Review: Thackeray

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Lewis Melville was an English author known mainly for his biographical works on Victorian authors.

Series:

Tennyson is one of a series of eight brief biographies of writers (“The Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton and other writers in 1902 and 1903. Chesterton co-wrote six of them:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton, J. E. Hodder Williams)
  4. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)
  5. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  6. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these six writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

William Makepeace Thackeray was an English novelist of the mid-nineteenth century, portrayed in Chesterton’s time as a cynic, and in our time as a satirist. Both authors in this little book, however, contend that Thackeray is neither. While Melville writes that Thackeray’s fictional characters are often “scoundrels,” Chesterton turns this around by portraying Thackeray as an “idealist.” Chesterton argues that allowing us to sympathize with the “scoundrels” was Thackeray’s genius:

We may, without any affected paradox, but rather with serious respect, sum up Thackeray’s view of life by saying that amid all the heroes and geniuses he saw only one thing worth being—a fool. (ch. 1)

In his account of the many characters of Thackeray’s stories, Melville writes:

His characters are always human. There are no immaculate heroes, no perfect heroines, no utterly unredeemed scoundrels of either sex to be met with in the pages of his books. (ch. 2)

Thackeray evidently did not see himself as a satirist. Rather, he imagined his characters were real people, and he wrote matter-of-factly that he began his novels entirely on this basis. He did not write fiction with any particular climax in mind, and wrote that he did not “control” his characters: “I am in their hands, and they take me where they please.” Again, in his letters he speaks of characters as his “friends,” and writes, “I wonder what will happen to Pendennis.” Far from a bleak lover of tragedy, Chesterton sees in Thackeray the same childlike whimsy that made his own writings so lovable.

Aside from his unique process, another intriguing device used by Thaceray was that of introducing crossover characters in unrelated stories; this device was also adopted, for example, by George MacDonald in some of his novels, and has become very popular in contemporary fiction.

As far as his personal life, Thackeray began as a noble, but spent most of his inheritance in Europe before he really created a livelihood. In an odd parallel to Chesterton’s early career, Thackeray excelled at art and made a study of it, but could not make a living doing so, and eventually made a name for himself as a writer instead. In the 1830s, he was fixed as a contributor for several magazines of the time, such as Fraser’s Magazine, and later as editor of Cornhill. Like other novels of the time (including Dickens), most of Thackeray’s fictional stories were published as serials and only later compiled into books. They progressed toward realism over time, the most famous being Pendennis (1850), Vanity Fair (1853), and The Newcomes (1855).

Meat:

Though his treatment of this author seems—as usual—paradoxical, Chesterton does a good job of defending Thackeray as an idealist. This culminates in these wonderful commemorative verses by Anthony Trollope:

He was a cynic; you might read it writ
In that broad brow, crowned with its silver hair;
In those blue eyes, with childlike candour lit,
In that sweet smile his lips were wont to wear;

A cynic? Yes—if ’tis the cynic’s part
To track the serpent’s trail, with saddened eye,
To mark how good and ill divide the heart,
How lives in chequered shade and sunshine lie.

Subverting the static portrayal of good and evil characters is something that has become quite a vogue in post-modern fiction and cinema; it is no longer fashionable, sometimes, to even know who the hero and the villain are. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn famously wrote:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

For Thackeray’s part, I would hope that his audience would at least have agreed on what evil is as a starting point. From there, we can work out the meaning and destiny of each character.

Bones:

Most definitely, the most humorless part of this book is the record of the houses that Thackeray lived in. Surely, an American reader gets no joy from this, and even an English tourist, I believe, would only look over it with the mildest interest unless he happened to be within a mile of one of them.

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