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tolerate such minuteness for an instant; on that matter we have an almost absurd apprehension of the dangers of infection. We not only avoid details, we shun the subject altogether : an author who means to be read must not come within a mile of it,—he must cripple his creations of character and his pictures of life in order to avoid it. Mr. Thackeray is fully aware of this; mere commercial self-preservation makes it necessary to hold aloof. But if the instinct which avoids familiarity with one particular form of vice and sinfulness be true, as we believe it to be, though overstrained, ought not the same instinct to apply in due proportion to other forms of vice and sinfulness?
It is no vindication of the dark tints of Mr. Thackeray's painting to say that base natures and low motives throng life itself, that it is not a Jenny and Jessamy world, and that we must all mix in it. The fact is, that a vast number of Mr. Thackeray's readers learn more of the soiled aspects of the world from his pages than from any experience of their own. And if it be said that these considerations would go too far in curtailing the range of art, we reply, that the author limits its range by the same considerations, but so as to incur a double evil; for while he cuts himself off from almost a whole side of human life in order to accommodate himself to modern taste and female readers, he certainly retains much which any but the world's standard of taste would willingly see excluded. Conventionally he is thoroughly unexceptionable. Practically his writings are too cramped for the indurated apprehensions of men who know the world; too tarnished for those who are unsophisticated, whether men, women, or children. A broad and lifelike picture of wickedness, even baseness, is not objected to. Iago and Blifil leave no stain on the mind; but incessant pottering over small meannesses bears the same relation to Shakespeare's and Fielding's treatment of this subject as, in another subject, Paul de Kock’s novels do to Tom Jones. The most condensed illustration of this morbid tendency is republished from the Comic Almanac in the first volume of Mr. Thackeray's Miscellanies,—the “Fatal Boots.” It is the cleverest piece of irony since Jonathan Wild, and perhaps the most subtle and complete delineation of an utterly base and selfish nature ever written. It is more painful and humiliating reading than Jonathan Wild; because the greater crimes of the latter remove him further from us, and because he is distinguished by some power of intellect and force of character utterly denied to the abject Stubbs, whose autobiography reads like the smell of bad cabbages.
It is the evil of all satire, that it depends for its force upon a minute and vivid delineation of faults and vices which it never is advantageous to drag into light. Its only useful sphere is personality. It is not often that personal satire is defensible; but in that, or the near approaches to it, is the only practical and possibly advantageous exercise of the art. You can make one man feel the lash, and direct a storm of indignation against him which may punish him or terrify him into a new course. And so it is possible to attack effectively a small class, or an opinion or course of action, which admits of practical change or abandonment. You may satirise General Simpsun or the Times, and possibly produce an effect, though it is not probable; you may satirise the Palace Court, the peace-party, or the conduct of the war, and it may be with a result: but you cannot scourge abstract
: vices; you cannot hope to be practically employed when you satirise hypocrisy, or mammon-worship, or false adulation of rank, or the worldly estinate of temporal advantages which results in wretched marriages or selfish singleness. For one who learns from Mr. Thackeray to amend a folly of his own, how many will gain a sharper insight into those of their friends! And to none of our tendencies does Mr. Thackeray minister so effectively as to this. His social satire is fair and honest, "strikes no foul blow," as he himself says of it; but it is so searching, so minute, deals with such real incident of every-day occurrence, that it forms a sort of public gossip. It is a treasury of general observation, out of which to make particular applications. It gives us an insight we never had before into the weaknesses of our neighbours, makes us rich in new sources of contempt, and indicates clearly the channels of false shame. We can test our friends' daily life by it, and cry, “Isn't that like Mrs. Kewsy?” and “The very way the Portmans go on.”
As a set-off against these unpleasing elements in Mr. Thackeray's writings, there is one whole side of his genius which casts a pure and pleasant sunshine over his pages. He has a heart as
a deep and kind as ever wrote itself in fiction. His feelings are warm and impetuous, his nature honest, truthful, honourable. Against cruelty, against baseness, against treachery, his indignation flames out quick and sudden, like a scorching fire. With what is manly, frank, and noble, he has a native inborn sympathy. If his sense of the ludicrous, and his wit, are too often nourished upon wickedness and depravity, he is familiar with another and truer connection, and has an exquisite felicity and moving power in the mingling of humour and pathos. if his works as a whole want purpose and depth, and clearness of moral conviction, if they accept sin simply as part of what is, instead of as a departure from what should be, yet they preach throughout lessons of example more telling than precept, and enclose many and many a passage well fitted to stir the spirit and to move the heart. If his wicked and mean creations are too pre
dominant and too detailed, he has some at least whose great goodness and white purity relieve by fair gleams the dark and clouded landscape. They are emotional characters: but are not these the very ones which practically take the strongest hold on our affections; and the errors of impulse those which, however long the preacher may preach, we shall always the most readily excuse? Who ever painted a manly generous boy with so free and loving a pencil as the author of Dr. Birch's School, of Champion Major, and of young Clive Newcome? Who else has that fine touch that can picture us so delicately and so clearly the fresh innocence of girlhood, the tender passion of a loving woman, or the absorbing devotion of a mother? can trace in firmer strokes fidelity and courage and temperate endurance in a man? In every page, alternating with bitterness, and sometimes an unsparing cruelty of sarcasm, there shines out a kindly affectionate nature, soft compassion, and humble reverence. It is as if his nature, like his writings, were full of strongly-contrasted elements, lying closely side by side. Whatever his defects,—and they are great,- he must always take his stand as one of the masters of English fiction; inferior to Fielding, because he wants his breadth and range, the freeness of his air, and the soundness of his moral healthfulness; but his rival in accuracy of insight and vigour of imagination; and perhaps, as we have before said, more than his rival in fertility. And since Fielding's time, though characters have been drawn more complete than any one of Mr. Thackeray's, no fiction has been written in the school to which his imagination belongs which can bear a moment's comparison with Vanity Fair. This is hitherto his masterpiece, and will probably always remain so. There is a vis in it greater than in any of his other works—the lines are more sharply, deeply cut, the whole more marked with the signs of special and peculiar genius. Our pleasure in it alternates vividly with dislike-almost repulsion; but our admiration is compelled by all parts of it, and our eagerest sympathy by some. Dobbin and Amelia will always remain living inmates of the English mind. They have both of them, Amelia especially, had much injustice done them by their author; but as their images lie longer in our breasts, and we meditate upon them, the sneers and inuendoes fade away, and we see them undefaced, and recognise that Dobbin's devotion was not selfishness, and Amelia's characteristic tenderness not weakness. Just as with living people small obscurations and accidents fall away, and we estimate the whole character better in absence, so it is with these: we know them better, and love them more trustfully in memory than on the actual page. Thackeray's genius is in many respects not unlike that of Goethe; and such
another woman as Amelia has not been drawn since Margaret in Faust.
Of his other great works, Pendennis is the richest in character and incident, and the least pleasing; the Newcomes the most humane, but less vigorous and concentrated than any of the others; Esmond—the later parts at least—by far the best and noblest. We have no temptation to discuss the merits of its imitative style and scenery, observing only that though a modern mind shines through the external coat, yet probably no other man could have gathered so many minute and characteristic indicia of the times of which he writes, and so artfully have blended them together. It is as a tale we look at it; and though to most men such a subjert, so treated, would have afforded more than ordinary temptations to an overloading of character with costume and external detail, with Mr. Thackeray the reverse is the case. He is freed from his devotion to the petty satire of modern conventions, and has fewer calls for the exercise of small contempts. The main characters, Esmond, his mistress, and Beatrix, are the ablest he has drawn; they are not less vivid than his others, and more complete. Esmond is strong, vigorous, noble, finely executed as well as conceived, and his weakness springs from the strength of a generous and impulsive nature. He is no exception to the observation that Mr. Thackeray never endows a hero with principles of action. Esmond is true to persons, not to ideas of right or duty. His virtue is fidelity, not conscientiousness. Beatrix is perhaps the finest picture of splendid, lustrous, physical beauty ever given to the world. It shines down every woman that poet or painter ever drew. Helen of Greece,
“Fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars," is the only one who approaches her. And both her character and that of her mother are master-pieces of poetical insight; the latter blemished, however, here and there with the author's unconquerable hankering to lay his finger on a blot. He must search it out, and give it at least its due blackness. He will not leave you to gather that it must be there, --he parades it to the day, and presses it to your reluctant eyes. It comes partly from the truthfulness of his nature, which cannot bear that a weakness should be concealed, and partly probably from a mistaken apprehension of the truth that the artist must be true to nature. There was a time when a good deal of parade was made and some very diluted philosophy spun out of the distinction between “the true” and “the real." But this simple fact there is, that a man may be true to nature and yet depart from all her mani
fested forms; and that it is a higher striving to be faithful to such an inborn conception than to mutilate and distort it for the sake of finding room in it for certain observed facts. Mr. Thackeray sometimes does this, oftener he does what is quite as unpleasing. When in a character, especially a woman's, he comes upon a defect, he does not allow it to speak itself, or show itself naturally, and sink with its own proper significance into the reader's mind. He rushes in as author, seizes on it, and holds it up with sadness or triumph: “See,” he says, “this is what you find in the best women.” Thus he gives it an undue importance and vividness, and troubles and distorts the true impression of the whole character.
In the same spirit he lays hold of the petty dishonesties and shams of social life. Almost all these have their origin in vanity, and in its hasty and habitual gratification the meanness of the devices is overlooked, at any rate not often wilfully adopted with a consciousness of its presence. Such contrivances are follies of a bad kind; but to stigmatise them as deliberate hypocrisies is to give a very false significance to the worst ingredient in them.
In the Newcomes “ the elements are kindlier mixed” than in any
of the other fictions; there is a great softening of tone, a larger predominance is given to feeling over sarcasm. As before, the book is a transcript from life; but the life is more pleasantly selected, and the baser ingredients not scattered with so lavish a hand. If the execution be somewhat inferior, as perhaps it is, the characters of Clive and Ethel less clearly and vividly defined than we have by long use to high excellence begun to think we have a right to expect they should be, and the former unattractive in his feebleness, if the journey through the story be rather langweilig, sometimes from over-detail, sometimes from long and superficial moralisings over the sins of society,- yet there is much to reconcile us to these shortcomings in exchange, in some greater respite from the accustomed sneer. We have said before that the genius of Thackeray has many analogies to that of Goethe. He is like him, not only in his mode of depicting characters as they live, instead of reproducing their depths and entirety from the conception of a penetrative imagination, but also in his patient and tolerant acceptance of all existing phenomena, and his shrinking not merely from moral judgment but from moral estimate. The avoidance of the former, springs in Thackeray from kindly feeling, from the just and humble sense we all should have that our own demerits make it unseemly for us to ascend the judgment-chair, and from a wide appreciation of the variety and obscurity of men's real motives of action; the latter, a very different thing, springs from this same wide insight,