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THACKERAY AND THE ENGLISH NOVEL 211
outside it and its satellites. But what a master he is there,
No doubt the showman obtrudes himself too freely. The manager in modern evening dress coming on to direct his actors before our eyes cannot fail to destroy the illusion. Thackeray's frequent personal interventions prevent our giving his stories enough of that temporary suspension of our knowledge of their unreality which in one shape or other is necessary to all art. Many people complain of his sermons. But though they are certainly too frequent and repeat themselves too much, they do grow immediately out of the. story, and justify themselves, besides, by being among the most effective sermons to be found anywhere in the English language. Ruskin would not have one line of Thackeray, if I remember right, in his list of A Hundred Best Books, because he thought Thackeray made people worldly and cynical. This seems to me as hasty and wilful as any judgement,
oven any of Ruskin's, could well be. The truth is the exact opposite. No one has ever painted the two pictures of selfish worldliness, on the one hand, and love, genuineness and simplicity, on the other, with such convincing power of appeal in favour of the latter as Thackeray. He lets the worldling design his story and occupy nearly the whole of his stage ; but what the worldling does on it is to exhibit his own emptiness and ugliness, and assuredly none of the spectators are tempted to envy or adopt his way of life. On the contrary, the balance is all in the other scale ; and many a half-worldling man or woman must have felt, as he read the story of Ethel Newcome or Beatrix Esmond or even Arthur Pendennis, that no pulpit has ever put to him the greatest of all choices as it is put there, and must have wondered to find himself still so capable of being moved, to find his heart-strings loosened and his tears flowing, not for Ethel or Beatrix only, but for himself and many other weak and struggling men and women.
These three books are, no doubt, Thackeray's best, after the supreme and unapproachable Vanity Fair. That stands alone in all sorts of merits ; chiefly, perhaps, in the fact that it is the only one of his books which is never tedious. Thackeray is there for once caught out of himself and swept along in an irresistible torrent of energy which makes a world, though it scarcely makes a story. No one who can take up Vanity Fair without being obliged to read it to the end, even if it be for the fiftieth time, has ever really felt the genius of Thackeray. After it many people would place Esmond, certainly his most beautiful book. But, beautiful as it is, it seems to me not altogether to escape the inevitable fate of the tour de force ; c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas '--the real thing, as we know it in Vanity Fair and The Newcomes. It is an exquisite piece of artistry rather than a great work of imagination believing in itself. Would Thackeray in any of his contemporary novels have
failed to be sensitive to the false note involved in Esmond marrying his mistress's mother? It seems profanation to criticize a thing of such beauty; still there can be little doubt that Thackeray was primarily a satirist, and that his true business was therefore with his own day ; in which case, though he himself said he would like to stand or fall by Esmond', his genius. must ultimately be judged by the three great pictures of the world which he himself knew, not from books, but from personal experience. And of the two minor performances I confess to greatly preferring The Newcomes. It seems to me so much more alive. How much more one really cares about what is going to happen to Clive and Ethel and old Colonel Newcome than one does about Pendennis and Laura and Warrington! And old Lady Kew and Barnes and the Newcome world generally are fifty times as vivid as the Claverings and Fokers. Major Pendennis is indeed a creation of genius; but his is a rather solitary splendour.
A word should perhaps be said of the only other work of Thackeray for which a claim to pre-eminence is ever raised. Trollope thought that 'in mental force' Thackeray never rose above Barry Lyndon. What exactly he means by mental force may be doubtful; but the judgement seems to me simply amazing, if meant to place Barry Lyndon in the same rank as the great three or Esmond. What is a novel? It is a story and a picture of life. And the measure of its greatness lies in the depth, truth, and abundance of its life, and in the power of art under which it is compelled into shape, made to take the mould of a controlling human mind. What has Barry Lyndon of all this? It is the looselyconstructed adventures of a clever scoundrel who runs all over Europe and yet scarcely meets a single person who is not as great a blackguard as himself. No doubt Thackeray displays immense verve in being able to carry through such a history at all; and certainly he shows considerable powers
of invention in the matter of the accidents of the hero's career. But how superficial it all is ! Barry is the conventional external profligate and adventurer of the old satirists and dramatists : what a contrast to Thackeray's manner when he has really formed himself! One chapter tells us more of the heart, or no heart, of the great adventuress of Vanity Fair than the whole book tells us of Barry. We look through a window and see him, some way off, a stagy figure, swaggering about the picturesque Ireland and Germany of the eighteenth century ; but we never really know him at all. And if we put aside the contemporary novels, and try Barry by the side of the other eighteenth-century creation, what chance can its monotonous externality have against the humanity, variety, intimacy, and beauty of The History of Henry Esmond ?
No; what Lady Kew said to Ethel in one of the best conversations in The Newcomes is true of all of us, and certainly not least of Thackeray. 'You belong to your belongings, my dear,' said that very shrewd old lady ; and the belongings of Thackeray were the Pall Mall and Mayfair of the first half of the nineteenth century. He stands alone, has no very obvious ancestors, and no descendants at all. Fielding is certainly the man he owed most to; the same method, that of a series of rambling adventures, the same habit of talking to his reader direct, the same admirable and beautiful English, refined, of course, perhaps weakened, to the taste of a generation that came after instead of before Wesley and Whitefield, but still essentially the same ; a language of unapproachable ease, seeming, especially in the later master's hands, to be the very language of every day and of all the world, and yet never stupid, never inharmonious, never obscure, never unconscious of the great tradition, full everywhere of music and meaning and truth. No one else gives quite the same impression as Thackeray of complete mastery over his instrument ; one feels he could run up and down the keyboard for ever and never strike
a false note. Certainly no other writer of novels approaches him in this quality of liquid ease. His style may sometimes be too garrulous and conversational; and, of course, it was never meant to handle and never tries to handle the great things of nature and art. It could not have done the work of Scott or Hardy or Meredith, But when one comes fresh from a long summer bathe in its cool smooth waters, how much other people suffer by the comparison ; how stilted and conventional much of Scott seems, how crude much of Dickens, how tainted with virtuosity most of Meredith !
Thackeray found the novel divided between the historical romance of Scott and the exquisite parlour miniatures of Miss Austen. What he did with it was to give it the modernism that was not in Scott and the scale and
that was not in Jane Austen. Both he and Dickens deserted the strict construction of Miss Austen, and to some extent of Scott, in favour of the old loose epic model. And both turned to their own day for their material. But Thackeray was far more interested in character than Dickens, and knew immeasurably more about it. Dickens lives by his exuberant vitality, his inexhaustible humour, and the immense pleasure he takes in the spectacle of life, not by his characters, which whether they belong to melodrama or farce, are seldom of the sort that convince. Thackeray lives, on the other hand, by his subtle insight into character, by the charm of his style, by the essential permanence of the world he described. The world does not grow poorer ; 1 and wherever there is a rich society there will Lady Kew and Major Pendennis be gathered together. Dickens, on the contrary, suffers by the fact that the lives of the poor and the lower middle class which he described so vividly have changed so much in half a century that the manners and customs we find in his books are almost as remote from us as those of Scott's Crusaders. And one other thing. Dickens devoted himself in his novels to the assault upon
1 Written, of course, in 1912.