Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Crary Brownell (1851–1928)
THACKERAY shares the reader’s interest with his works in a degree quite unexampled in literature. His works are, in a more obvious and special sense than is true of those of most authors, the direct expression of his personality; and this personality in turn is one of unusually special and conspicuous interest. He was a man of immense idiosyncratic attractiveness aside from his literary faculties and equipment, and he endued his writings with this personal interest to an extent not to be met with elsewhere. No books are so personal as his. They are full of his ideas, his notions, his feelings; and they owe to these not only their color and atmosphere, but a considerable portion of their substance. They not only tell the story, but draw the moral; and in a large way justify the title of “week-day preacher,” which he gave himself, and of which he was both fond and proud.  1
  This circumstance has been variously viewed by his readers and critics, according to their own inclinations towards art or towards morals,—their preferences for “objectivity” in the novelist’s attitude to, and treatment of, his theme, or for the cogent and illuminating commentary which draws out and sets forth in the telling the typical and universal interest and value of the story. Taine laments the consecration of such splendid artistic gifts as are witnessed by the exceptional ‘Henry Esmond’ to the service of morals. And on the other hand, Dr. John Brown both underestimates and undervalues the artistic element in Thackeray, and deems his “moralizing” his great and real distinction. The inference is, naturally, that Thackeray has a side which each of these temperaments may admire at its ease. But it is to be pointed out in addition that he has so fused the two—which ordinarily exist separately when they exist in any such distinction as they do in Thackeray—that each enhances and neither disparages the other. The characters of ‘Vanity Fair,’ ‘Pendennis,’ or ‘The Newcomes,’ and the story that is evolved out of their study rather than constructed for their framework, gain greatly in realization as well as in significance from the personal commentary by which they are expressed as well as attended. And the social and personal philosophy which springs from their consideration, and to which they give point, is powerfully enforced by the illustrative, exemplary, and suggestive service they perform. Both proceed from the instinctive exercise of Thackeray’s mind and temperament, and therefore coexist harmoniously in his works. Letters has never known such a combination in one personality of the artist and moralist, the satirist and poet; and the literature that is the expression of this unique personality is therefore not to be classed in the customary category of art or in that of morals, with its complementary qualities considered correspondingly as defects according to the category to which the work is ascribed. Hence, moreover, the unusual, the unique importance and convenience in any critical consideration of Thackeray’s works, of considering also the personality which not only penetrates but characterizes them.  2
  It has become quite superfluous at the present day to point out that he was very far from being the cynic he passed for with many readers during his lifetime. He is rather to be defended from the reproach of sentimentality. But excess in the matter of sentiment is something that different people will determine differently. Intellectual rectitude distinguished him conspicuously; but he was notably a man of heart, and exercised his great powers in the service of the affections. He may be said to have taken the sentimental view of things, if not to do so implies the dispassionate and detached attitude towards them. He was extremely sensitive, and chafed greatly under the frequent ascription of cynicism that he had to endure. He found the problem of reconciling a stoic philosophy and an epicurean temperament no easier and no harder, probably, than many others to whom it has been assigned; and his practice was, as usual, a succession of alternations of indulgence and restraint. But he hoodwinked himself no more than he was deceived by others; and if few men of his intellectual eminence—which is the one thing about him we can now perceive as he could hardly do himself—have been so open to his particular temptations, few men of his temperament, on the other hand, have steadfastly and industriously carved for themselves so splendid a career. He was at the same time the acutest of observers and eminently a man of the world. He was even in some sense a man about town. The society he depicted so vividly had marked attractions for him. He was equally at home in Bohemia and in Belgravia,—enough so in the latter to lead the literal to ascribe to him the snobbishness he made so large a portion of his subject. As he pointed out, however, no one is free from some touch of this, and denunciation of it is in peculiar peril from its contagion; and Thackeray had the courage of his tastes in valuing what is really valuable in the consideration which society bestows. On its good side this consideration is certainly to be prized by any one not a snob; for it means a verdict often more impartial and independent than that of any other tribunal. Society is a close corporation; and petty as are many of its standards, and vulgar as is much of its application of them, it has its ideal of the art of life: and what it really worships is real power,—power that is independent of talent, accomplishment, or worth, often, very likely; but power that, adventitious or other, is almost an automatic measure of an individual’s claims upon it. Really to contribute to the life of society implies a special, disinterested, and æsthetic talent like another; and Thackeray’s gift in this respect is properly to be associated with his literary and more largely human ones. At all events it aided him to handle his theme of “manners” with a competence denied to most writers, and helped to fuse in him the dual temperament of the artist and satirist with distinguished results.  3
  This combination of the artist and the satirist is the ideal one for the novelist; and Thackeray’s genius, varied as it is, is pre-eminently the genius of the born novelist. It is singular, but it is doubtless characteristic of a temperament destined to such complete maturity, that he should have waited so long before finding his true field of effort, and that he should not have begun the work upon which his fame rests until he had reached an age at which that of not a few men of genius has ended: he was thirty-six before his first great work was published. He was born July 18th, 1811, in Calcutta; and was sent home to England to school, upon his father’s death when he was five years old. From 1822 to 1828 he was at Charterhouse School,—the famous “Grey Friars” of ‘The Newcomes.’ He spent two years at Cambridge, leaving without a degree to travel abroad, where he visited the great European capitals, and saw Goethe at Weimar. He traveled in the real sense, and used perceptive faculties such as are given to few observers, to the notable ends subsequently witnessed in his books. He was from the first always of the world as well as in it, and understood it with as quick sympathy in one place as in another. At Weimar he meditated translating Schiller; but—no doubt happily—nothing came of the rather desultory design. In 1831 he went into chambers in the Temple; but not taking kindly to law, and losing a small inherited fortune, he followed his native bent, which led him into journalism, literature, and incidentally into art. He began his serious literary work as a contributor to Fraser’s Magazine in 1835, after some slight preliminary experience; and thenceforth wrote literary miscellany of extraordinary variety—stories, reviews, art criticisms, foreign correspondence, burlesques, ballads—for all sorts of periodicals.  4
  In 1836 he made an effort to obtain work as an illustrator, but without success,—one of his failures being with Dickens, whose refusal was certainly justified. In 1838 he illustrated Jerrold’s ‘Men of Character’; but in the main he was forced to content himself with his own works in this respect, and most of these he did illustrate. Pictorial art was clearly not his vocation. His drawings have plenty of character; and it is not unfortunate, perhaps, that we have his pictorial presentment rather than another’s, of so many of his personages. But he not only lacked the skill that comes of training,—he had no real gift for representation, and for the plastic expression of beauty he had no faculty; the element of caricature is prominent in all his designs. He did them with great delight and ease, whereas literary work was always drudgery to him; but of course this is the converse of witness to their merit.  5
  His poetry, which he wrote at intervals, and desultorily throughout his career, is on a decidedly higher plane. It is of the kind that is accurately called “verses,” but it is as plainly his own as his prose; and some of it will always be read, probably, for its feeling and its felicity. It is the verse mainly but not merely of the improvisatore. It never oversteps the modesty becoming the native gift that expresses itself in it. Most of it could not have been as well said in prose; and its title is clear enough, however unpretentious. Metrically and in substance the ‘Ballads’ are excellent balladry. They never rise to Scott’s level of heroic bravura, and though the contemplative ones are deeper in feeling than any of Scott’s, they are poetically more summary and have less sweep; one hardly thinks of the pinions of song at all in connection with them. Prose was distinctly Thackeray’s medium more exclusively than it was Scott’s. But compare the best of the ‘Ballads’ with Macaulay’s ‘Lays,’ to note the difference in both quality and execution between the verse of a writer with a clear poetic strain in his temperament, and that of a pure rhetorician whose numbers make one wince. ‘The White Squall’ is a tour de force of rhyme and rhythm, the ‘Ballad of Bouillabaisse’ has a place in every reader’s affections, ‘Mr. Moloney’s Account of the Ball’ is a perpetual delight, even ‘The Crystal Palace’ is not merely clever; and ‘The Pen and the Album’ and notably the ‘Vanitas Vanitatum’ verses have an elevation that is both solemn and moving,—a sustained note of genuine lyric inspiration chanting gravely the burden of all the poet’s prose.  6
  He joined the staff of Punch almost immediately upon its establishment, and was long one of its strongest contributors. The following year, 1843, he went to Ireland, and published his ‘Irish Sketch-Book.’ In 1844 he made the Eastern journey chronicled in ‘From Cornhill to Grand Cairo,’ and published ‘Barry Lyndon’ in Fraser. In 1846 ‘The Book of Snobs’ appeared; and the next year ‘Vanity Fair,’ which made him famous and the fashion. ‘Pendennis’ followed in 1848–49. Next came ‘The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century’ (1851), delivered with great success to the exacting London world of society and letters; ‘Henry Esmond,’ and his first trip to America (1852), where he repeated the lectures, and where he was greeted universally with a friendliness he thoroughly returned; ‘The Newcomes’ (1853–5); his second American trip (1855), when he first read his lectures on ‘The Four Georges’; ‘The Virginians’ (1857–9); the establishment of the Cornhill Magazine with Thackeray as editor (1860), and the publication in its pages during his last three years of the ‘Roundabout Papers,’ ‘Lovel the Widower,’ ‘Philip,’ and the beginning of the unfinished ‘Denis Duval.’ In 1857 he had contested a seat in Parliament for Oxford in the Liberal interest, but had been defeated by a vote of 1018 to 1085 for his opponent. His health had been far from good for some years; and during the night of December 23d, 1863, he died in his sleep.  7
  Loosely speaking, his work may be said to be divided into two classes, miscellany and novels, by the climacteric date of his career—January 1847—when the first number of ‘Vanity Fair’ appeared. No writer whose fame rests, as Thackeray’s larger fame does, on notable works of fiction, has written miscellaneous literature of the quality of his. Taken in connection with the novels, it ranks him as the representative English man of letters of his time. There is extraordinarily little “copy” in it. It is the lighter work of a man born for greater things, and having therefore in its quality something superior to its genre. In the first place, it has the style which in its maturity led Carlyle to say, “Nobody in our day wrote, I should say, with such perfection of style;” and as Thackeray observes of Gibbon’s praise of Fielding, “there can be no gainsaying the sentence of this great judge” in such a matter. It has too his qualities of substance, which were to reach their full development later. ‘The Great Hoggarty Diamond’ is rather small-beer, but it communicates that sense of reality which is to be sought for in vain among its contemporaries: compare the consummate Brough in this respect with one of Dickens’s ideal hypocrites. The ‘Sketch-Books’ will always be good reading. ‘The Book of Snobs’ enlarged the confines of literature by the discovery and exploration of a new domain. ‘Barry Lyndon’ is a masterpiece of irony comparable with Swift and ‘Jonathan Wild’ alone, and to be ranked rather among the novels. Such burlesques as ‘Rebecca and Rowena’ and the ‘Novels by Eminent Hands’ of Punch, the various essays in polite literature of Mr. Yellowplush, the delightful extravagance ‘The Rose and the Ring,’ the admirable account of ‘Mrs. Perkins’s Ball,’ and many other trifles which it is needless even to catalogue here, illustrate in common a quality of wit, of unexpectedness, of charm, as conspicuous as their remarkable variety. And as to the later ‘Lectures’ on the Queen Anne humorists and the Georges, and the inimitable ‘Roundabout Papers,’ nothing of the kind has ever been done on quite the same plane.  8
  It is, however, to the elaborate and exquisitely commented picture of life which the novels present, that Thackeray owes his fellowship with the very greatest figures of literature outside the realm of poetry. The four most important.—‘Vanity Fair,’ ‘Pendennis,’ ‘Henry Esmond,’ and ‘The Newcomes,’—especially, enable him to take his place among these with the ease of equality. ‘Vanity Fair’ perhaps expresses his genius in its freest spontaneity. Thackeray himself spoke of it—to Dr. Merriman—as his greatest work. And though he declared ‘Henry Esmond’—which, as the dedicator states, “copies the manners and language of Queen Anne’s time”—“the very best that I can do,” the two remarks are not inconsistent: they aptly distinguish between his most original substance and his most perfect form. ‘Pendennis’ and ‘The Newcomes’ are social pictures on a larger scale, of less dramatic and more epic interest. ‘The Virginians’ is only less important; but it loses something of the relief which the remoteness of its epoch gives ‘Henry Esmond,’ and something of the actuality that its other predecessors owe to their modernness. ‘Lovel the Widower’ is an admitted failure, largely though not splendidly redeemed by ‘Philip’ which followed it. But the beginnings of ‘Denis Duval’ are enough to show that the level of ‘The Virginians,’ at least, might have been reached again; and make the writer’s death at fifty-two indisputably and grievously premature.  9
  Charlotte Brontë, who dedicated the second edition of ‘Jane Eyre’ to Thackeray, maintaining that “No commentator upon his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent,” spoke of him as “the first social regenerator of the day.” She had herself, however, correctly divined his talent: it was at once social and moral. She objected to his association with Fielding, whom she declared he resembled “as an eagle does a vulture,” and charged Fielding with having “stooped on carrion.” Fielding was undoubtedly his model. He regretted that he had not read him more in early years. And Fielding is undoubtedly a writer of both social and moral quality. But his moral range is narrow, and there is a grave lack in his equipment considered as that of a great writer,—he lacks spirituality altogether. And spirituality is a quality that Thackeray possessed in a distinguished degree. It is his spirituality that Charlotte Brontë really had in mind in contrasting him in her trenchant, passionate way with his predecessor. The difference is fundamental. It is far deeper than mere choice of material. Thackeray himself says regretfully, in the preface to ‘Pendennis’: “Since the author of ‘Tom Jones’ was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a man. We must drape him, and give him a certain conventional simper.” He would have liked, clearly, a wider range and a freer hand; and Charlotte Brontë would have been less pleased with him had he enjoyed them. But he would never have “sunk with his subject,” because his imagination had so strong a spiritual side.  10
  On the other hand, what distinguishes him from such a novelist as George Eliot is the preoccupation of his imagination with the heart rather than the mind. Instinctively his critics agree in characterizing his dominant faculty as “insight into the human heart.” There is no question anywhere as to the depth and keenness of this insight in him, at all events,—however one regards the frequent statement that it was deeper and keener than that of any other writer, “Shakespeare and Balzac perhaps excepted.” The exception of Shakespeare is surely as sound as it is mechanical. That of Balzac may be disputed. Balzac’s insight proceeds from his curiosity, that of Thackeray from his sympathy. If always as keen, Balzac’s is never quite as deep. It is perhaps wider. Curiosity in the artist means an unlimited interest in men and things; which it regards as all, and more or less equally, material. Sympathy necessarily selects—sympathy, or even antipathy if one chooses; but in selecting it concentrates. “La Comédie Humaine’ is a wonderful structure. It parallels the existing world, one may almost say. The psychologist, the sociologist, the specialist of nearly any description, may study it with zest and ponder it profitably. It is a marvelously elaborate framework filled in with an astonishing variety of both types and individuals. One may seek in it not vainly for an analogue of almost anything actual. But though less multifarious, Thackeray’s world is far more real. His figures are far more alive. Their inner springs are divined, not studied. They make the story themselves, not merely appear in it. We have no charts of their minds and qualities, but we know them as we know our friends and neighbors.  11
  This sense of reality and vitality, in which the personages of Thackeray excel those of any other prose fiction, proceeds from that unusual association in the author’s own personality of the spiritual and sentimental qualities with great intellectual powers—to which I have already referred. For character—the subject par excellence of the great writers of fiction as distinguished from the pure romanticists—depends upon the heart. It is comparatively independent of psychology. For a period so given over to science as our own, so imbued with the scientific spirit, and so concentrated upon the scientific side of even spiritual things, psychological fiction—such as George Eliot’s—inevitably possesses a special, an almost esoteric, interest. But it is nevertheless true that the elemental, the temperamental, the vital idiosyncrasies of character depend less directly upon mental than upon moral qualities. Men are what they are through their feeling, not through their thinking—except in so far as their thinking modifies their feeling. At the same time it is to be borne in mind that Thackeray does not neglect the mental constitution of his characters. It cannot be said of his Rebecca, for example, as Turgenev is said to have observed of Zola’s Gervaise Coupeau, that “he tells us how she feels, never what she thinks.” We have a complete enough picture of what is going on in her exceedingly active mind; only in the main we infer this indirectly from what she does, as we do in the case of Shakespeare’s characters, rather than from an express scrutiny of her mental mechanism. Her human and social side is uppermost in her creator’s presentation of her, though she is plainly idiosyncratic enough to reward the study and even the speculation of the most insistent psychologist.  12
  Mr. Henry James acutely observes of Hawthorne’s characters, that with the partial exception of Donatello in the ‘Marble Faun,’ there are no types among them. And it is assuredly for this reason that they appear to us so entirely the creations of Hawthorne’s fancy, so much a part of the insubstantial witchery of his genius, that they seem as individuals so unreal. Thackeray, on the other hand, has been reproached with creating nothing but types. But the truth is that a character of fiction, in order to make the impression of individuality, must be presented as a type. It is through its typical qualities that it attains a definition which is neither insubstantial like that of Hawthorne’s personages, nor a caricature like that of so many of Dickens’s. Its typical qualities are those that persuade us of its truth, and create the convincing illusion of its reality. A type in fiction is a type in the sense in which the French use the term in speaking of a real person,—a synthesis of representative traits, more accentuated than the same characteristics as they are to be found in general; a person, that is to say, of particularly salient individuality. Only in this way do real persons who are not also eccentric persons leave a striking and definite impression on us; and only in this way do we measure that correspondence of fictitious to real character which determines the reality of the former.  13
  Of course in thus eschewing psychology and dealing mainly with types,—in occupying himself with those elemental traits of character that depend upon the heart rather than the mind,—a realist like Thackeray renounces a field so large and interesting as justly to have his neglect of it accounted to him as a limitation. And Thackeray still further narrows his field by confining himself in the main to character not merely in its elemental traits, but in its morally significant ones as well. The colorless characters, such as Tom Tulliver for a single example, in which George Eliot is so strong, the irresponsible ones, such as Dickens’s Winkles and Swivellers, have few fellows in his fiction, from which the seriousness of his satiric strain excludes whatever is not significant as well as whatever is purely particular. The loss is very great, considering his world as a comédie humaine. It involves more than the elimination of psychology,—it diminishes the number of types; and all types are interesting, whether morally important or not. But in Thackeray’s case it has two great compensations. In the first place, the greater concentration it involves notably defines and emphasizes the net impression of his works. It unifies their effect; and sharply crystallizes the message to mankind, which, like every great writer in whatever branch of literature he may cultivate, it was the main business, the aim and crown and apology of his life, to deliver. There is no missing the tenor of his gospel, which is that character is the one thing of importance in life; that it is tremendously complex, and the easiest thing in the world to misconceive both in ourselves and in others; that truth is the one instrument of its perfecting, and the one subject worthy of pursuit; and that the study of truth discloses littlenesses and futilities in it at its best for which the only cloak is charity, and the only consolation and atonement the cultivation of the affections.  14
  In the second place, it is his concentration upon the morally significant that places him at the head of the novelists of manners. It is the moral and social qualities, of course, that unite men in society, and make it something other than the sum of the individuals composing it. Far more deeply than Balzac, Thackeray felt the relations between men that depend upon these qualities; and consequently his social picture is, if less comprehensive and varied, far more vivid and real. It is painted directly, and lacks the elaborate structural machinery which makes Balzac’s seem mechanical in composition and artificial in spirit. Thackeray’s personages are never portrayed in isolation. They are a part of the milieu in which they exist, and which has itself therefore much more distinction and relief than an environment which is merely a framework. How they regard each other, how they feel toward and what they think of each other, the mutuality of their very numerous and vital relations, furnishes an important strand in the texture of the story in which they figure. Their activities are modified by the air they breathe in common. Their conduct is controlled, their ideas affected, even their desires and ambitions dictated, by the general ideals of the society that includes them. In a more extended sense than Lady Kew intended in reminding Ethel Newcome of the fact, they “belong to their belongings.” So far as it goes, therefore,—and it would be easy to exaggerate its limitations, which are trivial in comparison,—Thackeray’s picture of society is the most vivid, as it is incontestably the most real, in prose fiction. The temperament of the artist and satirist combined, the preoccupation with the moral element in character,—and in logical sequence, with its human and social side,—lead naturally to the next step of viewing man in his relations, and the construction of a miniature world. And in addition to the high place in literature won for him by his insight into the human heart, Thackeray’s social picture has given him a distinction that is perhaps unique. In virtue of it, at any rate, the writer who passed his life in rivalry with Dickens and Bulwer and Trollope and Lever, belongs with Shakespeare and Molière.  15

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