Some Aspects of Thackeray
TWENTY years ago, at Harvard College, in the rooms of all students of certain social pretensions who affected books, you were sure to see on the most conspicuous shelf, in green and gold or in half calf, the works of William Makepeace Thackeray. The name, boldly printed, greeted you as you entered the door, and served, together with sundry red - sealed certificates and beribboned silver medals, to inform you of the general respectability and gentility of your host. Of a Sunday morning, this student was likely to be discovered complacent over the Book of Snobs or serious over Vanity Fair.
Public opinion went that Thackeray was the novelist of gentlemen and for gentlemen ; that Dickens was undoubtedly strong, but he had not had the privilege of knowing and of delineating the things which were adapted to interest the most select of Harvard undergraduates. In every fold there are some to lower the general standard of critical excellence ; there were some partisans of Dickens. They were judged, as minorities are, found guilty of running counter to accepted opinions, and outlawed from further literary criticism.
These Harvard critics did not make for themselves this opinion of Thackeray; they brought it with them from home.
We suppose that parents, what time their son started in the world on the first path which diverged from theirs, deemed that they were equipping him with the best master to teach him concerning the ways of that world. Theirs was the old lack of faith, so common to the fearful; they sought to guard their son from the world by pointing out to him its vanity, its folly, its emptiness. “ Oh, if he shall only know what the world is,” they thought, " he will escape its evils to come.” So they gave him Thackeray, and wrote him long letters on idleness and vice. His bookshelves and his inner pockets thus encumbered, the youth found Harvard College a miniature of the world of which he had been warned. There were materials enough for such a conclusion. A seeker will find what he goes forth to seek. The youth learned his Thackeray well, spent four years enjoying his little Vanity Fair, and then departed from Cambridge to help build up the larger world of Vanity which shows so fine in America to-day.
There is no phenomenon so interesting as the unconscious labor of boys and men over the task of shaping, hewing, whittling, and moulding the world into accord with their anticipations. All lend helping hands to the great master implement, public expectation. A young fellow goes to college, and joins a group of a dozen others. Brown, the rake, thinks, “ Here’s a Lothario who will sup at Dame Quickly’s with me ; ” Smith, the boxer, says, “ A quick eye,—I ’ll make a boxer of him: ” Jones, who translates Homer for the group, sees rhythm and Theocritus in the newcomer’s curly hair ; Robinson, the philosopher, feels a fellow Hegelian. These rival expectations leap out to meet the stranger; they struggle among themselves. Of the students, some agree with Brown, some with Smith, others with Robinson or Jones. The sturdiest of these expectations chokes out the others and survives. After a short time —our young fellow yet entirely undiscovered—a strong current of unanimous expectation has decided that he shall be a boxer. All obstacles to the execution of this judgment are taken away, and moral earthworks are quickly thrown up, guarding him from Brown, Jones, and Robinson. Expectation seats him beside Smith: expectation turns the conversation upon champions of the ring ; expectation draws the gloves upon his fists; it offers him no Eastcheap, no Theocritus, no Hegel. The youth takes boxing lessons ; soon he learns the language of the fraternity ; he walks, runs, avoids mince pies, eschews books, and with a single eye looks forward to a bout in Hemenway Gymnasium. Thus the tricksy spirit expectation shapes the destinies of common humankind. Thus do parents begin to expect that their son will see the world with their own and Thackeray’s beam-troubled eyes ; they insist that lie shall, and in due time he does.
Once convince a young man that Thackeray’s world is the real world, that vulgarity, meanness, trickery, and fraud abound, and you put him in a yoke from which he shall never free himself. This is the yoke of base expectation. This is what is known in Scripture as “ the world ; ” it is the habit of screwing up the eyes and squinting in order to see unworthiness, baseness, vice, and wickedness ; it is a creeping blindness to nobler things. The weapon against the world is, as of old, to use a word of great associations, faith. Faith is nothing but noble expectation, and all education should be to supplant base expectation by noble expectation. What is the human world in which we live but a mighty mass of sensitive matter, highly susceptible to the great force of human expectation, which flows about it like an ever shifting Gulf Stream, now warming and prospering noble people, and then wantonly comforting the unworthy ?
Feeble folk that we are, we have in this power of creation an element of divinity in us. Our expectations hover about like life-giving agencies. We are conscious that our hopes and our fears are at work all the time helping the oncoming of that which we hope or fear. The future is like a newborn babe stretching out its arms to the stronger. It may be that this power in us is weak, intermittent, often pitiably feeble; but now and again comes a man with a larger measure of divine life, and his great expectations pass into deeds. Before every Trafalgar first comes an expectation that duty will be done.
Thackeray has no faith ; he does not entertain high expectations. His characters do shameless things, and Thackeray says to the reader, “ Be not surprised, injured - seeming friend; you would have done the like under the like temptation.” At first you contradict, you resent; but little by little Thackeray’s opinion of you inoculates you ; the virus takes; you lose your conviction that you would have acted differently ; you concede that such conduct was not impossible, even for you,—no, nor improbable,—and, on the whole, after reflection, that the conduct was excusable, was good enough, was justified, was inevitable, was right, was scrupulously right, and only a Don Quixote would have acted otherwise.
Nothing sickens and dies so quickly as noble expectation. Luxury, comfort, custom, the ennui of hourly exertion, the dint of disappointment, assail it unceasingly : if a man of ten talents, like Thackeray, joins the assailants, is it not just that admiration of him should be confined to those who are willing to admire talents, irrespective of the use to which they are put ?
England has found it hard to bring forth men of faith. In the great days of Queen Elizabeth, a number of uniting causes produced an emotional excitement which lifted Englishmen and Englishwomen to such a height that Shakespeare saw Othello, Hamlet, Brutus, Coriolanus, Miranda, Cordelia. There was the material stimulus of commerce with strange countries, the prick of money ; there was this curious earth, inviting wooers; there was the goad of conscience, troubled to renounce the religion of old ; there was the danger of foreign conquerors; there was manly devotion to a Virgin Queen. England roused herself, and, ” like a dew-drop from the lion’s mane,” shook off the trammels of petty interests, of vulgar self-seeking, and presented to her poet great sights of human nobility. Not that the moral elevation of a nation is very much higher at one time than at another, but a little swelling of noble desires so breaks the ice of custom that a poet must see the clearer waters which lie beneath. If Shakespeare were alive to-day, we doubt not that he would tell of new Othellos, new Cordelias ; but it was easier for him then than it would be now, or how could such a host of noble men and women people his pages ?
Since that time England has been prosperous and comfortable ; and as her comfort and prosperity have increased she has drifted further and further from a great acceptance of the world. Dryden and his group, Fielding, Sheridan, men of talents in their different generations, have succeeded, who contemplate themselves, and, expecting to find the world a fit place for them to live in, have helped to render it so.
A hundred years ago England shook herself free from the dominion of vulgar men. In France, the triple burden of church, monarch, and nobility, the prohibition of thought, the injustice of power, had lain like millstones on the people; each individual had borne his own burden, but one after another each saw that not he alone groaned and sweated, but his brothers also. The fardel a man can bear by himself he can no longer carry when he sees an endless line of other men weighted down and staggering. Sight of injustice to others made each individual in France throw off his own yoke ; and the most exultant cry of justice, of brotherly love, ever heard, was raised. No country lives alone. French passion flushed to England. Englishmen were roused : some were for liberty ; others saw their dull old homes and habits transfigured in the blaze of new ideas. Noble Republicans bred noble Tories. Everything was ennobled ; babies looked more beautiful to their mothers ; Virgil interested schoolboys ; ragamuffins and ploughboys felt strange disquiet as they heard the words “ liberty,” “ country,” brotherhood.” “home.” This shock and counter-shock prepared the way for the great poets of that time, and made Walter Scott possible. Scott had faith; he saw a noble world. But the idealism of France passed away, its glow faded from the English cliffs ; danger was locked up in St. Helena, and prosperity and comfort, like Gog and Magog, stalked through England.
Thackeray was bred when Englishmen were forsaking “swords for ledgers,”and deserting “the student’s bower for gold.” His father died when he was very young. His mother married for her second husband an Indian officer, and Thackeray was sent to school in England.
In a new biographical edition of Thackeray’s works which Messrs. Harper & Brothers are publishing, Mrs. Ritchie has written brief memories of her father at the beginning of each volume, with special relation to its contents. These memories are done with filial affection. Thackeray’s kindness, his tenderness. his sympathetic nature, are written large on every page. He has many virtues. He dislikes vice, drunkenness, betrayal of women, pettifogging, huckstering, lying, cheating, knavery, the annoyance and tomfoolery of social distinctions. He would like to leave the world better than he found it, but he cannot see. Pettiness, the vulgarity of money, the admiration of mean things, hang before him like a curtain at the theatre. Romeo may be on fire. Hotspur leap for the moon, Othello stab Iago, Lear die in Cordelia’s lap; but the sixteenth of an inch of frieze and fustian keeps it all from him.
At nineteen Thackeray spent a winter at Weimar. He soon writes to his mother of Goethe as “ the great lion of Weimar.” He is not eager to possess the great measures of life. He is not sensitive to Goethe, but to the court of Pumpernickel. He wishes he were a cornet in Sir John Kennaway’s yeomanry. that he might wear the yeoman’s dress. “A yeomanry dress is always a handsome and respectable one.”
In 1838, when in Paris, he writes : “ I have just come from seeing Marion Delorme, the tragedy of Victor Hugo, and am so sickened and disgusted with the horrid piece that I have hardly heart to write.” He did not look through pain and extravagance into the noble passion of the play. He lived in a moral Pumpernickel where the ideal is kept outside the town gates.
Pumpernickel was his home, and he has depicted it in Vanity Fair. This book reflects Thackeray’s intellectual image in his prime ; it is his first great novel, and is filled with the most vivid and enduring of his beliefs and convictions. There are in it a vigor, an independence, and a sense of power that come when a man faces his best opportunity. Into it Thackeray has put what he deemed the truest experiences of his life. He has also written two long sequels to it. The Newcomes is the story of his stepfather, Major Carmichael - Smyth in Vanity Fair ; Pendennis, that of Thackeray himself and his mother wandering in its outskirts. There is this one family of nice people, gathered into an ark as it were, floating over the muddy waters. Thackeray was able to see that his immediate family were not rogues; he was also able to draw a most noble gentleman, Henry Esmond, by the help of the idealizing lens of a hundred odd years ; but the world he thought he saw about him is the world of Vanity Fair.
Thackeray had so many fine qualities that one cannot but feel badly to see him in such a place. Had his virtues—his kindness, his tenderness, his charm, his capacity for affection—been energetic enough to dominate his entire character, he would have lived among far different scenes ; his readers would have beheld him potting flowers by some vinecovered house in a village where neighbors were simple, honest, and true,— where round the corner stood a Mermaid Tavern, to which poets and far-voyaging sailors would come, full of stories about a glorious world. Who would not have liked to sit by Thackeray’s hearth in such a home, a fire warming his kindly feet, his good cheroot gayly burning, a mug at his elbow, and be reading his last manuscript? Was it Thackeray’s fault that this was not to be ? Or did he suffer the incidental misfortunes which large causes bring to individuals as they follow their own regardless paths ?
Thackeray is the poet of respectability. His working time stretches from the Reform Act almost to the death of Lord Palmerston. He chronicles the contemporary life of a rich, money-getting generation of merchants and manufacturers, lifted into sudden importance in the national life by steamboats and railroads, by machinery for spinning, weaving, mining, by Arkwright, Watt, Davy, and Stephenson. His is a positive, matterof-fact world. which Peel is the statesman and Macaulay the man of letters. Macaulay, in his essay on Bacon, has given us the measure of its spiritual elevation : “We have sometimes thought that an amusing fiction might be written, in which a disciple of Epictetus and a disciple of Bacon should be introduced as fellow travelers. They come to a village where the smallpox has just begun to rage, and find houses shut up, intercourse suspended, the sick abandoned, mothers weeping in terror over their children. The Stoic assures the dismayed population that there is nothing bad in the smallpox ; and that, to a wise man, disease, deformity, death, the loss of friends, are not evils. The Baconian takes out a lancet and begins to vaccinate. They find a body of miners in great dismay. An explosion of noisome vapors has just killed many of those who were at work; and the survivors are afraid to venture into the cavern. The Stoic assures them that such an accident is nothing but a mere Tro7vpo7]yjxevov. The Baconian, who has no such fine word at his command, contents himself with devising a safetylamp. They find a shipwrecked merchant wringing his hands on the shore. His vessel, with an inestimable cargo, has just gone down, and he is reduced in a moment from opulence to beggary. The Stoic exhorts him not to seek happiness in things which lie without himself; the Baconian constructs a diving-bell. It would be easy to multiply illustrations of the difference between the philosophy of thorns and the philosophy of fruit, the philosophy of words and the philosophy of works.” This is the very nobility of machinery. As we read, we listen to the buzz and whir of wheels, the drip of oil-cans, the creaking and straining of muscle and steel. Such things serve, no doubt, in default of other agencies. to create a great empire, but the England of Thackeray’s day was a noureau riche, self-made, proud of its lack of occupation other than money-getting. Thackeray was fallen upon evil times. He was born into this moral estate of Pumpernickel, and he has described it with the vividness and vigor of complete comprehension. He has immense cleverness. He knows whereof he talks. Never has a period had so accomplished an historian. The bourgeoisie have their epic in Vanity Fair.
During the formative period of Thackeray’s life the English nation was passing under the influence of machinery. There was the opportunity of a great man of letters, such as Thackeray, to look to it that literature should respond to the stimulus of added power, and grow so potent that it would determine what direction the national life should take. At such a time of national expansion, literature should have seen England in the flush of coming greatness ; it should have roused itself to re-create her in nobler imagination, and have spent itself in making her accept this estimate and expectation, and become an England dominating material advantages and leading the world.
The interest in life is this potentiality and malleability. The allotted task of men and women is to take this potentiality and shape it. Men who have strong intelligence and quick perceptions, like Thackeray, accomplish a great deal in the way of giving a definite form to the material with which life furnishes us. What Michelangelo says of marble is true of life : —
Ch’un marmo solo in se non circoseriva
Col suo soverchio.”
The problem of life is to uncover the figures hiding in this material: shall it be Caliban. Circe, Philip Sidney, Jeanne d’Arc ? Thackeray, with what Mrs. Ritchie calls “ his great deal of common sense, saw Major Pendennis and Becky Sharp ; and he gave more effective cuttings and chiselings and form to the potential life of England than any other man of his time.
The common apology for such a novelist is that he describes what he sees. This is the worst with which we charge him. We charge Thackeray with seeing what he describes ; and what justification has a man, in a world like this, to spend his time looking at Barnes Newcome and Sir Pitt Crawley ? Thackeray takes the motes and beams floating in his mind’s eye for men and women, writes about them, and calls his tale a history.
Thackeray wrote, on finishing Vanity Fair, that all the characters were odious except Dobbin. Poor Thackeray, what a world to see all about him, with his tender, affectionate nature ! Even Colonel Newcome is so crowded round by a mob of rascally fellows that it is hard to do justice to Thackeray’s noblest attempt to be a poet But why see a world, and train children to see a world, where
A world with such an unreal standard must be an unreal world. In the real world vulgar clowns are not great men. Thackeray sees a world all topsy-turvy, and it does not occur to him that he, and not the world, is at fault. This is the curse of faithlessness. He himself says, “ The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.”
Thackeray has been praised as a master of reality. As reality is beyond our ken, the phrase is unfortunate ; but the significance of it is that if a man will portray to the mob the world with which the mob is familiar, they will huzza themselves hoarse. Has not the Parisian mob shouted for Zola ? Do not the Madrileños cheer Valdés ? Do not Ouida and the pale youth of Rome and Paris holla, “ d’Annunzio ! d’Annunzio ! ” There is no glory here. The poet, not in fine frenzy, but in sober simplicity, tells the mob, not what they see, but what they cannot of themselves perceive, with such a tone of authority that they stand gaping and likewise see.
Thackeray’s love of reality was merely an embodiment of the popular feeling which proposed to be direct, businesslike, and not to tolerate any nonsense. People felt that a money-getting country must take itself seriously. The Reform Act had brought political control to the bourgeoisie, men of common sense ; no ranters, no will-o’-the-wisp chasers, but “burgomasters and great oneyers,’— men who thought very highly of circumstances under which they were prosperous, and asked for no more beautiful sight than their own virtues. Influenced by the sympathetic touch of this atmosphere, novel-readers found their former favorites old-fashioned. Disraeli, Samuel Warren, Bulwer Lytton, G. P. R. James, seemed false, theatrical, and sentimental. Thackeray was of this opinion, and he studied the art of caricature as the surest means of saving himself from any such fantastic nonsense. He approached life as a city man,—one who was convinced that the factories of London, not the theories of the philosopher, were the real motive force underneath all the busy flow of outward life. He found his talents exactly suited to this point of view. His memory was an enormous wallet, into which his hundredhanded observation was day and night tossing scraps and bits of daily experience. He saw the meetings of men as he passed : lords, merchants, tinsmiths, guardsmen, tailors, cooks, valets, nurses, policemen, boys, applewomen,—everybody whom you meet of a morning between your house and your office in the city. He remarked the gestures, he heard the words, he guessed what had gone before, he divined what would happen thereafter : and each sight, sound, guess, and divination was safely stowed away in his marvelous wallet. England of the forties, as Thackeray saw it, is in Vanity Fair, Pendennis, and The Newcomes. “I ask you to believe,”he says in the preface to Pendennis, “that this person writing strives to tell the truth.”Where lies the truth ? Are men merely outward parts of machinery, exposed to view, while down below in the engine - room steam and electricity determine their movements ? Or do men live and carry on their daily routine under the influence of some great thought of which they are half unconscious, but by which they are shaped, moulded, and moved ? A French poet says:—
But Macaulay says that the philosophy of Plato began with words and ended with words ; that an acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia. The British public applauded Macaulay, and young Thackeray took the hint.
Nobody can question Thackeray’s style. His fame is proof of its excellence. Even if a man will flatter the mob by saying that he sees what they see, he cannot succeed without skill of expression. Readers are slow to understand. They need grace, pithy sentences, witty turns of phrase, calculated sweep of periods and paragraphs. They must have no labor of attention; the right adjective alone will catch their eyes; they require their pages plain, clear, perspicuous. In all these qualities Thackeray is very nearly perfect. Hardly anybody would say that there is a novel better written than Vanity Fair. The story runs as easily as the hours. Chapter after chapter in the best prose carries the reader comfortably on. Probably this excellence is due to Thackeray’s great powers of observation. His eyes saw everything, saving for the blindness of his inward eye, and his memory held it. He was exceedingly sensitive. Page after page is filled with the vividness of well-chosen detail. He cultivated the art of writing most assiduously. From 1830 to 1847, when Vanity Fair, the first of his great novels, was published, he was writing all the time, and for almost all of that time as a humorist, drawing caricatures, — a kind of writing perhaps better adapted than any other to cultivate the power of portraying scenes. The caricaturist is restricted to a few lines; his task does not allow him to fill in, to amplify; he must say his say in little. The success of wit is the arrangement of a dozen words. This training for sixteen continuous years taught Thackeray a style which, for his subjects, has no equal in English literature.
To-day we greatly admire Stevenson and Kipling. We applaud Stevenson’s style for its cultivation and its charm : we heap praises upon Kipling’s for its dash, vigor, and accuracy of detail. All these praises are deserved ; but when we take up Thackeray again, we find pages and pages written in a style more cultivated than Stevenson’s and equally charming, and with a dash, vigor, and nicety of detail that Kipling might envy. Descriptions that would constitute the bulk of an essay for the one, or of a story for the other, do hasty service as prologues to Thackeray’s chapters. Conversations of a happy theatrical turn, with enough exaggeration to appear wholly natural, which Stevenson and Kipling never have rivaled, come crowding together in his long novels.
There are two famous scenes which are good examples of Thackeray’s power, — one of his sentiment, one of his humor. The first is Colonel Newcome’s death in the Charterhouse. The second is the first scene between Pendennis and the Fotheringay. “Pen tried to engage her in conversation about poetry and about her profession. He asked her what she thought of Ophelia’s madness, and whether she was in love with Hamlet or not. ' In love with such a little ojus wretch as that stunted manager of a Bingley? ’ She bristled with indignation at the thought. Pen explained it was not of her he spoke, but of Ophelia of the play. ‘ Oh, indeed ; if no offense was meant, none was taken ; but as for Bingley, indeed, she did not value him. — not that glass of punch.’ Pen next tried her on Kotzebue. ‘ Kotzebue ? Who was he ? ’ ‘ The author of the play in which she had been performing so admirably.’ ‘ She did not know that— the man’s name at the beginning of the book was Thompson.’ she said. Pen laughed at her adorable simplicity, He told her of the melancholy fate of the author of the play, and how Sand had killed him. . . . ' How beautiful she is! thought Pen, cantering homewards. ‘ How simple and how tender ! How charming it is to see a woman of her genius busying herself with the humble offices of domestic life, cooking dishes to make her old father comfortable, and brewing him drink ! How rude it was of me to begin to talk about professional matters, and how well she turned the conversation ! . . . Pendennis, Pendennis, — how she spoke the word ! Emily, Emily ! how good, how noble, how beautiful, how perfect, she is! ’ ”
This scene is very close upon farce, and it is in that borderland that Thackeray’s extraordinary skill shows itself most conspicuous. Difficult, however, as it must be to be a master there, — and the fact that Thackeray has no rival in this respect proves it, — it is easy work compared to drawing a scene of real love, of passion. Perhaps some actions of Lady Castlewood are Thackeray’s only attempt thereat. The world of passion is not his world. His ear is not attuned to
Des Hasses Kraft, die Macht der Liebe.”
Charlotte Brontë, Tourguenef, Hawthorne, Hugo, Balzac, all excel him. Thackeray hears the click of custom against custom, the throb of habit, the tick-tick of vulgar life, all the sounds of English social machinery. The different degrees of social efficiency and inefficiency rivet his attention. What interests him is the relation that Harry Foker or Blanche Amory bears to the standard of social excellence accepted by commercial England in the forties. He is never — at least as an artist — disturbed by any scheme of metaphysics. His English common sense is never lured afield by any speculations about the value of a human being uncolored by the shadows of time and space. He is never troubled by doubts of standards, by skepticism as to uses, ends, purposes; he has a hard-and-fast British standard. He draws Colonel Newcome as an object of pity ; he surrounds him with tenderness and sympathy. Here is Thackeray at his highest. But he never suggests to the reader that Colonel Newcome is not a man to be pitied, but to be envied ; not a failure, but a success ; not unhappy, but most fortunate. The great poets of the world have turned the malefactor’s cross into the symbol of holiness. Thackeray never departs from the British middle class conceptions of triumph and failure. In all his numerous dissertations and asides to the reader, he wrote like the stalwart Briton he was, good, generous, moral, domestic, stern, and tender. You never forget his Puritan ancestry, you can rely upon his honesty ; but he is not pure-minded or humble. He dislikes wrong, but he never has a high enough conception of right to hate wrong. His view is that it is a matter to be cured by policemen, propriety, and satire.
Satire is the weapon of the man at odds with the world and at ease with himself. The dissatisfied man — a Juvenal, a Swift, a youthful Thackeray — belabors the world with vociferous indignation ; like the wind on the traveler’s back, the beating makes him hug his cloaking sins the tighter. Wrong runs no danger from such chastisement. The fight against wrong is made by the man discontented with himself and careless of the world. Satire is harmless as a moral weapon. It is an old - fashioned fowling piece, fit for a man of wit, intelligence, and a certain limited imagination. It runs no risk of having no quarry ; the world to it is one vast covert of lawful game. It goes a-traveling with wit, because both are in search of the unworthy. It is well suited to a brilliant style. It is also a conventional department in literature, and as such is demanded by publishers and accepted by the public.
Thackeray was born with dexterity of observation, nimbleness of wit, and a quick sense of the incongruous and the grotesque. He lost his fortune when a young man. He wrote for a livelihood, and naturally turned to that branch of literature which was best suited to his talents. It was his misfortune that satire is bad for a man’s moral development. It intensified his natural disbelief in the worth of humanity, but gave him the schooling that enabled him to use his powers so brilliantly.
Thackeray was often hampered by this habit of looking at the grotesque side of things. It continually dragged him into farce, causing feebleness of effect where there should have been power. Sir Pitt Crawley, Jos Sedley, the struggle over Miss Crawley, Harry Foker, the Chevalier de Florae, Aunt Hoggerty, are all in the realm of farce. This is due partly to Thackeray’s training, and partly to his attitude toward life. If life consists of money, clothes, and a bundle of social relations, our daily gravity, determination, and vigor are farcical, because they are so out of place; they are as incongruous as a fish in trousers. But Thackeray forgets that there is something disagreeable in this farce, as there would be in looking into Circe’s sty and seeing men groveling over broken meats. To be sure, Thackeray makes believe that he finds it comic to see creatures of great pretensions busy themselves so continually with the pettiest things. But it too often seems as if the comic element consisted in our human pretensions, and as if Thackeray merely kept bringing them to the reader’s notice for the sake of heightening the contrast between men and their doings.
Thackeray is not an innovator; he follows the traditions of English literature. He is in direct descent from the men of the Spectator, Addison, Steele, and their friends, and from Fielding. He has far greater powers of observation, wit, humor, sentiment, and description than the Spectator group. He excels Fielding in everything except as a story-teller, and in a kind of intellectual power that is more easily discerned in Fielding than described, — a kind of imperious understanding that breaks down a path before it, whereas Thackeray’s intelligence looks in at a window or peeps through the keyhole. Fielding is the bigger, coarser man of the two; Thackeray is the cleverer. Each is thoroughly English. Fielding embodies the England of George I.; Thackeray, that same England refined by the revolutionary ideas of 1789, trained by long wars, then materialized by machinery, by a successful bourgeoisie and the quick accession of wealth. Each is a good fellow,— quick in receiving ideas, but slow to learn a new point of view. Fielding is inferior to Thackeray in education, in experience of many men, and in foreign travel. Tom Jones is the begetter of Arthur Pendennis, Jonathan Wild of Barry Lyndon. Some of Fielding’s heroines, wandering out of Tom Jones and Amelia, have strayed into Pendennis, Vanity Fair, and The Newcomes. The fair émigrees change their names, but keep their thoughts and behavior.
It is said that a lady once asked Thackeray why he made all his women fools or knaves. “ Madam, I know no others.”It may be that living in Paris in his youth hurt his insight into women ; it may be that the great sorrow of his wife’s insanity instinctively turned his thoughts from the higher types of women ; perhaps his life in Bohemia and in clubs limited his knowledge during the years when novel-writing was his chief occupation. The truth seems to be that Thackeray, like Fielding, was a man’s man, — he understood one crosssection of a common man, his hopes, aims, fears, wishes, habits, and manners ; but he was very ignorant of women. He says : “ Desdemona was not angry with Cassio, though there is very little doubt she saw the lieutenant s partiality for her (and I, for my part, believe that many more things took place in that sad affair than the worthy Moorish officer ever knew of) ; why, Miranda was even very kind to Caliban, and we may be pretty sure for the same reason. Not that she would encourage him in the least, the poor uncouth monster, — of course not.” Shakespeare and Thackeray looked differently at women.
Thackeray lacked the poet’s eye ; he could not see and was not troubled.
Quando mi volsi per veder Beatrice,
Per non poter vedere, ben ch’io fossi
Presso di lei, e nel mondo felice ! ”
But poor Thackeray was never near the ideal, and never in paradise. Some critic has said of him that because he had Eden in his mind’s eye, this world appeared a Vanity Fair. No criticism could be more perverted ; he had Vanity Fair in his mind’s eye, and therefore could not see paradise.
This treatment of women is half from sheer ignorance, and half from Thackeray’s habit of dealing in caricature with subjects of which he is ignorant. He behaves toward foreign countries very much as he does toward women.
France, Germany, Italy, appear like geography in an opera bouffe. They are places for English blackguards to go to, and very fit places for them, tenanted as they are by natives clad in outlandish trousers, and bearded and moustachioed like pards. His delineations of Germany, and those pen-and-ink sketches by Richard Doyle in his delightful Brown, Jones and Robinson, made so strong an impression upon an ignorant portion of the public, of which we were, that it was frightened to death in 1871, when it thought of the French armies trampling down poor little Germany. Thackeray looked on Germany, as he did upon the world, with the greedy eye of the caricaturist, and he could not refrain from his grotesque sketches. Of the French he says : “ In their aptitude to swallow, to utter, to enact humbugs, these French people, from Majesty downwards, beat all the other nations of this earth. In looking at these men, their manners, dresses, opinions, politics, actions, history, it is impossible to preserve a grave countenance; instead of having Carlyle to write a History of the French Revolution, I often think it should be handed over to Dickens or Theodore Hook. ... I can hardly bring my mind to fancy that anything is serious in France,— it seems to be all rant, tinsel, and stage-play.”His attitude toward French literature is distorted by lack of sympathy to an astonishing degree.
Thackeray’s fault was not merely a certain narrowness of mind, but also that he allowed himself to see only the grotesque and disagreeable, until habit and nature combined to blind him to other things.
Thackeray is not a democrat. Democracy, like many another great and vague social conception, is based upon a fundamental truth, of which truth adherents to the conception are often ignorant, although they brush against it in the dark and unwittingly draw in strength for their belief. The fundamental truth of democracy is that the real pleasures of life are increased by sharing them, — that exclusiveness renders pleasure insipid. One reason why democracy has prevailed so greatly is that everywhere, patent to everybody, in the simplest family life, there is proof of this truth. A man amuses himself skipping stones : the occupation has a pleasure hardly to be detected ; with a wife it is interesting, with children it becomes exciting. Every new sharer adds to the father’s stock of delight, so that at last he lies awake on winter nights thinking of the summer’s pleasure. With a slight application of logic, democrats have struggled, and continually do struggle, to break down all the bastions, walls, fences, and demilunes that time, prejudice, and ignorance have erected between men. They wish to have a ready channel from man to man, through which the emotional floods of life can pour;
Have dream’d [that] human hearts might blend
In one, and were through faith released
From isolation without end.”
What is the meaning of patriotism? Does the patriot think his country wiser, better, more gifted, more generous, than another ? Perhaps, and in this he is almost certainly wrong ; but the power of patriotism to disregard truth lies in the fact that it is one of the most powerful conductors of human emotion ever discovered. It is part of the old human cry, “Self is so small; make me part of something large.” Esprit de corps, which makes people unreasonable and troubles the calculations of the bloodless man, is a like conductor of the emotions in lesser matters; and the fact is familiar that the larger the body, the greater is the emotion generated.
Humanity has had a hard task in civilizing itself ; in periods of ignorance, ill humor, and hunger it has built up a most elaborate system, which has been a great factor in material prosperity. This system is the specialization of labor, which serves to double the necessary differences among men, and to make every specialty and every difference a hindrance to the joys that should be in commonalty spread. The age of machinery increased specialization, specialization increased wealth, wealth was popularly supposed to be the panacea for human ills ; and the bars and barriers between men were repaired and strengthened. Specialization in Thackeray’s time was in the very air; everything was specialized, — trade was specialized, society was specialized, money was specialized ; there was money made, money inherited from father, money inherited from grandfather, — money, like blood, growing purer and richer the further back it could be traced. Every act of specialization produced a new batch of social relations.
Thackeray is very sensitive, especially to this elaborate system of specialization, and to its dividing properties, strengthened and repaired by the commercial Briton. Thackeray has no gift for abstraction ; he does not take a man and grow absorbed in him as a spiritual being, as a creature in relations with some Absolute; he sees men shut off and shut up in all sorts of little coops. He is all attentive to the coops. The world to him is one vast zoölogical garden, this Vanity Fair of his. He does not care that the creatures are living, growing, eating, sun-needing animals; he is interested in the feathers, the curl of the tail, the divided toe, the pink eye, the different occupations, clothes, habits, which separate them into different groups. A democrat does not care for such classification ; on the contrary, he wishes to efface it as much as possible. He wishes to abstract man from his conditions and surroundings, and contemplate him as a certain quantity of human essence. He looks upon the distinctions of rank, of occupation, of customs and habits, as so many barricades upon the great avenues of human emotions ; Napoleon-like, he would sweep them away. He regards man as a serious reality, and these accidents of social relations as mere shadows passing over. This is the Christian position. This is the attitude of Victor Hugo, George Eliot, George Sand, Hawthorne, Tourgenef, Tolstoï. Charlotte Brontë.
No wonder that Charlotte Brontë made this criticism upon Thackeray’s face : " To me the broad brow seems to express intellect. Certain lines about the nose and cheek betray the satirist and cynic ; the mouth indicates a childlike simplicity, — perhaps even a degree of irresoluteness, inconsistency, — weakness, in short, but a weakness not unamiable. ... A certain not quite Christian expression.” This is a true likeness. Thackeray was not a Christian. He acted upon all the standards which Christianity has proclaimed to be false for nearly two thousand years. He had a certain childlike simplicity. Some of his best passages proceed upon it. Take the chapters in Vanity Fair where Amelia is neglected by Osborne, or the scene at Colonel Newcome’s death. These incidents are described as they would appear to a child. The impressions seem to have been dinted on the sensitive, inexperienced mind of a child. This quality is Thackeray’s highest. He is able to throw off the dust of years, and see things with the eyes of a child,— not a child trailing glory from the east, but one bred in healthful ignorance.
Walter Bagehot, in his essay on Sterne and Thackeray, compares the two, and, after describing Sterne’s shiftless, lazy life, asks, What can there be in common between him and the great Thackeray, industrious and moral? Bagehot found that the two had sensitiveness in common. There is another likeness, — a certain lack of independence, a swimming with the stream. Thackeray has an element of weakness ; it appears continually in his method of writing novels. He puts his character before you, but he never suffers you to consider it by yourself ; he is nervously suggesting this and that; he is afraid that you may misjudge what he conceives to be his own correct moral standard. He points out how virtuous he really is, how good and noble. He keeps underscoring the badness of his bad people, and the weakness of his weak people. He is like a timid mother, who will not let her brood out of sight while any one is looking at them. Moreover, his satire never attacks anybody or anything that a man could be found publicly to defend. He charges upon social malefactors who are absolutely defenseless. He belabors brutality, avarice, boorishness, knavery, prevarication, with most resounding thwacks.
In the year 1847 Vanity Fair was published. Thackeray won great fame as the terrible satirist of society. And what did society do ? Society invited him to dinner, in the correct belief that it and Thackeray agreed at every point. We think that such satire betrays a certain weakness and lack of courage. Did the Jesuits invite Molière to dinner after Tartuffe ?
Thackeray’s face had, according to the criticism we have quoted, “ a weakness not unamiable.” Certainly Thackeray was not unamiable; he must have been most lovable in many ways. The childlike characteristic to which we have alluded is enough to prove that; and in chapter after chapter we find evidence of his human kindliness. Take, for example, the passage quoted by Mr. Merivale, in his somewhat pugnacious Life of Thackeray, from Titmarsh’s letter on Napoleon’s funeral at Les Invalides. Here is a description of an English family in three generations, a somewhat foolish family, perhaps, given with some affectation, but perfectly genuine in its sympathy with childish hopes and fears. His books are full of passages of a like character. If further evidence were needed, Mrs. Ritchie’s prefaces to this new edition supply it most abundantly.
A novelist, however, in the end, must be judged according to a common human measure. This the novelist, like other men devoted to special pursuits, resents ; he interposes a claim of privilege, and demands a trial by his peers. He claims that as a man he may be judged by Tom, Dick, and Harry, but as a novelist — in that noble and sacrosanct capacity — he is only within the jurisdiction of men acquainted with the difficulties and triumphs of his art. This is the old error, — the Manichean heresy of trying to divide the one and indivisible into two. It reminds one of Gibbon’s “ I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.” It is the character of the novelist that provides tissue for his novels; there is no way by which the novelist can sit like an absentee god and project into the world a work that tells no tales of him. Every man casts his work in his own image. Only a great man writes a great novel; only a mean man writes a mean novel. A novel is as purely a personal thing as a hand-shake, and is to be judged by a simple standard which everybody can understand.
There has been a foolish confusion of nomenclature, due to the desire of critics to make a special vocabulary for themselves, partly to the end that they may be known to be critics, partly to shut themselves off into a species of the literary genus that shall be judged only by members of the same species. Hence the silly words “idealism” and “realism.” M. de Maupassant says: “How childish it is to believe in reality, since each of us carries his own in his mind! Our eyes, ears, noses, tastes, create as many different varieties of truth as there are men in the world. And we who receive the teachings of these senses, affected each in his own way, analyze, judge, and come to our conclusions as if we all were of different races. Each creates an illusion of the world for himself, poetical, sentimental, gay, melancholy, ugly, or sad, according to his nature.” This is a correct statement, but it does not go far enough. The world not only looks different to different people, but, as it is the most delicately plastic and sensitive matter imaginable, it is always tending to become for any community what the man in that community with the greatest capacity for expression thinks it is. Like an old Polonius, the city, the village, or the household sees the world in shape like a camel, or backed like a weasel or a whale, according as the prince among them thinks. Consider a fashion in criticism or in dress. Sir Joshua Reynolds admired Annibale Carracci, and all the people who looked at pictures, in very truth, saw beautiful pictures by the great, glorious Annibale. A group of dressmakers and ladies of quality in Paris wear jackets with tight sleeves, and every city-bred woman in France, England, and America sees the beauty of tight sleeves and the hideousness of loose sleeves.
Strictly speaking, everything is real and everything is ideal. The world is but an aggregate of opinions. The man who sees an ugly world is as pure an idealist as he who sees a glorious orb rising like the sun. The question for poor humanity is, Shall the earth shine or float dead and dull through eternity ? Every man who sees it golden helps to gild it; every man who sees it leaden adds to its dross.
Shall we look with Miranda?
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t ! ”
Or with Timon ?
Ducks to the golden fool: all is oblique ;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villany.”
The novelist is on the same standing-ground as another ; only he has the greater influence, and therefore the greater responsibility. This world and all which inherit it are a dream ; " why not make it a nobler dream than it is?”
Before this great act of creation, the petty details of the novelist’s craft — plot, story, arrangement, epigram, eloquence — drop off like last year’s leaves. These details will always find individuals to study them, to admire them, to be fond of them. They will have their reward, they add to the interest of life, they fill the vacant niches in the rich man’s time, they embroider and spangle. They quicken our wits, stimulate our lazy attentions, spice our daily food, help us to enjoy; but they must not divert our attention from the great interest of life, the struggle between rival powers for the possession of the world. It is a need common to us and to those who shall come after us, that the world suffer no detriment in our eyes. We must see what poets see ; one cannot help but dogmatize and say that it is base to believe the world base. We need faith; we cannot do without the power of noble expectation.
On comforts which this world postpones,
That idly looks on life and groans
And shuns the lessons love has taught;
Love, peace and joy become its due,
That timid wishes should come true
In some safe spot untouched by fears ?
As present chance to prove his heart,
As time to take the better part.
And stronger grow by constant strife ;
But sees the strong, the fresh, the true,
Old hearts, old homes forever new,
And all the world a glorious plaee ;
This earth a home both rich and fair,
That he is careless to be heir
To all inheritance behind ? ”
Henry D. Sedgwick, Jr.