Unsigned review, Saturday Review, 19 November 1859
With imaginative writers in general the case is altogether different. In their books, the style and the sentiment is so much more important than the specific subject-matter which is handled that, after a certain quantity has been produced, the literary value of subsequent works fails to keep pace with the rate of production, even if the author’s powers of thought and composition show no traces of overwork. For example,
if Mr. Tennyson were to write ten poems on various subjects, each as good as the best of his Idylls, the ten taken together would not be ten times as valuable as any one of them. The thought which pervaded any one would be either the same, or nearly the same, as that which pervaded all the rest, and the differences between them would lie principally in the way of expressing that thought. There is, however, no class of books to which this observation applies so forcibly as to those novels in monthly numbers, which, through the agency of Mr. Thackeray and Mr. Dickens, have attained such remarkable popularity. The obvious tendency of the mode of publication which they have selected is to reduce the popularity of a novel almost entirely to a question of style and sentiment, and to teach people neither to expect nor to relish an interesting plot. A novel which is, in fact, the aggregate of twenty-four monthly pamphlets must always be disjointed and languid; nor would anything short of a superhuman energy, of which neither of these writers displays much trace, keep in lively motion waters which flow through a channel so very long and so much interrupted. The consequence of this is, that whilst Mr. Dickens’s novels have come to be pamphlets on various subjects, hinted and insinuated through caricatures of imaginary people, Mr. Thackeray’s are assuming the type of sermons, conversations, and miscellaneous remarks put into the mouths of personages who are constantly deducing all Mr. Thackeray’s favourite conclusions from their observation of each other and from their reflections on the various events amongst which their author assigns them their local habitation. Thus the substance of each successive novel is precisely the same. Each is an embodiment of Mr. Thackeray’s view of human life, and that view differs extremely little whether it is taken from one point or another. In order, therefore, to criticise any one of these works, it is more or less necessary to criticise them all, or at least to criticise that general temper of mind to which they all alike owe their origin.