The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 13. Summary
Thackeray’s life is entirely bound up in his literary work. Its great catastrophe took place before he had achieved fame and social success, and, while it affected him deeply, did not check his appreciation of the fullness and gaiety of existence. To his contemporaries, who saw the redoubtable satirist at work in his clubs, where it was his habit to write daily in the heart of the life which he described, he appeared a cool man of the world, ready to meet their advances with an easy and, sometimes, formidable politeness. The notorious character-sketch, written by Edmund Yates in 1858, which brought about the rupture of friendly relations between Thackeray and Dickens, expressed, with malicious resentment, the bewilderment provoked by his superficial conversation and the suspicion with which persons of less alert intelligence regarded the apparent contradictions in his writings. The misunderstanding still exists, and in more than one form. There are those, on the one hand, who complain that Thackeray was heartless and cynical, because he lacked a cheerful faith in the general excellence of human nature. Others, who, from a different point of view, seem to regard a genius for satire as precluding a sincere appreciation of goodness, condemn his use of sentiment as a mere concession to contemporary ideas of propriety. It is, indeed, true that his range of character was limited compared with that of Dickens and Balzac, and that the sentiments and actions of his people are far more restrained by the conventions of their age and country. But, if this be equivalent to the confession that he had less imagination and invention than his two greatest contemporaries in fiction, it also implies that he kept more closely than they to the observation of the life that lay immediately beneath his notice. His appreciation of the comedy of manners was accurate and conscientious: he brought to his work an historic faculty which not only enabled him to vary his operations by re-creating with astonishing freshness the manners of a past age, but made his novels, where they dealt with his own times, important landmarks of fiction in its relation to contemporary manners. Even where his characters were most akin to himself, he was able to watch them from a detached and critical point of view, impatient of extravagance and improbability. Combining sympathy with criticism, he recognised that the puppets of his stage possessed a higher value for themselves than for the impartial spectator, that what is petty and laughable in its relation to life at large is of serious importance to the individual. No one has seen this double aspect of life more clearly than Thackeray. Conscious of his own share in the imperfections of humanity, he was unable to regard his fellows with an Olympian indifference. He varied continually between the two points of view, different and yet hard to distinguish. His sense of human littleness now had the upper hand, to be succeeded, without a pause, by a revulsion of feeling, in which the laughing philosopher trembled on the brink of tears. These apparent contrasts and sudden variations are the perplexing quality of his work to the reader who prefers the ludicrous and pathetic elements of life to be divided into distinct chapters, or, at any rate, to be isolated in parallel columns. The balance which Thackeray holds may not always be even: at times, his satire and irony may seem wanting in sympathy, his pathetic passages excessive in their demand upon the reader’s emotions. But, when these sides of his art in its relation to human nature are examined as a whole, it is found that, like their prototypes in life, they meet so closely that there is no line of demarcation between them. And this sense of the humour of life, of the proportion in which its elements are mingled, is conveyed by means of a style, not, indeed, free from mannerisms and imperfections, but endowed with a flexibility that responds at a touch to the demands of gravity and gaiety alike, and with a freedom of flow that brings the novelist into unstrained communication with his readers.