William Makepeace Thackeray. (18111863). Vanity Fair.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations I. By James Hannay
WHEN Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair, in 184678, he was living in Young Street, Kensington, a street on your left hand before you come to the church; and here, in 1848, the author of this sketch had first the pleasure of seeing him, of being received at his table, and of knowing how essentially a kind, humane, and perfectly honest man he was. Vanity Fair, was then unfinished, but its success was made and he spoke frankly and generally of his work and his career. Vanity Fair, always, we think, ranked in his own mind as best in story of his greater books; and he once pointed out to us the very house in Russell Square where his imaginary Sedleys liveda curious proof of the reality his creations had for his mind. The man and the books were equally real and true; and it was natural that he should speak without hesitation of his books, if you wished it; though as a man of the world and a polished gentleman who knew the world thoroughly, literature to him only took its turn among other topics. From this point of view, his relation to it was a good deal like that of Scott. According to Lockhart, people were wrong in saying that Sir Walter declined at all markedly to talk about literature, and yet his main interest was in active life. Just so, Thackeray was not bookish, and yet turned readily to the subject of books if invited. His reading was undoubtedly large in memoirs, modern history, biography, poetry, essays, and fictionand, taken in conjunction with his scholarship, probably placed him, as a man of letters, above any other novelist except Sir Bulwer Lytton. Here is a characteristic fragment from one of his letters, written in August, 1854, and now before us: I hate Juvenal, he says; I mean I think him a truculent brute, and I love Horace better than you do, and rate Churchill much lower; and as for Swift, you havent made me alter my opinion. I admire, or rather admit, his power as much as you do; but I dont admire that kind of power so much as I did fifteen years ago, or twenty shall we say. Love is a higher intellectual exercise than Hatred: and when you get one or two more of those young ones you write so pleasantly about, youll come over to the side of the kind wags, I think, rather than the cruel ones. Passages like this, which men who knew him will not need to have quoted to them, have a double value for the world at large. They not only show a familiar command of writers whom it is by no means easy to know well, but they show what the real philosophy was of a man whom the envious represented to the ignorant as a cynic and a scoffer. Why, his favorite authors were just those whose influence he thought had been beneficial to the cause of virtue and charity. I take off my hat to Joseph Addison, he would say, after an energetic testimony to his good effect on English life. He was, in fact, even greater as a moralist than as a mere describer of manners; and his very hatred of quackery and meanness was proved to be real by his simplicity, humanity, and kindliness of character. In private, this great satirist, whose aspect in a crowd was often one of austere politeness and reserve, unbent into a familiar naiveté which somehow one seldom finds in the demonstratively genial. And this was the more charming and precious that it rested on a basis of severe and profound reflection, before the glance of which all that was dark and serious in mans life and prospects lay open. The gravity of that white head, with its noble brow, and thoughtful face full of feeling and meaning, enhanced the piquancy of his playfulness, and of the little personal revelations which came with such a grace from the depths of his kindly nature. When we congratulated him, many years ago, on the touch in Vanity Fair in which Becky admires her husband when he is giving Lord Steyne the chastisement which ruins her for life, Well, he said, when I wrote the sentence I slapped my fist on the table, and said that is a touch of genius! The incident is a trifle, but it will reveal, we suspect, an element of fervor, as well as a heartiness of frankness in recording the fervor, both equally at variance with the vulgar conception of him.From A Brief Memoir of the late Mr. Thackeray (1864).