The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IX. Thackeray

§ 10. The Newcomes

Meanwhile, The Newcomes had run its serial course from October, 1853, to August, 1855, under the ostensible editorship of Pendennis, domesticated with his Laura and fortified by personal experience in the task of piloting stormy youth to the sheltered haven of middle life. The habit of digression is more confirmed in The Newcomes than in any previous work; but one can hardly blame the desultoriness which elaborated the sympathetic portrait of Florac and strayed from the main current of the story to enlarge upon the wiles of the duchesse d’Ivry. The manifold happenings of the novel have their centre in the fortunes of Clive Newcome, and the device by which these are saved, the discovery of a will in a book, is mechanical. But Clive himself is much the least interesting member of his family: his excellent instincts, frequent errors and alternations of mood between gaiety and sulkiness excite sympathy, but the character is a type of which Thackeray had written much under other names, and its individual strength is not enough to obscure the fact that it exists for other purposes than its own sake. The contrast between the stately Sir Brian and the agricultural Hobson, the oblique references of Mrs. Hobson in Bryanstone square to lady Ann in Park lane, the impecunious Honeyman’s devices for his own precarious comfort, and the devotion of his admirable sister to the comfort of others, are individual traits of a stronger kind than any which Clive possesses. The unpleasant Barnes is too much of a monster: his brutality, amounting to insanity, is somewhat overdrawn to balance the virtues of the more deserving branch of his family. His maternal relations, however, his grandmother lady Kew and his cousin the earl, play a more natural part in the tale. Kew, faults and all, is honourable and lovable, and lady Kew is the most perfectly drawn of Thackeray’s worldly and cynical old women, sometimes almost terrible in their disregard of scruple and in the tyranny with which they alleviate the dreariness of their old age. But, if lady Kew is intimidating, she is, at all events, a more pleasant object of contemplation than Clive’s vulgar mother-in-law, Mrs. Mackenzie, whose transformation from a scheming but commonplace widow of some attractions in her better days to the compound of harpy and fury of her days of adversity makes some of the later chapters of the book intolerably painful. As for her daughter, the ill-fated Rosey, perplexed between her mother’s violence and Clive’s moodiness, her individuality is that of the light-hearted nonentity of ordinary life, who needs the stay of a perfect devotion to support her through the troubles she is incapable of meeting on her own account.

But the colonel and Ethel are the two portraits on which the fame of The Newcomes rests. Ethel, if her artistic presentation is less striking than that of Becky Sharp and Beatrix, redeems Thackeray from the charge of inability to draw a good woman. Amelia was inferior and insignificant, Laura was shadowy, Helen could have been effectual only as an angel and even lady Castlewood was better suited to another sphere than a troublesome world which tried her temper. Ethel is perfectly adapted to our planet: she has her caprices and contradictory moods, all the capacity for making mistakes and inflicting unconscious injury which belongs to pride and high spirits. The trouble which she can cause to others is fully atoned for by the unhappiness which she passes strengthens a nature too true and honourable to be deluded and spoiled by flattery and by ambition of the mere externals of success. Colonel Newcome’s character, on the other hand, is free from the complications which beset Ethel. From the evening when he rebuked old Costigan at the Cave of Harmony to the last scene when “he, whose heart was as that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of the Master,” his attitude to the world is perfectly simple. It cannot be said that he is drawn entirely without blemishes. He had knowledge of the world, and the trustfulness which survived this knowledge is sometimes incredible; in his period of financial success, he runs the risk of being condemned as ostentatious. It was a dangerous experiment to put so guileless a chevalier in the position of a promoter of a fraudulent company; and it might be argued that his martyrdom at the hands of Mrs. Mackenzie is a cruel expedient adopted to enhance the effect of a nobly pathetic climax. However this may be, the colonel’s simplicity, detestable to Barnes Newcome, mere quixotism in the eyes of Sir Brian and Hobson, wins the instinctive respect and love of all who, like Ethel, Martha Honeyman, Florac and the erratic Frederick Bayham, are capable of generous emotion. His character responds to those ideals which were the contemporary theme of the poetry of Tennyson; it awakened the enthusiasm, expressed by Burne-Jones, of the young band of poets and artists who were producing The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine; and it endowed English literature with the most lifelike picture of a man governed in all his actions by an absolutely direct sense of honour and duty, with a complete absence of self-consciousness.