Stray Moments with Thackeray: His Humor, Satire, and Characters
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Poor Robert Brough used to say that a charming three-volume novel might be written, entitled " Passages in the Life of Frederick Bayham, Esq. Thackeray had himself half promised to narrate the adven- tures of J. When as " the Little Sister " he brought that poor shabby-genteel watering-place wife to life again in " Philip," what a clapping of hands there was. Who would have murmured at an account from month to month of the old age of Becky Sharp?
Who would not have dwelt with glee on the married life of Blanche Amory? The characters drawn by Mr. Thack- eray were less ideal creatures than real men and women, and we, being human, could never be indifferent to the doings of this living and breathing humanity, and could never hear too much about our kin.
The author could not avoid sharing his reader's opinions. He grew as fond of his characters as they did ; and to him, as well as to the public, his imaginary people were flesh and blood. But this is not the place in which to broach a theme which is wellnigh inexhaustible. Hundreds of pens are busy even now, I apprehend, in estimating the scope and bent of Mr.
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Thackeray's genius, in criticising his per- formances, in analysing his plots and his characters, in dilating on his infinite wit, his rich humour, his varied ac- quirements, his genuine vein of poetry, his unaffected pathos, his almost infantine playfulness and fun, his taste for art, his stern, sad knowledge of the world tempered never- theless by a living charity and an infinite sympathy with all who suffer his curious acquaintance with odd highways and byways of life, of the Bohemia that trenches on Belgravia, and the Bohemia that is skirted by Bethnal Green or his racy, idiomatic style, and his marvellous no- menclature.
A great deal of nonsense also will be talked, by those who never read two consecutive pages in the " Spectator " or one page of the essay on Dramatic Poesy, about Mr.
William Makepeace Thackeray
Thackeray's having restored to our tongue the purity it possessed in the days of Addison and Dryden. He wrote much better English than either of the illustrious writers above named whose productions, excellent in degree, are full of pedantic, obsolete, or lewd expressions such as this age would not tolerate simply because he lived a hundred and fifty years after Addison and Dryden, and was a more polished writer and more civilised man than they.
Much more balderdash also will be printed concerning Mr. Thackeray's " Saxon English " ; his diction being, in reality, about as exclusively " Saxon " as it was exclusively Telvogos. It was, the rather, the English 28 THACKERAY IN of an educated and travelled gentleman, who had begun his training at the Charter House and at Cambridge, and completed it on the Boulevards, on the Prater, and on the Pincian Hill who was alike at home in college common-rooms and in artists' studios, in the drawing- rooms of English matrons and in Pall Mall clubs aye, and in Covent Garden clubs, and " Haunts " at the minister's reception, and the table d'hote at Baden, in the halls of the opera, and on the cliff at Brighton.
Thackeray wrote neither like a college Don in heavy pedantry, nor like a Saturday Reviewer in ignorant and supercilious conceit, nor like a " fast " feuilletoniste in reck- less slang, nor like the mob of " gentlemen who write with ease," and write tame inanities and nothing more. He assumed no disguise and struck no attitudes, when he sat down to address the world. He neither put on a periwig, nor painted his face; neither scowled nor grimaced, neither strutted nor tumbled. If his meaning was to be helped out by French locution, or his phrase pointed by a Latin quotation, in went the Gallic or the Roman seasoning.
If an exclamation occurred to him, he exclaimed; if a re- flection in the earlier part of a paragraph had escaped him he added it, by way of rider, at the end. He could be as gossiping and digressive as Montaigne; but he had Mon- taigne's wit and parts and shrewdness.
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Otherwise, he would have drivelled and prosed. He could be as droll and as extravagant as Cervantes; but he had Cervantes' sagacity and appreciation ; otherwise, Jeames's diary would be a lampoon, and Major Gahagan only so much buf- foonery. He was, in fact, the sage who had seen men and cities, who had travelled from Dan to Beersheba, and knowing all that was barren, yet knew all that was fertile THE UNITED STATES 29 also the Peter Schlemihl who had not sold his shadow, who had marked the world and its ways, and talked as a worldling, but acted always as a true and natural and unsophisticated man, with a heart of gold.
The Life of Mr. Thackeray will doubtless be written by those who enjoyed his confidence or are the depositaries of his papers ; but little, so far as his public career is concerned, is necessary beyond the bare catalogue of his works, and the dates of their appearance.
Their enumeration is the history of his life as an author. That he stood unsuccess- fully for Oxford is a fact which the existing generation need not, for very shame, dwell upon. From the govern- ment of his native country he received neither favour, nor encouragement, nor recognition, nor reward. It is not our custom to recognise or to reward eminent literary men, save, when dying, they leave destitute families.
Then, perhaps, if they have been very eminent, we allow their widows a pension of a hundred pounds a year. The de- scendants of William Makepeace Thackeray will stand in need, it is to be hoped, of no such dole. Commencing life with competence, he lost it, and for a time knew poverty ; but his later years were happily prosperous. From the state he received not so much as the crumbs which fall from the children's table; but from the public his guerdon was ample and generous. His earnings from his lectures in England and the United States were immense ; his income from the editorship of the " Cornhill Magazine " was princely.
Thus, untitled, unstarred, unribboned, yet more famous than general or diplomatist looked up to as a patron and protector, yet compelled to the latest day of his life to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow unheeded and ignored by the rulers of his country, yet eagerly lis- 30 THACKERAY IN tened to in his most trifling utterances by the almost en- tire intelligence of two great nations, William Makepeace Thackeray adds one more to the list of great men, who neither in their lives nor their deaths receive any more official notice than a churchwarden or an exciseman, but to whom, a hundred years after their departure, halls will be dedicated and statues erected.
These lines are written ere the account of Mr. Thackeray's interment has reached this shore. I shall be agreeably disappointed indeed to learn that he has been deemed worthy of burial in Westminster Abbey. I have spoken of the writer, I have spoken of the phi- losopher j let me add, in fear and trembling, a few words on the man. I say in fear and trembling ; for conscious that this sheet may find its way to the other side of the Atlantic, I would rather a hundred times that I had never written one line on this theme, than that one friend of the departed should deem me desirous of turning my knowledge of him into materials for prurient gossip ; should think me wishful of vaunting among foreigners my long acquaintance with Mr.
Thackeray, the constant friendship, the untiring kind- ness he showed me.
God knows I wish to claim no hail- fellow-well-met familiarity with him. It is the sorriest of tuft-hunting to brag of the easy terms one has been on with a dead man. I never clapped him on the back and called him " Thack," as I have seen and heard, shudderingly, some do. I always entertained for him, from the first day I met and spoke with him in , to the last time I pressed his hand at the Reform Club in November, , a feeling of admiration that was mingled with awe. He was so much bigger, wiser, older, better than I was.
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He was to me a man whom you could address as " Sir," without derogating from your manhood or your status. I am emboldened to think that I got on with him, during the dozen years of our friendship, much better than those who used to boast of having been his companions over night, and grumbled at having been snubbed by him the next morning, simply because I made up my mind at the outset never to toady and never to take liberties with him. He never snubbed me, or gave me two fingers.
He gave me his whole hand, when I met him in the street, or at dinner, or at the club; if he wanted to chat and be jovial, he stopped and chatted, and was jovial ; if he was in evil case, he nodded and I nodded, and we went our several ways.
When he wanted me he sought me out, and I am glad to say he wanted me frequently. When I wanted a favour at his hands, I asked him frankly, and in twelve years got but one refusal. The kindnesses and courtesies he has done for me and them I love are untold. When a dear friend of mine was lying on his death bed, helpless and poor, the man who has been accused of " cynicism," of " snobbishness," followed me from my lodgings at Brompton, to my Chambers in Clem- ents' Inn, and thence to a newspaper office in the city, with a cheque for the relief of one whom he had never seen, but whom he recognised as a brother author sick and in need.
His charity did not stop at a cheque. He was an influential member of the Literary Fund, and he was mainly instrumental in obtaining, from that benevolent and much maligned corporation, a munificent grant towards the object he had at heart. The instance I have ventured to notice could be capped, I am sure, by hundreds of others within the knowledge of those who really knew Mr. To have seen him only in social intercourse, to have met him at parties, to have listened to his jests, his songs, and his infinite whim and fancy, to have sate even at his hospitable board, was not really to know him.
Under far different aspects, the real man came out. It was long ere you discovered that the so-called cynic and sybarite was the gentlest, kindest, and most loveable of creatures. My tongue is tied by dis- cretion, by delicacy, by the hope of a speedy return to my own country. I should wish to mingle no vulgar tinsel leaf with the chaplet that will be cast on the tomb of our great novelist and essayist. I only trust that in England legions of tongues, more eloquent than mine, have already done justice to the private worth, the goodness, the benevo- lence, and the modesty of my dear old friend and mas- ter ; and, while I grieve that I have not been permitted to follow his remains to the grave, yet is there something consoling in the reflection, that in a strange country, but among an enlightened and intelligent people who, to the full, admire and appreciate his genius, and who held him, to their great honour, personally in affection and esteem, it has been my lot, in the English tongue, and in an English journal, to bear my feeble but sincere testimony to the attainments and the virtues of William Makepeace Thackeray.
Merivale, another of Thackeray's English friends, concludes a recent tribute to his memory in these words: "He and his epitaph might have been written down in his own transla- tion from the German lyric : for he was a poet as he was everything else when the mood was on him : " Oh for all I have suffered and striven! Care has embittered my cup and my feast : But here is the night and the dark blue heaven, And my soul shall be at rest. Oh royal night! Wherefore seemeth the time so long, Till I see yon stars in the fullest flight, And list to their loudest song?
Ritchie, " of which the last verses might seem almost to speak of his own history " My song save this is little worth ; I lay the weary pen aside, And wish you health, and love, and mirth, As fits the solemn Christmas-tide, VOL. Be this, good friends, our carol still, Be peace on earth, be peace on earth, To men of gentle will. Three of these are included in this chapter : one in prose, by his attached admirer, Bayard Taylor; an admirable poem from the pen of Richard Henry Stoddard ; and the noble and truthful lines written by Thomas W.
In the maturity of his powers, with his enduring position in literature fairly won and recognised, with the provision which spurred him to constant work secured to those he loved, his death saddens us rather through the sense of our own loss than from the tragic regret which is associated with an unaccomplished destiny.
More fortunate than Fielding, he was allowed to take the measure of his permanent fame. The niche wherein he shall henceforth stand was chiselled while he lived.