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

IX. Thackeray

§ 4. The Sketch Books

The period 1840–4 produced, also, The Paris Sketch Book (1840), The Irish Sketch Book (1843) and Thackeray’s earliest contributions to Punch. The Paris Sketch Book was a rèchauffè of miscellaneous tales, criticisms and essays with a general bearing upon French life and manners. Their chief recommendation is that easy and simple style which Thackeray used without effort, taking his reader at once into his confidence. Success in conversation owes much to diplomatic precaution, and it is possible that Thackeray remembered this fact too well. At all events, his frequent exhibitions of impatience and even disgust at French characteristics which may irritate or shock the Briton are somewhat forced. He protests too much, as if to assure his public that a liking for Paris has not shaken his insular convictions. Personal prejudice, however, is clearly visible in such articles as The FÊtes of July and in The Second Funeral of Napoleon, published separately in 1841. Emotional display roused his sense of the contrast between sham and reality. Victor Hugo’s poetic appeal to Louis-Philippe on behalf of Barbés struck him merely as a theatrical flourish of rhetoric: it quite escaped him that the spirit which dictated it was as natural to a Frenchman as it was foreign to English ways of thought. George Sand’s utopian visions offended his common-sense, although he admired her “exquisite prose.” As a critic of literature, his appreciation was always limited by considerations which have little bearing upon purely literary merit, and it is not surprising to find that the French novelists of manners whom he selected for his approval were by no means of the first class. We are invited to the perusal of long extracts from Charles de Bernard, “without risk of lighting upon any such horrors as Balzac or Dumas has provided for us.” It is strange to think that anyone could have preferred these easily written, but somewhat insipid, passages to the “horrors” of Le Pére Goriot, Bèatrix, Eugènie Grandel, or Le Curè de Tours, from all of which it would have been possible for Thackeray to select.

The Irish Sketch Book, a consecutive record of travel in Ireland, contains much delightful observation of the ways of a people in whom Thackeray found abundance of material for his novels, and is full of picturesque and accurate appreciation of Irish scenery. Thackeray’s sense of natural beauty and his skill in describing what he saw were not mingled with any high poetic feeling, but are often overlooked in the contemplation of the human interest which overshadows the other qualities of his work. His Irishmen—captain Costigan, Redmond Barry and the Mulligan—are not the most creditable members of their nation. But, while their weaknesses are enlarged upon to the verge of caricature, they are treated with considerable sympathy. It amused Thackeray to be with them: he enjoyed their good-humour, even where their generosity gratified itself at the expense of others; and, far from disliking them, as those who miss the point of his humour are apt to argue, he leaned too readily to the amiable error into which Englishmen habitually fall of regarding Irishmen as pathetic repositories of unconscious humour. His observations on the state of the country are tinged with that patronage which the inhabitant of a land of progress carries into benighted and backward districts, and Irishmen, witty themselves and ready to be the cause of wit in other men, are able to appreciate them at their true value.