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To W. M. Thackeray.
From Letters to Dead Authors
Andrew Lang

Sir,--There are many things that stand in the way of the critic when he has a
mind to praise the living. He may dread the charge of writing rather to vex a
rival than to exalt the subject of his applause. He shuns the appearance of
seeking the favour of the famous, and would not willingly be regarded as one
of the many parasites who now advertise each movement and action of
contemporary genius. 'Such and such men of letters are passing their summer
holidays in the Val d'Aosta,' or the Mountains of the Moon, or the Suliman
, as it may happen. So reports our literary 'Court Circular,' and all our
_Pre'cieuses_ read the tidings with enthusiasm. Lastly, if the critic be quite
new to the world of letters, he may superfluously fear to vex a poet or a
novelist by the abundance of his eulogy. No such doubts perplex us when, with
all our hearts, we would commend the departed; for they have passed almost
beyond the reach even of envy; and to those pale cheeks of theirs no
commendation can bring the red.

You, above all others, were and remain without a rival in your many-sided
excellence, and praise of you strikes at none of those who have survived your
day. The increase of time only mellows your renown, and each year that passes
and brings you no successor does but sharpen the keenness of our sense of
loss. In what other novelist, since Scott was worn down by the burden of a
forlorn endeavour, and died for honour's sake, has the world found so many of
the fairest gifts combined? If we may not call you a poet (for the first of
English writers of light verse did not seek that crown), who that was less
than a poet ever saw life with a glance so keen as yours, so steady, and so
sane? Your pathos was never cheap, your laughter never forced; your sigh was
never the pulpit trick of the preacher. Your funny people--your Costigans and
Fokers--were not mere characters of trick and catch-word, were not empty comic
masks. Behind each the human heart was beating; and ever and again we were
allowed to see the features of the man.

Thus fiction in your hands was not simply a profession, like another, but a
constant reflection of the whole surface of life: a repeated echo of its
laughter and its complaint. Others have written, and not written badly, with
the stolid professional regularity of the clerk at his desk; you, like the
Scholar Gipsy
, might have said that 'it needs heaven-sent moments for this
skill.' There are, it will not surprise you, some honourable women and a few
men who call you a cynic; who speak of 'the withered world of Thackerayan
satire ;' who think your eyes were ever turned to the sordid aspects of
life--to the mother-in-law who threatens to 'take away her silver bread-
basket;' to the intriguer, the sneak, the termagant; to the Beckys, and Barnes
Newcomes, and Mrs. Mackenzies of this world. The quarrel of these
sentimentalists is really with life, not with you; they might as wisely blame
Monsieur Buffon because there are snakes in his Natural History. Had you not
impaled certain noxious human insects, you would have better pleased Mr.
Ruskin; had you confined yourself to such performances, you would have been
more dear to the Neo-Balzacian school in fiction.

You are accused of never having drawn a good woman who was not a doll, but the
ladies that bring this charge seldom remind us either of Lady Castlewood or of
Theo or Hetty Lambert. The best women can pardon you Becky Sharp and Blanche
Amory; they find it harder to forgive you Emmy Sedley and Helen Pendennis. Yet
what man does not know in his heart that the best women--God bless them--lean,
in their characters, either to the sweet passiveness of Emmy or to the
sensitive and jealous affections of Helen? 'Tis Heaven, not you, that made
them so; and they are easily pardoned, both for being a very little lower than
the angels and for their gentle ambition to be painted, as by Guido or
Guercino, with wings and harps and haloes. So ladies have occasionally seen
their own faces in the glass of fancy, and, thus inspired, have drawn Romola
and Consuelo. Yet when these fair idealists, Mdme. Sand and George Eliot,
designed Rosamund Vincy and Horace, was there not a spice of malice in the
portraits which we miss in your least favourable studies?

That the creator of Colonel Newcome and of Henry Esmond was a snarling cynic;
that he who designed Rachel Esmond could not draw a good woman: these are the
chief charges (all indifferent now to you, who were once so sensitive) that
your admirers have to contend against. A French critic, M. Taine, also
protests that you do preach too much. Did any author but yourself so
frequently break the thread (seldom a strong thread) of his plot to converse
with his reader and moralise his tale, we also might be offended. But who that
loves Montaigne and Pascal, who that likes the wise trifling of the one and
can bear with the melancholy of the other, but prefers your preaching to
another's playing!

Your thoughts come in, like the intervention of the Greek Chorus, as an
ornament and source of fresh delight. Like the songs of the Chorus, they bid
us pause a moment over the wider laws and actions of human fate and human
life, and we turn from your persons to yourself, and again from yourself to
your persons, as from the odes of Sophocles or Aristophanes to the action of
their characters on the stage. Nor, to my taste, does the mere music and
melancholy dignity of your style in these passages of meditation fall far
below the highest efforts of poetry. I remember that scene where Clive, at
Barnes Newcome's Lecture on the Poetry of the Affections, sees Ethel who is
lost to him. 'And the past and its dear histories, and youth and its hopes and
passions, and tones and looks for ever echoing in the heart and present in the
memory--these, no doubt, poor Clive saw and heard as he looked across the
great gulf of time, and parting and grief, and beheld the wonmn he had loved
for many years.'

_For_ever_echoing_in_the_heart_and_present_in_the_memory:_ who has not heard
these tones, who does not hear them as he turns over your books that, for so
many years, have been his companions and comforters? We have been young and
old, we have been sad and merry with you, we have listened to the mid-night
chimes with Pen and Warrington, have stood with you beside the death-bed, have
mourned at that yet more awful funeral of lost love, and with you have prayed
in the inmost chapel sacred to our old and immortal affections,
_a'_le'al_souvenir!_ And whenever you speak for yourself, and speak in
earnest, how magical, how rare, how lonely in our literature is the beauty of
your sentences! 'I can't express the charm of them' (so you write of George
; so we may write of you): 'they seem to me like the sound of country
bells, provoking I don't know what vein of music and meditation, and falling
sweetly and sadly on the ear.' Surely that style, so fresh, so rich, so full
of surprises --that style which stamps as classical your fragments of slang,
and perpetually astonishes and delights--would alone give immortality to an
author, even had he little to say. But you, with your whole wide world of fops
and fools, of good women and brave men, of honest absurdities and cheery
adventurers: you who created the Steynes and Newcomes, the Beckys and
Blanches, Captain Costigan and F. B., and the Chevalier Strong--all that host
of friends imperishable--you must survive with Shakespeare and Cervantes
in the memory and affection of men.

Letters to Dead Authors | Next Letter (to Charles Dickens)

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