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Virginians,' once the smart and beautiful Beatrix of 'Henry Esmond.' In these scenes Thackeray is surely playing upon our emotions in the manner of Sterne. Perhaps his most tragic situation is Clive Newcome growing away in his intellectual and moral sympathies from his father, a gentleman of another age. 'The old man lay awake and devised kindnesses, and gave his all for the love of his son; and the young man took, and spent, and slept, and made merry.' The pathetic climax to the situation is when the Colonel with broken heart one day goes into Olive's study and stammers: 'I — I am sorry you have any secrets from me, Clive.' In Thackeray's first novel, as we have seen, rogues and gentlemen in motley were the real characters; in his second novel attention was fixed upon two characters, lamentably weak but having a dash of sterling manhood in them. They were both novels without heroes. Thackeray's later aim was to portray great and commanding goodness of the heart in characters like Ethel, and Colonel Newcome, Colonel Esmond, and Harry Warrington; and by means of them to draw attention away from worldly meanness. He dwells upon pardon, renunciation, forgiveness, reconciliation, disinterested friendship, and the separation of parents and children by sea and death; and bows his head in awe before the inexplicable course of events and the mysteries of life and death.
Of the style with which Thackeray invested his thought, it came, so far as there is any historical explanation of it, along with much in his way of thinking, from the eighteenth-century humorists — Addison, Steele, Fielding, and Sterne—and from those burlesque writers contemporary with his youth, among whom were Theodore Hook and Pierce Egan. Historical considerations, however, do not count for much in considering that sinuous style of his, adapting itself to plain narrative, and rising at will into eloquence, or meandering into the delightfully colloquial, or shunting off into the unexpected humorous turn. Not so careful in his syntax as Fielding, he is yet in his easy mastery of language and of grand and simple rhythm with the greatest of the Elizabethans.
In construction his success was variable. He wrote and published in parts, and of this method there are inevitable consequences. He proceeded in a leisurely go-as-you-please manner, strewing the way with characters he wished to rid himself of, by running them through, giving them a fever, or letting them drop in an apoplectic fit. To one or two notions he held fast. No ghastly death would he allow, no drownings nor strangulations; the corpse must look comely. And that the novel might have a pleasant ending, there must be at least one happy marriage in the last chapters and the restoration of a lost or sequestered fortune. From the standpoint of structure, 'The Virginians' and 'Philip' are the weakest of Thackeray's work. 'Vanity Fair' and 'The Newcomes,' epic in their immense scope, are more rigidly dramatic than they are usually said to be; beneath their apparent carelessness of manner is 'an art that nature makes.' Once Thackeray wrote his entire novel before the publication of any part of it, and the perfect form of 'Henry Esmond' has been the despair of his fellowcraftsmen. Dickens's novels we called groups of incidents; Thackeray's are confidential conversations. Thackeray assumes the role of showman. He exhibits his characters, banters and scolds them, and talks through them as if they were Punch and Judy and he the ventriloquist; and, suddenly stopping, he turns to his audience, telling them all about the figures on the wires, and all about themselves. Characters, author, and reader are ever coalescing and separating like moving shadows. This procedure is denounced by the more modern builders as militating against the conservation of character; and probably therein lies the danger. Let the actors play their parts and the author keep silent; that is the maxim. But in any specific case the method must be judged by its success. Rawdon Crawley and Becky Sharp are among that small company of characters in fiction that really grow from page to page. Certainly nothing is more tiresome than commonplace moralizings. But Thackeray's thinking was so cosmopolitan and his feelings of so exquisite a quality that, when we think of him, his asides and comments are what return oftenest upon the memory. By means of them he awakened into ripple all those pleasing emotions of wit and humor and satire and loveliness and gentleness and reverence, common to the enlightened humanity for whom he, distinctively a man of letters, wrote. In his most ideal moods he was always a realist of the spirit, because of his sanity.
2. Bvlwer-Lytton m the R6le of Realist, George Borrow, Charles Reade
The return to realism in the nineteenth century was essentially a return to the manner of the great novelists of the eighteenth century. The minor humorists and Dickens went back in the main to the caricature of Smollett. Thackeray was to fiction a second Fielding. The product of the new realism, however, was quite different from the old. Dickens and Thackeray had their own rich experiences and observations, and both were captivated by the historical setting of Scott. If we were to have Smollett and Fielding once more, why not Sterne also? Sterne did appear again in the equivocations of Pierce Egan, in the gestures and grimaces of Dickens, and in the pretty sentimental scenes that Thackeray built up and pushed over. But the fully premeditated restoration of Sterne is a debt we owe to Bulwer-Lytton. Immediately after the rise of Thackeray, this talented novelist, who always kept his finger on the public pulse, writing of philosophies, criminals, fairies, ghosts, and Norman barons, as the heart-beat of his patient seemed to point the way, turned his attention to Quixotic characters of country life. 'The Caxtons' appeared in 1849, and its double continuation under the title 'My Novel; or, Varieties in English Life,' in 1853.
The scenes of these novels are English villages in the old days before railways, when the crotchets and the kindly absurdities of country manners had not yet been toned down by intercourse with London. The characters are a broken-down military captain, a gentleman with brain bewildered by useless knowledge multiplied beyond measure by syllogistic reasoning from whimsical hypotheses, old-fashioned squires and parsons, quack doctors, refugees, beautiful young women created for young members of Parliament, and r
a cabinet minister and leader of the House of Commons. The action is carried on in sentences and chapters short and abrupt, and frequently by dialogues arranged in dramatic form. Humorous pity is awakened by a lame and dyspeptic duck which the elder Caxton allows to walk about with him and which in kindness he tickles under the left ear; in a donkey that has been thrashed for munching a thistle and is consoled by the parson with a 'rose cheeked apple'; and in a poor moth, which, in seeking warmth by the Caxton fireside on a cold October evening, barely escapes a tragic end.
While there is undoubtedly in these two novels considerable autobiography and personal observation, especially in election scenes and the accounts of the actual working of government, Bulwer did not appreciably raise the quality of the realism of current fiction. He was too plainly imitative; and he took as his model not a realist, but a writer who had played fantastically with real life. Dickens and Thackeray were not primarily imitative. In certain peculiarities of manner, but not in matter, they were of the eighteenth century. In Bulwer were both the manner and the matter of Sterne. Perhaps the main historical interest in these sixteen hundred and odd pages of Bulwer's is that they show how the literary weathercock had veered round toward realism. Similar evidence we have in Dickens. 'The Personal History of David Copperfield,' which closely followed 'The Caxtons,' was a substitute for an autobiography; and as its early title indicates, it was in aim, whatever may be our opinion of the outcome, a transcript of actual experiences.