Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
William Makepeace Thackeray (18111863)
[By Thackerays own desire no full authentic account of his life has been published. It was neither a long life, nor in the ordinary sense an eventful one. He was born at Calcutta, the son of Richmond Thackeray and Anne Becher, on 18th July 1811; and he died at Kensington on 24th December 1863. He was educated at the Charterhouse, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, though he took no degree, he made some announcement of his tastes and powers in a periodical called The Snob, and in a burlesque poem on the prize subject of Timbuctoo, on which Tennyson wrote seriously. He had inherited a competence, but it was lost in injudicious newspaper speculations and otherwise, and by the time when he was five-and-twenty he had to write, not for his amusement but for his bread. He married, however, in 1836, but after a brief married life Mrs. Thackeray was attacked by a mental disorder which never left her, though she survived her husband by more than thirty years. For some time Thackeray, though a prolific writer, did not make the mark that was in him to make, and it was not till Vanity Fair appeared (in parts, it was completed in 1848) that his genius was properly recognised. This was followed by Pendennis (1850), Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1855), and The Virginians (1859). On the foundation of the Cornhill Magazine Thackeray was appointed its editor, a post which he did not find in all ways congenial; but he contributed to it some of his very best work in the Roundabout Papers. His minor work, both in prose and verse, was very considerable, but difficult to enumerate in brief space. It included Catherine (1840); Barry Lyndon; The Paris (1840), Irish (1843), and Eastern (1845) Sketch Books; Philip; and the unfinished Denis Duval, which his death cut short; besides lectures on the English Humourists and the Four Georges, several Christmas Books, many prose articles, and much light verse.]
THERE are few exercises in that idle speculation on the might-have-been, which nobody has satirised more frequently or more sharply than Thackeray himself, so tempting as the enquiry what would have happened, as far as literature is concerned, if he had not lost his fortune so early, and had not been forced to write for a living. Despite, or because of this compulsion he was never exactly an industrious man; he never wrote with anything like the rapidity of most men, and especially of most novelists who betake themselves to regular work with the pen; the personal shudder with which he commemorates George Warringtons labelling of his press work as les chaînes de lesclavage is unmistakable; and he was to the last reluctant to give up the social amusements, the unchecked wanderings, the periods of passive observation and active enjoyment whichthough they are perhaps more valuable to the man of letters than to anybody elsethe man of letters who is not born to fortune generally finds that he has to forego. On the other hand, the almost irresistible attraction which drew Thackeray to literature is obvious. He practised writing in his undergraduate days, he practised it while that fortune still lasted which he unluckily wasted, at least in part, on newspaper support, forgetting the sound and important doctrine that those who serve the altar should live of the altar, not it of them! It is almost impossible to conceive a Thackeray who should not have written Thackerays works. Yet again we know that a small independent fortune such as his (for indisputable authority says that it never exceeded five hundred a year), though it ought to be the very sinews of literary exertion is more often its pillow, and a pillow which sometimes smothers it.
What, however, may be said with very little if with any rashness, is that the peculiar circumstances of his earlier years left in more ways than one their mark on his style. If he had regularly trained himself for writing in his youth, or if, like Gibbon and others, he had adopted it as a majestic and unhurried diversion for his middle and maturer years, there can be little doubt that his writing would have exhibited fewer signs of the amateurish, not to say the slipshod, than in its earlier stages it actually does. It has been a commonplace (since it was first pointed out some years ago) to observe that Thackeray is more than once conquered by the temptation to use and which when there is no precedent relative expressed or even implied in a participle or an elliptic clause; and not a few other things of the same kind might be unearthed. There is no difficulty (especially in that most interesting volume of recovered chaînes de lesclavage which was at last published in 1886 to complete his works) in discovering numerous signs, if not of the young gentleman who was plucked for his degree, as Warrington the younger says, at any rate of the young gentleman who did not take it, of the literary aspirant who, as Pendennis himself confesses knew very little about politics or history, and had but a smattering of letters. He never became a learned writer, and long after the fire of his genius, the unconquerable and unmistakable quality of his idiosyncrasy, had made him a style among the most delightful in English, it would have been possible for the composition master or the peddling critic to find fault with many of his sentences as clumsy, and perhaps with some as positively incorrect.
It was not that he was not ambitious, that he had not a certain longing for the academic status of Dr. Slocum and Professor Sadiman. There is a passage (I think in the Letters published by Mrs. Brookfield) which complains of the reluctance of editors to entrust him with the more serious tasks of reviewing and article-writing, of the way in which he was forced towards and confined in the paths of burlesque, satire, and the like. These editors may or may not have been wrong, but we owe them a deep debt of gratitude. It is, considering Thackerays nature and tastes, but too probable that if abundance of well-paid work in journalism of the more dignified (and therefore, on the principle or compensation, of the more ephemeral) kind had offered itself, he would have been content with the work and the gains, and would have given up that time which was meant for literature proper to the relaxation which is to nobody more tempting than to the journalist. The gods were kinder to him. They kept him for some dozen years making sportvery good sport sometimes, if never of the very bestfor the Philistines at indifferent wages, and this practice served as the apprenticeship to immortal work in his proper spherework which, to do the public justice, was pretty readily recognised, and which he never had occasion thereafter to give up, either for lack of demand or for lack of reward.
It is however very remarkable, though it perhaps has not always been remarked, how uniform Thackerays literary characteristics are. It is usual, and is sufficiently correct, to describe him as standing to Fielding in very much the same relation as that in which Dickens stands to Smollett. But the resemblance is far less intimate and pervading in the one case than in the other. Thackeray and Fielding are alike in their almost always kindly, but for the most part rather melancholy, humour, in the singular perfection with which each (when he had arrived at the practice of the art in which he was born a master) succeeded in imparting life, character, individuality to all his personages, great and small, and in the analytical mastery of human nature of which this success is the synthetic result. But nothing can be less like Fieldings precise and almost mathematical engineering of his plot than Thackerays haphazard construction, which, aggravated by the system of publication in parts, sometimes makes his books as little of the epic and as much of the mere chronicle as anything of Smolletts own. It may be a matter of less general agreement whether there is or is not a likeness between Fieldings regular habit of prefatory and intermediate dissertation and Thackerays habitual but irregular custom of addressing the audience at any moment of his story.
But there can be no doubt that many minor peculiarities of his stylepeculiarities too which perhaps constitute its character at least as much as any major oneshave no analogue or precedent in Fielding. And it is equally indisputable that these peculiarities show themselves in the very earliest workin the Paris and Irish Sketch Books, in Catherine, in the first burlesques, in the work (some of it the writers initiation in professional literature) which was revived in the volume of miscellanies above referred to. The Thackeray that we know, alike in Esmond and Pendennis, in The English Humourists and the Four Georges, in Vanity Fair and the Roundabout Papers, is there not fully fledged, not at his ease, not out of the novitiatebut unmistakably Thackeray both in form and matter. The quaint tricks of spelling which he borrowed from Swift and Smollett, and for which he never lost his relish; the asides and parentheses (possibly suggested in the same way by Sterne, but managed with even greater individuality and freedom); above all the quick turns and transitions, not as yet quite unforced, from seriousness to gaiety, from bitter humour to a mellower kind, from prose to poetry (for be it remembered that Thackeray was a poet and not merely a verse writer) the unconquerable and yet never offensive outbursts of personal feelingall these appear quite early. The hand that wrote Fashionable Fax and Polite Annegoats is not merely in fact the same handit is obviously and visibly the same as that which dropped from Denis Duval six-and-twenty years later.
It is perhaps the more extraordinary that, with such intense individuality of handling, such vivid appreciation of the times in which he lived, no writer should have had a greater power of assimilating other times and other manners than Thackeray. It is true that his sympathies were what some might call limited in range. Of classical, mediæval, renaissance times and ways he manifests no great knowledge, and for them he feels but little liking. The eighteenth century, first of all in England and then in Europe at large, was his second province, and he over-ran and possessed it with a thoroughness, just as he represented it with a creative mastery hardly to be paralleled elsewhere. There are many who hold that Esmond, a book in which not merely the manners and to some extent the thought of the time, but its very language and style are reproduced with a skill far surpassing that of any mere parodist, is his very greatest book. And whether this be so or not it is impossible to refuse the most unstinted admiration to the wonderful reconstructions of the past which fill not merely this book but the essays on the Four Georges and the English Humourists with many shorter passages and references elsewhere. Thackeray, as thoroughly a man of his own day as any who walked Pall Mall, lived as it were another life at the same time, a life a hundred years earlier, in which he saw and felt the sights and the sentiments of the reigns of the Georges and of Anne. And there can be little doubt that the infinite pains which he devoted to learning this local colour, and the wonderful success which attended his application of it, determined more than anything else the practice of a whole school, if not of the whole body of novelists who have succeeded him.
Yet despite its consistency and individuality few manners have been less easy not merely to imitate (though no one has imitated it to perfection) but to analyse in any satisfactory way than Thackerays. We may go on noting and examining, as it has been noted and examined above, that easy bantering way which, as he himself says, was wont to produce a rather bewildered expression on the faces of the public. But the soul of it will escape the enumeration and the dissection even more than is usually the case. If any passage can be almost certainly, if nearly every sentence can be probably, recognised as Thackerays, the ear-mark does not lie so much in any particular trick of phrase as in the meaning, or, to speak more accurately still, in the mental attitude of the writer. By what superfluity of foolishness this attitude was ever called or thought cynical it is difficult enough to understand. There might be some ground for calling Thackeray a sentimentalist: there is certainly none for calling him a cynic. But if there was no cynicism, there was an almost intenser sense of the irony of life in him than there was even in Swift, even in Fielding, and he applied this not merely to the greater part of the social life of his time, but also and more noticeably to those characteristics of man which underlie and cause the social life of all times. It is this which makes it impossible that he should ever become obsolete with intelligent readers, this which makes him one of the very greatest of novelists, and, despite a few technical shortcomings in writing, one of the very greatest of writers.