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Masters of the English Novel by Richard Burton

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This idea of a plan was not crystallized into the famous title
given to his collective works--La Comedie Humaine--until 1842,
when but eight years of life remained to him. But four years
earlier it had been mentioned in a letter, and when Balzac was
only a little over thirty, at a time when his better-known books
were just beginning to appear, he had signified his sense of an
inclusive scheme by giving such a running title to a group of
his stories as the familiar "Scenes from Private Life"--to
which, in due course, were added other designations for the
various parts of the great plan. The encyclopedic survey was
never fully completed, but enough was done to justify all the
laudation that belongs to a Herculean task and the exploitation
of an almost incredible amount of human data. As for finishing
the work, the failure hardly detracts from its value or affects
its place in literature. Neither Spenser's "Faery Queen" nor
Wordsworth's "The Excursion" was completed, and, per contra, it
were as well for Browning if "The Ring and the Book" had not
been. In all such cases of so-called incompletion, one
recognizes Hercules from the feet. Had this mighty story-teller
and student of humanity carried out his full intention there
would have been nearly 150 pieces of fiction; of the plan-on-paper
he actually completed ninety-seven, two-thirds of the
whole, and enough to illustrate the conception. And it must be
remembered that Balzac died at fifty. One result of the
incompletion, as Brunetiere has pointed out, is to give
disproportionate treatment to certain phases of life, to the
military, for instance, for which Balzac has twenty-four stories
on his list, whereas only two, "The Chouans" and "A Passion in
the Desert," were executed. But surely, sufficient was done,
looking to the comedy as a whole, to force us to describe the
execution as well as the conception as gigantic. Had the work
been more mechanically pushed to its end for the exact plan's
sake, the perfection of scheme might have been attained at the
expense of vitality and inspiration. Ninety-seven pieces of
fiction, the majority of them elaborate novels, the whole
involving several thousand characters, would be impressive in
any case, but when they come from an author who marvelously
reproduces his time and country, creating his scenes in a way to
afford us a sense of the complexity of life--its depth and
height, its beauty, terror and mystery--we can but hail him as

And in spite of the range and variety in Balzac's unique
product, it has an effect of unity based upon a sense of social
solidarity. He conceives it his duty to present the unity of
society in his day, whatever its apparent class and other
divergencies. He would show that men and women are members of
the one body social, interacting upon each other in manifold
relations and so producing the dramas of earth; each story plays
its part in this general aim, illustrating the social laws and
reactions, even as the human beings themselves play their parts
in the world. In this way Balzac's Human Comedy is an organism,
however much it may fall short of symmetry and completion.

In the outline of the plan we find him separating his studies
into three groups or classes: The Studies of Manners, the
Philosophical Studies, and the Analytic Studies. In the first
division were placed the related groups of scenes of Private
life, Provincial life, Parisian life, Political life, Military
life and Country life. It was his desire, as he says in a letter
to Madame Hanska, to have the group of studies of Manners
"represent all social effects"; in the philosophic studies the
causes of those effects: the one exhibits individualities
typified, the other, types individualized: and in the Analytic
Studies he searches for the principles. "Manners are the
performance; the causes are the wings and the machinery. The
principles--they are the author.... Thus man, society and
humanity will be described, judged, analyzed without repetition
and in a work which will be, as it were, 'The Thousand and One
Nights' of the west."

The scheme thus categorically laid down sounds rather dry and
formal, nor is it too easy to understand. But all trouble
vanishes when once the Human Comedy itself, in any example of
it, is taken up; you launch upon the great swollen tide of life
and are carried irresistibly along.

It is plain that with an author of Balzac's productive powers,
any attempt to convey an idea of his quality must perforce
confine itself to a few representative specimens. A few of them,
rightly chosen, give a fair notion of his general
interpretation. What then are some illustrative creations?

In the case of most novelists, although of first rank, it is not
as a rule difficult to define their class and name their
tendency: their temperaments and beliefs are so-and-so, and they
readily fall under the designation of realist or romanticist,
pessimist, or optimist, student of character or maker of plots.
This is, in a sense, impossible with Balzac. The more he be
read, the harder to detect his bias: he seems, one is almost
tempted to say, more like a natural force than a human mind.
Persons read two or three--perhaps half a dozen of his books--and
then prate glibly of his dark view, his predilection for the
base in mankind; when fifty fictions have been assimilated, it
will be realized that but a phase of Balzac had been seen.

When the passion of creation, the birth-throes of a novel were
on him, he became so immersed in the aspect of life he was
depicting that he saw, felt, knew naught else: externally this
obsession was expressed by his way of life and work while the
story was growing under his hand: his recluse habits, his
monkish abstention from worldly indulgences, the abnormal night
hours of activity, the loss of flesh, so that the robust man who
went into the guarded chamber came out at the end of six weeks
the shadow of himself.

As a consequence of the consecration to the particular task (as
if it embraced the one view of existence), the reader perhaps
experiences a shock of surprise in passing from "The Country
Doctor" to "Pere Goriot." But the former is just as truly part
of his interpretation as the latter. A dozen fictions can be
drawn from the body of his production which portray humanity in
its more beautiful, idealistic manifestations. Books like "The
Country Doctor" and "Eugenic Grandet" are not alone in the list.
And how beautiful both are! "The Country Doctor" has all the
idyllic charm of setting which a poetic interpretation of life
in a rural community can give. Not alone Nature, but human
nature is hymned. The kindly old physician, whose model is the
great Physician himself, is like Chaucer's good parson, an
unforgettable vision of the higher potentialities of the race.
Such a novel deserves to be called quite as truly romance and
prose poem, save that Balzac's vraisemblance, his gift for
photographic detail and the contemporaneousness of the setting,
make it modern. And thus with "Eugenie Grandet" the same method
applied in "The Country Doctor" to the study of a noble
profession in a rural atmosphere, is here used for the portrait
of a good woman whose entourage is again that of simple, natural
conditions. There is more of light and shade in the revelation
of character because Eugenie's father, the miser--a masterly
sketch--furnishes a dark background for her radiant personality.
But the same effect is produced, that of throwing into bold
relief the sweet, noble, high and pure in our common humanity.
And in this case it is a girl of humble station far removed from
the shams and shameful passions of the town. The conventional
contrast would be to present in another novel some woman of the
city as foul as this daughter of Grandet is fair. Not so Balzac.
He is too broad an observer of humanity, and as artist too much
the master for such cheap effects of chiaroscuro. In "The
Duchess De Langeais" e sets his central character amidst the
frivolities of fashion and behold, yet another beautiful type of
the sex! As Richardson drew his Pamela and Clarissa, so Balzac
his Eugenie and the Duchess: and let us not refrain from
carrying out the comparison, and add, how feeble seems the
Englishman in creation when one thinks of the half a hundred
other female figures, good and bad, high and low, distinctly
etched upon the memory by the mordant pen of the Frenchman!

Then if we turn to that great tragedy of family, "Pere Goriot,"
the change is complete. Now are we plunged into an atmosphere of
greed, jealousy, uncleanliness and hate, all steeped in the
bourgeois street air of Paris. In this tale of thankless
daughters and their piteous old father, all the hideousness
possible to the ties of kin is uncovered to our frightened yet
fascinated eye. The plot holds us in a vise; to recall Madame
Vautrin's boarding house is to shudder at the sights and smells!
Compare it with Dickens' Mrs. Todgers, and once and for all you
have the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genius.

Suppose, now, the purpose be to reveal not a group or community,
but one human soul, a woman's this time: read "A Woman of
Thirty" and see how the novelist,--for the first time--and one
is inclined to add, for all time,--has pierced through the
integuments and reached the very quick of psychologic exposure.
It is often said that he has created the type of young-old, or
old-young woman: meaning that before him, novelists overlooked
the fact that a woman of this age, maturer in experience and
still ripe in physical charms, is really of intense social
attraction, richly worth study. But this is because Balzac knows
that all souls are interesting, if only we go beneath the
surface. The only work of modern fiction which seems to me so
nakedly to lay open the recesses of the human spirit as does "A
Woman of Thirty" is Meredith's "The Egoist"; and, of course,
master against master, Balzac is easily the superior, since the
English author's wonderful book is so mannered and grotesque.
Utter sympathy is shown in these studies of femininity, whether
the subject be a harlot, a saint or a patrician of the Grande

If the quest be for the handling of mankind en masse, with big
effects of dark and light: broad brush-work on a canvas suited
to heroical, even epic, themes,--a sort of fiction the later
Zola was to excel in--Balzac will not fail us. His work here is
as noteworthy as it is in the fine detailed manner of his most
realistical modern studies--or in the searching analysis of the
human spirit. "The Chouans" may stand for this class: it has all
the fire, the color, the elan that emanate from the army and the
call of country. We have flashed before us one of those
reactionary movements, after the French Revolution, which take
on a magic romanticism because they culminate in the name of
Napoleon. While one reads, one thinks war, breathes war--it is
the only life for the moment. Just ahead a step, one feels, is
the "imminent deadly breach"; the social or business or Bohemian
doings of later Paris are as if they did not exist. And this
particular novel will achieve such a result with the reader,
even although it is not by any means one of Balzac's supreme
achievements, being in truth, a little aside from his metier,
since it is historical and suggests in spots the manner of
Scott. But this power of envisaging war (which will be farther
realized if such slighter works as "A Dark Affair" and "An
Episode Under the Terror" be also perused), is only a single
manifestation of a general gift. Suppose there is desired a
picture very common in our present civilization--most common it
may be in America,--that of the country boy going up to the city
to become--what? Perhaps a captain of commerce, or a leader of
fashion: perhaps a great writer or artist; or a politician who
shall rule the capitol. It is a venture packed full of realistic
experience but equally full of romance, drama, poetry--of an
epic suggestiveness. In two such volumes as "A Great Provincial
Man in Paris" and "Lost Illusions," all this, with its dire
chances of evil as well as its roseate promise of success, has
been wonderfully expressed. So cogently modern a motive had
never been so used before.

Sometimes in a brace of books Balzac shows us the front and
back-side of some certain section of life: as in "Cousin Pons"
and "Cousine Bette."--The corner of Paris where artists,
courtesans and poor students most do congregate, where Art
capitalized is a sacred word, and the odd estrays of humanity,
picturesque, humorous, and tragic, display all the chances of
mankind,--this he paints so that we do not so much look on as
move amidst the throng. In the first-named novel, assuredly a
very great book, the figure of the quaint old connoisseur is one
of fiction's superlative successes: to know him is to love him
in all his weakness. In the second book, Bette is a female
vampire and the story around her as terrible as the other is
heart-warming and sweet. And you know that both are true, true
as they would not have been apart: "helpless each without the

Again, how much of the gambling activities of modern business
are emblazoned in another of the acknowledged masterpieces,
"Caesar Birotteau." We can see in it the prototype of much that
comes later in French fiction: Daudet's "Risler Aine et Froment
Jeune" and Zola's "L'Argent," to name but two. Such a story sums
up the practical, material side of a reign or an epoch.

Nor should it be forgotten that this close student of human
nature, whose work appears so often severely mundane, and most
strong when its roots go down into the earth, sometimes seeming
to prefer the rankness and slime of human growths,--can on
occasion soar into the empyrean, into the mystic region of
dreams and ideals and all manner of subtle imaginings. Witness
such fiction as "The Magic Skin," "Seraphita," and "The Quest of
the Absolute." It is hard to believe that the author of such
creations is he of "Pere Goriot" or "Cousine Bette." But it is
Balzac's wisdom to see that such pictures are quite as truly
part of the Human Comedy: because they represent man giving play
to his soul--exercising his highest faculties. Nor does the
realistic novelist in such efforts have the air of one who has
left his true business in order to disport himself for once in
an alien element. On the contrary, he seems absolutely at home:
for the time, this is his only affair, his natural interest.

And so with illustrations practically inexhaustible, which the
long list prodigally offers. But the scope and variety have been
already suggested; the best rule with Balzac is, each one to his
taste, always remembering that in a writer so catholic, there is
a peculiar advantage in an extended study. Nor can from twenty
to twenty-five of his best books be read without a growing
conviction that here is a man of genius who has done a unique

It is usual to refer to Balzac as the first great realist of the
French, indeed, of modern fiction. Strictly, he is not the first
in France, as we have seen, since Beyle preceded him; nor in
modern fiction, for Jane Austen, so admirably an artist of
verity, came a generation before. But, as always when a
compelling literary force appears, Balzac without any question
dominates in the first half of the nineteenth century: more than
this, he sets the mold of the type which marks the second half.
In fact, the modern Novel means Balzac's recipe. English
fiction, along with that of Europe, shares this influence. We
shall see in dealing with Dickens how definitely the English
writer adopted the Balzac method as suited to the era and
sympathetic to Dickens' own nature.

As to the accuracy with which he gave a representation of
contemporary life--thus deserving the name realist--considerable
may be said in the way of qualification. Much of it applies with
similar force to Zola, later to be hailed as a king among modern
realists in the naturalistic extreme to which he pushed the
movement. Balzac, through his remarkable instinct for detail and
particularity, did introduce into nineteenth century fiction an
effect of greater truth in the depiction of life. Nobody perhaps
had--nobody has since--presented mis-en-scene as did he. He
builds up an impression by hundreds of strokes, each seemingly
insignificant, but adding to a totality that becomes impressive.
Moreover, again and again in his psychologic analysis there are
home-thrusts which bring the blood to the face of any honest
person. His detail is thus quite as much subjective as external.
It were a great mistake to regard Balzac as merely a writer who
photographed things outside in the world; he is intensely
interested in the things within--and if objectivity meant
realism exclusively, he would be no realist at all.

But farther than this; with all his care for minute touches and
his broad and painstaking observation, it is not so much life,
after all, as a vision of life which he gives. This contradicts
what was said early in the present chapter: but the two
statements stand for the change likely to come to any student of
Balzac: his objective personality at last resolves itself into a
vividly personal interpretation. His breadth blinds one for a
while, that is all. Hence Balzac may be called an incurable
romantic, an impressionist, as much as realist. Like all first-class
art, his gives us the seeming-true for our better
instruction. He said in the Preface to "Pere Goriot" that the
novelist should not only depict the world as it is, but "a
possibly better world." He has done so. The most untrue thing in
a novel may be the fact lifted over unchanged from life? Truth
is not only stranger than fiction, but great fiction is truer
than truth. Balzac understood this, remembered it in his heart.
He is too big as man and artist to be confined within the narrow
realistic formula. While, as we have seen, he does not take
sides on moral issues, nor allow himself to be a special pleader
for this or that view, his work strikes a moral balance in that
it shows universal humanity--not humanity tranced in
metaphysics, or pathologic in analysis, or enmeshed in
sensualism. In this sense, Balzac is a great realist. There is
no danger of any novelist--any painter of life--doing harm, if
he but gives us the whole. It is the story-teller who rolls some
prurient morsel under his tongue who has the taint in him: he
who, to sell his books, panders to the degraded instincts of his
audience. Had Balzac been asked point-blank what he deemed the
moral duty of the novelist, he would probably have disclaimed
any other responsibility than that of doing good work, of
representing things as they are. But this matters not, if only a
writer's nature be large and vigorous enough to report of
humanity in a trustworthy way. Balzac was much too well endowed
in mind and soul and had touched life far too widely, not to
look forth upon it with full comprehension of its spiritual

In spite, too, of his alleged realism, he believed that the duty
of the social historian was more than to give a statement of
present conditions--the social documents of the moment,--variable
as they might be for purposes of deduction. He insisted
that the coming,--perhaps seemingly impossible things, should be
prophesied;--those future ameliorations, whether individual or
collective, which keep hope alive in the human breast. Let me
again quote those words, extraordinary as coming from the man
who is called arch-realist of his day: "The novelist should
depict the world not alone as it is, but a possibly better
world." In the very novel where he said it ("Pere Goriot") he
may seem to have violated the principle: but taking his fiction
in its whole extent, he has acted upon it, the pronunciamento
exemplifies his practice.

Balzac's work has a Shaksperian universality, because it is so
distinctly French,--a familiar paradox in literature. He was
French in his feeling for the social unit, in his keen
receptivity to ideas, in his belief in Church and State as the
social organisms through which man could best work out his
salvation. We find him teaching that humanity, in terms of
Gallic temperament, and in time limits between the Revolution
and the Second Republic, is on the whole best served by living
under a constitutional monarchy and in vital touch with Mother
Church,--that form of religion which is a racial inheritance
from the Past. In a sense, then, he was a man with the
limitations of his place and time, as, in truth, was Shakspere.
But the study of literature instructs us that it is exactly
those who most vitally grasp and voice their own land and
period, who are apt to give a comprehensive view of humanity at
large; to present man sub specie aeternitatis. This is so
because, thoroughly to present any particular part of mankind,
is to portray all mankind. It is all tarred by the same stick,
after all. It is only in the superficials that unlikenesses lie.

Balzac was intensely modern. Had he lived today, he might have
been foremost in championing the separation of Church and State
and looked on serenely at the sequestration of the religious
houses. But writing his main fiction from 1830 to 1850, his
attitude was an enlightened one, that of a thoughtful patriot.

His influence upon nineteenth century English fiction was both
direct and indirect. It was direct in its effect upon several of
the major novelists, as will be noted in studying them; the
indirect influence is perhaps still more important, because it
was so all-pervasive, like an emanation that expressed the Time.
It became impossible, after Balzac had lived and wrought, for
any artist who took his art seriously to write fiction as if the
great Frenchman had not come first. He set his seal upon that
form of literature, as Ibsen, a generation later, was to set his
seal upon the drama, revolutionizing its technique. To the
student therefore he is a factor of potent power in explaining
the modern fictional development. Nor should he be a negligible
quantity to the cultivated reader seeking to come genially into
acquaintance with the best that European letters has
accomplished. While upon the lover of the Novel as a form of
literature--which means the mass of all readers to-day--Balzac
cannot fail to exercise a personal fascination.--Life widens
before us at his touch, and that glamour which is the
imperishable gift of great art, returns again as one turns the
pages of the little library of yellow books which contain the
Human Comedy.

Balzac died in 1850, when in the prime of his powers. Seven
years later was published the "Madame Bovary" of Flaubert, one
of the most remarkable novels of the nineteenth century and the
most unrelenting depiction of the devolution of a woman's soul
in all fiction: certainly it deserved that description up to the
hour of its appearance, if not now, when so much has been done
in the realm of female pathology. Flaubert is the most
noteworthy intermediate figure between Balzac and Zola. He seems
personally of our own day, for, living to be an old man, he was
friend and fellow-worker with the brothers Goncourt (whom we
associate with Zola) and extended a fatherly hand to the young
Maupassant at the beginning of the latter's career,--so
brilliant, brief, tragic. The influence of this one novel
(overlooking that of "Salambo," in its way also of influence in
the modern growth) has been especially great upon a kind of
fiction most characteristic of the present generation: in which,
in fact, it has assumed a "bad preeminence." I mean the Novel of
sexual relations in their irregular aspects. The stormy artist
of the Goncourt dinners has much to answer for, if we regard him
only as the creator of such a creature as Madame Bovary. Many
later books were to surpass this in license, in coarseness, or
in the effect of evoking a libidinous taste; but none in its
unrelenting gloom, the cold detachment of the artist-scientist
obsessed with the idea of truthfully reflecting certain sinister
facets of the many-faced gem called life! It is hardly too much
to say, in the light of the facts, that "Madame Bovary" was
epochal. It paved the way for Zola. It justified a new aim for
the modern fiction of so-called unflinching realism. The saddest
thing about the book is its lack of pity, of love. Emma Bovary
is a weak woman, not a bad woman; she goes downhill through the
force of circumstances coupled with a want of backbone. And she
is not responsible for her flabby moral muscles. Behind the
story is an absolutely fatalistic philosophy; given a certain
environment, any woman (especially if assisted a bit by her
ancestors) will go to hell,--such seems the lesson. Now there is
nothing just like this in Balzac, We hear in it a new note, the
latter-day note of quiescence, and despair. And if we compare
Flaubert's indifference to his heroine's fate with the
tenderness of Dumas fils, or of Daudet, or the English Reade and
Dickens--we shall realize that we have here a mixture of a
personal and a coming general interpretation: Flaubert having by
nature a kind of aloof determinism, yet feeling, like the first
puffs of a cold chilling wind, the oncoming of an age of Doubt.


These three French writers then, Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert,
molded the Novel before 1860 into such a shape as to make it
plastic to the hand of Zola a decade later. Zola's influence
upon our present generation of English fiction has been great,
as it has upon all novel-making since 1870. Before explaining
this further, it will be best to return to the study of the
mid-century English novelists who were too early to be affected
by him to any perceptible degree.



By the year 1850, in England, the so-called Novel of realism had
conquered. Scott in an earlier generation had by his wonderful
gift made the romance fashionable. But, as we said, it was the
romance with a difference: the romance with its feet firmly
planted on mother-earth, not ballooning in cloudland; the
romance depicting men and women of the past but yet men and
women, not creatures existing only in the fancy of the romance-maker.
In short, Scott, romancer though he was, helped modern
realism along, because he handled his material more truthfully
than it had been handled before. And his great contemporary,
Jane Austen, with her strict adherence to the present and to her
own locale, threw all her influence in the same direction,
justifying Mr. Howell's assertion that she leads all English
novelists in that same truthful handling.

Moreover, that occult but imperative thing, the spirit of the
Time, was on the side of Realism: and all bend to its dictation.
Then, in the mid-century, Dickens and Thackeray, with George
Eliot a little later on their heels, and Trollope too, came to
give a deeper set to the current which was to flow in similar
channels for the remainder of the period. In brief, this is the
story, whatever modifications of the main current are to be
noted: the work of Bulwer and Disraeli, of Reade, Kingsley and

A decade before Thackeray got a general hearing Dickens had fame
and mighty influence. It was in the eighteen thirties that the
self-made son of an impecunious navy clerk, who did not live in
vain since he sat for a portrait of Micawber and the father of
the Marshalsea, turned from journalism to that higher reporting
which means the fiction of manners and humors. All the gods had
prepared him for his destiny. Sympathy he had for the poor, the
oppressed, the physically and morally unfit, for he had suffered
in his own person, or in his imagination, for them all. His gift
of observation had been sharpened in the grim school of
necessity: he had learned to write by writing under the pressure
of newspaper needs. And he had in his blood, while still hardly
more than a lad, a feeling for idiomatic English which, so far
as it was not a boon straight from heaven, had been fostered
when the very young Charles had battened, as we saw, upon the
eighteenth century worthies.

It is now generally acknowledged that Dickens is not a temporary
phenomenon in Victorian letters, but a very solid major fact in
the native literature, too large a creative force to be
circumscribed by a generation. Looked back upon across the gap
of time, he looms up all the more impressively because the years
have removed the clutter about the base of the statue. The
temporary loss of critical regard (a loss affecting his hold on
the general reading public little, if any) has given way to an
almost violent critical reaction in his favor. We are widening
the esthetic canvas to admit of the test of life, and are coming
to realize that, obsessed for a time by the attraction of that
lower truth which makes so much of external realities, realism
lost sight of the larger demands of art which include selection,
adaptation, and that enlargement of effect marking the
distinction between art and so-called reality. No critic is now
timid about saying a good word for the author of "Pickwick" and
"Copperfield." A few years ago it was otherwise. Present-day
critics such as Henley, Lang, and Chesterton have assured the
luke-warm that there is room in English literature for both
Thackeray and Dickens.

That Dickens began to write fiction as a very young journalist
was in some ways in his favor; in other ways, to the detriment
of his work. It meant an early start on a career of over thirty
years. It meant writing under pressure with the spontaneity and
reality which usually result. It also meant the bold grappling
with the technique of a great art, learning to make novels by
making them. Again, one truly inspired to fiction is lucky to
have a novitiate in youth. So far the advantages.

On the other hand, the faults due to inexperience, lack of
education, uncertainty of aim, haste and carelessness and other
foes of perfection, will probably be in evidence when a writer
who has scarcely attained to man's estate essays fiction.
Dickens' early work has thus the merits and demerits of his
personal history. A popular and able parliamentary reporter,
with sympathetic knowledge of London and the smaller towns where
his duties took him, possessed of a marvelous memory which
photographed for him the boyish impressions of places like
Chatham and Rochester, he began with sketches of that life
interspersed with more fanciful tales which drew upon his
imagination and at times passed the melodramatic border-line.
When these collected pieces were published under the familiar
title "Sketches by Boz," it is not too much to say that the
Dickens of the "Pickwick Papers" (which was to appear next year)
was revealed. Certainly, the main qualities of a great master of
the Comic were in these pages; so, in truth, was the master of
both tears and smiles. But not at full-length: the writer had
not yet found his occasion;--the man needs the occasion, even as
it awaits the man. And so, hard upon the Boz book, followed, as
it were by an accident, the world-famous "Adventures of Mr.
Pickwick." By accident, I say, because the promising young
author was asked to furnish the letter-press for a series of
comic sporting pictures by the noted artist, Seymour;
whereupon--doubtless to the astonishment of all concerned, the
pictures became quite secondary to the reading matter and the Wellers
soon set all England talking and laughing over their inimitable
sayings. Here in a loosely connected series of sketches the main
unity of which was the personality of Mr. Pickwick and his club,
its method that of the episodic adventure story of "Gil Blas"
lineage, its purpose frankly to amuse at all costs, a new
creative power in English literature gave the world over three
hundred characters in some sixty odd scenes: intensely English,
intensely human, and still, after the lapse of three quarters of
a century, keenly enjoyable.

In a sense, all Dickens' qualities are to be found in "The
Pickwick Papers," as they have come to be called for brevity's
sake. But the assertion is misleading, if it be taken to mean
that in the fifteen books of fiction which Dickens was to
produce, he added nothing, failed to grow in his art or to widen
and deepen in his hold upon life. So far is this from the truth,
that one who only knows Charles Dickens in this first great book
of fun, knows a phase of him, not the whole man: more, hardly
knows the novelist at all. He was to become, and to remain, not
only a great humorist, but a great novelist as well: and
"Pickwick" is not, by definition, a Novel at all. Hence, the
next book the following year, "Oliver Twist," was important as
answering the question: Was the brilliant new writer to turn out
very novelist, able to invent, handle and lead to due end a
tangled representation of social life?

Before replying, one rather important matter may be adverted to,
concerning the Dickens introduced to the world by "Pickwick":
his astonishing power in the evocation of human beings, whom we
affectionately remember, whose words are treasured, whose fates
are followed with a sort of sense of personal responsibility. If
the creation of differentiated types of humanity who persist in
living in the imagination be the cardinal gift of the fiction
writer, then this one is easily the leading novelist of the
race. Putting aside for the moment the question of his
caricaturing tendency, one fact confronts us, hardly to be
explained away: we can close our eyes and see Micawber, Mrs.
Gamp, Pegotty, Dick Swiveller, the Artful Dodger, Joe Gargery,
Tootles, Captain Cutter, and a hundred more, and their sayings,
quaint and dear, are like household companions. And this is true
in equal measure of no other story-maker who has used English
speech--it may be doubted if it is true to like degree of
Shakspere himself.

In the quick-following stories, "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas
Nickleby," the author passed from episode and comic
characterization to what were in some sort Novels: the fiction
of organism, growth and climax.

His wealth of character creation was continued and even
broadened. But there was more here: an attempt to play the game
of Novel-making. It may be granted that when Dickens wrote these
early books (as a young man in the twenties), he had not yet
mastered many of the difficulties of the art of fiction. There
is loose construction in both: the melodrama of "Oliver Twist"
blends but imperfectly with the serious and sentimental part of
the narrative, which is less attractive. So, too, in "Nickleby,"
there is an effect at times of thin ice where the plot is
secondary to the episodic scenes and characters by the way. Yet
in both Novels there is a story and a good one: we get the
spectacle of genius learning its lesson,--experimenting in a
form. And as those other early books, differing totally from
each other too, "Old Curiosity Shop," and "Barnaby Rudge," were
produced, and in turn were succeeded by a series of great novels
representing the writer's young prime,--I mean "Martin
Chuzzlewit," "Dombey and Son" and "David Copperfield,"--it was
plain that the hand of Dickens was becoming subdued to the
element it worked in. Not only was there a good fable, as
before, but it was managed with increasing mastery, while the
general adumbration of life gained in solidity, truth and rich
human quality. In brief, by the time "Copperfield," the story
most often referred to as his best work, was reached, Dickens
was an artist. He wrought in that fiction in such a fashion as
to make the most of the particular class of Novel it
represented: to wit, the first-person autobiographic picture of
life. Given its purpose, it could hardly have been better done.
It surely bears favorable comparison, for architecture, with
Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," a work in the same genre, though
lacking the autobiographic method. This is quite aside from its
remarkable range of character-portrayal, its humor, pathos and
vraisemblance, its feeling for situation, its sonorous eloquence
in massed effects.

By the time he had reached mid-career, then, Charles Dickens had
made himself a skilled, resourceful story-teller, while his
unique qualities of visualization and interpretation had
strengthened. This point is worth emphasis, since there are
those who contend that "The Pickwick Papers" is his most
characteristic performance. Such a judgment is absurd, It
overlooks the grave beauty of the picture of Chesney Wold in
Bleak House; the splendid harmony of the Yarmouth storm in
"Copperfield"; the fine melodrama of the chapter in "Chuzzlewit"
where the guilty Jonas takes his haggard life; the magnificent
portraiture of the Father of the Marshalsea in "Little Dorrit":
the spiritual exaltation in vivid stage terms of Carton's death;
the exquisite April-day blend of tenderness and fun in limning
the young life of a Marchioness, a little Dombey and a tiny Tim.
To call Dickens a comic writer and stop there, is to try to pour
a river into a pint pot; for a sort of ebullient boy-like spirit
of fun, the high jinks of literature, we go to "Pickwick"; for
the light and shade of life to "Copperfield"; for the structural
excellencies of fiction to later masterpieces like "The Tale of
Two Cities" and "Great Expectations."

Just here a serious objection often brought against Dickens may
be considered: his alleged tendency to caricature. Does Dickens
make his characters other than what life itself shows, and if
so, is he wrong in so doing?

His severest critics assume the second if the first be but
granted. Life--meaning the exact reproduction of reality--is
their fetish. Now, it must be granted that Dickens does make his
creatures talk as their prototypes do not in life. Nobody would
for a moment assert that Mrs. Gamp, Pecksniff and Micawber could
be literally duplicated from the actual world. But is not
Dickens within his rights as artist in so changing the features
of life as to increase our pleasure? That is the nub of the
whole matter. The artist of fiction should not aim at exact
photography, for it is impossible; no fiction-maker since time
began has placed on the printed pages half the irrelevance and
foolishness or one-fifth the filth which are in life itself.
Reasons of art and ethics forbid. The aim, therefore, should
rather be at an effect of life through selection and re-shaping.
And I believe Dickens is true to this requirement. We hear less
now than formerly of his crazy exaggerations: we are beginning
to realize that perhaps he saw types that were there, which we
would overlook if they were under our very eyes: we feel the
wisdom of Chesterton's remarks that Dickens' characters will
live forever because they never lived at all! We suffered from
the myopia of realism. Zola desired above all things to tell the
truth by representing humanity as porcine, since he saw it that
way: he failed in his own purpose, because decency checked him:
his art is not photographic (according to his proud boast) but
has an almost Japanese convention of restraint in its
suppression of facts. Had Sarah Gamp been allowed by Dickens to
speak as she would speak in life, she would have been
unspeakably repugnant, never cherished as a permanently
laughable, even lovable figure of fiction. Dickens was a master
of omissions as well as of those enlargments which made him
carry over the foot lights. Mrs. Gamp is a monumental study of
the coarse woman rogue: her creator makes us hate the sin and
tolerate the sinner. Nor is that other masterly portrait of the
woman rascal--Thackeray's Becky Sharp--an example of strict
photography; she is great in seeming true, but she is not life.

So much, then, for the charge of caricature: it is all a matter
of degree. It all depends upon the definition of art, and upon
the effect made upon the world by the characters themselves. If
they live in loving memory, they must, in the large sense, be
true. Thus we come back to the previous statement: Dickens'
people live--are known by their words and in their ways all over
the civilized world. No collection of mere grotesques could ever
bring this to pass. Prick any typical creation of Dickens and it
runs blood, not sawdust. And just in proportion as we travel,
observe broadly and form the habit of a more penetrating and
sympathetic study of mankind, shall we believe in these
emanations of genius. Occasionally, under the urge and
surplusage of his comic force, he went too far and made a Quilp:
but the vast majority even of his drolls are as credible as they
are dear.

That he showed inequality as he wrought at the many books which
filled the years between "Pickwick" and the unfinished "Mystery
of Edwin Drood," may also be granted. Also may it be confessed
that within the bounds of one book there are the extremes of
good and bad. It is peculiar to Dickens that often in the very
novel we perchance feel called upon to condemn most, occurs a
scene or character as memorably great as anything he left the
world. Thus, we may regard "Old Curiosity Shop," once so
beloved, as a failure when viewed as a whole; and yet find Dick
Swiveller and the Marchioness at their immortal game as
unforgettable as Mrs. Battle engaged in the same pleasant
employment. Nor because other parts of "Little Dorrit" seem thin
and artificial, would we forego the description of the debtor's
prison. And our belief that the presentation of the labor-capital
problem in "Hard Times" is hasty and shallow, does not
prevent a recognition of the opening sketch of the circus troop
as displaying its author at his happiest of humorous
observation. There are thus always redeeming things in the
stories of this most unequal man of genius. Seven books there
are, novels in form, which are indubitable masterpieces: "Martin
Chuzzlewit," "Dombey and Son," "David Copperfield," "Bleak
House," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations" and "Our
Mutual Friend." These, were all the others withdrawn, would give
ample evidence of creative power: they have the largeness,
variety and inventive verve which only are to be found in the
major novelists. Has indeed the same number of equal weight and
quality been given forth by any other English writer?

Another proof that the power of Dickens was not dependent
exclusively upon the comic, is his production of "A Tale of Two
Cities." It is sometimes referred to as uncharacteristic because
it lacks almost entirely his usual gallery of comics: but it is
triumphantly a success in a different field. The author says he
wished for the nonce to make a straight adventure tale with
characters secondary. He did it in a manner which has always
made the romance a favorite, and compels us to include this
dramatic study of the French Revolution among the choicest of
his creations. Its period and scene have never--save by Carlyle--been
so brilliantly illuminated. Dickens was brooding on this
story at a time when, wretchedly unhappy, he was approaching the
crisis of a separation from his wife: the fact may help to
explain its failure to draw on that seemingly inexhaustible
fountain of bubbling fun so familiar in his work. But even
subtract humor and Dickens exhibits the master-hand in a fiction
markedly of another than his wonted kind. This Novel--or
romance, as it should properly be called--reminds us of a
quality in Dickens which has been spoken of in the way of
derogation: his theatrical tendency. When one declares an author
to be dramatic, a compliment is intended. But when he is called
theatric, censure is implied. Dickens, always possessed of a
strong sense of the dramatic and using it to immense advantage,
now and again goes further and becomes theatric: that is, he
suggests the manipulating of effects with artifice and the
intention of providing sensational and scenic results at the
expense of proportion and truth. A word on this is advisable.

Those familiar with the man and his works are aware how close he
always stood to the playhouse and its product. He loved it from
early youth, all but went on the stage professionally, knew its
people as have few of the writing craft, was a fine amateur
actor himself, wrote for the stage, helped to dramatize his
novels and gave delightful studies of theatrical life in his
books. Shall we ever forget Mr. Crummles and his family? He had
an instinctive feeling for what was scenic and effective in the
stage sense. When he appeared as a reader of his own works, he
was an impersonator; and noticeably careful to have the stage
accessories exactly right. And when all this, natural and
acquired, was applied to fiction, it could not but be of
influence. As a result, Dickens sometimes forced the note,
favored the lurid, exaggerated his comic effects. To put it in
another way, this theater manner of his now and then injured the
literature he made. But that is only one side of the matter: it
also helped him greatly and where he went too far, he was simply
abusing a precious gift. To speak of Dickens' violent
theatricality as if it expressed his whole being, is like
describing the wart on Cromwell's face as if it were his set of
features. Remove from Dickens his dramatic power, and the
memorable master would be no more: he would vanish into dim air.
We may be thankful--in view of what it produced--that he
possessed even in excess this sense of the scenic value of
character and situation: it is not a disqualification but a
virtue, and not Dickens alone but Dumas, Hugo and Scott were
great largely because of it.

In the praise naturally enough bestowed upon a great
autobiographical Novel like "David Copperfield," the fine art of
a late work like "Great Expectations" has been overlooked or at
least minimized. If we are to consider skilful construction
along with the other desirable qualities of the novelist, this
noble work has hardly had justice done it: moreover, everything
considered,--story value, construction, characters, atmosphere,
adequacy of style, climactic interest, and impressive lesson, I
should name "Great Expectations," published when the author was
fifty, as his most perfect book, if not the greatest of Charles
Dickens' novels. The opinion is unconventional: but as Dickens
is studied more as artist progressively skilful in his craft, I
cannot but believe this particular story will receive increasing
recognition. In the matter of sheer manipulation of material, it
is much superior to the book that followed it two years later,
the last complete novel: "Our Mutual Friend." It is rather
curious that this story, which was in his day and has steadily
remained a favorite with readers, has with equal persistency
been severely handled by the critics. What has insured its
popularity? Probably its vigor and variety of characterization,
its melodramatic tinge, the teeming world of dramatic contrasts
it opens, its bait to our sense of mystery. It has a power very
typical of the author and one of the reasons for Dickens' hold
upon his audience. It is a power also exhibited markedly in such
other fictions as "Dombey and Son," "Martin Chuzzlewit" and
"Bleak House." I refer to the impression conveyed by such
stories that life is a vast, tumultuous, vari-colored play of
counter-motives and counter-characters, full of chance,
surprise, change and bitter sweet: a thing of mystery, terror,
pity and joy. It has its masks of respectability, its frauds of
place, its beauty blossoming in the mud, its high and low of
luck, its infinite possibilities betwixt heaven and hell. The
effect of this upon the sensitive reader is to enlarge his
sympathetic feeling for humanity: life becomes a big, awful,
dear phantasmagoria in such hands. It seems not like a flat
surface, but a thing of length, breadth, height and depth, which
it has been a privilege to enter. Dickens' fine gift--aside from
that of character creation--is found in this ability to convey
an impression of puissant life. He himself had this feeling and
he got it into his books: he had, in a happier sense, the joy of
life of Ibsen, the life force of Nietzsche. From only a few of
the world's great writers does one receive this sense of life,
the many-sided spectacle; Cervantes, Hugo, Tolstoy, Sienkiewicz,
it is men like they that do this for us.

Another side of Dickens' literary activity is shown in his
Christmas stories, which it may be truly said are as well
beloved as anything he gave the world in the Novel form. This is
assuredly so of the "Christmas Carol," "The Chimes" and "The
Cricket on the Hearth." This last is on a par with the other two
in view of its double life in a book and on the boards of the
theater. The fragrance of Home, of the homely kindness and
tenderness of the human heart, is in them, especially in the
Carol, which is the best tale of its kind in the tongue and
likely to remain so. It permanently altered the feeling of the
race for Christmas. Irving preceded him in the use of the
Christmas motive, but Dickens made it forever his own. By a
master's magic evocation, the great festival shines brighter,
beckons more lovingly than it did of old. Thackeray felt this
when he declared that such a story was "a public benefit." Such
literature lies aside from our main pursuit, that of the Novel,
but is mentioned because it is the best example possible, the
most direct, simple expression of that essential kindness, that
practical Christianity which is at the bottom of Dickens'
influence. It is bonhomie and something more. It is not Dickens
the reformer, as we get him when he satirizes Dotheboys hall, or
the Circumlocution Office or the Chancery Court: but Dickens as
Mr. Greatheart, one with all that is good, tender, sweet and
true. Tiny Tim's thousand-times quoted saying is the
quintessence, the motto for it all and the writer speaks in and
through the lad when he says: "God bless us, every one." When an
author gets that honest unction into his work, and also has the
gift of observation and can report what he sees, he is likely to
contribute to the literature of his land. With a sneer of the
cultivated intellect, we may call it elementary: but to the
heart, such a view of life is royally right.

This thought of Dickens' moral obligation in his work and his
instinctive attitude towards his audience, leads to one more
point: a main reason for this Victorian novelist's strong hold
on the affections of mankind is to be found in the warm personal
relation he establishes with the reader. The relationship
implies obligation on the part of the author, a vital bond
between the two, a recognition of a steady, not a chance,
association. There goes with it, too, an assumption that the
author believes in and cares much for his characters, and asks
the reader for the same faith. This personal relation of author
to reader and of both to the imagined characters, has gone out
of fashion in fiction-making: in this respect, Dickens (and most
of his contemporaries) seem now old-fashioned. The present
realist creed would keep the novelist away and out of sight both
of his fictive creations and his audience; it being his business
to pull the strings to make his puppets dance--up to heaven or
down to hell, whatever does it matter to the scientist-novelist?
Tolstoy's novel "Resurrection" is as a subject much more
disagreeable than Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"; but it is
beautiful where the other is horrible, because it palpitates
with a Christ-like sympathy for an erring woman, while the
French author cares not a button whether his character is lost
or not. The healthy-minded public (which can be trusted in
heart, if not in head) will instinctively choose that treatment
of life in a piece of fiction which shows the author kindly
cooperative with fate and brotherly in his position towards his
host of readers. That is the reason Dickens holds his own and is
extremely likely to gain in the future, while spectacular
reputations based on all the virtues save love, continue to die
the death. What M. Anatole France once said of Zola, applies to
the whole school of the aloof and unloving: "There is in man an
infinite need of loving which renders him divine. M. Zola does
not know it.... The holiness of tears is at the bottom of all
religions. Misfortune would suffice to render man august to man.
M. Zola does not know it."

Charles Dickens does know these truths and they get into his
work and that work, therefore, gets not so much into the minds
as into the souls of his fellow-man. When we recite the sayings
which identify his classic creations: when we express ourselves
in a Pickwickian sense, wait for something to turn up with Mr.
Micawber, drop into poetry with Silas Wegg, move on with little
Joe, feel 'umble after the manner of Uriah Heap, are willin'
with Barkis, make a note of, in company with Captain Cuttle, or
conclude with Mr. Weller, Senior, that it is the part of wisdom
to beware of "widders," we may observe that what binds us to
this motley crowd of creatures is not their grotesquerie but
their common humanity, their likeness to ourselves, the mighty
flood-tide of tolerant human sympathy on which they are floated
into the safe haven of our hearts. With delightful
understanding, Charles Dudley Warner writes: "After all, there
is something about a boy I like." Dickens, using the phrasing
for a wider application, might have said: "After all, there is
something about men and women I like!" It was thus no accident
that he elected to write of the lower middle classes; choosing
to depict the misery of the poor, their unfair treatment in
institutions; to depict also the unease of criminals, the
crushed state of all underlings--whether the child in education
or that grown-up evil child, the malefactor in prison. He was a
spokesman of the people, a democratic pleader for justice and
sympathy. He drew the proletariat preferably, not because he was
a proletariat but because he was a brother-man and the fact had
been overlooked. He drew thousands of these suppressed humans,
and they were of varied types and fortunes: but he loved them as
though they were one, and made the world love them too: and love
their maker. The deep significance of Dickens, perhaps his
deepest, is in the social note that swells loud and insistent
through his fiction. He was a pioneer in the democratic sympathy
which was to become so marked feature in the Novel in the late
nineteenth century: and which, as we have already seen, is from
the first a distinctive trait of the modern fiction, one of the
explanations of its existence.



The habit of those who appraise the relative worth of Dickens
and Thackeray to fall into hostile camps, swearing by one, and
at the other, has its amusing side but is to be deprecated as
irrational. Why should it be necessary to miss appreciation of
the creator of "Vanity Fair" because one happens to like "David
Copperfield"? Surely, our literary tastes or standards should be
broad enough to admit into pleasurable companionship both those
great early Victorian novelists.

Yet, on second thought, there would appear to be some reason for
the fact that ardent lovers of Thackeray are rarely devotees of
the mighty Charles--or vice versa. There is something mutually
exclusive in the attitude of the two, their different
interpretation of life. Unlike in birth, environment, education
and all that is summed up in the magic word personality, their
reaction to life, as a scientist would say, was so opposite that
a reader naturally drawn to one, is quite apt to be repelled by
(or at least, cold to) the other. If you make a wide canvass
among booklovers, it will be found that this is just what
happens. Rarely does a stanch supporter of Dickens show a more
than Laodicean temper towards Thackeray; and for rabid
Thackerians, Dickens too often spells disgust. It is a rare and
enjoyable experience to meet with a mind so catholic as to
welcome both. The backbone of the trouble is personal, in the
natures of the two authors. But I think it is worth while to say
that part of the explanation may be found in the fact that
Thackeray began fiction ten years later than his rival and was
in a deeper sense than was Dickens a voice of the later century.
This means much, because with each decade between 1830 and 1860,
English thought was moving fast toward that scientific faith,
that disillusionment and that spirit of grim truth which
culminated in the work of the final quarter of the century.
Thackeray was impelled more than was Dickens by the spirit of
the times to speak the truth in his delineations of contemporary
mankind: and this operated to make him a satirist, at times a
savage one. The modern thing in Dickens--and he had it--was the
humanitarian sympathy for the submerged tenth; the modern thing
in Thackeray, however, was his fearlessness in uncovering the
conventional shams of polite society. The idols that Dickens
smashed (and never was a bolder iconoclast) were to be seen of
all men: but Thackeray's were less tangible, more subtle, part
and parcel of his own class. In this sense, and I believe
because he began his major novel-writing about 1850, whereas the
other began fifteen years before, Thackeray is more modern, more
of our own time, than his great co-mate in fiction. When we
consider the question of their respective interpretations of
Life it is but fair to bear in mind this historical
consideration, although it would be an error to make too much of
it. Of course, in judging Thackeray and trying to give him a
place in English fiction, he must stand or fall, like any other
writer, by two things: his art, and his message. Was the first
fine, the other sane and valuable--those are the twin tests.

A somewhat significant fact of their literary history may be
mentioned, before an attempt is made to appreciate Thackeray's
novels. For some years after Dickens' death, which, it will be
remembered, occurred six years after Thackeray's, the latter
gained in critical recognition while Dickens slowly lost. There
can be little question of this. Lionized and lauded as was the
man of Gadshill, promptly admitted to Westminster Abbey, it came
to pass in time that, in a course on modern English literature
offered at an old and famous New England college, his name was
not deemed worthy of even a reference. Some critics of repute
have scarce been able to take Dickens seriously: for those who
have steadily had the temerity to care for him, their patronage
has been vocal. This marks an astonishing shift of opinion from
that current in 1870. Thackeray, gaining in proportion, has been
hailed as an exquisite artist, one of the few truly great and
permanent English figures not only of fiction but of letters.
But in the most recent years, again a change has come: the
pendulum has swung back, as it always does when an excessive
movement carries it too far beyond the plumb line. Dickens has
found valiant, critical defenders; he has risen fast in
thoughtful so well as popular estimation (although with the
public he has scarcely fluctuated in favor) until he now enjoys
a sort of resurrection of popularity. What is the cause of this
to-and-fro of judgment? The main explanation is to be found in
the changing literary ideals from 1850 to 1900. When Dickens was
active, literature, broadly speaking, was estimated not
exclusively as art, but as human product, an influence in the
world. With the coming of the new canon, which it is convenient
to dub by the catch-phrase, Art for Art's Sake, a man's
production began to be tested more definitely by the technique
he possessed, the skilled way in which he performed his task.
Did he play the game well? That was the first question. Often it
was the first and last. If he did, his subject-matter, and his
particular vision of Life, were pretty much his own affair. And
this modern touchstone, applied to the writings of our two
authors, favored Thackeray. Simple, old-fashioned readers
inclined to give Dickens the preference over him because the
former's interpretation of humanity was, they averred, kindlier
and more wholesome. Thackeray was cynical, said they; Dickens
humanitarian; but the later critical mood rebounded from
Dickens, since he preached, was frankly didactic, insisted on
his mission of doing good--and so failed in his art. Now,
however, that the l'art pour art shibboleth has been sadly
overworked and is felt to be passing or obsolete, the world
critical is reverting to that broader view which demands that
the maker of literature shall be both man and artist: as a
result, Dickens gains in proportion. This explanation makes it
likely that, looking to the future, while Thackeray may not
lose, Dickens is sure to be more and more appreciated. A return
to a saner and truer criterion will be general and the confines
of a too narrow estheticism be understood: or, better yet, the
esthetic will be so defined as to admit of wider application.
The Gissings and Chestertons of the time to come will insist
even more strenuously than those of ours that while we may have
improved upon Dickens' technique--and every schoolboy can tinker
his faults--we shall do exceedingly well if we duplicate his
genius once in a generation. And they will add that Thackeray,
another man of genius, had also his malaises of art, was
likewise a man with the mortal failings implied in the word. For
it cannot now be denied that just as Dickens' faults have been
exaggerated, Thackeray's have been overlooked.

Thackeray might lose sadly in the years to come could it be
demonstrated that, as some would have it, he deserved the title
of cynic. Here is the most mooted point in Thackeray
appreciation: it interests thousands where the nice questions
concerning the novelist's art claim the attention of students
alone. What can be said with regard to it? It will help just
here to think of the man behind the work. No sensible human
being, it would appear, can become aware of the life and
personality of Thackeray without concluding that he was an
essentially kind-hearted, even soft-hearted man. He was keenly
sensitive to praise and blame, most affectionate and constant
with his friends, generous and impulsive in his instincts,
loving in his family, simple and humble in his spiritual nature,
however questioning in his intellect. That is a fair summary of
Thackeray as revealed in his daily walk--in his letters, acts
and thoughts. Nothing could be sweeter and more kindly than the
mass of his writings in this regard, pace "The Book of Snobs"--even
in such a mood the satire is for the most part unbitter.
The reminiscential essays continually strike a tender note that
vibrates with human feeling and such memorials as the paper he
wrote on the deaths of Irving and Macaulay represent a frequent
vein. Thackeray's friends are almost a unit in this testimony:
Edward Fitzgerald, indeed--"dear old Fitz," as Tennyson loved to
call him--declares in a letter to somebody that he hears
Thackeray is spoiled: meaning that his social success was too
much for him. It is true that after the fame of "Vanity Fair,"
its author was a habitue of the best drawing-rooms, much sought
after, and enjoying it hugely. But to read his letter to Mrs.
Brookfield after the return home from such frivolities is to
feel that the real man is untouched. Why Thackeray, with such a
nature, developed a satirical bent and became a critic of the
foibles of fashion and later of the social faults of humanity,
is not so easy perhaps to say--unless we beg the question by
declaring it to be his nature. When he began his major fiction
at the age of thirty-seven he had seen much more of the seamy
side of existence than had Dickens when he set up for author.
Thackeray had lost a fortune, traveled, played Bohemian, tried
various employments, failed in a business venture--in short, was
an experienced man of the world with eyes wide open to what is
light, mean, shifty and vague in the sublunary show. "The Book
of Snobs" is the typical early document expressing the
subacidulous tendency of his power: "Vanity Fair" is the full-length
statement of it in maturity. Yet judging his life by and
large (in contrast with his work) up to the day of his sudden
death, putting in evidence all the testimony from many sources,
it may be asserted with considerable confidence that William
Makepeace Thackeray, whatever we find him to be in his works,
gave the general impression personally of being a genial, kind
and thoroughly sound-hearted man. We may, therefore, look at the
work itself, to extract from it such evidence as it offers,
remembering that, when all is said, the deepest part of a man,
his true quality, is always to be discovered in his writings.

First a word on the books secondary to the four great novels. It
is necessary at the start in studying him to realize that
Thackeray for years before he wrote novels was an essayist, who,
when he came to make fiction introduced into it the essay touch
and point of view. The essay manner makes his larger fiction
delightful, is one of its chief charms and characteristics. And
contrariwise, the looseness of construction, the lack of careful
architecture in Thackeray's stories, look to the same fact.

It can not justly be said of these earlier and minor writings
that, taken as a whole, they reveal a cynic. They contain many
thrusts at the foolishness and knavery of society, especially
that genteel portion of it with which the writer, by birth,
education and experience, was familiar. When Thackeray, in the
thirties, turned to newspaper writing, he did so for practical
reasons: he needed money, and he used such talents as were his
as a writer, knowing that the chances were better than in art,
which he had before pursued. It was natural that he should have
turned to account his social experiences, which gave him a power
not possessed by the run of literary hacks, and which had been
to some extent disillusioning, but had by no means soured him.
Broadly viewed, the tone of these first writings was genial, the
light and shade of human nature--in its average, as it is seen
in the world--was properly represented. In fact, often, as in
"The Great Hoggarty Diamond," the style is almost that of
burlesque, at moments, of horse-play: and there are too touches
of beautiful young-man pathos. Such a work is anything rather
than tart or worldly. There are scenes in that enjoyable story
that read more like Dickens than the Thackeray of "Vanity Fair."
The same remark applies, though in a different way, to the
"Yellowplush Papers." An early work like "Barry Lyndon," unique
among the productions of the young writer, expresses the deeper
aspect of his tendency to depict the unpleasant with satiric
force, to make clear-cut pictures of rascals, male and female.
Yet in this historical study, the eighteenth century setting
relieves the effect and one does not feel that the author is
speaking with that direct earnestness one encounters in
"Pendennis" and "The Newcomes." The many essays, of which the
"Roundabout Papers" are a type, exhibit almost exclusively the
sunnier and more attractive side of Thackeray's genius. Here and
there, in the minor fiction of this experimental period, there
are premonitions of he more drastic treatment of later years:
but the dominant mood is quite other. One who read the essays
alone, with no knowledge of the fiction, would be astonished at
a charge of cynicism brought against the author.

And so we come to the major fiction: "Vanity Fair," "Pendennis,"
"The Newcomes," and "Esmond." Of "The Adventures of Philip" a
later word may be said. "The Virginians" is a comparatively
unimportant pendant to that great historical picture, "Henry
Esmond." The quartet practically composes the fundamental
contribution of Thackeray to the world of fiction, containing as
it does all his characteristic traits. Some of them have been
pointed out, time out of mind: others, often claimed, are either
wanting or their virtue has been much exaggerated.

Of the merits incontestable, first and foremost may be mentioned
the color and motion of Life which spread like an atmosphere
over this fiction. By his inimitable idiom, his knowledge of the
polite world, and his equal knowledge of the average human being
irrespective of class or condition, Thackeray was able to make
his chronicle appear the very truth. Moreover, for a second
great merit, he was able, quite without meretricious appeals, to
make that truth interesting. You follow the fortunes of the folk
in a typical Thackeray novel as you would follow a similar group
in actual life. They interest because they are real--or seem to
be, which, for the purposes of art, is the same thing. To read
is not so much to look from an outside place at a fictive
representation of existence as to be participant in such a piece
of life--to feel as if you were living the story. Only masters
accomplish this, and it is, it may be added, the specialty of
modern masters.

For another shining merit: much of wisdom assimilated by the
author in the course of his days is given forth with pungent
power and in piquant garb in the pages of these books: the
reader relishes the happy statements of an experience profounder
than his own, yet tallying in essentials: Thackeray's remarks
seem to gather up into final shape the scattered oracles of the
years. Gratitude goes out to an author who can thus condense and
refine one's own inarticulate conclusions. The mental palate is
tickled by this, while the taste is titillated by the grace and
fitness of the style.

Yet in connection with this quality is a habit which already
makes Thackeray seem of an older time--a trifle archaic in
technique. I refer to the intrusion of the author into the story
in first-personal comment and criticism. This is tabooed by the
present-day realist canons. It weakens the illusion, say the
artists of our own day, this entrance of an actual personality
upon the stage of the imagined scene. Thackeray is guilty of
this lovable sin to a greater degree than is Dickens, and it may
be added here that, while the latter has so often been called
preacher in contrast with Thackeray the artist, as a matter of
fact, Thackeray moralizes in the fashion described fully as
much: the difference being that he does it with lighter touch
and with less strenuosity and obvious seriousness: is more
consistently amusing in the act of instruction.

Thackeray again has less story to tell than his greatest
contemporary and never gained a sure hand in construction, with
the possible exception of his one success in plot, "Henry
Esmond." Nothing is more apparent than the loose texture of
"Vanity Fair," where two stories centering in the antithetic
women, Becky and Amelia, are held together chronicle fashion,
not in the nexus of an organism of close weave. But this very
looseness, where there is such superlative power of
characterization with plenty of invention in incident, adds to
the verisimilitude and attraction of the book. The impression of
life is all the more vivid, because of the lack of proportioned
progress to a climax. The story conducts itself and ends much as
does life: people come in and out and when Finis is written, we
feel we may see them again--as indeed often happens, for
Thackeray used the pleasant device of re-introducing favorite
characters such as Pendennis, Warrington and the descendants
thereof, and it adds distinctly to the reality of the ensemble.

"Vanity Fair" has most often been given precedence over the
other novels of contemporary life: but for individual scenes and
strength of character drawing both "Pendennis" and "The
Newcomes" set up vigorous claims. If there be no single triumph
in female portraiture like Becky Sharp, Ethel New-come (on the
side of virtue) is a far finer woman than the somewhat insipid
Amelia: and no personage in the Mayfair book is more successful
and beloved than Major Pendennis or Colonel Newcome. Also, the
atmosphere of these two pictures seems mellower, less sharp,
while as organic structures they are both superior to "Vanity
Fair." Perhaps the supremacy of the last-named is due most of
all to the fact that a wonderfully drawn evil character has more
fascination than a noble one of workmanship as fine. Or is it
that such a type calls forth the novelist's powers to the full?
If so, it were, in a manner, a reproach. But it is more
important to say that all three books are delightfully authentic
studies of upper-class society in England as Thackeray knew it:
the social range is comparatively restricted, for even the
rascals are shabby-genteel. But the exposure of human nature
(which depends upon keen observation within a prescribed
boundary) is wide and deep: a story-teller can penetrate just as
far into the arcana of the human spirit if he confine himself to
a class as if he surveyed all mankind. But mental limitations
result: the point of view is that of the gentleman-class: the
ideas of the personal relation to one's self, one's fellow men
and one's Maker are those natural to a person of that station.
The charming poem which the author set as Finis to "Dr. Birch
and His Young Friends," with its concluding lines, is an
unconscious expression of the form in which he conceived human
duty. The "And so, please God, a gentleman," was the cardinal
clause in his creed and all his work proves it. It is wiser to
be thankful that a man of genius was at hand to voice the view,
than to cavil at its narrow outook. In literature, in-look is
quite as important. Thackeray drew what he felt and saw, and
like Jane Austen, is to be understood within his limitations.
Nor did he ever forget that, because pleasure-giving was the
object of his art, it was his duty so to present life as to make
it somehow attractive, worth while. The point is worth urging,
for not a little nonsense has been written concerning the
absolute veracity of Thackeray's pictures: as if he sacrificed
all pleasurableness to the modern Moloch, truth. Neither he nor
any other great novelist reproduces Life verbatim et literatim.
Trollope, in his somewhat unsatisfactory biography of his fellow
fictionist, very rightly puts his finger on a certain scene in
"Vanity Fair" in which Sir Pitt Crawley figures, which departs
widely from reality. The traditional comparison between the two
novelists, which represents Dickens as ever caricaturing,
Thackeray as the photographer, is coming to be recognized as

It is all merely a question of degree, as has been said. It
being the artist's business to show a few of the symbols of life
out of the vast amount of raw material offered, he differs in
the main from his brother artist in the symbols he selects. No
one of them presents everything--if he did, he were no artist.
Thackeray approaches nearer than Dickens, it is true, to the
average appearances of life; but is no more a literal copyist
than the creator of Mrs. Gamp. He was rather one of art's most
capable exemplars in the arduous employment of seeming-true.

It must be added that his technique was more careless than an
artist of anything like his caliber would have permitted himself
to-day. The audience was less critical: not only has the art of
fiction been evolved into a finer finish, but gradually the
court of judgment made up of a select reading public, has come
to decide with much more of professional knowledge. Thus,
technique in fiction is expected and given. So much of gain
there has been, in spite of all the vulgarization of taste which
has followed in the wake of cheap magazines and newspapers. In
"Vanity Fair," for example, there are blemishes which a careful
revision would never have suffered to remain: the same is true
of most of Thackeray's books. Like Dickens, Thackeray was
exposed to all the danger of the Twenty Parts method of
publication. He began his stories without seeing the end; in one
of them he is humorously plaintive over the trouble of making
this manner of fiction. While "Vanity Fair" is, of course,
written in the impersonal third person, at least one passage is
put into the mouth of a character in the book: an extraordinary
slip for such a novelist.

But peccadilloes such as these, which it is well to realize in
view of the absurd claims to artistic impeccability for
Thackeray made by rash admirers, melt away into nothing when one
recalls Rawdon Crawley's horsewhipping of the Marquis; George
Osborn's departure for battle, Colonel Newcome's death, or the
incomparable scene where Lady Castlewood welcomes home the
wandering Esmond; that "rapture of reconciliation"! It is by
such things that great novelists live, and it may be doubted if
their errors are ever counted against them, if only they can
create in this fashion.

In speaking of Thackeray's unskilful construction the reference
is to architectonics; in the power of particular scenes it is
hard to name his superior. He has both the pictorial and the
dramatic sense. The care with which "Esmond" was planned and
executed suggests too that, had he taken his art more seriously
and given needed time to each of the great books, he might have
become one of the masters in that prime excellence of the craft,
the excellence of proportion, progress and climax. He never
quite brought himself to adopt the regular modern method of
scenario. "Philip," his last full length fiction, may be cited
as proof.

Yet it may be that he would have given increased attention to
construction had he lived a long life. It is worth noting that
when the unfinished "Denis Duval" dropt from a hand made inert
by death, the general plan, wherefrom an idea of its
architecture could be got, was among his effects.

To say a word now of Thackeray's style. There is practical
unanimity of opinion as to this. Thackeray had the effect of
writing like a cultivated gentleman not self-consciously making
literature. He was tolerant of colloquial concessions that never
lapsed into vulgarity; even his slips and slovenlinesses are
those of the well-bred. To pass from him back to Richardson is
to realize how stiffly correct is the latter. Thackeray has
flexibility, music, vernacular felicity and a deceptive ease. He
had, too, the flashing strokes, the inspirational sallies which
characterize the style of writers like Lamb, Stevenson and
Meredith. Fitness, balance, breeding and harmony are his chief
qualities. To say that he never sinned or nodded would be to
deny that he was human. He cut his cloth to fit the desired
garment and is a modern English master of prose designed to
reproduce the habit and accent of the polite society of his age.
In his hortatory asides and didactic moralizings with their
thees and thous and yeas, he is still the fine essayist, like
Fielding in his eighteenth century prefatory exordiums. And here
is undoubtedly one of his strongest appeals to the world of
readers, whether or no it makes him less perfect a fictionist.
The diction of a Thackeray is one of the honorable national
assets of his race.

Thackeray's men and women talk as they might be expected to talk
in life; each in his own idiom, class and idiosyncrasy. And in
the descriptions which furnish atmosphere, in which his
creatures may live and breathe and have their being, the hand of
the artist of words is equally revealed. Both for dialogue and
narration the gift is valid, at times superb. It would be going
too far to say that if Thackeray had exercised the care in
revision bestowed by later reputable authors, his style might
not have been improved: beyond question it would have been, in
the narrow sense. But the correction of trifling mistakes is one
thing, a change in pattern another. The retouching, although
satisfying grammar here and there, might have dimmed the
vernacular value of his speech.

But what of Thackeray's view, his vision of things? Does he bear
down unduly upon poor imperfect humanity? and what was his
purpose in satire? If he is unfair in the representation his
place among the great should suffer; since the truly great
observer of life does general justice to humankind in his
harmonious portrayal.

We have already spoken of Thackeray's sensitive nature as
revealed through all available means: he conveys the impression
of a suppressed sentimentalist, even in his satire. And this
establishes a presumption that the same man is to be discovered
in the novels, the work being an unconscious revelation of the
worker. The characteristic books are of satirical bent, that
must be granted: Thackeray's purpose, avowed and implicit in the
stories, is that of a Juvenal castigating with a smiling mouth
the evils of society. With keen eye he sees the weaknesses
incident to place and power, to the affectations of fashion or
the corruptions of the world, the flesh and the devil. Nobody of
commonsense will deny that here is a welcome service if
performed with skill and fair-mindedness in the interests of
truth. The only query would be: Is the picture undistorted? If
Thackeray's studies leave a bad taste in the mouth, if their
effect is depressing, if one feels as a result that there is
neither virtue nor magnanimity in woman, and that man is
incapable of honor, bravery, justice and tenderness--then the
novelist may be called cynic. He is not a wholesome writer,
however acceptable for art or admirable for genius. Nor will the
mass of mankind believe in and love him.

Naturally we are here on ground where the personal equation
influences judgment. There can never be complete agreement. Some
readers, and excellent people they are, will always be offended
by what they never tire of calling the worldly tone of
Thackeray; to others, he will be as lovable in his view of life
as he is amusing. Speaking, then, merely for myself, it seems to
me that for mature folk who have had some experience with
humanity, Thackeray is a charming companion whose heart is as
sound as his pen is incisive. The very young as a rule are not
ready for him and (so far as my observation goes) do not much
care for him. That his intention was to help the cause of
kindness, truth and justice in the world is apparent. It is late
in the day to defend his way of crying up the good by a frank
exhibition of the evil. Good and bad are never confused by him,
and Taine was right in calling him above all a moralist. But
being by instinct a realist too, he gave vent to his passion for
truth-telling so far as he dared, in a day when it was far less
fashionable to do this than it now is. A remark in the preface
to "Pendennis" is full of suggestion: "Since the author of 'Tom
Jones' was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been
permitted to depict to his utmost power a Man. We must drape him
and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not
tolerate the Natural in our Art."

It will not do to say (as is often said) that Thackeray could
not draw an admirable or perfect woman. If he did not leave us a
perfect one, it was perhaps for the reason alleged to have been
given by Mr. Howells when he was charged with the same
misdemeanor: he was waiting for the Lord to do it first! But
Thackeray does no injustice to the sex: if Amelia be stupid
(which is matter of debate), Helen Warrington is not, but rather
a very noble creature built on a large plan: whatever the small
blemishes of Lady Castlewood she is indelible in memory for
character and charm. And so with others not a few. Becky and
Beatrix are merely the reverse of the picture. And there is a
similar balance in the delineation of men: Colonel Newcome over
against Captain Costigan, and many a couple more. Thackeray does
not fall into the mistake of making his spotted characters all-black.
Who does not find something likable in the Fotheringay
and in the Campaigner? Even a Barry Lyndon has the redeeming
quality of courage. And surely we adore Beatrix, with all her
faults. Major Pendennis is a thoroughgoing old worldling, but it
is impossible not to feel a species of fondness for him. Jos.
Sedley is very much an ass, but one's smile at him is full of
tolerance. Yes, the worst of them all, the immortal Becky (who
was so plainly liked by her maker) awakens sympathy in the
reader when routed in her fortunes, black-leg though she be. She
cared for her husband, after her fashion, and she plays the game
of Bad Luck in a way far from despicable. Nor is that easy-going,
commonplace scoundrel, Rawdon, with his dog-like devotion
to the same Becky, denied his touch of higher humanity. Behind
all these is a large tolerance, an intellectual breadth, a
spiritual comprehension that is merciful to the sinner, while
never condoning the sin. Thackeray is therefore more than story-teller
or fine writer: a sane observer of the Human Comedy; a
satirist in the broad sense, devoting himself to revealing
society to itself and for its instruction. It is easy to use
negations: to say he did not know nor sympathize with the middle
class nor the lower and outcast classes as did Dickens; that his
interest was in peccadilloes and sins, not in courageous
virtues: and that he judged the world from a club window. But
this gets us nowhere and is aside from the critic's chief
business: which is that of an appreciative explanation of his
abiding power and charm. This has now been essayed. Thackeray
was too great as man and artist not to know that it was his
function to present life in such wise that while a pleasure of
recognition should follow the delineation, another and higher
pleasure should also result: the surprising pleasure of beauty.
"Fiction," he declared, "has no business to exist, unless it be
more beautiful than reality," And again: "The first quality of
an artist is to have a large heart." With which revelatory
utterances may be placed part of the noble sentence closing "The
Book of Snobs": "If fun is good, truth is better still, and love
best of all." To read him with open mind is to feel assured that
his works, taken in their entirety, reflect these humane
sentiments. It is a pity, therefore, for any reader of the best
fiction, through intense appreciation of Dickens or for any
other reason, to cut himself off from such an enlightening
student of humanity and master of imaginative literature.



George Eliot began fiction a decade later than Thackeray, but
seems more than a decade nearer to us. With her the full pulse
of modern realism is felt a-throbbing. There is no more of the
ye's and thous with which, when he would make an exordium,
Thackeray addressed the world--a fashion long since laid aside.
Eliot drew much nearer to the truth, the quiet, homely verity of
her scenes is a closer approximation to life, realizes life more
vitally than the most veracious page of "Vanity Fair." Not that
the great woman novelist made the mistake of a slavish imitation
of the actual: that capital, lively scene in the early part of
"The Mill on the Floss," where Mrs. Tulliver's connections make
known to us their delightsome personalities, is not a mere
transcript from life; and all the better for that. Nevertheless,
the critic can easily discover a difference between Thackeray
and Eliot in this regard, and the ten years between them (as we
saw in the case of Dickens and Thackeray) are partly
responsible: technique and ideal in literary art were changing
fast. George Eliot was a truer realist. She took more seriously
her aim of interpreting life, and had a higher conception of her
artistic mission. Dickens in his beautiful tribute to Thackeray
on the latter's death, speaks of the failure of the author of
"Pendennis" to take his mission, his genius, seriously: there
was justice in the remark. Yet we heard from the preface to
"Pendennis" that Thackeray had the desire to depict a typical
man of society with the faithful frankness of a Fielding, and
since him, Thackeray states, never again used. But the
novelist's hearers were not prepared, the time was not yet ripe,
and the novelist himself lacked the courage, though he had the
clear vision. With Eliot, we reach the psychologic moment: that
deepest truth, the truth of character, exhibited in its
mainsprings of impulse and thought, came with her into English
fiction as it had never before appeared. It would hardly be
overstatement to say that modern psychology in the complete
sense as method and interest begins in the Novel with Eliot. For
there is a radical difference, not only between the Novel which
exploits plot and that which exploits character: but also
between that which sees character in terms of life and that
which sees it in terms of soul. Eliot's fiction does the latter:
life to her means character building, and has its meaning only
as an arena for spiritual struggle. Success or failure means but
this: have I grown in my higher nature, has my existence shown
on the whole an upward tendency?

If so, well and good. If not, whatever of place or power may be
mine, I am among the world's failures, having missed the goal.
This view, steadily to be encountered in all her fiction, gives
it the grave quality, the deep undertone and, be it confessed,
at times the almost Methodistic manner, which mark this woman's
worth in its weakness and its notable strength. In her early
days, long before she made fiction, she was morbidly religious;
she became in the fulness of time one of the intellectually
emancipated. Yet, emotionally, spiritually, she remained to the
end an intensely religious person. Conduct, aspiration,
communion of souls, these were to her always the realities. If
Thackeray's motto was Be good, and Dickens', Do good, Eliot's
might be expressed as: Make me good! Consider for a moment and
you will see that these phrases stand successively for a
convention, an action and an aspiration.

The life of Mary Ann Evans falls for critical purposes into
three well-defined divisions: the early days of country life
with home and family and school; her career as a savant; and the
later years, when she performed her service as story-teller.
Unquestionably, the first period was most important in
influencing her genius. It was in the home days at Griff, the
school days at Nuneaton nearby, that those deepest, most
permanent impressions were absorbed which are given out in the
finest of her fictions. Hence came the primal inspiration which
produced her best. And it is because she drew most generously
upon her younger life in her earlier works that it is they which
are most likely to survive the shocks of Time.

The experiences of Eliot's childhood, youth and young womanhood
were those which taught her the bottom facts about middle-class
country life in the mid-century, and in a mid-county of England;
Shakspere's county of Warwick. Those experiences gave her such
sympathetic comprehension of the human case in that environment
that she became its chronicler, as Dickens had become the
chronicler of the lower middle-class of the cities. Unerringly,
she generalized from the microcosm of Warwickshire to the life
of the world and guessed the universal human heart. With utmost
sympathy, joined with a nice power of scrutiny, she saw and
understood the character-types of the village, when there was a
village life which has since passed away: the yeoman, the small
farmer, the operative in the mill, the peasant, the squire and
the parson, the petty tradesman, the man of the professions: the
worker with his hands at many crafts.

She matured through travel, books and social contact, her
knowledge was greatly extended: she came to be, in a sense, a
cultured woman of the world, a learned person. Her later books
reflected this; they depict the so-called higher strata of
English society as in "Middlemarch," or, as in "Romola," give an
historical picture of another time in a foreign land. The woman
who was gracious hostess at those famous Sunday afternoons at
the Priory seems to have little likeness to the frail, shy,
country girl in Griff--seems, too, far more important; yet it
may be doubted whether all this later work reveals such mastery
of the human heart or comes from such an imperative source of
expression as do the earlier novels, "Adam Bede" and "The Mill
on the Floss." For human nature is one and the same in Griff or
London or Florence, as all the amplitude of the sky is mirrored
in the dewdrop. And although Eliot became in later life a more
accurate reporter of the intellectual unrest of her day, and had
probed deeper into the mystery and the burden of this
unintelligible world, great novels are not necessarily made in
that way and the majority of those who love her cleave to the
less burdened, more unforced expression of her power.

In those early days, moreover, her attitude towards life was
established: it meant a wish to improve the "complaining
millions of men." Love went hand in hand with understanding. It
may well be that the somberly grave view of humanity and of the
universe at large which came to be hers, although strengthened
by the positivistic trend of her mature studies, was generated
in her sickly youth and a reaction from the narrow theologic
thought with which she was then surrounded. Always frail--subject
through life to distressing illness--it would not be
fair to ask of this woman an optimism of the Mark Tapley stripe.
In part, the grave outlook was physical, temperamental: but also
it was an expression of a swiftly approaching mood of the late
nineteenth century. And the beginning can be traced back to the
autumn evenings in the big farmhouse at Griff when, as a mere
child, she wrestled or prayed with what she called her sick
soul. That stern, upright farmer father of hers seems the
dominant factor in her make-up, although the iron of her blood
was tempered by the livelier, more mundane qualities of her
sprightly mother, towards whom we look for the source of the
daughter's superb gift of humor. Whatever the component parts of
father and mother in her, and however large that personal
variation which is genius, of this we may be comfortably sure:
the deepest in the books, whether regarded as presentation of
life or as interpretation, came from the early Warwickshire

Gradually came that mental eclaircissement which produced the
editor, the magazinist, the translator of Strauss. The
friendship with the Brays more than any one thing marks the
external cause of this awakening: but it was latent, this
response to the world of thought and of scholarship, and certain
to be called out sooner or later. Our chief interest in it is
due to the query how much it ministered to her coming career as
creative author of fiction.

George Eliot at this period looked perilously like a Blue
Stocking. The range and variety of her reading and the severely
intellectual nature of her pursuits justify the assertion. Was
this well for the novelist?

The reply might be a paradox: yes and no. This learning imparted
to Eliot's works a breadth of vision that is tonic and wins the
respect of the judicious. It helps her to escape from that bane
of the woman novelist--excessive sentiment without intellectual
orientation. But, on the other hand, there are times when she
appears to be writing a polemic, not a novel: when the tone
becomes didactic, the movement heavy--when the work seems
self-conscious and over-intellectualized. Nor can it be denied
that this tendency grew on Eliot, to the injury of her latest work.
There is a simple kind of exhortation in the "Clerical Scenes,"
but it disappears in the earliest novels, only to reappear in
stories like "Daniel Deronda." Any and all culture that comes to
a large, original nature (and such was Eliot's) should be for
the good of the literary product: learning in the narrower, more
technical sense, is perhaps likely to do harm. Here and there
there is a reminder of the critic-reviewer in her fiction.

George Eliot's intellectual development during her last years
widened her work and strengthened her comprehensive grasp of
life. She gained in interpretation thereby. There will, however,
always be those who hold that it would have been better for her
reputation had she written nothing after "Middlemarch," or even
after "Felix Holt." Those who object on principle to her
agnosticism, would also add that the negative nature of her
philosophy, her lack of what is called definite religious
convictions, had its share in injuring materially her maturest
fiction. The vitality or charm of a novel, however, is not
necessarily impaired because the author holds such views. It is
more pertinent to take the books as they are, in chronologic
order, to point out so far as possible their particular merits.

And first, the "Scenes from Clerical Life." It is interesting to
the student of this novelist that her writing of fiction was
suggested to her by Lewes, and that she tried her hand at a tale
when she was not far from forty years old. The question will
intrude: would a genuine fiction-maker need to be thus prodded
by a friend, and refrain from any independent attempt up to a
period so late? Yet it will not do to answer glibly in the
negative. Too many examples of late beginning and fine fiction
as a consequence are furnished by English literature to make
denial safe. We have seen Defoe and Richardson and a number of
later novelists breaking the rules--if any such exist. No one
can now read the "Clerical Scenes" without discovering in them
qualities of head and heart which, when allowed an enlarged
canvas and backed by a sure technique, could be counted on to
make worthy fiction. The quiet village life glows softly under
the sympathetic touch of a true painter.

A recent reading of this first book showed more clearly than
ever the unequalness of merit in the three stories, their strong
didactic bent, and the charmingly faithful observation which for
the present-day reader is their greatest attraction. The first
and simplest, "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton," is by
far the best. The poorest is the second, "Mr. Gilfil's Love
Story," which has touches of conventional melodrama in a
framework reminiscent of earlier fictionists like Disraeli.
"Janet's Repentance," with its fine central character of the
unhappy wedded wife, is strong, sincere, appealing; and much of
the local color admirable. But--perhaps because there is more
attempt at story-telling, more plot--the narrative falls below
the beautiful, quiet chronicle of the days of Amos: an exquisite
portrayal of an average man who yet stands for humanity's best.
The tale is significant as a prelude to Eliot's coming work,
containing, in the seed, those qualities which were to make her
noteworthy. Perusing the volume to-day, we can hardly say that
it appears an epoch-making production in fiction, the
declaration of a new talent in modern literature. But much has
happened in fiction during the half century since 1857, and we
are not in a position to judge the feeling of those who then
began to follow the fortunes of the Reverend Amos.

But it is not difficult for the twentieth century reader, even
if blase, to understand that "Adam Bede," published when its
author was forty, aroused a furore of admiration: it still holds
general attention, and many whose opinion is worth having,
regard it with respect, affection, even enthusiasm.

The broader canvas was exactly what the novelist needed to show
her power of characterization, her ability to build up her
picture by countless little touches guided by the most
unflinching faith in detail and given vibrancy by the sympathy
which in all George Eliot's fiction is like the air you breathe.
Then, too, as an appeal to the general, there is more of story
interest, although neither here nor in any story to follow, does
plot come first with a writer whose chief interest is always
character, and its development. The autobiographic note deepens
and gives at once verity and intensity to the novel; here, as in
"The Mill on the Floss" which was to follow the next year, Eliot
first gave free play to that emotional seizure of her own past
to which reference has been made. The homely material of the
first novel was but part of its strength. Readers who had been
offered the flash-romantic fiction of Disraeli and Bulwer,
turned with refreshment to the placid annals of a village where,
none the less, the human heart in its follies and frailties and
nobilities, is laid bare. The skill with which the leisurely
moving story rises to its vivid moments of climactic interest--the
duel in the wood, Hetty's flight, the death of Adam's
father--is marked and points plainly to the advance, through
study and practice, of the novelist since the "Clerical Scenes";
constructive excellencies do not come by instinct. "Adam Bede"
is preeminently a book of belief, written not so much in ink as
in red blood, and in that psychic fluid that means the author's
spiritual nature. She herself declared, "I love it very much,"
and it reveals the fact on every page. Aside from its
indubitable worth as a picture of English middle-class country
life in an earlier nineteenth century than we know--the easy-going
days before electricity--it has its highest claim to our
regard as a reading in life, not conveyed by word of mouth
didactically, but carried in scene and character. The author's
tenderness over Hetty, without even sentimentalizing her as, for
example, Dumas sentimentalizes his Camille, suggests the mood of
the whole narrative: a large-minded, large-hearted comprehension
of humankind, an insistence on spiritual tests, yet with the
will to tell the truth and present impartially the darkest
shadows. It is because George Eliot's people are compounded with
beautiful naturalness of good and bad--not hopelessly bad with
Hetty, nor hopelessly good with Adam--that we understand them
and love them. Here is an element of her effectiveness. Even her
Dinah walks with her feet firmly planted upon the earth, though
her mystic vision may be skyward.

With "Adam Bede" she came into her own. The "Clerical Scenes"
had won critical plaudits: Dickens, in 1857 long settled in his
seat of public idolatry, wrote the unknown author a letter of
appreciation, so warm-hearted, so generous, that it is hard to
resist the pleasure of quoting it: it is interesting to remark
that in despite the masculine pen-name, he attributed the work
to a woman. But the public had not responded. With "Adam Bede"
this was changed; the book gained speedy popularity, the author
even meeting with that mixed compliment, a bogus claimant to its
authorship. And so, greatly encouraged, and stimulated to do her
best, she produced "The Mill on the Floss," a novel, which, if
not her finest, will always be placed high on her list of
representative fiction.

This time the story as such was stronger, there was more
substance and variety because of the greater number of
characters and their freer interplay upon each other. Most
important of all, when we look beyond the immediate reception by
the public to its more permanent position, the work is decidedly
more thoroughgoing in its psychology: it goes to the very core
of personality, where the earlier book was in some instances
satisfied with sketch-work. In "Adam Bede" the freshness comes
from the treatment rather than the theme. The framework, a
seduction story, is old enough--old as human nature and
pre-literary story-telling. But in "The Mill on the Floss" we
have the history of two intertwined lives, contrasted types from
within the confines of family life, bound by kin-love yet
separated by temperament. It is the deepest, truest of tragedy
and we see that just this particular study of humanity had not
been accomplished so exhaustively before in all the annals of
fiction. As it happened, everything conspired to make the author
at her best when she was writing this novel: as her letters
show, her health was, for her, good: we have noted the stimulus
derived from the reception of "Adam Bede"--which was as wine to
her soul. Then--a fact which should never be forgotten--the tale
is carried through logically and expresses, with neither
paltering nor evasion, George Eliot's sense of life's tragedy.
In the other book, on the contrary, a touch of the fictitious
was introduced by Lewes; Dinah and Adam were united to make at
the end a mitigation of the painfulness of Hetty's downfall.
Lewes may have been right in looking to the contemporary
audience, but never again did Eliot yield to that form of the
literary lie, the pleasant ending. She certainly did not in "The
Mill on the Floss": an element of its strength is its truth. The
book, broadly considered, moves slow, with dramatic accelerando
at cumulative moments; it is the kind of narrative where this
method is allowable without artistic sin. Another great
excellence is the superb insight into the nature of childhood,
boy and girl; if Maggie is drawn with the more penetrating
sympathy, Tom is finely observed: if the author never rebukes
his limitations, she states them and, as it were, lifts hands to
heaven to cry like a Greek chorus: "See these mortals love yet
clash! Behold, how havoc comes! Eheu! this mortal case!"

With humanity still pulling at her heart-strings, and conceiving
fiction which offered more value of plot than before, George
Eliot wrote the charming romance "Silas Marner," novelette in
form, modern romance in its just mingling of truth and
idealization: a work published the next year. She interrupted
"Romola" to do it, which is suggestive as indicating absorption
by the theme. This story offers a delightful blend of homely
realism with poetic symbolism. The miser is wooed from his
sordid love of gold by the golden glint of a little girl's hair:
as love creeps into his starved heart, heartless greed goes out
forever: before a soulless machine, he becomes a man. It is the
world-old, still potent thought that the good can drive out the
bad: a spiritual allegory in a series of vivid pictures carrying
the wholesomest and highest of lessons. The artistic and
didactic are here in happy union. And as nowhere else in her
work (unless exception be made in the case of "Romola") she sees
a truth in terms of drama. To read the story is to feel its
stage value: it is no surprise to know that several
dramatizations of the book have been made. Aside from its
central motive, the studies of homely village life, as well as
of polite society, are in Eliot's best manner: the humor of
Dolly Winthrop is of as excellent vintage as the humor of Mrs.
Poyser in "Adam Bede," yet with the necessary differentiation.
The typical deep sympathy for common humanity--just average
folks--permeates the handling. Moreover, while the romance has a
happy issue, as a romance should according to Stevenson, if it
possibly can, it does not differ in its view of life from so
fatalistic a book as "The Mill on the Floss"; for circumstances
change Silas; if the child Eppie had not come he might have
remained a miser. It was not his will alone that revolutionized
his life; what some would call luck was at work there. In "Silas
Marner" the teaching is of a piece with that of all her
representative work.

But when we reach "Romola" there is a change, debatable ground
is entered upon at once. Hitherto, the story-teller has mastered
the preacher, although an ever more earnest soul has been
expressing itself about Life. Now we enter the region of more
self-conscious literary art, of planned work and study, and
confront the possibility of flagging invention. Also, we leave
the solid ground of contemporary themes and find the realist
with her hang for truth, essaying an historical setting, an
entirely new and foreign motive. Eliot had already proved her
right to depict certain aspects of her own English life. To
strive to exercise the same powers on a theme like "Romola" was
a venturesome step. We have seen how Dickens and Thackeray
essayed romance at least once with ringing success; now the
third major mid-century novelist was to try the same thing.

It may be conceded at the start that in one important respect
this Florentine story of Savonarola and his day is entirely
typical: it puts clearly before us in a medieval romantic mis-en
scene, the problem of a soul: the slow, subtle, awful
degeneration of the man Tito, with its foil in the noble figure
of the girl Romola. The central personality psychologically is
that of the wily Greek-Italian, and Eliot never probed deeper
into the labyrinths of the perturbed human spirit than in this
remarkable analysis. The reader, too, remembers gratefully, with
a catch of the breath, the great scenes, two of which are the
execution of Savonarola, and the final confrontation of Tito by
his adoptive father, with its Greek-like sense of tragic doom.
The same reader stands aghast before the labor which must lie
behind such a work and often comes to him a sudden, vital sense
of fifteenth century Florence, then, as never since, the Lily of
the Arno: so cunningly and with such felicity are innumerable
details individualized, massed and blended. And yet, somehow it
all seems a splendid experiment, a worthy performance rather
than a spontaneous and successful creative endeavor: this, in
comparison with the fiction that came before. The author seems a
little over-burdened by the tremendousness of her material.
Whether it is because the Savonarola episode is not thoroughly
synthetized with the Tito-Romola part: or that the central theme
is of itself fundamentally unpleasant--or again, that from the
nature of the romance, head-work had largely to supplant that
genial draught upon the springs of childhood which gave us "Adam
Bede" and "The Mill on the Floss";--or once more, whether the
crowded canvas injures the unity of the design, be these as they
may, "Romola" strikes one as great in spots and as conveying a
noble though somber truth, but does not carry us off our feet.
That is the blunt truth about it, major work as it is, with only
half a dozen of its kind to equal it in all English literature.
It falls distinctly behind both "A Tale of Two Cities" and
"Esmond." It is a book to admire, to praise in many particulars,
to be impressed by: but not quite to treasure as one treasures
the story of the Tullivers. It was written by George Eliot,
famous novelist, who with that anxious, morbid conscience of
hers, had to live up to her reputation, and who received $50,000
for the work, even to-day a large sum for a piece of fiction. It
was not written by a woman irresistibly impelled to self-expression,
seized with the passionate desire to paint Life. It
is, in a sense, her first professional feat and performance.

Meanwhile, she was getting on in life: we saw that she was seven
and thirty when she wrote the "Clerical Scenes": it was almost a
decade later when "Felix Holt, Radical" appeared, and she was
nearing fifty. I believe it to be helpful to draw a line between
all her fiction before and after "Felix Holt," placing that book
somewhat uncertainly on the dividing line. The four earlier
novels stand for a period when there is a strong, or at least
sufficient story interest, the proper amount of objectification:
to the second division belong "Middlemarch" and "Daniel
Deronda," where we feel that problem comes first and story
second. In the intermediate novel, "Felix Holt," its excellent
story places it with the first books, but its increased didactic
tendency with the latest stories. Why has "Felix Holt" been
treated by the critics, as a rule, as of comparatively minor
value? It is very interesting, contains true characterization,
much of picturesque and dramatic worth; it abounds in enjoyable
first-hand observation of a period by-gone yet near enough to
have been cognizant to the writer. Her favorite types, too, are
in it. Holt, a study of the advanced workman of his day, is
another Bede, mutatis mutandis, and quite as truly realized.
Both Mr. Lyon and his daughter are capitally drawn and the
motive of the novel--to teach Felix that he can be quite as true
to his cause if he be less rough and eccentric in dress and
deportment, is a good one handled with success. To which may be
added that the encircling theme of Mrs. Transome's mystery,
grips the attention from the start and there is pleasure when it
is seen to involve Esther, leading her to make a choice which
reveals that she has awakened to a truer valuation of life--and
of Felix. With all these things in its favor, why has
appreciation been so scant?

Is it not that continually in the narrative you lose its broader
human interest because of the narrower political and social
questions that are raised? They are vital questions, but still,
more specific, technical, of the time. Nor is their weaving into
the more permanent theme altogether skilful: you feel like
exclaiming to the novelist: "O, let Kingsley handle chartism,
but do you stick to your last--love and its criss-cross, family
sin and its outcome, character changed as life comes to be more
vitally realized." George Eliot in this fine story falls into
this mistake, as does Mrs. Humphry Ward in her well-remembered
"Robert Elsmere," and as she has again in the novel which
happens to be her latest as these words are written, "Marriage a
la Mode." The thesis has a way of sticking out obtrusively in
such efforts.

Many readers may not feel this in "Felix Holt," which, whatever
its shortcomings, remains an extremely able and interesting
novel, often underestimated. Still, I imagine a genuine
distinction has been made with regard to it.

The difference is more definitely felt in "Middlemarch," not
infrequently called Eliot's masterpiece. It appeared five years
later and the author was over fifty when the book was published
serially during 1871 and 1872. Nearly four years were spent in
the work of composition: for it the sum of $60,000 was paid.

"Middlemarch," which resembles Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" in
telling two stories not closely related, seems less a Novel than
a chronicle-history of two families. It is important to remember
that its two parts were conceived as independent; their welding,
to call it such, was an afterthought. The tempo again, suiting
the style of fiction, is leisurely: character study, character
contrast, is the principal aim. More definitely, the marriage
problem, illustrated by Dorothea's experience with Casaubon, and
that of Lydgate with Rosamond, is what the writer places before
us. Marriage is chosen simply because it is the modern spiritual
battleground, a condition for the trying-out of souls. The
greatness of the work lies in its breadth (subjective more than
objective), its panoramic view of English country life of the
refined type, its rich garner of wisdom concerning human motive
and action. We have seen in earlier studies that its type, the
chronicle of events as they affect character, is a legitimate
one: a successful genus in English-speaking fiction in hands
like those of Thackeray, Eliot and Howells. It is one accepted

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