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

Criticisms and Interpretations. V. By William Shepard Walsh

THE REASON that Thackeray’s real nature was so generally misunderstood by his contemporaries is not so far to seek. He was a reaction against the spirit of his age. He came upon the world at the time when the grotesque sham into which Byronism had degenerated at the hands of Byron’s admirers was emasculating literature; when the Great Soul was the popular ideal,—the gifted, gloomy, mysterious being who did not love the world nor the world him, but who usually had an amiable weakness for the world’s wife. He was a protest against all this. He was a protest, too, against the rampant egotism that found its fullest expression in the fiction of that period, in the earlier novels, for instances, of Bulwer and Disraeli, mere clever poseurs without any earnestness or sincerity, who were continually proclaiming their own merits from the house-tops, and inviting public attention to the beauty of their own emotions. In the vigor of his protest against all this brag and bluster, Thackeray may have gone to the opposite extreme. A man who is anxious to keep straight is liable to bend over on the opposite side. So, in the reaction against unreal enthusiasm Thackeray habitually talked under what he felt. He veiled his deeper feelings beneath a self-respecting reticence; he would have shrunk from making a public exhibition of the pulsations of a troubled heart. A friend who knew him and valued him, and who tells us that in the discussion of serious subjects he was apt, when pressed, to have recourse to banter, acknowledges that much of his light talk was intended not so much to conceal as to keep down a sensibility amounting almost to womanliness which belonged to his nature, and which contrasted, one might almost say struggled, with the manliness which was equally its characteristic. “He could not read any thing pathetic without actual discomfort, and was unable, for example, to go through with the ‘Bride of Lammermoor.’ I have heard him allude to some early sorrows, especially the loss of a child, in a way which showed how sharp and painful was the recollection after the lapse of many years. That he could sympathize warmly with others I infer from much that I have heard. His well-known sensitiveness sprung perhaps from the same root as his sensibility. ‘I like Thackeray,’ an English critic once said in my hearing, ‘but I cannot respect him—he is so sensitive.’ But his sensitiveness made harsh things distasteful to him even when he was not himself the object of them. ‘You fiend!’ he said to a friend who was laughing over a sharp attack on an acquaintance of both, and refused to hear or read a word of it.”—From “William Makepeace Thackeray,” in “Pen Pictures of Modern Authors” (1882).