Lapas attēli
PDF
ePub

Thackeray's pages. If you want to see what real cynicism is take up "Candide." In that incomparably witty book you have a perfect specimen of it. There Voltaire, under pretense of stripping off our illusions, strips us of our primary moral sympathies, of our fundamental ethical beliefs. But it is precisely to those sympathies and beliefs that Thackeray appeals, "those high instincts," as Wordsworth calls them in magnificent verse familiar, doubtless, to all here

"High instincts, before which our mortal Nature

Did tremble, like a guilty Thing surprised,” and which are the most certain of all our certainties. To those sympathies, beliefs, instincts. I say, Thackeray ever appealed, to recall us from the worship of Mammon, the worship of rank, the worship of notoriety, to the worship of goodness, and truth, and love. Nor is it true, as Taine complains, that he has turned the novel into mere satire. True it is that in him we have a satirist who, to quote Pope's description of Horace, "without method talks us into sense.” But true it is also that beneath his satire, there are springs of tenderness and pathos which are ever welling up. He is full of those "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” He knew well that we apprehend moral verities not only with the intellect, but also with the heart; oùy on an фuxй as the Greeks said ; with the whole of our spiritual being. Nor let it be objected that he presents us with nothing better than trite moralities, “copy-book maxims.” Sidney Smith, in whom the very voice of common sense seems often to speak, has happily said, "It is the calling of great men not so much to preach new truths, as to rescue from oblivion those old truths which it is our wisdom to remember and our weakness to forget."--From "Four English Humorists" (1895)

V

By WILLIAM SHEPARD WALSH

T

THE reason that Thackeray's real nature was so gen

erally misunderstood by his contemporaries is not so

far to seek. He was a reaction against the spirit of his age. He came upon the world at the time when the grotesque sham into which Byronisin had degenerated at the hands of Byron's admirers was emasculating literature; when the Great Soul was the popular ideal,--the gifted, gloomy, mysterious being who did not love the world nor the world him, but who usually had an amiable weakness for the world's wife. He was a protest against all this. He was a protest, too, against the rampant egotism that found its fullest expression in the fiction of that period, in the earlier novels, for instance, of Bulwer and Disraeli, mere clever poseurs without any earnestness or sincerity, who were continually proclaiming their own merits from the house-tops, and inviting public attention to the beauty of their own emotions. In the vigor of his protest against all this brag and bluster, Thackeray may have gone to the opposite extreme. A man who is anxious to keep straight is liable to bend over on the opposite side. So, in the reaction against unreal enthusiasm Thackeray habitually talked under what he felt. He veiled his deeper feelings beneath a selfrespecting reticence; he would have shrunk from making a public exhibition of the pulsations of a troubled heart. A friend who knew him and valued him, and who tells us that in the discussion of serious subjects he was apt, when pressed, to have recourse to banter, acknowledges that much of his light talk was intended not so much to conceal as to keep down a sensibility amounting almost to womanliness which belonged to his nature, and which contrasted, one might alınost say struggled, with the manliness which was equally its characteristic. “He could not read any thing pathetic without actual discomfort, and was unable, for example, to go through with the Bride of Lammermoor.' I have heard him allude to some early sorrows, especially the loss of a child, in a way which showed how sharp and painful was the recollection after the lapse of many years. That he could sympathize warmly with others I infer from much that I have heard. His well-known sensitiveness sprung perhaps from the same root as his sensibility. 'I like Thackeray,' an English critic once said in my hearing, 'but I cannot respect him-he is so sensitive.' But his sensitiveness made harsh things distasteful to him even when he was not himself the object of them. You fiend !' he said to a friend who was laughing over a sharp attack on an acquaintance of both, and refused to hear or read a word of it.”-From "William Makepeace Thackeray," in "Pen Pictures of Modern Authors" (1882).

VI

By JAMES OLIPHANT

T:

sum up on this point, it must be granted that while Thackeray was unrivalled in his power of rep

resenting all types of character on which it was possible for him to direct his satire, we must place against this great merit three serious considerations:-his satirical habit often led him into caricature; he failed entirely in creating types of ideal beauty, lapsing always into vagueness or inconsistency; and finally in number and importance, as well as in truth to nature, the contemptible figures in his portrait gallery are so preponderant that the whole effect is an utter travesty of human life. In a novelist this is an unpardonable sin. The avowed satirist purposely limits his vision, and we accept his pictures with the knowledge that they do not represent the whole truth. But the artist in fiction stands in a different position. He professes to tell us what life is. If it is not necessary that every novel should be a synthesis, the sum of the writer's work must at least give us a reflection of reality that is faithful up to the measure of his capacity. Thackeray was either insincere, or he was blind to the greater part of those elements in life which all of us hold most dear. There is 110 writer whom it is more delightful to dip into in certain moods; he ministers so admirably to the innate malice of human nature. His books have indeed a more justifiable value than this; as a corrective to conceit, to self-deception, to excess of enthusiasm, his barbed words may often yield a wholesome moral tonic. But as a whole his novels do their readers the greatest disservice that lies within the possibility of any one man's influence upon others. They strike at the root of the noblest sentiment that can animate the human spirit; they would destroy man's faith in man. We never rise from his books with brighter hopes or quickened energies.

One respect in which Thackeray stands supreme among novelists is the perfect naturalness of his conversations. It was perhaps easier for him to attain this, owing to his dealing mainly with the superficial aspects of life, but it is a gift of the highest order, and one which few of the great novelists have possessed even in a moderate degree. In the mouths of his characters as well as in his own person, his style has inany of the qualities of his very best prose. It does not rise to the passion and melody of the finest imaginative writers, but it is a model of ease, and purity and grace. Having such a command of expressive language, and so keen a power of minute observation, it is somewhat strange that he should have attempted so little in the way of description. Very seldom in his novels have we any graphic picture of the outward sur oundings of his scenes. The beauties of nature do not seem to have appealed to "lim strongly. He was a denizen of citics himself; London and Paris formed by far the greater part of his world, and the country was little more than an indefinite backgrou:ad, suggestive rather of dulness than pleasure.

That Thackeray was one of the chief literary figures of our century, and that his individuality has had a marked influence on the work of his successors there can be no manner of doubt. As a painter of manners, as a satirist, a critic, a stylist, he takes a very high rank, but the qualities which enabled him to excel in these various capacities do not of themselves constitute a great writer of fiction. If he must also be called a great novelist, it is not because he possessed in an eminent degree the special gifts which form the chief glory of the artist, but that his genius in certain faculties which should be subsidiary to the main purposes of creative art, was so forcible as to make him largely independent of the forms of expression he adopted, and to cover his many and serious deficiencies. His influence on the development of the novel has been almost entirely indirect. Following Miss Austen and Dickens in drawing his material from contemporary life, he helped to widen the range by dealing with new phases of society. Following the same writers, but reaching a higher success, he touched the limits of realism in dialogue. But he did little to help in guiding the art of fiction into its true channels. In his general methods he has fortunately had no imitators. He sought to turn his novels into vehicles of instruction, and the art he thus treated with indignity has revenged itself on him. With all his wonderful and manifold gifts he stands now in the history of fiction rather as a warning than as a model. From “Victorian Novelists" (1899).

VII

BY GILBERT K. CHESTERTON

[ocr errors]

HE mere title of "Vanity Fair” was certainly an inspi

ration; for it is both the strength and weakness of

thie book that it produces on the mind (I might say, even on the nerves) the same impression of mixed voices and almost maddening competition as a crowded square on market day. The force and fault of Thackeray was always to be irrelevant; but here irrelevancy rises till it reaches to a sort of deafening distraction. Elsewhere in Thackeray digression was destined to be slow; but here even digression is swift, swift as the dance of death at the balls of Lord Steyne or the swoop of all the vultures to the sick bed of Miss Crawley. Everyone in this tale is filled with a futile energy. The reader is purposely left wondering at so much

« iepriekšējāTurpināt »