THEODORE MARTIN, ‘Thackeray’s Works’, Westminster Review, April 1853
Five years ago, in dedicating the second edition of Jane Eyre to the author of Vanity Fair, Currer Bell spoke of him thus:—‘Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day-as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because, I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he is like Fielding; they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture; Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summercloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.’ When this was written, Mr. Thackeray was not the popular favourite he has since become. He counts readers now by hundreds, where then he only counted tens. In those days, Currer Bell’s panegyric was pronounced extravagant by many who now, if they do not echo, will at least scarcely venture to dispute it; but it may be doubted whether, up to the present time, full justice has been done by any of Mr. Thackeray’s critics to the peculiar genius of the man, or to the purpose with which the later books have been written. It is not, indeed, to the Press that he owes the
appreciation which it is probable he values most. Its praise has generally been coupled with censure for what has occupied his most deliberate thought, and been conceived with the most earnest purpose. While it has extolled his wit, his keen eye, his graphic style, his trenchant sarcasm, his power of exposing cant and Pharisaism in all its phases, it has, at the same time, been loud in its outcry against the writer’s cynicism and want of faith, the absence of heroism and elevation in his characters-the foibles of all his women, the vices of all his men. Enough, and more than enough, has been said and written upon these points; but among a large section of his readers it has long been felt, that it may not have been without a purpose that Mr. Thackeray has never endowed his characters with ostentatious heroic virtues, or dwelt much on the brighter aspects of humanity; that his most unsparing ridicule, and his most pungent delineations of human folly or vice, are not tinged by the sour humours of the cynic or misanthrope, but that, through his harshest tones, there may be heard the sweet undernotes of a nature kindly and loving, and a heart warm and unspoiled, full of sympathy for goodness and all simple worth, and of reverence for all unaffected greatness.