chapter  21
3 Pages

From an unsigned review, Athenaeum, 7 December 1850

Though Pendennis is full of true, brilliant, deep things,—though it contains many passages of clear and wholesome English such as must rejoice all who are weary of the spasmodic and superb styles of narration,—it cannot be described as an advance on Vanity Fair. It is rather like a pair of volumes added to that story,—containing the results of a second ramble among the booths, the wild-beast shows, and the merry-go-rounds of that chaos of folly, vice, and charlatanry. Why must Mr. Thackeray be always ‘going to the fair’?—is a question which will occur to many besides ourselves. His authorship seems in some danger of becoming a performance on one string: an execution of a long fantasia, with several variations, but all in the same key and all on the same theme of ‘Humbug everywhere.’ In his Preface he claims the character of a plain speaker. Such a one must also be a candid hearer. Thus, as critics who would fain be of use, we must to the utmost urge our objections to such a monotonous crusade against an enemy whose existence every one admits,—to such a ruthless insistence on the blemishes, incompletenesses, and disappointments which canker every human good and happiness.—This is not overstated. If we are looking at a Venus, straight does our anatomist lay his pen point on the illmodelled corner of the forehead over which the Goddess has drawn her curls. If we are listening to a Vates, ‘Got-up enthusiasm and eloquence!’ whispers the satirist close at our ear. If we are weeping over the sorrows of a heroine, our Momus shows us the half-discussed leg of mutton, which like the Lady Cherubina de Willoughby, she pushed under the sofa just before we entered and just before she placed herself in that Niobe-like attitude.1 Now, such being the humour, if not the drift, of this tale, how are we to believe Mr. Thackeray implicitly when he does his best to disclaim effect in his Preface?—how are we to acquit him of being ‘a man and a brother,’ like every one of those whom he dissects; a creature of mixed motives, into whose authorship a certain professional causticity may have come to be kneaded, from

its having been found on former occasions appetizing rather than unpleasant?—There seems to us great need that an alarm should be rung pretty loudly in the ears of one of our most shrewd, vigorous, accomplished, and kindly writers,—bidding him beware of his own tendencies lest they become organic defects. The denouncer of nuisances, the omnipresent and omniloquent accuser, who cries ‘Death in the pot!’1 over every morsel that we put into our mouths, becomes himself of nuisances the worst: a perpetual skeleton at the banquet; in its influences nearly as deadly as the vitriols and the sulphates and the rancid particles upon which he is for ever pouncing. The observer who is always watching the follies and pretensions of the second table,—who can hardly get to the end of his monthly part without gossip gathered from the valets’ club, or a fling against powdered-head and shoulderknot, canes and plush breeches,—lies open to the charge, not of despising such Conventionalisms,’ but of being tormented by an irritating sense of their authority. Among all the characters who figure in Pendennis, we can name only four depicted as amiable. One is Helen, the hero’s mother; and she is often sadly silly. The second is Laura, his Mentor and his reward,—whose womanly pettiness towards poor little Fanny Bolton is exposed with a gratuitous ungraciousness of manner not to be excused by these subsequent revelations, which show little Fanny to be coarse in putting up with young Huxter as a husband, and coquettish in trying to fascinate all her husband’s fellow medical students. Foker is number three,—who is nothing when not talking slang. George Warrington is the fourth; and capital as is the sketch, the saturnine and cynical points of his manner and personal habits are as much insisted on as the brave and tender heart over which they are the husk. We are led into the world of literary enterprise to be shown a domain which is only a better sort of literary Back Kitchen. We are introduced into the realm of Art in order that we may have it dinned into our ears that the Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind in whom we delight is merely a stupid, soulless puppet, who can move us without being herself moved to a tear, a smile, or a thought by her commerce with the greatest ‘beings of the mind’ ever evoked by magician. It is true that in this particular province our author has relented over his labours of morbid anatomy. With many of Mr. Thackeray’s readers Bows-who some will think might have been added to our list of the amiables-will be a favourite character, precisely because he supplies the element of poetry to that artist life which the

ruthless author of Pendennis has tried so hard to unpoetize. That such an element, by the way, is a constant quality in the theatrical world, all whose imagination is outraged by the picture of such a stupid, piemaking, puppet player-Queen as Miss Fotheringay may take comfort in reflecting. In Violet, the Danseuse, there was one of the Bows tribe:—and he it is (taking the name of Michonnet) who gives its artless and real pathos to the Adrienne Lecouvreur of M.Scribe.1