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ceased : and it was waged pretty sharply (and for some time, as has been noticed, even dubiously) in reference to Vanity Fair itself.
Stupidity was still not entirely without excuse, though certainly without justification. There is perhaps no book of Thackeray's which gains more than Vanity Fair, in respect of intelligent enjoyment, by being read in its proper i chronological order. The later books gain in this way because there is a certain chronological order in their actual matter--if you read, for the first time, the EsmondVirginians pair, or the Pendennis-Newcomes-Philip trio, in out of order, you lose a good deal of appreciation of plot and character, and may even, at times, be somewhat puzzled materially. But in manner, though there is some development, there is little real difference between Pendennis and Denis Duval. The author is in almost every sense of the phrase ' at home'-he has conquered his own house and is living at ease in it. With Vanity Fair this is not quite the case-reasons and details may be given presently.
But the advances and advantages in respect of all his former work are immense and unmistakable. In the first place he has at last given himself-or has been givenproper scope and scale. In the second, he has at last discarded the conditioning limitations which (one hardly knows whether by choice or chance or compulsion) have affected his earlier work. The suspicious reader is no longer approached with a 'mere burlesque 'as in Yellowplush and Gahagan and so many of their successors; with enigmatic transformations of the historical novel like Catherine and Barry Lyndon; with apparently wilful preference of more or less 'low' life as in the Shabby Genteel Story and The Hoggarty Diamond. Misspelling and other devices of the kind, if they do not disappear, are put in their proper place'. And instead of all this miscellaneous and incomplete work which, instinct with genius as much if not all
of it was, presented itself with all the disadvantages of t ephemeral and apparently hand-to-mouth circumstance,
people had put before them almost exactly the Aristotelian prescription-a work 'serious, entire, and of a certain o. magnitude', dealing, if not with their own time and society, it with a time and society which were hardly of yesterday me to many of them-telling a connected and dramatically e arranged story-vivid in manners and character-with
incident moreover both of the lighter and the graver kinddistinguished too from the merely usual novel to the is requirements of which it had so far condescended, by ( a coherent satiric purpose, of the fulfilment of which the a author had already given proofs of being a master. The brew may have been too bitter' (as he said afterwards in his own way) for some : but none could call it mawkish, or merely sour, or merely 'small'. As for construction,
Vanity Fair is nearly the best of all its author's works-in 7 fact it is almost the only one in which any attention is
paid to construction at all. In scheme, as apart from details, it is difficult to remember any other author, except perhaps Defoe, who, having written so long and so much, suddenly made such a new and such an ambitious' entry’in literary competition, and not merely in the particular department of novel-writing.
In that department, however, the novelty, if not so absolute as that of Robinson Crusoe, was of a higher strain. A succession of great novelists from Richardson onwards had been endeavouring to bring the novel proper--the prose fiction which depends upon ordinary life and character only-into complete being. Fielding had very nearly done it: but what was ordinary life in his time had ceased to be ordinary. Miss Austen had quite done it : but she had deliberately restricted her plan. In the thirty years between her death and the appearance of Vanity Fair attempts at it had multiplied enormously in number : but the magnificent success of Scott in another line had drawn off the
main body of attention and attempt-to no great profit. The really distinguished novels since Scott had been sports of eccentric talent like Peacock's; specialist studies like Marryat's ; medleys of genius and failure of genius like: Bulwer's and Disraeli's ; brilliant but fantastic, and not poetically fantastic, nondescripts like the work of Dickens.
After, or rather amid all this chase of rather wandering fires, there came forward once more, the proper study of mankind,' unerringly conducted as such, but also serving as occasion for consummate work in art. The old, old contrast of substance and shadow is almost the only one for Thackeray's figures and those of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. In comparison (though by no means always positively) they walk and act while the others flit and gesticulate; they speak with the voice pepórwv åv OpáTW while the others squeak and gibber; they live and move and have being while the others dance the dance of puppets and execute the manoeuvres of ombres chinoises. It is almost impossible to estimate the solidity and reality of Thackeray's characters in the stage he had now reached, except by careful observation of chronology. As alwaysbecause a writer of this kind is rather the first articulate prophet of a new revelation than its monopolist--something of the same quality was soon diffused. But he was the first prophet: and to this day he is the greatest.
The book indeed is not faultless. It is said to have been begun as early as 1841 : but it was interrupted, probably, by the trouble of his wife's illness. The interruption may have something to do with a certain drag at one place of the story : but it is pretty certain that Thackeray had not, five years earlier, attained to the art and craft he possessed in 1846. Of the spirit in which he wrote it. we have a frank and informing confession to his mother. ' Don't you see how odious all the people are in the book with the exception of Dobbin ? ... What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world (only that
hi is a cant phrase).' Now this confession-as probably most e confessions are unintentionally as well as intentionally, je is a self-accusation. No set of people-probably no person, il though certainly there are some who give us pause—is 1 wholly 'odious'. You can't leave out the sunshine s fortunately-without making your world untrue. And ir Vanity Fair is (without any contradiction to what has - been said above) a little untrue in places. Even Dobbin is and Briggs (whom he elsewhere adds to this exception) are o only allowed not to be odious at the price of being more or than a little idiotic. Moreover Thackeray here fell into er a mistake which only Shakespeare has avoided wholly1 but which Fielding, who fell into it sometimes as in the case of Blifil, has avoided in that of Jonathan Wild and others. He took sides against his characters--and especially against Becky. Whether Becky really poisoned Jos (as is sug. gested more than once and almost affirmed in the grim
and dreadful picture of her as Clytemnestra again ', which is one of his best compositions in line) is not certain : and his explanatory letter to the Duke of Devonshire is - rather against it. One's impression is that Becky knew a tricks a good deal better than that, and less dangerous.
But putting this aside, he is certainly not fair on Beckyshe does not even try to be fair as he did, later, on Barnes Newcome. Becky is very great, but she is ill-treated : the potter has made the pot too clearly to dishonour. Yet how great she is ! Compare her with Valérie Marneffe, her sister certainly in a sense, her mother perhaps—and her true greatness will be seen. Valérie is not, and never could have been, anything but a courtesan of the worst but not the most distinguished kind-Becky has in her the makings not only, as she pathetically observes, of a quite respectable person—but of all manner of persons,
* One story is that somebody once asked him the question, and received after an interval the natural answer, given with a laugh and a puff of smoke, “I don't know.'
bad and good. Mulier est-nihil muliebre ab illa alienum est : though her cruel creator has chosen to show her only, or mainly, in unpleasant relations. Even he has made one " fond of her in certain situations—in her partial victory over the green chili, in her breaking-down after the failure with Jos and the too late offer of Sir Pitt, in her general way of being bonne diablesse, and even bonne princesse, so far as she has the chance. If Sultan Mourad after all his impalings, &c., was saved by the écorché pig which he moved into the shade, may not the communication of George Osborne's letter to Amelia and the making of two fools happy, outweigh some at least of Becky's little weaknesses ? Say she did it partly from vanity : perhaps the Sultan saved himself partly from whim. Anyhow she is great and of the greatest-except her other sister Beatrix, there is no woman so great in English literature out of Shakespeare. And her creator is hard on her.
Whether he is also hard on Amelia is less easy to say. Amelia is a fool by the law of her nature : and a fool is capable of anything. But Dobbin need not have been made such a fool as he is. Parson Adams is as simple : but he is not a fool at all. It is evident that at this time Thackeray had not finally got rid of the habit of chargeof exaggeration and caricature-which he had cherished so long. It appears least in Rawdon Crawley who, if not respectable, is verisimilar from beginning to end a perfectly marvellous piece of verisimilitude, neither rouged nor blackened. Of the famous studies, or supposed studies, of real life in public or private characters one must say a little more. Of late the tendency has been rather to exaggerate their coincidence with their originals. One of the first published stories on the subject-and the first that the present writer ever read—a story adopted by Lady Ritchie—is Kingsley's in Yeast (published 1849). It asserts that Thackeray (who is not mentioned by name) being reproached with having made the baronet