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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Thackeray’s Relation to English Society

By Ehrman Syme Nadal (1843–1922)

[Born in Lewisburg, W. Va., 1843. Died in Princeton, N. J., 1922. Essays at Home and Elsewhere. 1882.]

IT is apparent to the readers of Thackeray that the mind of that great writer was, in some respects, a turbid and a confused one. This confusion was due to his sensitiveness and to his having certain qualities which I shall refer to further on; but it was especially due to his having, in a high degree, two traits which are inconsistent and difficult to reconcile—a love of the world and a love of that simple and original life of man cared for by the poet. A worldly man is a simple character. A poet or philosopher is comparatively a simple character. Each of these may pursue a contented and simple existence. But confusion and discontent begin when the interest is divided between the world and those things which poets care for. If irresolution and the inability to decide what one wants are added to this character, the mind is taken up with a dialogue of thoughts, which, like the combat of principles in the Manichean theology, may go on forever. This was Thackeray’s state of mind. He discovered daily the vanity of mundane matters, but the discovery had nevertheless to be made the day after. He was born a poet and a humorist. His eyes were fixed on the original human nature so strongly that it would have been impossible for him to withdraw them. He could not cease to be a poet; but he could not forget the world. He believed in the world, and bestowed a reluctant but inevitable worship upon it. He had also a desire for position in it which he was unable to put aside. But I doubt if anybody with a mind like his, and living as he did, could have put it aside. People do not usually overcome a deep-seated disposition by an effort of the will, but by putting themselves in circumstances amidst which they may forget it. The thing is then out of sight, and is, therefore, out of mind. But Thackeray lived amidst just those circumstances in which it was most difficult to avert his mind from social ambition and pride of position. In Switzerland he might have forgotten it; but he could not forget it in Pall Mall; and Pall Mall was his proper place. His character was strongly social. Society and human beings had educated him, and he lived upon them. There was nothing for him, therefore, but to get on as best he could with the people among whom his lot fell.

The nature of that society is, perhaps, the most egotistical in the world. No other society so compels its constituents to be egotists, to be thinking continually upon the subject of their own consequence. Thackeray’s lot was, therefore, cast in a society the tendency of which was to educate rather than to allay his egotism, to excite to the highest degree his social pride. Doubtless, in some societies the mere fact of having written great works would give a man a social position sufficiently high to satisfy any ambition. Such is the case in America, and such is said to be the case in France; but such is not the case in England. Thackeray was aware that no matter what works he wrote he could never be the equal of many people whom he was in the habit of seeing. He knew that though he spoke with the tongue of men and of angels, though he had the gift of prophecy and understood all mysteries and all knowledge, though he could remove mountains, and though he gave his body to be burned, he could never be as good as the eldest son of a great peer. He might indeed have gone apart and lived among artists and other people of his own sort, whose society he said, and no doubt truly, that he preferred to any other. He might have given himself up to admiring the virtues and graces of people who make no figure in the world. But then he would have had to write himself down as one of the excluded, and this he would not have been able to do. As he could not obtain social position by writing great works, he was compelled to supplement his literary success by the pursuit of society.

It is easy to see that such a man as Thackeray, in making an object of getting on in society, would be at a disadvantage, as compared with others in the same line. See the way in which your entirely and simply worldly man goes to work. Such pride as he has he is able to put in his pocket. He never falls in love with any but the right people. He is betrayed into no sudden movements of the heart or fancy—supposing him to be capable of such—with obscure or doubtful persons. He wastes no words on people who cannot help him on the way. “This one thing I do,” he says, and, like most people who have one object, usually reaches it. Thackeray, on the contrary, saw and could not help caring for the souls of people. He liked the good, the simple, the honest, the affectionate. It is evident, therefore, in this business, Thackeray had too much to carry. The result was confusion and unrest. Yet he was never able to let it alone. Not only did he follow it in the common way, but we find him ready at any time to give himself up to some office or appointment, the possession of which will, in his own notion, make him more respectable. Thus, he wanted to be Secretary of Legation at Washington. He would have been of no use in such a place. Why did he want it? Perhaps he remembered that Addison and Prior were diplomatists, and was ready to choose a profession with the instincts of a fancier of old china. But the real reason was this: there, no doubt, seemed to him a particular decency in the occupation of a diplomate which he wished to transfer to and unite with himself. Every man, of course, may choose what objects he shall pursue, and Thackeray had, perhaps, at this time done enough to earn the right to be idle. But then he had what so few have—a real task to perform. He had an unmistakable employment cut out for him by his own genius, and prepared for him by the age; his head was full of great works which he wished to write; he wanted money, and he could make more money by writing these works than by doing anything else. At the time of which we are speaking, he had only ten more years of life, though, of course, he did not know this. Yet he was willing to stop his own proper business, his “Work with a big W,” as he would have called it, to go to playing with sealing-wax; for the consciousness of belonging to a profession, which in his eyes appears to have worn an air of peculiar respectability, he was ready to step down from one of the highest literary thrones of the day that he might accept a position in which he should copy the words of masters at home who were scarcely conscious of him, and take lessons of juniors, who regarded him as an interloper and a good-for-nothing.

It was because Thackeray so desired the respect of others, was so anxious for the social consideration of the people he was meeting, that he thought so much about snobs and snobbishness. Shakspeare says that the courtier has a “melancholy, which is proud.” By this we understand that the courtier’s mind is apt to be busy with the question of the favor in which he is held by the great personages with whom he lives, and of the consideration which he enjoys in that society which constitutes their entourage. This melancholy is not by any means confined to courts or courtiers. It was the “courtier’s melancholy” which Thackeray had. He was a sensitive man. It was, in general, his habit to take the world hard, and it was especially natural to him to suffer strongly from the unfriendly sentiments of others toward himself. He looked at the snobbish mind so closely and with such interest, because that mind had been directed upon himself. He examined it as a private soldier examines the cat-o’-nine-tails. It was the quickness of his sensibility to disrespect or unkindness—it was his keenly sympathetic consciousness of the hostile feelings of people toward himself—which awakened him to such energetic perception of the snobbish moods. It was this which caused him to look with such power upon a snob. During his fifty years of life he had conned a vast number of snobbish thoughts, and must have accumulated a great quantity of snob-lore. No doubt, he thought too much about snobs. The late Mr. Bagehot said that Thackeray judged snobbishness too harshly. Mr. Bagehot went on to say that it is only to be expected that people should wish to rise in society; that it is no such great sin to admire and court the successful, and to neglect the unsuccessful. It was Mr. Bagehot’s mistake to suppose the thoughts of one society to be those of the world, to take as universal a sentiment which, in the degree in which he knew it, was merely British. Certainly no other people in the world think so much about consequence as the English. Egotism in that country is made into a science. The subtlety which the subject is capable of in the hands of clever or even of stupid persons is surprising; for a large part of the community it would seem to constitute a liberal education.

I may here add that Thackeray was very much alive to the feelings toward himself of those who looked at him as a man rather than as a member of society. Much as Thackeray wished to be considered, he wished even more to be liked. He did not care very much to be admired; he had little vanity, and he liked kindness better than anything else in the world. He suffered keenly from the unfriendly thoughts of others concerning himself, and, one might fancy, half believed them. We might hazard the guess that he was one upon whom opinions, especially if they concerned himself or his affairs, had a great effect. His doubting temper disposed him to disbelieve his own opinions, no matter with what pains and care he might have formed them. The opinion of another, on the contrary, was a fact; it was, at any rate, a fact that the opinion had been expressed. Thus, he gave to the lightest breath of another the superstitious attention which an enlightened and sceptical heathen might have yielded to an oracle in which he was still half ready to believe. He had no large share of that just and right self-esteem which Milton teaches.