CHAPTER XL. THE LATER NOVELISTS AS SOCIAL REFORMERS.
Bulwer. Changes in Writing. Dickens's Novels. American Notes. His
Varied Powers. Second Visit to America. Thackeray. Vanity Fair. Henry
Esmond. The Newcomes. The Georges. Estimate of his Powers.
The great feature in the realm of prose fiction, since the appearance of the works of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, had been the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott; but these apart, the prose romance had not played a brilliant part in literature until the appearance of Bulwer, who began, in his youth, to write novels in the old style; but who underwent several organic changes in modes of thought and expression, and at last stood confessed as the founder of a new school.
BULWER.—Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer was a younger son of General Bulwer of Heydon Hall, Norfolk, England. He was born, in 1806, to wealth and ease, but was early and always a student. Educated at Cambridge, he took the Chancellor's prize for a poem on Sculpture. His first public effort was a volume of fugitive poems, called Weeds and Wild Flowers, of more promise than merit. In 1827 he published Falkland, and very soon after Pelham, or the Adventures of a Gentleman. The first was not received favorably; but Pelham was at once popular, neither for the skill of the plot nor for its morality, but because it describes the character, dissipations, and good qualities of a fashionable young man, which are always interesting to an English public. Those novels that immediately followed are so alike in general features that they may be called the Pelham series. Of these the principal are The Disowned, Devereux, and Paul Clifford—the last of which throws a sentimental, rosy light upon the person and adventures of a highwayman; but it is too unreal to have done as much injury as the Pirate's Own Book, or the Adventures of Jack Sheppard. It may be safely asserted that Paul Clifford never produced a highwayman. Of the same period is Eugene Aram, founded upon the true story of a scholar who was a murderer—a painful subject powerfully handled.
In 1831 Bulwer entered Parliament, and seems to have at once commenced a new life. With his public duties he combined severe historical study; and the novels he now produced gave witness of his riper and better learning. Chief among these were Rienzi, and The Last Days of Pompeii. The former is based upon the history of that wonderful and unfortunate man who, in the fourteenth century, attempted to restore the Roman republic, and govern it like an ancient tribune. The latter is a noble production: he has caught the very spirit of the day in which Pompeii was submerged by the lava-flood; his characters are masterpieces of historic delineation; he handles like an adept the conflicting theologies, Christian, Roman, and Egyptian; and his natural scenes—Vesuvius in fury, the Bay of Naples in the lurid light, the crowded amphitheatre, and the terror which fell on man and beast, gladiator and lion—are chef-d'oeuvres of Romantic art.
CHANGES IN WRITING.—For a time he edited The New Monthly Magazine, and a change came over the spirit of his novels. This was first noticed in his Ernest Maltravers, and the sequel, Alice, or the Mysteries, which are marked by sentimental passion and mystic ideas. In Night and Morning he is still mysterious: a blind fate seems to preside over his characters, robbing the good of its free merit and condoning the evil.
In 1838 he was made a baronet. His versatile pen now turned to the drama; and although he produced nothing great, his Lady of Lyons, Richelieu, Money, and The Sea Captain have always since been favorites upon the stage, subsidizing the talents of actors like Macready, Kean, and Edwin Booth.
We must now chronicle another change, from the mystic to the supernatural, as displayed in Zanoni and Lucretia, and especially in A Strange Story, which is the strangest of all. It was at the same period that he wrote The Last of the Barons, or the story of Warwick the king-maker, and Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings. Both are valuable to the student of English history as presenting the fruits of his own historic research.
The last and most decided, and, we may add, most beneficial, change in Bulwer as a writer, was manifested in his publication of the Caxtons, the chief merit of which is as an usher of the novels which were to follow. Pisistratus Caxton is the modern Tristram Shandy, and becomes the putative editor of the later novels. First of these is My Novel, or Varieties of English Life. It is an admirable work: it inculcates a better morality, and a sense of Christian duty, at which Pelham would have laughed in scorn. Like it, but inferior to it, is What Will He do with It? which has an interesting plot, an elevated style, and a rare human sympathy.
Among other works, which we cannot mention, he wrote The New Timon, and King Arthur, in poetry, and a prose history entitled Athens, its Rise and Fall.
Without the highest genius, but with uncommon scholarship and great versatility, Bulwer has used the materials of many kinds lying about him, to make marvellous mosaics, which imitate very closely the finest efforts of word-painting of the great geniuses of prose fiction.
CHARLES DICKENS.—Another remarkable development of the age was the use of prose fiction, instead of poetry, as the vehicle of satire in the cause of social reform. The world consents readily to be amused, and it likes to be amused at the expense of others; but it soon tires of what is simply amusing or satirical unless some noble purpose be disclosed. The novels of former periods had interested by the creation of character and scenes; and there had been numerous satires prompted by personal pique. It is the glory of this latest age that it demands what shall so satirize the evil around it in men, in classes, in public institutions, that the evil shall recoil before the attack, and eventually disappear. Chief among such reformers are Dickens and Thackeray.
Charles Dickens, the prince of modern novelists, was born at Landsport, Portsmouth, England, in 1812. His father was at the time a clerk in the Pay Department of the Navy, but afterwards became a reporter of debates in Parliament. After a very hard early life and an only tolerable education, young Dickens made some progress in the study of law; but soon undertook his father's business as reporter, in which he struggled as he has made David Copperfield to do in becoming proficient.
His first systematic literary efforts were as a daily writer and reporter for The True Sun; he then contributed his sketches of life and character, drawn from personal observation, to the Morning Chronicle: these were an earnest of his future powers. They were collected as Sketches by Boz, in two volumes, and published in 1836.
PICKWICK.—In 1837 he was asked by a publisher to prepare a series of comic sketches of cockney sportsmen, to illustrate, as well as to be illustrated by, etchings by Seymour. This yoking of two geniuses was a trammel to both; but the suicide of Seymour dissolved the connection, and Dickens had free play to produce the Pickwick Papers, by Boz, which were illustrated, as he proceeded, by H. K. Browne (Phiz). The work met and has retained an unprecedented popularity. Caricature as it was, it caricatured real, existent oddities; everything was probable; the humor was sympathetic if farcical, the assertion of humanity bold, and the philosophy of universal application. He had touched our common nature in all ranks and conditions; he had exhibited men and women of all types; he had exposed the tricks of politics and the absurdity of elections; the snobs of society were severely handled. He was the censor of law courts, the exposer of swindlers, the dread of cockneys, the friend of rustics and of the poor; and he has displayed in the principal character, that of the immortal Pickwick, the power of a generous, simple-hearted, easily deceived, but always philanthropic man, who comes through all his trials without bating a jot of his love for humanity and his faith in human nature. But the master-work of his plastic hand was Sam Weller, whose wit and wisdom pervaded both hemispheres, and is as potent to excite laughter to-day as at the first.
In this work he began that assault, not so much on shams as upon prominent, unblushing evil, which he carried on in some form or other in all his later works; and which was to make him prominent among the reformers and benefactors of his age. He was at once famous, and his pen was in demand to amuse the idle and to aid the philanthropic.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.—The Pickwick Papers were in their intention a series of sketches somewhat desultory and loosely connected. His next work was Nicholas Nickleby, a complete story, in which he was entirely successful. Wonderful in the variety and reality of his characters, his powerful satire was here principally directed against the private boarding-schools in England, where unloved children, exiled and forgotten, were ill fed, scantily clothed, untaught, and beaten. Do-the-boys' Hall was his type, and many a school prison under that name was fearfully exposed and scourged. The people read with wonder and applause; these haunts of cruelty were scrutinized, some of them were suppressed; and since Nicholas Nickleby appeared no such school can live, because Squeers and Smike are on every lip, and punishment awaits the tyrant.
Our scope will not permit a review of his numerous novels. In Oliver Twist he denounces the parish system in its care of orphans, and throws a Drummond light upon the haunts of crime in London.
The Old Curiosity Shop exposes the mania of gaming, and seems to have been a device for presenting the pathetic pictures of Little Nell and her grandfather, the wonderful and rapid learning of the marchioness, and the uncommon vitality of Mr. Richard Swiveller; and also the compound of will and hideousness in Quilp.
He affected to find in the receptacle of Master Humphrey's clock, his Barnaby Rudge, a very dramatic picture of the great riot incited by Lord George Gordon in 1780, which, in its gathering, its fury, and its easy dispersion, was not unlike that of Wat Tyler. Dickens's delineations are eminently historic, and present a better notion of the period than the general history itself.
AMERICAN NOTES.—In 1841 Dickens visited America, where he was received by the public with great enthusiasm, and annoyed, as the author of his biography says, by many individuals. On his return to England, he produced his American Notes for General Circulation. They were sarcastic, superficial, and depreciatory, and astonished many whose hospitalities he had received. But, in 1843, he publishedMartin Chuzzlewit, in which American peculiarities are treated with the broadest caricature. The Notes might have been forgiven; but the novel excited a great and just anger in America. His statements were not true; his pictures were not just; his prejudice led him to malign a people who had received him with a foolish hospitality. He had eaten and drunk at the hands of the men whom he abused, and his character suffered more than that of his intended victims. In taking a few foibles for his caricature, he had left our merits untold, and had been guilty of the implication that we had none, although he knew that there were as elegant gentlemen, as refined ladies, and as cultivated society in America as the best in England. But a truce to reproaches; he has been fully forgiven.
His next novel was Dombey and Son, in which he attacks British pomp and pride of state in the haughty merchant. It is full of character and of pathos. Every one knows, as if they had appeared among us, the proud and rigid Dombey, J. B. the sly, the unhappy Floy, the exquisite Toots, the inimitable Nipper, Sol Gills the simple, and Captain Cuttle with his hook and his notes.
This was followed by David Copperfield, which is, to some extent, an autobiography describing the struggles of his youth, his experience in acquiring short-hand to become a reporter, and other vicissitudes of his own life. In it there is an attack upon the system of model prisons; but the chief interest is found in his wonderful portraitures of varied and opposite characters: the Peggottys, Steerforth, the inimitable Micawber, Betsy Trotwood; Agnes, the lovely and lovable; Mr. Dick, with such noble method in his madness; Dora, the child-wife; the simple Traddles, and Uriah Heep, the 'umble intriguer and villain.
Bleak House is a tremendous onslaught upon the Chancery system, and is said to have caused a modification of it; his knowledge of law gave him the power of an expert in detailing and dissecting its enormities.
Little Dorrit presents the heartlessness of society, and is besides a full and fearful picture of the system of imprisonment for debt. For variety, power, and pathos, it is one of his best efforts.
A Tale of Two Cities is a gloomy but vivid story of the French Revolution, which has by no means the popularity of his other works.
In Hard Times, a shorter story, he has shown the evil consequences of a hard, statistical, cramming education, in which the sympathies are repressed, and the mind made a practical machine. The failure of Gradgrind has warned many a parent from imitating him.
Great Expectations failed to fulfil the promise of the name; but Joe Gargery is as original a character as any he had drawn.
His last completed story is Our Mutual Friend, which, although unequal to his best novels, has still original characters and striking scenes. The rage for rising in the social scale ruins the Veneerings, and Podsnappery is a well-chosen name far the heartless dogmatism which rules in English society.
Besides these splendid works, we must mention the delight he has given, and the good he has done in expanding individual and public charity, by his exquisite Christmas stories, of which The Chimes, The Christmas Carol, and The Cricket on the Hearth are the best.
His dramatic power has been fully illustrated by the ready adaptations of his novels to the stage; they are, indeed, in scenes, personages, costume, and interlocution, dramas in all except the form; and he himself was an admirable actor.
HIS VARIED POWERS.—His tenderness is touching, and his pathos at once excites our sympathy. He does not tell us to feel or to weep, but he shows us scenes like those in the life of Smike, and in the sufferings and death of Little Nell, which so simply appeal to the heart that we are for the time forgetful of the wand which conjures them before us.
Dickens is bold in the advocacy of truth and in denouncing error; he is the champion of honest poverty; he is the foe of class pretension and oppression; he is the friend of friendless children; the reformer of those whom society has made vagrants. Without many clear assertions of Christian doctrine, but with no negation of it, he believes in doing good for its own sake,—in self-denial, in the rewards which virtue gives herself. His faults are few and venial. His merry life smacks too much of the practical joke and the punch-bowl; he denounces cant in the self-appointed ministers of the gospel, but he is not careful to draw contrasted pictures of good pastors. His opinion seems to be based upon a human perfectibility. But for rare pictures of real life he has never been surpassed; and he has instructed an age, concerning itself, wisely, originally, and usefully. He has the simplicity of Goldsmith, and the truth to nature of Fielding and Smollett, without a spice of sentimentalism or of impurity; he has brought the art of prose fiction to its highest point, and he has left no worthy successor. He lived for years separated from his wife on the ground of incompatibility, and, during his later years at Gadshill, twenty miles from London, to avoid the dissipations and draughts upon his time in that city.
SECOND VISIT TO AMERICA.—In 1868 he again visited America, to read portions of his own works. He was well received by the public; but society had learned its lesson on his former visit, and he was not overwhelmed with a hospitality he had so signally failed to appreciate. And if we had learned better, he had vastly improved; the genius had become a gentleman. His readings were a great pecuniary success, and at their close he made an amend which was graceful and proper; so that when he departed from our shores his former errors were fully condoned, and he left an admiring hemisphere behind him.
In the glow of health, and while writing, in serial numbers, a very promising novel entitled The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he was struck by apoplexy, in June, 1870, and in a few hours was dead. England has hardly experienced a greater loss. All classes of men mourned when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the poets' corner, among illustrious writers,—a prose-poet, none of whom has a larger fame than he; a historian of his time of greater value to society than any who distinctively bear the title. His characters are drawn from life; his own experience is found in Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield;Micawber is a caricature of his own father. Traddles is said to represent his friend Talfourd. Skimpole is supposed to be an original likeness of Leigh Hunt, and William and Daniel Grant, of Manchester, were the originals of the Brothers Cheeryble.
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY.—Dickens gives us real characters in the garb of fiction; but Thackeray uses fiction as the vehicle of social philosophy. Great name, second only to Dickens; he is not a story-teller, but an eastern Cadi administering justice in the form of apologue. Dickens is eminently dramatic; Thackeray has nothing dramatic, neither scene nor personage. He is Democritus the laughing philosopher, or Jupiter the thunderer; he arraigns vice, pats virtue on the shoulder, shouts for muscular Christianity, uncovers shams,—his personages are only names. Dickens describes individuals; Thackeray only classes: his men and women are representatives, and, with but few exceptions, they excite our sense of justice, but not our sympathy; the principal exception is Colonel Newcome, a real individual creation upon whom Thackeray exhausted his genius, and he stands alone.
Thackeray was born in Calcutta, of an old Yorkshire family, in 1811. His father was in the civil service, and he was sent home, when a child of seven, for his education at the Charter House in London. Thence he was entered at Cambridge, but left without being graduated. An easy fortune of L20,000 led him to take life easily; he studied painting with somewhat of the desultory devotion he has ascribed to Clive Newcome, and, like that worthy, travelled on the Continent. Partly by unsuccessful investments, and partly by careless living, his means were spent, and he took up writing as a profession. The comic was his forte, and his early pieces, written under the pseudonym of Michael Angelo Fitzmarsh and George Fitz Boodle, are broadly humorous, but by no means in his later finished style. The Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841) did not disclose his full powers.
In 1841, Punch, a weekly comic illustrated sheet, was begun, and it opened to Thackeray a field which exactly suited him. Short scraps of comedy, slightly connected sketches, and the weekly tale of brick, chimed with his humor, and made him at once a favorite. The best of these serial contributions were The Snob Papers: they are as fine specimens of humorous satire as exist in the language. But these would not have made him famous, as they did not disclose his power as a novelist.
VANITY FAIR.—This was done by his Vanity Fair, which was published, in monthly numbers, between 1846 and 1848. It was at once popular, and is the most artistic of all his works. He called it a novel without a hero, and he is right; the mind repudiates all aspirants for the post, and settles upon poor Major Sugar-Plums as the best man in it. He could not have said without a heroine, for does not the world since ring with the fame of Becky Sharpe, the cleverest and wickedest little woman in England? The virtuous reader even is sorry that Becky must come to grief, as, with a proper respect to morality, the novelist makes her.
Never had the Vanity Fair of European society received so scathing a dissection; and its author was immediately recognized as one of the greatest living satirists and novelists. If he adheres more to the old school of Fielding, who was his model, in his plots and handling of the story, he was evidently original in his satire.
In 1847, upon the completion of this work, he began his History of Pendennis, in serial numbers, in which he presents the hero, Arthur Pendennis, as an average youth of the day, full of faults and foibles, but likewise generous and repentant. Here he enlists the sympathies which one never feels for perfection; and here, too, he portrays female loveliness and endurance in his Mrs. Pendennis and Laura. Arthur is a purer Tom Jones and Laura a superior Sophia Western.
In 1851 he gave a course of lectures, repeated in America the next year, on “the English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century.” There was no one better fitted to write such a course; he felt with them and was of them. But if this enabled him to present them sympathetically, it also caused him to overrate them, and in some cases to descend to the standpoint of their own partial views. He is wrong in his estimate of Swift, and too eulogistic of Addison; but he is thoroughly English in both.
HENRY ESMOND.—The study of history necessary to prepare these led to his undertaking a novel on the time of Queen Anne, entitled The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., written by himself. His appreciation of the age is excellent; but the book, leaving for the most part the comic field in which he was most at home, is drier and less read than his others; as an historical presentation a great success, with rare touches of pathos; as a work of fiction not equal to his other stories. The comic muse assumes a tragic, or at least a very sombre, dress. We have a portraiture of Queen Anne in her last days, and a sad picture of him who, to the Protestant succession, was the pretender, and to the hopeful Jacobites, James III. The character of Marlborough is given with but little of what was really meritorious in that great captain.
His novel of Pendennis gave him, after the manner of Bulwer's Caxton, an editor in Arthur Pendennis, who presents us The Newcomes, Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, which he published in a serial form, completing it in 1855.
THE NEWCOMES.—In that work we have the richest culture, the finest satire, and the rarest social philosophy. The character—the hero by pre-eminence—is Colonel Newcome, a nobleman of nature's creation, generous, simple, a yearningly affectionate father, a friend to all the poor and afflicted, one of the best men ever delineated by a novelist; few hearts are so hard as not to be touched by the story of his death in his final retirement at the Charter House. When, surrounded by weeping friends, he heard the bell, “a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said 'Adsum,' and fell back: it was the word we used at school when names were called; and, lo! he, whose heart was that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of the Master.”
THE GEORGES.—While he was writing The Newcomes, he had prepared a course of four lectures on the Four Georges, kings of England, with which he made his second visit to the United States, and which he delivered in the principal cities, to make a fund for his daughters and for his old age. It was entirely successful, and he afterwards read them in England and Scotland. They are very valuable historically, as they give us the truth with regard to men whose reigns were brilliant and on the whole prosperous, but who themselves, with the exception of the third of the name, were as bad men as ever wore crowns. George III. was continent and honest, but a maniac, and Mr. Thackeray has treated him with due forbearance and eulogy.
In 1857, Mr. Thackeray was a candidate for Parliament from Oxford, but was defeated by a small majority; his conduct in the election was so magnanimous, that his defeat may be regarded as an advantage to his reputation.
In the same year he began The Virginians, which may be considered his failure; it is historically a continuation of Esmond,—some of the English characters, the Esmonds in Virginia, being the same as in that work. But his presentation and estimate of Washington are a caricature, and his sketch of General James Wolfe, the hero of Quebec, is tame and untrue to life. His descriptions of Virginia colonial life are unlike the reality; but where he is on his own ground, describing English scenes and customs in that day, he is more successful. To paint historical characters is beyond the power of his pencil, and his Doctor Johnson is not the man whom Boswell has so successfully presented.
In 1860 he originated the Cornhill Magazine, to which his name gave unusual popularity: it attained a circulation of one hundred thousand—unprecedented in England. In that he published Lovel the Widower, which was not much liked, and a charming reproduction of the Newcomes,—for it is nothing more,—entitled The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World. Philip is a more than average Englishman, with a wicked father and rather a stupid wife; but “the little sister” is a star—there is no finer character in any of his works. Philip, in spite of its likeness to The Newcomes, is a delightful book.
With an achieved fame, a high position, a home which he had just built at Kensington, a large income, he seemed to have before him as prosperous an old age as any one could desire, when, such are the mysteries of Providence, he was found dead in his room on the morning of December 24, 1863.
ESTIMATE OF HIS POWERS.—Thackeray's excellences are manifest: he was the master of idiomatic English, a great moralist and reformer, and the king of satire, all the weapons of which he managed with perfect skill. He had a rapier for aristocratic immunities of evil, arrows to transfix prescriptions and shams; and with snobs (we must change the figure) he played as a cat does with a mouse, torturing and then devouring. In the words of Miss Bronte, “he was the first social regenerator of the day, the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things.” But this was his chief and glorious strength: in the truest sense, he was a satirist and a humorist, but not a novelist; he could not create character. His dramatic persons do not speak for themselves; he tells us what they are and do. His mission seems to have been to arraign and demolish evil rather than to applaud good, and thus he enlists our sinless anger as crusaders rather than our sympathy as philanthropists. In Dickens we are sometimes disposed to skip a little, in our ardor, to follow the plot and find the denouement. In Thackeray we read every word, for it is the philosophy we want; the plot and personages are secondary, as indeed he considered them; for he often tells us, in the time of greatest depression of his hero, that it will all come out right at the end,—that Philip will marry Charlotte, and have a good income, while the poor soul is wrestling with the res augusta domi. Dickens and Thackeray seemed to draw from each other in their later works; the former philosophizing more in his Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, and the latter attempting more of the descriptive in The Newcomes and Philip. Of minor pieces we may mention his Rebecca and Rowena, and his Kickleburys on the Rhine; his Essay on Thunder and Small Beer; his Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, in 1846, and his published collection of smaller sketches called The Roundabout Papers. That Thackeray was fully conscious of the dignity of his functions may be gathered from his own words in Henry Esmond. “I would have history familiar rather than heroic, and think Mr. Hogarth and Mr. Fielding. [and, we may add, Mr. Thackeray,] will give our children a much better idea of the manners of that age in England than the Court Gazette and the newspapers which we get thence.” At his death he left an unfinished novel, entitled Dennis Duval. A gifted daughter, who was his kind amanuensis. Miss ANNE E. THACKERAY, has written several interesting tales, among which are The Village on the Cliff and The Story of Elizabeth.