may count in Balzac's favor, but certainly his
general attitude of purely scientific though inexhausti-
ble curiosity is responsible for much of the incurable
artificiality that impairs his art. His figures are always
definite, but real as they are, they are not always alive.
It is the touch of personal feeling that communicates
the Promethean spark.

The peril of possessing a gift like this is the dis-
position to exercise it in excess. When personal ex-
pression is so easy, so admirable, and so successful as



Thackeray's, when, as with him, it is a faculty clearly
to be exercised instead of repressed, the temptation to
rely upon it, to overwork it, to give it a free rein, is
very great. Even in the unique " Eoundabout Papers,"
which are its expression 'par excellence, there are in-
stances of this excess. " Philip " is a notable instance.
Thackerayans read " Philip " — or even " Lovel the Wid-
ower" — without finding a dull page in it, just as
Wordsworthians read " Vaudracour and Julia," and the
whole series of the " Ecclesiastical Sonnets," partly, no
doubt, out of mere momentum. But every one cannot
be a Thackerayan, and for others the interest of
" Philip " now and then flags, probably. It is, indeed, a
tour de force in prolixity. The proportion of Thackeray
to Philip is prodigious. The story is decidedly thin;
there is next to no plot, and the incidents are few and
of the same family. The first hundred pages are as-
tonishing variations on the single theme of Philip's an-
tagonism to his father. A great deal of the book is
pure "copy." Even the color is borrowed here and
there from its predecessors, as where the Little Sister
" admires " Philip for knocking down the Eeverend
Tufton Hunt, though not of course in the same way
that Eebecca does her husband, " standing there, strong,
brave, victorious," after similar treatment of Lord
Steyne, and where Dr. Firmin's picture of " Abraham
Offering up Isaac " performs the service of the Jacob-
and-Esau tile in the fireplace at Castlewood. How
many letters are there from Dr. Firmin in America ;



how many glimpses of the Pendennis interior with
Laura and the children engaged in " osculation " ; how
many times does Philip get into the same quarrel with
different people! The characters save the story from
mediocrity — and triumphantly. They are drawn with
the true Thackerayan firmness and distinction. Where,
indeed, is there a weak line in any portrait of his popu-
lous gallery ? But they have not quite the rehef of
their fellows, and the book would have been far less
important than it is, distinctly a minor production, but
for the preachment that occupies so disproportionate a
space, and, moreover, is of inferior quality to that of
the great novels, of "Vanity Fair" and "The New-
comes." And yet excessive as it is and fringing per-
functoriness as it does, it shows itself in this crucial
instance of " Philip " — where it is not only abused,
but treated too lightly — essentially not a defect but a
quality of Thackeray's equipment.


Thackeeay*s practice is not perhaps to be recom-
mended, and critics who have the art of fiction at heart
cannot do better than to insist on the value of the
detached attitude in the author. But any view of
Thackeray is an imperfect one which does not perceive
that he is a notable exception to the rule wisely enough
prescribing this attitude in general. His personal force
and charm take him quite outside of its operation.



The perfection with which the artist and the satirist are
united — or rather fused — in him almost entitles his
novels to classification as a different genre. At least,
in order to consider them profitably it is necessary to
take into account in far greater degree than in other
instances the man himself as well as his works. A
correct synthesis is reached most directly in his case
by regarding his works mainly as manifestations of the
genius that unifies them. Even critics who think it
bad art for an author to obtrude his personality must
admit that the evil is lessened in proportion to the in-
terest of the personality so obtruded. As to the interest
of Thackeray's, there is likely to be no contention. It
is one of the most marked in letters. When one con-
siders his personal force, the notion of confining its
direct expression to pure dissertation appears grotesque.
To the true Thackerayan, of course — like Dr. John
Brown, Mr. Herman Merivale, or Mr. William B. Eeed

— no price is too great to pay for any of its manifesta-
tions. It has as much charm as power, and is infinitely
gracious and winning. It provides an atmosphere of its
own in which his characters live and move, and to
which they owe no small portion of their attractiveness

— in virtue of which, indeed, they constitute an organic
community by themselves. If he is their " showman,"
he certainly shows them off to advantage, and he him-
self is not the least interesting figure of the show.
The spectacle gains immensely from his association
with the company. How he thinks and feels in the



presence of the drama they are enacting immensely ex-
tends the range of our interest. Conceive " The New-
comes" without the presence of Thackeray upon the
stage — minus the view it gives us of the working of
its author's mind, the glimpses of his philosophy, the
touches of his feeling. The result would be like that
of eliminating the commentary which Colonel Henry
Esmond interweaves with his autobiography. Well,
but Esmond is one of the characters of the book, and
his prosings are therefore pertinent, says Taine. So is
Arthur Pendennis, Esq., the putative author of "The
Newcomes." But Pendennis is the thinnest of whim-
sical disguises for the real author, and the half-hearted
attempt to continue him and Laura as characters is
purely playful. True, they are needless sops to the
critical Cerberus, and, aside from adding pleasantly to
the machinery of the story, they really serve to show
how legitimately the reader who is not a pedant may
enjoy the personality of Thackeray apart from as well
as with any artistic expedients of the sort.

In a more definite and apposite way, therefore, than
is true of a personality that produces works of a more
impersonal order, Thackeray's own nature becomes the
most interesting and important subject to consider in
connection with his works. He was above all else a
lover of truth. The love of truth was with him, in-

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Online LibraryW. C. (William Crary) BrownellVictorian prose masters : Thackeray--Carlyle--George Eliot--Matthew Arnold--Ruskin--George Meredith → online text (page 1 of 18)