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Thackeray Greatest Master Of Fiction Post by :sander4 Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :2468

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Thackeray Greatest Master Of Fiction


Of all modern English authors, Thackeray is my favorite. Humor, pathos, satire, ripe culture, knowledge of the world and of the human heart, instinctive good taste and a style equaled by none of his fellows in its clearness, ease, flexibility and winning charm--these are some of the traits that make the author of Vanity Fair and Esmond incomparably the first literary artist as well as the greatest writer of his age. Whether he would have been as fine a writer had he been given a happy life is a question that no one can answer. But to my mind it has always seemed as though the dark shadow that rested on his domestic life for thirty years made him infinitely tender to the grief and pain of others. Probably it came as a shock to most lovers of Thackeray to read in a news item from London only three or four years ago that the widow of Thackeray was dead, at the great age of ninety years. She had outlived her famous husband nearly a full half century, but of her we had heard nothing in all this time. When a beautiful young Irish girl she was married to the novelist, and she made him an ideal wife for a few years. Then her mind gave way, and the remainder of her long career was spent within the walls of a sanatorium--more lost to her loved ones than if she had been buried in her grave. The knowledge of her existence, which was a ghastly death in life, the fact that it prevented him from giving his three young girls a real home, as well as barred him under the English law from marrying again--all these things to Thackeray were an ever-present pain, like acid on an open wound. It was this sorrow, from which he could never escape that gave such exquisite tenderness to his pathos; and it was this sorrow, acting on one of the most sensitive natures, that often sharpened his satire and made it merciless when directed against the shams and hypocrisies of life.

Thackeray's fame rests mainly on two great books--Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond. The first has been made very real to thousands of readers by the brilliant acting of Mrs. Fiske in Becky Sharp. The other is one of the finest historical novels in the language and the greatest exploit in bringing over into our century the style, the mode of thought, the very essence of a previous age. Thackeray was saturated with the literature of the eighteenth century, and in Esmond he reproduced the time of Addison and Steele as perfectly as he made an imitation of a number of the SPECTATOR. This literary tour de force was made the more noteworthy by the absolute lack of all effort on the novelist's part. The style of Queen Anne's age seemed a part of the man, not an assumed garment. While in the heroine of Vanity Fair Thackeray gave the world one of the coldest and most selfish of women, he atoned for this by creating in Esmond the finest gentleman in all English literature, with the single exception of his own Colonel Newcome.

Strict injunctions Thackeray left against any regulation biography, and the result is that the world knows less of his life before fame came to him than it does of any other celebrated author of his age. The scanty facts show that he was born in Calcutta in 1811; that he was left a fortune of $100,000 by his father, who died when he was five years old; that, like most children of Anglo-Indians, he was sent to school in England; that he was prepared for college at the old Charter House School; that he was graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and that while in college he showed much ability as a writer of verse and prose, although he took no honors and gained no prizes. After reading law he was moved to become an artist and spent some time in travel on the Continent.

But this delightful life was rudely cut short by the loss of his fortune and he was forced to earn his living by literature and journalism. Under various pseudonyms he soon gained a reputation as a satirist and humorist, his first success being The Great Hoggarty Diamond. Then years of work for PUNCH and other papers followed before he won enduring fame by Vanity Fair, which he styled "a novel without a hero."

Charlotte Brontë, who gained a great reputation by Jane Eyre, added to Thackeray's vogue by dedicating to him in rarely eloquent words the second edition of her novel, against which preachers fulminated because of what they called its immoral tendencies. Then in rapid succession Thackeray wrote Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians, Lovel the Widower and The Adventures of Philip. All these are masterpieces of wit, satire and humor, cast in a perfect style that never offends the most fastidious taste, yet they are neglected to-day mainly because they do not furnish exciting incidents.

Thackeray, like Dickens in his readings, made a fortune by his lectures, first on "The English Humorists," and later on "The Four Georges," and, like Dickens, he received the heartiest welcome and the largest money returns from this country.

He died alone in his room on Christmas eve in the fine new home in London which he had recently made for himself and his three daughters.

Thackeray was a giant physically, with a mind that worked easily, but he was indolent and always wrote under pressure, with the printer's devil waiting for his "copy." He was a thorough man of the world, yet full of the freshness of fancy and the tenderness of heart of a little child. All children were a delight to him, and he never could refrain from giving them extravagant tips. The ever-present grief that could not be forgotten by fame or success made him very tender to all suffering, especially the suffering of the weak and the helpless. Yet, like many a sensitive man, he concealed this kindness of heart under an affectation of cynicism, which led many unsympathetic critics to style him hard and ferocious in his satire.

Like Dickens, Thackeray was one of the great reporters of his day, with an eye that took in unconsciously every detail of face, costume or scene and reproduced it with perfect accuracy. The reader of his novels is entertained by a series of pen pictures of men and women and scenes in high life and life below stairs that are photographic in their clearness and fidelity. Dickens always failed when he came to depict British aristocratic life; but Thackeray moved in drawing-rooms and brilliant assemblages with the ease of a man familiar from youth with good society, and hence free from all embarrassment, even in the presence of royalty.

Thackeray's early works are written in the same perfect, easy, colloquial style, rich in natural literary allusions and frequently rhythmic with poetic feeling, which marked his latest novel. He also had perfect command of slang and the cockney dialect of the Londoner. No greater master of dialogue or narrative ever wrote than he who pictured the gradual degradation of Becky Sharp or the many self-sacrifices of Henry Esmond for the woman that he loved.

Howells and other critics have censured Thackeray severely because of his tendency to preach, and also because he regarded his characters as puppets and himself as the showman who brought out their peculiarities. There is some ground for this criticism, if one regards the art of the novelist as centered wholly in realism; but such a hard and fast rule would condemn all old English novelists from Richardson to Thackeray.

It ought not to disturb any reader that Defoe turns aside and gives reflections on the acts of his characters, for these remarks are the fruit of his own knowledge of the world. In the same way Thackeray keeps up a running comment on his men and women, and these bits of philosophy make his novels a storehouse of apothegms, which may be read again and again with great profit and pleasure. The modern novel, with its comparative lack of thought and feeling, its insistence upon the absolute effacement of the author, is seldom worth reading a second time. Not so with Thackeray. Every reading reveals new beauties of thought or style. An entire book has been made up of brief extracts from Thackeray's novels, and it is an ideal little volume for a pocket companion on walks, as Thackeray fits into any mood and always gives one material for thought.

Of all Thackeray's novels Vanity Fair is the best known and most popular. It is a remarkable picture of a thoroughly hard, selfish woman whom even motherhood did not soften; but it is something more than the chronicle of Becky Sharp's fortunes. It is a panoramic sketch of many phases of London life; it is the free giving out by a great master of fiction of his impressions of life. Hence Vanity Fair alone is worth a hundred books filled merely with exciting adventures, which do not make the reader think. The problems that Thackeray presents in his masterpiece are those of love, duty, self-sacrifice; of high aims and many temptations to fall below those aspirations; of sordid, selfish life, and of fine, noble, generous souls who light up the world and make it richer by their presence.

Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, has sixty characters, yet each is drawn sharply and clearly, and the whole story moves on with the ease of real life. Consummate art is shown in the painting of Becky's gradual rise to power and the great scene at the climax of her success, when Rawdon Crawley strikes down the Marquis of Steyne, is one of the finest in all fiction. Though Becky knows that this blow shatters her social edifice, she is still woman enough to admire her husband in the very act that marks the beginning of the decadence of her fortunes. Vanity Fair, read carefully a half-dozen times, is a liberal education in life and in the art of the novelist.

Personally, I rank Pendennis next to Vanity Fair for the pleasure to be derived from it. From the time when the old Major receives the letter from his sister telling of young Arthur's infatuation for the cheap actress, Miss Fotheringay, the story carries one along in the leisurely way of the last century. All the people are a delight, from Captain Costigan to Fowker, and from the French chef, who went to the piano for stimulus in his culinary work, to Blanche Amory and her amazing French affectations. But Pendennis is not popular.

Nor is Henry Esmond popular, although it is worthy to rank with The Cloister and the Hearth, Adam Bede and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. There is little relief of humor in Esmond, but the story has a strong appeal to any sympathetic reader, and it is the one supreme achievement in all fiction in which the hero tells his own story. Thackeray's art is flawless in this tale, and it sometimes rises to great heights, as in the scenes following the death of Lord Castlewood, the exposure of the Prince's perfidy, the selfishness of Beatrice and the great sacrifice of Esmond.

Space is lacking to take up Thackeray's other works, but it is safe to say if you read the three novels here hastily sketched you cannot go amiss among his minor works. Even his lighter sketches and his essays will be found full of material that is so far above the ordinary level that the similar work of to-day seems cheap and common. Happy is the boy or girl who has made Thackeray a chosen companion from childhood. Such a one has received unconsciously lessons in life and in culture that can be gained from few of the great authors of the world.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Thackeray Greatest Master Of Fiction

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