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first chapters, before they themselves got warm with life and knew what they wanted ; and the result is that mist of confusion and inconsistency which hangs over nearly all the stories both of Dickens and Thackeray. No one could write out a skeleton of the plot of Pickwick or Pendennis ; they are all flesh and no bones, and their progress is as elastic and uncertain of direction as those of a boneless body would be. Dickens's good things, in particular, are always isolated and unrelated atoms, not parts of an organized body. Weller and Winkle and Micawber and Mrs. Gamp are perfect in themselves; they come full-armed from their creator's brain and owe nothing to those about them, who equally owe nothing to them. What a contrast to Jeanie Deans, or Maggie Tulliver, or Madame Bovary, or Bathsheba Everdene! Thackeray's people belong far more to his stories than those of Dickens ; but still he is open in his degree to the same criticism. When we think of Vanity Fair we remember Becky and Miss Crawley and certain scenes and places—Sir Pitt on his knees, Rawdon Crawley's discovery of Steyne and Becky, and so forth; we don't think of the story as a whole, and the other persons in it. Where there is a real plot it is impossible to think of one character alone; to recall Bathsheba is at once to recall Oak, and Boldwood, and Troy.
Part of the explanation of this is that both Dickens and Thackeray reverted to the old epic tendencies of the novel as against the stricter influence of the drama that had been lately brought to bear on its development. Pickwick and Barry Lyndon and that ‘novel without a hero', Vanity Fair, are all, like the Odyssey and Orlando Furioso and Don Quixote and Gil Blas and Tom Jones, the loosely-connected adventures of a wandering hero', who, in the course of his goings about the world, shows us a great deal of the life and manners of his day. So large and discursive an action' does not generally admit the intensity
of the drama. It is almost inevitably too external to do so. And so Dickens never, except in A Tale of Two Cities, got near the drama; everywhere else---perhaps even therewhat he approaches is not drama but only melodrama, which, it is to be remembered, is what results when, in the words of a living critic, ' a dramatist attempts tragedy with characters over whom he has no philosophic superiority, or with a situation which is to him nothing but a series of startling events.' Both of these unfavourable conditions are always present in Dickens, but not, it is true, in Thackeray, who maintained more than enough superiority over his characters, and was always too intellectually middle-aged to be anything but bored by mere startling events. What then, in his case, is the explanation of the fact, which I think will hardly be denied, that he seldom or never leaves on us the intensity of impression which belongs to the experience of having been through a great action where a great issue was at stake? We do get that impression from The Bride of Lammermoor and The Heart of Midlothian, and Villette and Adam Bede, and The Return of the Native ; why do we not get it from The Newcomes or Vanity Fair ?
On the whole I am afraid it is because Thackeray's books are too much written from the point of view of the man of the world. No one knows quite so little of the real meaning of life as the man who habitually watches it from club windows; no one's view of it so entirely stops short at the things on the surface. And though Thackeray was much more than a club man, it is that part of himself which chiefly devised his stories. The people who crowd his stage could not possibly have anything to do with great actions or great issues. Nobody can imagine Major Pendennis or Barnes Newcome loving or dying ; the most either could attain to would not go farther than having his marriage arranged, or his decease announced in The Times. The fountains of great life, which spring from the heart, are dried
up in them. Whatever soul they may have once had has as entirely disappeared under a continual overlaying of worldliness as the souls of Mr. Bernard Shaw's people have disappeared under a continuous course of dialectics in which nobody is himself moved or expects to move anybody else. Emotion, in fact, is out of the range of those whose occupation is to play with the intellectual or sensual counters of life, not with life itself. And great emotion is the necessary atmosphere of great action. The fact, then, that Thackeray's characters consist so very largely of people of the 'Hon. Mr. Deuceace' type is fatal to the claim of his novels to convey to us the greater emotions. There is a certain monotony of littleness in his work. One grows weary of the perpetual repetition of the intrigues and meanness and emptiness of the world in which nearly all his characters live. He seems to take pleasure in introducing irrelevant personages who play no real part in his story, but apparently come in merely to be shown at their business of dining and gambling and match-hunting, which the necessary onesidedness of the satirist supposes to be the business of all persons who are well-to-do in this world.
The fact is that the determination to have done with shams, which was as strong in Thackeray as in Carlyle, really led him to a new sort of sham. Because many persons made a pretence of being actuated by fine motives when they were in fact looking out for themselves, Thackeray chose sometimes to assume that men of the world never in any case thought of anything but themselves ; which is a sham or delusion as much as the other, the truth, of course, being that very few people, whether in the world of fashion or any other world, act either on entirely selfish or entirely unselfish grounds. I expect Miss Crawley and Becky had at least a grain or two of real kindliness mixed into their desire to get the most out of each other; and there was probably some motherly love mixed with the astute generalship of
Mrs. Bute. But it was neither Thackeray's business nor his temperament to see that. When he saw goodness he saw it very good indeed, and not very strong, very wise, or very interesting. His intelligence always inclined to paint the world black; and any white patches that were forced into the picture came not from his imagination but from his heart. The remorseless realism of the satirist found nothing on the aesthetic side of him to check it. His heart overflowed very easily into genuine tears that for the moment washed the analysing sceptic and cynic away ; but nothing else did, certainly not his imagination. It is curious to see how entirely unmoved, to speak frankly how stupid, he showed himself both at Athens and at Rome. And so he always treats history from the point of view of the prose realist who means at all costs to get rid of the heroic and bring forward the mean or ridiculous side that may generally be found by him who looks for it in the greatest events.
His method is seen in its most brilliant shape in The Second Funeral of Napoleon ; it is that of a man who, as its opening paragraphs show, quite deliberately chose the part of the Argus-eyed valet who has seen all heroes naked ; and one may be the exact reverse of a Napoleon-worshipper without liking it, indeed without being able to avoid feeling strongly that, even in that case, it is the Devil's method of writing history. I am not speaking of morals. The spirit that denied in Thackeray never denied goodness ; what it denied was greatness in history, greatness in art, greatness in life. There are plenty of good figures in the novels, and for my part, I do not at all find them so insipid as they often have been called ; but no one will pretend that either Dobbin, or Colonel Newcome, or Warrington can have greatness thrust upon him even by the blindest affection. Thackeray is the first instance in English of the everlasting nemesis of realism ; it gets so close to its object that the only things it can see are small things. We laugh at his im
people or weep with them ; we love them or hate them but we never, or almost never, admire them.
Yet he wrote the most brilliant English novel, in some ways the greatest, of the nineteenth century! And, though it is a real defect in a novelist to leave out, as he did, so many of the biggest things in human life, he might yet fairly reply that those who can give the whole of life are very few, so that art is forced to these narrowing choices and partial views. At any rate, if he did not make his people admirable, he made them astonishingly alive. He had the merits of his defects. If realism like his, in its eagerness to strip off trappings, is apt to strip off a great deal else as well, it does at least strip off the trappings. Becky stands eternally before us, naked and unashamed, the first instance, perhaps, in literature of cleverness standing absolutely alone. Iago, after all, appears to have had a devil of hatred in him ; but Becky has no emotions good or bad. She just has her brains to fight the world with, and she does her sword-play so brilliantly that every one likes her and wishes her success. We are all greedy of pleasure, and she gives us so much that it is with her almost as it is with Falstaff and Mrs. Gamp; she has extended the bounds of life for us, and we resent her misfortunes, however justly deserved. But Vanity Fair is much more than Becky. It is a prose epic of a siege of Mayfair which lasted more than ten years and in which, though Becky alone is the Achilles, who certainly never sulks in her tent, there are still, as of old, plenty of other warriors engaged who all distinguish themselves in ways proper to this kind of warfare. The greatest achievement of the epic is to get a whole age into itself. That grows increasingly difficult as the world gets larger and more complicated, and better informed about its own life. Thackeray at any rate could not do it even superficially, as Victor Hugo did in Les Misérables. He only knew one world—that of the well-to-do-and seldom adventured