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THE GENERAL. We will endeavor to do them justice, as we have been trying to do justice to the Princess.
American Review, October 1848.
AN Anglo-Saxon can appreciate, although he may not altogether admire Gallic wit; but a Gaul is hopelessly incompetent to understand Saxon humor. * It is to him what the Teutonic humor is to both Saxon and Gaul, who suppose it must be humorous to the Teuton because he vastly delights in it, but find it, so far as themselves are concerned, dreary in the extreme, and utterly valueless for purposes of amusement. Here is a book which has a brilliant run in England, where its author is acknowledged as one of the first periodical writers; we doubt if any Frenchmann could go through it without falling asleep in spite of the pictures. In our own country, where the original Saxon character has become partially Gallicized, the public opinion (setting aside that class
Nothing shows this more clearly than the use which the French have made, and not made, of their own one great humorist. They bray about him of course, for he is part of their natural glory; they talk about reading him “bring me the tongs and a volume of Pantagraet," as that precious Theophile Gautier says. Possibly they even read him as a bit of “business,” though it may be doubted if he is not and has not generally been more read in England than in France Certainly he has left a greater impress on English than on French literature. Setting aside minor writers, there is no great modern French author, so Rabelaiesque as Swift or Southey. Most of the direct and professed imitations of Rabelais which one meets with in modern French are utterly inadequate. Balzac sontes Drolatiques are very clever in their way but have little of their model except the antiquated spelling. Even their indecency, on which the author so prides himself in his preface is the indecency of Balzac and not of Rabelais. One man alone among contemporary French authors is imbued with the style and spirit of the old humorist, and that without making any parade of such inspiration; the resemblance too is more striking in the serious than in the comic portions of his works. Napoleon le petit is exactly such a book as Rabelais might have written had he been in Victor Hugo's place.
of readers, unfortunately too large, who are the willing slaves of the publishers, and feel bound to read and talk about a book because it is advertised by a big house, in big letters, as “Thackeray's Masterpiece,") is about equally divided, some much enjoying “Vanity Fair,” others voting it a great bore.
French wit and English humor! We do not mean to expatiate on this oftendiscussed theme, tempting though it be, affording copious opportunity for antitheses more or less false, and distinctions without differences, but shall merely hint at what seems the most natural way to explain this national diversity of taste and appreciation in respect of the two faculties. Wit consists in the expression more than in the matter – it depends very considerably on the words employed and hence the wittiest French sayings are, if not inexpressible, at least inexpressive in English. Under the homely Saxon garb they generally become very stupid or very wicked remarks - not unfrequently both. But an Englishman with a respectable knowledge of French can understand and be amused by French wit, though he will probably not enter into it very heartily. Humor, on the other hand, depends on a particular habit of mind; so that, to enjoy English humor, a Frenchman must not only understand English, but become intellectually Anglicized to a degree that is unnatural to him. In proof of this, it may be noticed that French-educated or French-minded Americans find Thackeray tedious, and (to take a stronger case, where no national prejudice but a favorable one can be at work,) yawn over Washington Irving.
And yet, if we wished to give an idea of Thackeray's writings to a person who had never read them, we should go to France for our first illustration, but it would be to French art, not French literature. No one who has ever been familiar with the pictured representations of Parisian life which embellish that repository of wicked wit, the Charivari no one who knows Les Lorettes, Les Enfans Terribles, &c., would think of applying to the designs of Gavarni and his brother artists the term caricatures. He would say, “There is no caricature about them; they are life itself.” And so it is with Thackeray's writings; they present you with humorous sketches of real life - literal comic pictures never rising to the
ideal or diverging into the grotesque. Thus, while his stories are excellent as a collection of separate sketches, they have but moderate merit as stories, nor are his single characters great as single characters. Becky Sharpe is the only one that can be called a firstrate hit; for “Chawls Yellowplush” is characterized chiefly by his ludicrous spelling, and his mantle fits “Jeemes” just as well. And just as Gavarni differs from Hogarth, should we say Thackeray differs from Dickens, a writer with whom he is sometimes compared, and to whom he undoubtedly has some points of resemblance, though he cannot with any propriety be called “of the Dickens school,” or “an imitator of Dickens,” any more than Gavarni could be called an imitator of Hogarth.
Thackeray has his points of contact, also, with another great humorous writer, Washington Irving. Very gracefully and prettily does Mr. Titmarsh write at times; there is many a little bit, here and there, in the “Journey from Cornhill to Cairo," that would not disgrace Geoffrey Crayon in his best mood. But his geniality is not so genuine, or so continuous. Not that there is anything affected about his mirth he is one of the most natural of modern English writers: Cobbett or Sidney Smith could hardly be more so; but it is dashed with stronger ingredients. Instead of welling up with perennial jollity, like our most good-humored of humorous authors, he is evidently a little blazė, and somewhat disposed to be cynical.
To compare Thackeray with Dickens and Irving, most of our readers will think paying him a high compliment, but we are not at all sure that his set would be particularly obliged to us; for it is the fortune good in some respects, evil in others – of Mr. Titmarsh to be one of a set. But wherever there are literary men there will be sets; and those who have been bored and disgusted by the impertinence and nonsense of stupid cliques will be charitable to the occasional conceits of clever ones. Having had some happy experience of that literary society which is carried to greater perfection in England than in any other country, we can pardon the amiable cockneyism with which Michael Angelo's thoughts revert to his Club even amid the finest scenery of other lands, and the semi-ludicrous earnestness with which he
dwells on the circumstance of your name being posted among the “members deceased,” as if that were the most awful and striking circumstance attendant on dissolution. And, inasmuch as all his books are really books to be read, we can excuse the quiet way in which he assumes that you have read them all, and alludes, as a matter of course, to the Hon. Algernon Deuceace and the Earl of Crabs, and such ideal personages, much after the manner of that precious Balzac who interweaves the same characters throughout the half-hundred or more volumes which compose bis panorama of Parisian society – a society in which, as Macauley says of another school, “the women are like very bad men, and the men too bad for anything."
This mention of Balzac brings to mind a more serious charge than that of occasional conceit or affectation which we have more than once heard urged against our author; namely, that his sketches contain too many disagreeable characters. A queer charge this to come from a reading generation which swallows copious illustrated editions of Les Mystères and Le Juif, and is lenient to the loathsome vulgarities of Wuthering Heights and Wildfell Hall. But let us draw a distinction or “discriminate a difference,” as a transcendentalist acquaintance of ours used to say. If a story is written for mere purposes of amusement, there certainly ought not to be more disagreeable characters introduced than are absolutely necessary for relief and contrast. But the moral and end of a story may often compel the author to bring before us a great number of unpleasant people. In a former volume of this Review the opinion was pretty broadly stated that no eminent novelist writes merely for amusement without some ulterior aim; most decidedly Thackery does not at any rate. We shall have occasion to refer to this more than once, for it is doing vast injustice to Mr. T. to regard him merely as a provider of temporary fun. He does introduce us to many scamps, and profligates, and hypocrites, but it is to show them up and put us on our guard against them. His bad people are evidently and unmistakably bad; we hate them, and he hates them, too, and doesn't try to make us fall in love with them, like the philosophers of the “Centre of Civilization,” who dish you up seraphic poisoners and chaste adulteresses in a way that
perplexes and confounds all established ideas of morality. And if he ever does bestow attractive traits on his rogues, it is to expose the worthlessness and emptiness of some things which are to the world attractive show that the good things of Vanity Fair are not good per se, but may be coincident with much depravity.
Thus Becky Sharpe, as portrayed by his graphic pen, is an object of envy and admiration for her cleverness and accomplishments to many a fine lady. There are plenty of the “upper ten" who would like to be as "smart" as Rebecca. She speaks French like a French woman, and gets up beautiful dresses out of nothing, and makes all the men admire her, and always has a repartee ready, and insinuates herself every where with an irresistible nonchalance. Then comes in the sage moralist, and shows us that a woman may do all these fine things, and yet be ready to lie right and left to every one. and ruin any amount of confiding tradesmen; to sell one man and poison another; to betray her husband and neglect her child. (That last touch is the most hateful one: in our simplicity we hope it is an exaggeration. That a woman should be utterly regardless of her offspring seems an impossibility – in this country, we are proud to say, it is an impossibility.) Or if any of his doubtful personages command our temporary respect and sympathy, it is because they are for the time in the right. Rawdon Crawley is not a very lofty character; he frequently comes before us in a position not even respectable; but when he is defending his honor against the old sybarite Lord Steyne, he rises with the occasion: even the guilty wife is forced to admire her husband, as he stands “strong brave, and victorious.” Nor, though he finds it sometimes necessary to expose hypocrites, does Thackeray delight in the existence of hypocrisy, and love to seek out bad motives for apparently good actions. His charity rather leads him to attribute with a most humane irony pretended wickedness to weakness. Your French writer brings an upright gentleman before the footlights, and grudges you the pleasure of admiring him; he is impatient to carry him off behind the scenes, strip off his Christian garments, and show him to you in private a very fiend. But Thackeray, when he has put into a youth's mouth an atrociously