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

Criticisms and Interpretations. VIII. By Harold Williams

“A BEAUTIFUL vein of genius lay struggling about in him,” said Carlyle of Thackeray, with an aptness which does not always belong to his comments upon his contemporaries. Thackeray was a shy and diffident man, reserved and very sensitive, and we feel that never, either on paper or to his friends, did he wholly reveal himself; he was garrulous and wrote diffusively, he constantly made personal intrusions into his books, he is the most charming of friends and guides through the narrative, but something is kept back from us, and to the last page there is still an unknown element in the personality of the man who has talked so much about himself and of his books. Dickens showed what he was, and the least percipient could divine what his opinion would be on any given subject, what his mental attitude was to life in general. But Thackeray was a riddle; he was alternately accused of cynicism and sentimentalism: at one time he was unfeeling and represented life as worse than it was: at another he was inclined to hope too much in human nature. And why not? Every man who both thinks and feels will have his alternations of hope and depression, tender-heartedness and stoical contempt. And, though Thackeray mixed with his fellows in crowded places all his life, though he was a man of cities and a frequenter of clubs, an indolent Epicurean who loved to talk and lounge through life, he kept a chamber of his soul closed to the world; he was never completely off his guard, he never set the whole of his genius free. It was always, as Carlyle said, struggling about in him. For, though everyday philosophy was one of his weaknesses, he never conceived a whole and clear view of what life meant for him; and he appears, according to the mood of the moment, as the censor of morals, the indifferent cynic, the sentimentalist, the large-hearted man sensitive to the pain rather than the joy of life, and the Epicurean dilettante.…

Thackeray described himself as carried away by his characters till he lost control over their movements. The statement may be accepted and the inconsequent movement of the narrative goes to prove it; but it may be doubted whether he ever lost himself so completely as Dickens, who wept and laughed with the characters he created. There is always a degree of aloofness in Thackeray’s attitude; even Arthur Pendennis is not so much to him, not so dear to his heart and his memories of youth, as David Copperfield was to Dickens. Thackeray’s interest in his characters is the interest of the student, the analyst, and the theorist: he did not possess the faculty of absorption and identification. He consistently acts the part of censor and showman. He is always at our elbow, nudging and jogging us, pointing out and supplying, sometimes, it must be confessed, rather commonplace reflections we are to draw from the narrative. His pages are liberally provided with rubrics, stage-directions, marginal annotations, and textual commentary. We are, for instance, told that “the present chapter is very mild.” Well and good, but the discovery might have been left to the perspicuity of the reader. The part of showman is deliberately and unashamedly adopted.

“And as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly to love them and shake them by the hand; if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve; if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.”

It is the mere pedantry of criticism to insist upon the artistic impertinence of this lecturer-with-pointer attitude of Thackeray’s. We have learned to prefer the absence of the author; and in the majority of cases he is well-advised not to appear; but few would wish to see Thackeray out of his books. There may be books we can read without any desire for personal acquaintanceship with the author. If Thackeray were not in the habit of breaking off into commentary and personal intrusion, we should begin to wish for it; it is impossible to read his novels without a sense of personal interest in the figure of the author standing behind the narrative. But, as it is, he is always at hand as a delightful guide and instructor and friend.—From “Two Centuries of the English Novel” (1911).