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Thackeray

"I thought how some people's towering intellects and splendid cultivated geniuses rise upon simple, beautiful foundations hidden out of sight." Thus, in his Letters to Mrs. Brookfield, Mr. Thackeray wrote, after visiting the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, with its "charming, harmonious, powerful combination of arches and shafts, beautiful whichever way you see them developed, like a fine music." The simile applies to his own character and genius, to his own and perhaps to that of most great authors, whose works are our pleasure and comfort in this troublesome world. There are critics who profess a desire to hear nothing, or as little as may be, of the lives of great artists, whether their instrument of art was the pen, or the brush, or the chisel, or the strings and reeds of music. With those critics perhaps most of us agree, when we read books that gossip about Shelley, or Coleridge, or Byron. "Give us their poetry," we say, "and leave their characters alone: we do not want tattle about Claire and chatter about Harriet; we want to be happy with 'The Skylark' or 'The Cloud.'" Possibly this instinct is correct, where such a poet as Shelley is concerned, whose life, like his poetry, was as "the life of winds and tides," whose genius, unlike the skylark's, was more true to the point of heaven than the point of home. But reflection shows us that on the whole, as Mr. Thackeray says, a man's genius must be builded on the foundations of his character. Where that genius deals with the mingled stuff of human life--sorrow, desire, love, hatred, kindness, meanness--then the foundation of character is especially important. People are sometimes glad that we know so little of Shakespeare the man; yet who can doubt that a true revelation of his character would be not less worthy, noble and charming than the general effect of his poems? In him, it is certain, we should always find an example of nobility, of generosity, of charity and kindness and self- forgetfulness. Indeed, we find these qualities, as a rule, in the biographies of the great sympathetic poets and men of genius of the pen--I do not say in the lives of rebels of genius, "meteoric poets" like Byron. The same basis, the same foundations of rectitude, of honour, of goodness, of melancholy, and of mirth, underlie the art of Moliere, of Scott, of Fielding, and as his correspondence shows, of Thackeray.

It seems probable that a complete biography of Thackeray will never be written. It was his wish to live in his works alone: that wish his descendants respect; and we must probably regard the Letters to Mr. and Mrs. Brookfield as the last private and authentic record of the man which will be given, at least to this generation. In these Letters all sympathetic readers will find the man they have long known from his writings--the man with a heart so tender that the world often drove him back into a bitterness of opposition, into an assumed hardness and defensive cynicism. There are readers so unluckily constituted that they can see nothing in Thackeray but this bitterness, this cruel sense of meanness and power of analysing shabby emotions, sneaking vanities, contemptible ambitions. All of us must often feel with regret that he allowed himself to be made too unhappy by the spectacle of failings so common in the world he knew best, that he dwelt on them too long and lashed them too complacently. One hopes never to read "Lovel the Widower" again, and one gladly skips some of the speeches of the Old Campaigner in "The Newcomes." They are terrible, but not more terrible than life. Yet it is hard to understand how Mr. Ruskin, for example, can let such scenes and characters hide from his view the kindness, gentleness, and pity of Thackeray's nature. The Letters must open all eyes that are not wilfully closed, and should at last overcome every prejudice.

In the Letters we see a man literally hungering and thirsting after affection, after love--a man cut off by a cruel stroke of fate from his natural solace, from the centre of a home.


"God took from me a lady dear,"


he says, in the most touching medley of doggerel and poetry, made "instead of writing my Punch this morning." Losing "a lady dear," he takes refuge as he may, he finds comfort as he can, in all the affections within his reach, in the society of an old college friend and of his wife, in the love of all children, beginning with his own; in a generous liking for all good work and for all good fellows.

Did any man of letters except Scott ever write of his rivals as Thackeray wrote of Dickens? Artists are a jealous race. "Potter hates potter, and poet hates poet," as Hesiod said so long ago. This jealousy is not mere envy, it is really a strong sense of how things ought to be done, in any art, touched with a natural preference for a man's own way of doing them. Now, what could be more unlike than the "ways" of Dickens and Thackeray? The subjects chosen by these great authors are not more diverse than their styles. Thackeray writes like a scholar, not in the narrow sense, but rather as a student and a master of all the refinements and resources of language. Dickens copies the chaff of the street, or he roams into melodramatics, "drops into poetry"--blank verse at least--and touches all with peculiarities, we might say mannerisms, of his own. I have often thought, and even tried to act on the thought, that some amusing imaginary letters might be written, from characters of Dickens about characters of Thackeray, from characters of Thackeray about characters of Dickens. They might be supposed to meet each other in society, and describe each other. Can you not fancy Captain Costigan on Dick Swiveller, Blanche Amory on Agnes, Pen on David Copperfield, and that "tiger" Steerforth? What would the family solicitor of "The Newcomes" have to say of Mr. Tulkinghorn? How would George Warrington appreciate Mr. Pickwick? Yes, the two great novelists were as opposed as two men could be--in manner, in style, in knowledge of books, and of the world. And yet how admirably Thackeray writes about Dickens, in his letters as in his books! How he delights in him! How manly is that emulation which enables an author to see all the points in his rival, and not to carp at them, but to praise, and be stimulated to keener effort!

Consider this passage. "Have you read Dickens? O! it is charming! Brave Dickens! It has some of his very prettiest touches--those inimitable Dickens touches which make such a great man of him, and the reading of the book has done another author a great deal of good."

Thackeray is just as generous, and perhaps more critical, in writing of Kingsley. "A fine, honest, go-a-head fellow, who charges a subject heartily, impetuously, with the greatest courage and simplicity; but with narrow eyes (his are extraordinarily brave, blue and honest), and with little knowledge of the world, I think. But he is superior to us worldlings in many ways, and I wish I had some of his honest pluck."

I have often wished that great authors, when their days of creation were over, when "their minds grow grey and bald," would condescend to tell us the history of their books. Sir Walter Scott did something of this kind in the prefaces to the last edition of the Waverley Novels published during his life. What can be more interesting than his account, in the introduction to the "Fortunes of Nigel," of how he worked, how he planned, and found all his plots and plans overridden by the demon at the end of his pen! But Sir Walter was failing when he began those literary confessions; good as they are, he came to them too late. Yet these are not confessions which an author can make early. The pagan Aztecs only confessed once in a lifetime--in old age, when they had fewer temptations to fall to their old loves: then they made a clean breast of it once for all. So it might be with an author. While he is in his creative vigour, we want to hear about his fancied persons, about Pendennis, Beatrix, Becky, not about himself, and how he invented them. But when he has passed his best, then it is he who becomes of interest; it is about himself that we wish him to speak, as far as he modestly may. Who would not give "Lovel the Widower" and "Philip" for some autobiographical and literary prefaces to the older novels? They need not have been more egotistic than the "Roundabout Papers." They would have had far more charm. Some things cannot be confessed. We do not ask who was the original Sir Pitt Crawley, or the original Blanche Amory. But we might learn in what mood, in what circumstances the author wrote this passage or that.

The Letters contain a few notes of this kind, a few literary confessions. We hear that Emmy Sedley was partly suggested by Mrs. Brookfield, partly by Thackeray's mother, much by his own wife. There scarce seems room for so many elements in Emmy's personality. For some reason ladies love her not, nor do men adore her. I have been her faithful knight ever since I was ten years old and read "Vanity Fair" somewhat stealthily. Why does one like her except because she is such a thorough woman? She is not clever, she is not very beautiful, she is unhappy, and she can be jealous. One pities her, and that is akin to a more tender sentiment; one pities her while she sits in the corner, and Becky's green eyes flatter her oaf of a husband; one pities her in the poverty of her father's house, in the famous battle over Daffy's Elixir, in the separation from the younger George. You begin to wish some great joy to come to her: it does not come unalloyed; you know that Dobbin had bad quarters of an hour with this lady, and had to disguise a little of his tenderness for his own daughter. Yes, Emmy is more complex than she seems, and perhaps it needed three ladies to contribute the various elements of her person and her character. One of them, the jealous one, lent a touch to Helen Pendennis, to Laura, to Lady Castlewood. Probably this may be the reason why some persons dislike Thackeray so. His very best women are not angels. {3} Are the very best women angels? It is a pious opinion--that borders on heresy.

When the Letters began to be written, in 1847, Thackeray had his worst years, in a worldly sense, behind him. They were past: the times when he wrote in Galignani for ten francs a day. Has any literary ghoul disinterred his old ten-franc articles in Galignani? The time of "Barry Lyndon," too, was over. He says nothing of that masterpiece, and only a word about "The Great Hoggarty Diamond." "I have been re-reading it. Upon my word and honour, if it doesn't make you cry, I shall have a mean opinion of you. It was written at a time of great affliction, when my heart was very soft and humble. Amen. Ich habe auch viel geliebt." Of "Pendennis," as it goes on, he writes that it is "awfully stupid," which has not been the verdict of the ages. He picks up materials as he passes. He dines with some officers, and perhaps he stations them at Chatteris. He meets Miss G-, and her converse suggests a love passage between Pen and Blanche. Why did he dislike fair women so? It runs all through his novels. Becky is fair. Blanche is fair. Outside the old yellow covers of "Pendennis," you see the blonde mermaid, "amusing, and clever, and depraved," dragging the lover to the sea, and the nut-brown maid holding him back. Angelina, of the "Rose and the Ring," is the Becky of childhood; she is fair, and the good Rosalba is brune. In writing "Pendennis" he had a singular experience. He looked over his own "back numbers," and found "a passage which I had utterly forgotten as if I had never read or written it." In Lockhart's "Life of Scott," James Ballantyne says that "when the 'Bride of Lammermoor' was first put into his hands in a complete shape, he did not recollect one single incident, character, or conversation it contained." That is to say, he remembered nothing of his own invention, though his memory of the traditional parts was as clear as ever. Ballantyne remarks, "The history of the human mind contains nothing more wonderful." The experience of Thackeray is a parallel to that of Scott. "Pendennis," it must be noted, was interrupted by a severe illness, and "The Bride of Lammermoor" was dictated by Sir Walter when in great physical pain. On one occasion Thackeray "lit upon a very stupid part of 'Pendennis,' I am sorry to say; and yet how well written it is! What a shame the author don't write a complete good story! Will he die before doing so? or come back from America and do it?"

Did he ever write "a complete, good story"? Did any one ever do such a thing as write a three-volume, novel, or a novel of equal length, which was "a complete, good story"? Probably not; or if any mortal ever succeeded in the task, it was the great Alexander Dumas. "The Three Musketeers," I take leave to think, and "Twenty Years After," are complete good stories, good from beginning to end, stories from beginning to end without a break, without needless episode. Perhaps one may say as much for "Old Mortality," and for "Quentin Durward." But Scott and Dumas were born story-tellers; narrative was the essence of their genius at its best; the current of romance rolls fleetly on, bearing with it persons and events, mirroring scenes, but never ceasing to be the main thing--the central interest. Perhaps narrative like this is the chief success of the novelist. He is triumphant when he carries us on, as Wolf, the famous critic, was carried on by the tide of the Iliad, "in that pure and rapid current of action." Nobody would claim this especial merit for Thackeray. He is one of the greatest of novelists; he displays human nature and human conduct so that we forget ourselves in his persons, but he does not make us forget ourselves in their fortunes. Whether Clive does or does not marry Ethel, or Esmond, Beatrix, does not very greatly excite our curiosity. We cannot ring the bells for Clive's second wedding as the villagers celebrated the bridal of Pamela. It is the development of character, it is the author's comments, it is his own personality and his unmatched and inimitable style, that win our admiration and affection. We can take up "Vanity Fair," or "Pendennis," or "The Newcomes," just where the book opens by chance, and read them with delight, as we may read Montaigne. When one says one can take up a book anywhere, it generally means that one can also lay it down anywhere. But it is not so with Thackeray. Whenever we meet him he holds us with his charm, his humour, his eloquence, his tenderness. If he has not, in the highest degree, the narrative power, he does possess, in a degree perhaps beyond any other writer of English, that kind of poetic quality which is not incompatible with prose writing.

A great deal has been said about prose poetry. As a rule, it is very poor stuff. As prose it has a tendency to run into blank verse; as poetry it is highly rhetorical and self-conscious. It would be invidious and might be irritating to select examples from modern masters of prose-poetry. They have never been poets. But the prose of a poet like Milton may be, and is, poetical in the true sense; and so, upon occasions, was the prose of Thackeray. Some examples linger always in the memory, and dwell with their music in the hearing. One I have quoted elsewhere; the passage in "The Newcomes" where Clive, at the lecture on the Poetry of the Domestic Affections, given by Sir Barnes Newcome, sees Ethel, whom he has lost.

"And the past, and its dear histories, and youth and its hopes and passions, and tones and looks, for ever echoing in the heart and present in the memory--those, no doubt, poor Clive saw and heard as he looked across the great gulf of time and parting and grief, and beheld the woman he had loved for many years." "The great gulf of time, and parting, and grief,"--some of us are on the farther side of it, and our old selves, and our old happiness, and our old affections beyond, grow near, grow clear, now and then, at the sight of a face met by chance in the world, at the chance sound of a voice. Such are human fortunes, and human sorrows; not the worst, not the greatest, for these old loves do not die--they live in exile, and are the better parts of our souls. Not the greatest, nor the worst of sorrows, for shame is worse, and hopeless hunger, and a life all of barren toil without distractions, without joy, must be far worse. But of those myriad tragedies of the life of the poor, Thackeray does not write. How far he was aware of them, how deeply he felt them, we are not informed. His highest tragedy is that of the hunger of the heart; his most noble prose sounds in that meeting of Harry Esmond with Lady Castlewood, in the immortal speech which has the burden, "bringing your sheaves with you!" All that scene appears to me no less unique, no less unsurpassable, no less perfect, than the "Ode to the Nightingale" of Keats, or the Lycidas of Milton. It were superfluous to linger over the humour of Thackeray. Only Shakespeare and Dickens have graced the language with so many happy memories of queer, pleasant people, with so many quaint phrases, each of which has a kind of freemasonry, and when uttered, or recalled, makes all friends of Thackeray into family friends of each other. The sayings of Mr. Harry Foker, of Captain Costigan, of Gumbo, are all like old dear family phrases, they live imperishable and always new, like the words of Sir John, the fat knight, or of Sancho Panza, or of Dick Swiveller, or that other Sancho, Sam Weller. They have that Shakespearian gift of being ever appropriate, and undyingly fresh.

These are among the graces of Thackeray, these and that inimitable style, which always tempts and always baffles the admiring and despairing copyist. Where did he find the trick of it, of the words which are invariably the best words, and invariably fall exactly in the best places? "The best words in the best places," is part of Coleridge's definition of poetry; it is also the essence of Thackeray's prose. In these Letters to Mrs. Brookfield the style is precisely the style of the novels and essays. The style, with Thackeray, was the man. He could not write otherwise. But probably, to the last, this perfection was not mechanical, was not attained without labour and care. In Dr. John Brown's works, in his essay on Thackeray, there is an example of a proof-sheet on which the master has made corrections, and those corrections bring the passage up to his accustomed level, to the originality of his rhythm. Here is the piece:--


"Another Finis, another slice of life which Tempus edax has devoured! And I may have to write the word once or twice, perhaps, and then an end of Ends. [Finite is ever and Infinite beginning.] Oh, the troubles, the cares, the ennui, [the complications,] the repetitions, the old conversations over and over again, and here and there all the delightful passages, the dear, the brief, the forever- remembered!

"[And then] A few chapters more, and then the last, and behold Finis itself coming to an end, and the Infinite beginning."


"How like music this," writes Dr. John Brown--"like one trying the same air in different ways, as it were, searching out and sounding all its depths!" The words were almost the last that Thackeray wrote, perhaps the very last. They reply, as it were, to other words which he had written long before to Mrs. Brookfield.

"I don't pity anybody who leaves the world; not even a fair young girl in her prime; I pity those remaining. On her journey, if it pleases God to send her, depend on it there's no cause for grief, that's but an earthly condition. Out of our stormy life, and brought nearer the Divine light and warmth, there must be a serene climate. Can't you fancy sailing into the calm?"

Ah! nowhere else shall we find the Golden Bride, "passionless bride, divine Tranquillity."

As human nature persistently demands a moral, and, as, to say truth, Thackeray was constantly meeting the demand, what is the lesson of his life and his writings? So people may ask, and yet how futile is the answer! Life has a different meaning, a different riddle, a different reply for each of us. There is not one sphinx, but many sphinxes--as many as there are women and men. We must all answer for ourselves. Pascal has one answer, "Believe!" Moliere has another, "Observe!" Thackeray's answer is, "Be good and enjoy!" but a melancholy enjoyment was his. Dr. John Brown says:

"His persistent state, especially for the later half of his life, was profoundly morne, there is no other word for it. This arose in part from temperament, from a quick sense of the littleness and wretchedness of mankind . . . This feeling, acting on a harsh and savage nature, ended in the saeva indignatio of Swift; acting on the kindly and sensitive nature of Mr. Thackeray, it led only to compassionate sadness."

A great part of his life, and most of his happiness, lay in love. "Ich habe auch viel geliebt," he says, and it is a hazardous kind of happiness that attends great affection. Your capital is always at the mercy of failures, of death, of jealousy, of estrangement. But he had so much love to give that he could not but trust those perilous investments.

Other troubles he had that may have been diversions from those. He did not always keep that manly common sense in regard to criticism, which he shows in a letter to Mrs. Brookfield. "Did you read the Spectator's sarcastic notice of 'Vanity Fair'? I don't think it is just, but think Kintoul (Rintoul?) is a very honest man, and rather inclined to deal severely with his private friends lest he should fall into the other extreme: to be sure he keeps out of it, I mean the other extreme, very well."

That is the way to take unfavourable criticisms--not to go declaring that a man is your enemy because he does not like your book, your ballads, your idyls, your sermons, what you please. Why cannot people keep literature and liking apart? Am I bound to think Jones a bad citizen, a bad man, a bad householder, because his poetry leaves me cold? Need he regard me as a malevolent green-eyed monster, because I don't want to read him? Thackeray was not always true in his later years to these excellent principles. He was troubled about trifles of criticisms and gossip, bagatelles not worth noticing, still less worth remembering and recording. Do not let us record them, then.

We cannot expect for Thackeray, we cannot even desire for him, a popularity like that of Dickens. If ever any man wrote for the people, it was Dickens. Where can we find such a benefactor, and who has lightened so many lives with such merriment as he? But Thackeray wrote, like the mass of authors, for the literary class-- for all who have the sense of style, the delight in the best language. He will endure while English literature endures, while English civilisation lasts. We cannot expect all the world to share our affection for this humourist whose mirth springs from his melancholy. His religion, his education, his life in this unsatisfying world, are not the life, the education, the religion of the great majority of human kind. He cannot reach so many ears and hearts as Shakespeare or Dickens, and some of those whom he reaches will always and inevitably misjudge him. Mais c'est mon homme, one may say, as La Fontaine said of Moliere. Of modern writers, putting Scott aside, he is to me the most friendly and sympathetic. Great genius as he was, he was also a penman, a journalist; and journalists and penmen will always look to him as their big brother, the man in their own line of whom they are proudest. As devout Catholics did not always worship the greatest saints, but the friendliest saints, their own, so we scribes burn our cheap incense to St. William Makepeace. He could do all that any of us could do, and he did it infinitely better. A piece of verse for Punch, a paragraph, a caricature, were not beneath the dignity of the author of "Esmond." He had the kindness and helpfulness which I, for one, have never met a journalist who lacked. He was a good Englishman; the boy within him never died; he loved children, and boys, and a little slang, and a boxing match. If he had failings, who knew them better than he? How often he is at once the boy at the swishing block and Dr. Birch who does not spare the rod! Let us believe with that beloved physician, our old friend Dr. John Brown, that "Mr. Thackeray was much greater, much nobler than his works, great and noble as they are." Let us part with him, remembering his own words:


"Come wealth or want, come good or ill,
Let young and old accept their part,
And bow before the awful Will,
And bear it with an honest heart."


{3} For Helen Pendennis, see the "Letters".


Andrew Lang

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