The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 8. Pendennis
The objective and impartial nature of Thackeray’s characterdrawing must be clear to any reader of Vanity Fair who watches the effect upon himself of the gradual unrolling of the careers of its principal personages. They come before us like the casual acquaintances of ordinary life: we may feel instinctive affinities or repulsions, but we suspend our judgment till we get to know them better, with the consciousness that the novelist is in the same position as ourselves. As he writes, his characters discover themselves to him: he becomes the interpreter of events which lie beyond his conscious control. If this is obvious in Vanity Fair, it is even more obvious in Pendennis, the opening number of which was published in November, 1848. Ostensibly a biography of Arthur Pendennis, written in the third person by himself, its interest lies not so much in the hero, whose importance chiefly depends upon the close resemblance of his early career to Thackeray’s own, as in the world of individual types which passes under his eye. Pendennis is a careless young gentleman, quite satisfied with himself and the world, running out of one escapade into another with the assurance that all will come right in the end, and fully aware that, in the event of bankruptcy of fortune or reputation, he has the fund of his mother’s and cousin’s affection to draw upon. Thackeray’s early Bohemianism and humorous appreciation of follies of which, doubtless, he had had his own share tinged the portrait with leniency, but Pendennis is so sure of his position as a lord of creation that only his talent as a chronicler preserves our patience with him. Of the persons most intimately concerned with him, his mother and Laura, perhaps, fill more space than their individualities actually claim. It is a foregone conclusion that, even though the early admiration of the little girl for her patronising cousin gives way to criticism of the spoiled darling who takes his mother’s love as his unquestioned birthright, laura will be ready, eventually, to take him to her heart. She is, however, natural, not without charm and a faithful portrait of maidenly propriety without a shadow of prudish insincerity. By the side of Blanche Amory, that bundle of diverting affectations mingled with shrewishness and sinister vulgarity, Laura does not suffer the eclipse into which Amelia falls by the side of Becky. Helen, on the other hand, is inconceivably good. Only her British prejudices, which occasionally provoke her into human annoyance, save her from a perfection unattainable by human nature. Her patience, indeed, is not so extraordinarily tolerant as that of Adeline in La Cousine Bette, whose incurable habit of forgiveness is almost a vice, nor, in an atmosphere whose moral values are pitched in a more normal key, has it to face trials so colossal; but it is so unvarying that her son was almost justified in regarding it as a fair object for provocation. The wisdom of motherhood is sacrificed to Helen’s saintly forbearance: in a mother less super-human, resentment might have added its embittering force to affection, but Helen continues to idolise her son. The society of his sister-in-law must have been an intolerable strain upon major Pendennis, the one person who is capable of making the debonair Arthur thoroughly ashamed of himself—for Laura’s efforts are discountable in the certainty of her eventual condonation of the prodigal. The major is the leading portrait of the novel. He is the first person who appears in it, and, from the time when he intervenes in his nephew’s love affair with Miss Fotheringay, his worldly wisdom is at hand to provide the wayward Arthur with help from a more practical, if less innocent, point of view than that of Helen. His philosophy of life, founded upon the contemplation of a society of which his friend lord Steyne was a chief ornament, is not exalted; but its cynical expression does not prevent a respect for less worldly ideals, not without some surprise at those who prefer them, from intruding into his conduct and conversation. As ambassador and mentor he displays consummate tact. He knows his part too well to treat his pupil as a mere child or to show his apprehensions to the opponents whom he has to disarm by conciliation and adroit flattery. His prompt recognition of the shrewd Foker as a man of the world at once enlists the services of that connoisseur in human nature, whose own philosophy is doomed to suffer defeat under the killing glances of Blanche Amory. The attempt of Morgan to blackmail the major, although, in itself, a somewhat theatrical episode, the object of which is to help in unravelling the complications of the chief characters, brings out conclusively the major’s ability to fight his own battles.
Plot is a somewhat negligible quantity in Pendennis, and the part played by the ruffianly Altamont, Amory, or Armstrong, in bringing the story to a satisfactory conclusion, is purely conventional. The Clavering household, whose unstable fortunes he threatens, is our means of communication with the Chevalier Strong, the most gallant and lovable of Thackeray’s adventurers, and with the Begum, an excellent study in innocently vulgar amiability; but the debauched and hysterical Sir Francis is too contemptible to be interesting, and Blanche’s poses are too patent to have been tolerable in real life. Blanche, however, is prolific in amusement, and Thackeray devoted himself to enlarging upon her traits with that power of ludicrous invention which he exercised upon the objects that diverted him most. It was at this time that he was beginning to produce his Christmas Books, and the types described and drawn by pen and pencil in Mrs. Perkins’s Ball and Our Street, with mingled truth and extravagance, are to be recognised over and over again in his longer works. Without the fixity of plan with which Balzac created a coherent world in La Comèdie Humaine, Thackeray liked to allow the characters of one novel to move across the scene of another and to invest them with the bond of interest in a common society. This was done casually and without strict attention to accuracy, and, as time went on, with much less inventive power. The variety and freshness of Pendennis, however, are remarkable. While it includes a character so extravagant as the French cook Mirobolant, with his ideal passion for Blanche and his consecration of his art to her virginal allurements, it introduces us, also, to the premature sage Harry Foker, in his flowered dressing-gown, “neat, but not in the least gaudy,” to the genial and disreputable Costigan, who was to rouse colonel Newcome’s indignation at a later day, to the forlornly faithful Bows, to captain Shandon, who, modelled upon Thackeray’s knowledge of the versatile Maginn, presided over the inception of Pendennis’s Pall Mall Gazette, and to George Warrington, scholar and humourist, concealing the tragedy of his life and, somewhat ineffectually, his noble tenderness and selfishness beneath a gruff uncouthness of exterior.