The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 12. Philip
The first number of The Cornhill Magazine, under Thackeray’s editorship, was published in January, 1860, containing the first instalment of Lovel the Widower, a short story closely akin to Thackeray’s early essays in fiction, and the first of Roundabout Papers, discursive essays in which his genius for embroidering a fabric of mingled satire and sentiment upon a ground of casual reminiscence surpassed itself. Thackeray had not the unworldliness of Elia, nor had his style that magical kinship to poetry and that power of giving new currency to the gold of the past which place that most lovable of essayists above all rivals; but the man of the world who unburdens himself of his wisdom with colloquial ease, commenting upon the contradictions and humours of everyday life with a sympathy born of self-knowledge, wins the affection even of those who are a little afraid of his keen criticism. His last complete novel, The Adventures of Philip, was contributed in serial instalments to The Cornhill of 1862. For the subject of this, he returned to the characters of A Shabby Genteel Story. The deceived Caroline reappears as the Little Sister, the hero of the story is the son of her seducer, whose shiftiness and heartlessness have not grown less with years, and the Tom Tufthunt who performed the mock marriage of Caroline to Brandon attempts, as the drunken blackmailer Tufton Hunt, to wreck the peace of the leading characters. As in The Newcomes, the urbane influence of Pendennis checks the whirlwind of the hero’s passion. No one, however, who has known Clive Newcome will find much that is new in Philip Firmin, whose bearishness and tactlessness, however, are individual outgrowths of a mercurial temperament. The cousin of the piece, unlike Ethel, is fundamentally heartless and fickle; and Philip finds his happiness, where Clive missed it, in the incidental lady of the drama. While his mother-in-law, Mrs. Baynes, is as great a virago as Mrs. Mackenzie, he has not to endure the martyrdom of a poverty-stricken life under the lash of her tongue; and Charlotte is more nearly related to Theo and Hetty Lambert than to the Inane Rosey. With all these qualifications, it is impossible to feel that the book contains a new character: the old pieces are arranged upon the board in a new formation. The story drags rather slowly through its appointed length of twelve monthly numbers, and ends with a theatrical device, the discovery of a will in the lining of a family chariot, which relieves Philip, as a somewhat similar discovery relieved Clive, from all financial cares. But, in The Newcomes, this event is redeemed by the true climax of the book, the colonel’s death, and to this recovery of interest Philip affords no parallel.
Thackeray’s last work of fiction, Denis Duval, was left unfinished at his death. The incomplete story was printed in The Cornhill during the first half of 1864. Its close relation to historical events resembles that of Esmond: in this instance, the chief actors, introduced through the medium of a tragic episode, as skilfully told as the court drama in Barry Lyndon and intrinsically even more piteous, were intended to wrok out their fortunes in the French revolution. Denis is his own autobiographer: writing in the evening of his days, he looks back upon the past with something of Esmond’s subdued humour and pity for the blind striving and wasteful passions that wear out human life. While Thackeray struck out no new line for himself in Denis Duval, he showed no sign of the exhaustion of power which is evident in Philip; and the last work that came from his hand is vigorous in conception and embodies his matured view of life with unabated clearness and simplicity.
In his later years, Thackeray began to feel heavily the strain of the hard and continuous labour with which he paid toll for fame and comfort. In February, 1862, while still occupied with Philip, he moved into a house in Palace green, Kensington, which he had rebuilt upon a scale compatible with somewhat luxurious ideals of living. Here, he proposed to devote himself to what he intended should be his greatest work, a history of the reign of Queen Anne. But Denis Duval came in the way of his new plan, and, before Denis Duval was far advanced, its author died suddenly in the early morning of the Christmas eve of 1863.