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William Makepeace Thackeray. (1811–1863). Vanity Fair.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. IV. By William Samuel Lilly

I SHALL inquire, presently, of what kind Thackeray’s philosophy of life was. First let me say what it was not. There are those—Taine is among them—who find him a misanthrope; a charge which, by the way, was brought against Balzac. The accusation seems to me wholly unjust in both cases. To speak of Thackeray merely, he drew the world around him, as he saw it, extenuating nothing, but, assuredly, setting down nothing in malice. He saw clearly enough—as who that has eyes must not see?—the seamy side of society: its littleness, its meanness, its selfishness, its baseness, its false religionism, its secret impurities—in a word which sums all up, its worldliness. I remember hearing a very learned and pious divine, the late Father Dalgairns, once tell a particularly smart congregation, “society is the devil’s church.” I do not know whether Thackeray would have gone as far as that. Certainly, however, “Vanity Fair” might stand as the title of every one of his books. But clearly as he saw, and vividly as he painted, the seamy side of society, he was no misanthrope, as Taine fancies. He saw with equal clearness, and painted with equal vividness, the truth and incorruptness, the purity and goodness, the love and pity which exist side by side with the abounding evil. He discerned in these things the real goods of human existence, and felt for them that reverence which Ruskin has happily called “the chief joy and power of life.” Taine seems to me particularly unhappy in calling him a disciple of Swift. In my judgment there is hardly anything in common between his genial humor and the saeva indignatio, the savage wrath, of that arch-inquisitor of human nature. Pungent as his satire often was, the man was overflowing with the milk of human kindness. “If Fun is good, Truth is still better, and Love is the best of all,” are the words with which he concludes his “Book of Snobs.” They seem to me an accurate expression of his mind.

Again, I cannot agree with Taine in his complaint—which has been made by hundreds of others—that the good people in Thackeray, if I may so call them, are contemptible and uninteresting. Colonel Newcome, George Warrington, nay, even Arthur Pendennis, particularly interest me as admirable specimens of what I take to be the best kind of man now extant on this planet, the English gentleman. And then his women, his good women. Surely Amelia Sedley is the very type of all that is “pure womanly”: Laura, in her “finished chasten’d purity,” “the queen of marriage;” while in Ethel Newcome we have “a perfect woman, nobly planned, to guide, to counsel, and command.” Thackeray, happily, lived at a time before the strong-minded woman had come into fashion—at a time when it was generally received and believed that “woman is not undeveloped man, but diverse.”

But I am treading on dangerous ground. Let me go on to notice another of Taine’s complaints of Thackeray, whom he finds a cynic. The complaint is echoed by thousands, by hundreds of thousands. I confess it seems to me that those who make it, speak unadvisedly with their lips: that they have not realized what a cynic is. I find no cynicism in Thackeray’s pages. If you want to see what real cynicism is take up “Candide.” In that incomparably witty book you have a perfect specimen of it. There Voltaire, under pretense of stripping off our illusions, strips us of our primary moral sympathies, of our fundamental ethical beliefs. But it is precisely to those sympathies and beliefs that Thackeray appeals, “those high instincts,” as Wordsworth calls them in magnificent verse familiar, doubtless, to all here—

  • “High instincts, before which our mortal Nature
  • Did tremble, like a guilty Thing surprised,”
  • and which are the most certain of all our certainties. To those sympathies, beliefs, instincts, I say, Thackeray ever appealed, to recall us from the worship of Mammon, the worship of rank, the worship of notoriety, to the worship of goodness, and truth, and love. Nor is it true, as Taine complains, that he has turned the novel into mere satire. True it is that in him we have a satirist who, to quote Pope’s description of Horace, “without method talks us into sense.” But true it is also that beneath his satire, there are springs of tenderness and pathos which are ever welling up. He is full of those “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” He knew well that we apprehend moral verities not only with the intellect, but also with the heart; [Greek] as the Greeks said; with the whole of our spiritual being. Nor let it be objected that he presents us with nothing better than trite moralities, “copy-book maxims.” Sidney Smith, in whom the very voice of common sense seems often to speak, has happily said, “It is the calling of great men not so much to preach new truths, as to rescue from oblivion those old truths which it is our wisdom to remember and our weakness to forget.”—From “Four English Humorists” (1895).