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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

The Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo


till 1846, when he began _Vanity Fair_, that any very large number of persons began to understand what a star had risen in English letters; nor can even _Vanity Fair_ be said to have had any enormous popularity, though its author's powers were shown in a different way during its publication in parts by the appearance of a third sketch book, the _Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo_, more perfect than either of its forerunners, and by divers extremely brilliant Christmas books. _Vanity Fair_ was succeeded in 1849 (for Thackeray, a man fond of society and a little indolent, was fortunately never a very rapid writer) by _Pendennis_, which holds as autobiography, though not perhaps in creative excellence, the same place among his works as _Copperfield_ does among those of Dickens. Several slighter things accompanied or followed this, Thackeray showing himself at once an admirable lecturer, and an admirable though not always quite judicial critic, in a series of discourses afterwards published as a volume on _The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century_. But it was not till 1852 that the marvellous historical novel of _Esmond_--the greatest book in its own special kind ever written--appeared, and showed at once the fashion in which the author had assimilated the Queen Anne period and his grasp of character and story. He returned to modern times in _The Newcomes_ (1853-55), which some put at the head of his work as a contemporary painter of manners. After this he had seven years of life which were well filled. He followed up _Esmond_ with The _Virginians_ (1857-58), a novel of the third quarter of the eighteenth century, which has not been generally rated high, but which contains some of his very best things; he went to America and lectured on _The Four Georges_ (lectures again brilliant in their kind); he became (1860) editor of the _Cornhill Magazine_ and wrote in it two stories, _Lovel the Widower_ and _Philip_; while he struck out a new line in a certain series of contributions called _The Roundabout Papers_, some of which were among his very last, and nearly all of them among his most characteristic and perfect work. He had begun yet another novel, _Denis Duval_, which was to deal with the last quarter of the century he knew so well; but he died suddenly two days before Christmas 1863, leaving it a mere fragment. He had unsuccessfully attempted play writing in _The Wolves and the Lamb_, an earlier and dramatic version of _Lovel the Widower_. And during almost his whole literary career he had been a sparing but an exquisite writer of a peculiar kind of verse, half serious half comic, which is scarcely inferior in excellence to his best prose. "The Ballad of Bouillabaisse" and "The Age of Wisdom," to take only two examples, are unmatched in their presentation of pathos that always keeps clear of the maudlin, and is wide-eyed if not dry-eyed in view of all sides of life; while such things as "Lyra Hibernica" and "The Ballads of Policeman X" have never been surpassed as verse examples of pure, broad, roaring farce that still retains a certain reserve and well-bred scholarship of tone.

But his verse, however charming and unique, could never have given him the exalted and massive pedestal which his prose writings, and especially his novels, provide. Even without the novels, as without the verse, he would still occupy a high place among English writers for the sake of his singular and delightful style, and for the attitude both to life and to letters, corresponding with that style, which his essays and miscellanies exhibit. This style is not by any means free from minor blemishes, though it discarded many of these as time went on. But it has an extraordinary vivacity; a manner entirely its own, which yet seldom or never approaches mannerism; a quality of humour for which no word would be so fit as the old-fashioned "archness," if that had not been so hopelessly degraded before even the present century opened; at need, an unsurpassed pathos which never by any chance or exception succumbs to the demon of the gushing or maudlin; a flexibility and facility of adaptation to almost all (not quite all) subjects which is hard to parallel.


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