The absence of the heroic was, in Thackeray, so palpable to Thackeray himself that in his original preface to Pendennis, when he began to be aware that his reputation was made, he tells his public what they may expect and what they may not, and makes his joking complaint of the readers of his time because they will not endure with patience the true picture of a natural man. “Even the gentlemen of our age,” he says — adding that the story of Pendennis is an attempt to describe one of them, just as he is — “even those we cannot show as they are with the notorious selfishness of their time and their education. Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must shape him, and give him a certain conventional temper.” Then he rebukes his audience because they will not listen to the truth. “You will not hear what moves in the real world, what passes in society, in the clubs, colleges, mess-rooms — what is the life and talk of your sons.” You want the Raffaellistic touch, or that of some painter of horrors equally removed from the truth. I tell you how a man really does act — as did Fielding with Tom Jones — but it does not satisfy you. You will not sympathise with this young man of mine, this Pendennis, because he is neither angel nor imp. If it be so, let it be so. I will not paint for you angels or imps, because I do not see them. The young man of the day, whom I do see, and of whom I know the inside and the out thoroughly, him I have painted for you; and here he is, whether you like the picture or not. This is what Thackeray meant, and, having this in his mind, he produced Pendennis.
The object of a novel should be to instruct in morals while it amuses. I cannot think but that every novelist who has thought much of his art will have realised as much as that for himself. Whether this may best be done by the transcendental or by the commonplace is the question which it more behoves the reader than the author to answer, because the author may be fairly sure that he who can do the one will not, probably cannot, do the other. If a lad be only five feet high he does not try to enlist in the Guards. Thackeray complains that many ladies have “remonstrated and subscribers left him,” because of his realistic tendency. Nevertheless he has gone on with his work, and, in Pendennis, has painted a young man as natural as Tom Jones. Had he expended himself in the attempt, he could not have drawn a Master of Ravenswood.
It has to be admitted that Pendennis is not a fine fellow. He is not as weak, as selfish, as untrustworthy as that George Osborne whom Amelia married in Vanity Fair; but nevertheless, he is weak, and selfish, and untrustworthy. He is not such a one as a father would wish to see his son, or a mother to welcome as a lover for her daughter. But then, fathers are so often doomed to find their sons not all that they wish, and mothers to see their girls falling in love with young men who are not Paladins. In our individual lives we are contented to endure an admixture of evil, which we should resent if imputed to us in the general. We presume ourselves to be truth-speaking, noble in our sentiments, generous in our actions, modest and unselfish, chivalrous and devoted. But we forgive and pass over in silence a few delinquencies among ourselves. What boy at school ever is a coward — in the general? What gentleman ever tells a lie? What young lady is greedy? We take it for granted, as though they were fixed rules in life, that our boys from our public schools look us in the face and are manly; that our gentlemen tell the truth as a matter of course; and that our young ladies are refined and unselfish. Thackeray is always protesting that it is not so, and that no good is to be done by blinking the truth. He knows that we have our little home experiences. Let us have the facts out, and mend what is bad if we can. This novel of Pendennis is one of his loudest protests to this effect.
I will not attempt to tell the story of Pendennis, how his mother loved him, how he first came to be brought up together with Laura Bell, how he thrashed the other boys when he was a boy, and how he fell in love with Miss Fotheringay, née Costigan, and was determined to marry her while he was still a hobbledehoy, how he went up to Boniface, that well-known college at Oxford, and there did no good, spending money which he had not got, and learning to gamble. The English gentleman, as we know, never lies; but Pendennis is not quite truthful; when the college tutor, thinking that he hears the rattling of dice, makes his way into Pen’s room, Pen and his two companions are found with three Homers before them, and Pen asks the tutor with great gravity; “What was the present condition of the river Scamander, and whether it was navigable or no?” He tells his mother that, during a certain vacation he must stay up and read, instead of coming home — but, nevertheless, he goes up to London to amuse himself. The reader is soon made to understand that, though Pen may be a fine gentleman, he is not trustworthy. But he repents and comes home, and kisses his mother; only, alas! he will always be kissing somebody else also.
The story of the Amorys and the Claverings, and that wonderful French cook M. Alcide Mirobolant, forms one of those delightful digressions which Thackeray scatters through his novels rather than weaves into them. They generally have but little to do with the story itself, and are brought in only as giving scope for some incident to the real hero or heroine. But in this digression Pen is very much concerned indeed, for he is brought to the very verge of matrimony with that peculiarly disagreeable lady Miss Amory. He does escape at last, but only within a few pages of the end, when we are made unhappy by the lady’s victory over that poor young sinner Foker, with whom we have all come to sympathise, in spite of his vulgarity and fast propensities. She would to the last fain have married Pen, in whom she believes, thinking that he would make a name for her. “Il me faut des émotions,” says Blanche. Whereupon the author, as he leaves her, explains the nature of this Miss Amory’s feelings. “For this young lady was not able to carry out any emotion to the full, but had a sham enthusiasm, a sham hatred, a sham love, a sham taste, a sham grief; each of which flared and shone very vehemently for an instant, but subsided and gave place to the next sham emotion.” Thackeray, when he drew this portrait, must certainly have had some special young lady in his view. But though we are made unhappy for Foker, Foker too escapes at last, and Blanche, with her emotions, marries that very doubtful nobleman Comte Montmorenci de Valentinois.
But all this of Miss Amory is but an episode. The purport of the story is the way in which the hero is made to enter upon the world, subject as he has been to the sweet teaching of his mother, and subject as he is made to be to the worldly lessons of his old uncle the major. Then he is ill, and nearly dies, and his mother comes up to nurse him. And there is his friend Warrington, of whose family down in Suffolk we shall have heard something when we have read The Virginians — one I think of the finest characters, as it is certainly one of the most touching, that Thackeray ever drew. Warrington, and Pen’s mother, and Laura are our hero’s better angels — angels so good as to make us wonder that a creature so weak should have had such angels about him; though we are driven to confess that their affection and loyalty for him are natural. There is a melancholy beneath the roughness of Warrington, and a feminine softness combined with the reticent manliness of the man, which have endeared him to readers beyond perhaps any character in the book. Major Pendennis has become immortal. Selfish, worldly, false, padded, caring altogether for things mean and poor in themselves; still the reader likes him. It is not quite all for himself. To Pen he is good — to Pen who is the head of his family, and to come after him as the Pendennis of the day. To Pen and to Pen’s mother he is beneficent after his lights. In whatever he undertakes it is so contrived that the reader shall in some degree sympathise with him. And so it is with poor old Costigan, the drunken Irish captain, Miss Fotheringay’s papa. He was not a pleasant person. “We have witnessed the déshabille of Major Pendennis,” says our author; “will any one wish to be valet-dechambre to our other hero, Costigan? It would seem that the captain, before issuing from his bedroom, scented himself with otto of whisky.” Yet there is a kindliness about him which softens our hearts, though in truth he is very careful that the kindness shall always be shown to himself.
Among these people Pen makes his way to the end of the novel, coming near to shipwreck on various occasions, and always deserving the shipwreck which he has almost encountered. Then there will arise the question whether it might not have been better that he should be altogether shipwrecked, rather than housed comfortably with such a wife as Laura, and left to that enjoyment of happiness forever after, which is the normal heaven prepared for heroes and heroines who have done their work well through three volumes. It is almost the only instance in all Thackeray’s works in which this state of bliss is reached. George Osborne, who is the beautiful lover in Vanity Fair, is killed almost before our eyes, on the field of battle, and we feel that Nemesis has with justice taken hold of him. Poor old Dobbin does marry the widow, after fifteen years of further service, when we know him to be a middle-aged man and her a middle-aged woman. That glorious Paradise of which I have spoken requires a freshness which can hardly be attributed to the second marriage of a widow who has been fifteen years mourning for her first husband. Clive Newcome, “the first young man,” if we may so call him, of the novel which I shall mention just now, is carried so far beyond his matrimonial elysium that we are allowed to see too plainly how far from true may be those promises of hymeneal happiness forever after. The cares of married life have settled down heavily upon his young head before we leave him. He not only marries, but loses his wife, and is left a melancholy widower with his son. Esmond and Beatrix certainly reach no such elysium as that of which we are speaking. But Pen, who surely deserved a Nemesis, though perhaps not one so black as that demanded by George Osborne’s delinquencies, is treated as though he had been passed through the fire, and had come out — if not pure gold, still gold good enough for goldsmiths. “And what sort of a husband will this Pendennis be?” This is the question asked by the author himself at the end of the novel; feeling, no doubt, some hesitation as to the justice of what he had just done. “And what sort of a husband will this Pendennis be?” many a reader will ask, doubting the happiness of such a marriage and the future of Laura. The querists are referred to that lady herself, who, seeing his faults and wayward moods — seeing and owning that there are better men than he — loves him always with the most constant affection. The assertion could be made with perfect confidence, but is not to the purpose. That Laura’s affection should be constant, no one would doubt; but more than that is wanted for happiness. How about Pendennis and his constancy?
The Newcomes, which I bracket in this chapter with Pendennis, was not written till after Esmond, and appeared between that novel and The Virginians, which was a sequel to Esmond. It is supposed to be edited by Pen, whose own adventures we have just completed, and is commenced by that celebrated night passed by Colonel Newcome and his boy Clive at the Cave of Harmony, during which the colonel is at first so pleasantly received and so genially entertained, but from which he is at last banished, indignant at the iniquities of our drunken old friend Captain Costigan, with whom we had become intimate in Pen’s own memoirs. The boy Clive is described as being probably about sixteen. At the end of the story he has run through the adventures of his early life, and is left a melancholy man, a widower, one who has suffered the extremity of misery from a stepmother, and who is wrapped up in the only son that is left to him — as had been the case with his father at the beginning of the novel. The Newcomes, therefore, like Thackeray’s other tales, is rather a slice from the biographical memoirs of a family, than a romance or novel in itself.
It is full of satire from the first to the last page. Every word of it seems to have been written to show how vile and poor a place this world is; how prone men are to deceive, how prone to be deceived. There is a scene in which “his Excellency Rummun Loll, otherwise his Highness Rummun Loll,” is introduced to Colonel Newcome — or rather presented — for the two men had known each other before. All London was talking of Rummun Loll, taking him for an Indian prince, but the colonel, who had served in India, knew better. Rummun Loll was no more than a merchant, who had made a precarious fortune by doubtful means. All the girls, nevertheless, are running after his Excellency. “He’s known to have two wives already in India,” says Barnes Newcome; “but, by gad, for a settlement, I believe some of the girls here would marry him.” We have a delightful illustration of the London girls, with their bare necks and shoulders, sitting round Rummun Loll and worshipping him as he reposes on his low settee. There are a dozen of them so enchanted that the men who wish to get a sight of the Rummun are quite kept at a distance. This is satire on the women. A few pages on we come upon a clergyman who is no more real than Rummun Loll. The clergyman, Charles Honeyman, had married the colonel’s sister and had lost his wife, and now the brothers-inlaw meet. “‘Poor, poor Emma!’ exclaimed the ecclesiastic, casting his eyes towards the chandelier and passing a white cambric pocket-handkerchief gracefully before them. No man in London understood the ring business or the pocket-handkerchief business better, or smothered his emotion more beautifully. ‘In the gayest moments, in the giddiest throng of fashion, the thoughts of the past will rise; the departed will be among us still. But this is not the strain wherewith to greet the friend newly arrived on our shores. How it rejoices me to behold you in old England.’” And so the satirist goes on with Mr. Honeyman the clergyman. Mr. Honeyman the clergyman has been already mentioned, in that extract made in our first chapter from Lovel the Widower. It was he who assisted another friend, “with his wheedling tongue,” in inducing Thackeray to purchase that “neat little literary paper,”— called then The Museum, but which was in truth The National Standard. In describing Barnes Newcome, the colonel’s relative, Thackeray in the same scene attacks the sharpness of the young men of business of the present day. There were, or were to be, some transactions with Rummun Loll, and Barnes Newcome, being in doubt, asks the colonel a question or two as to the certainty of the Rummun’s money, much to the colonel’s disgust. “The young man of business had dropped his drawl or his languor, and was speaking quite unaffectedly, good-naturedly, and selfishly. Had you talked to him for a week you would not have made him understand the scorn and loathing with which the colonel regarded him. Here was a young fellow as keen as the oldest curmudgeon — a lad with scarce a beard to his chin, that would pursue his bond as rigidly as Shylock.” “Barnes Newcome never missed a church,” he goes on, “or dressing for dinner. He never kept a tradesman waiting for his money. He seldom drank too much, and never was late for business, or huddled over his toilet, however brief his sleep or severe his headache. In a word, he was as scrupulously whited as any sepulchre in the whole bills of mortality.” Thackeray had lately seen some Barnes Newcome when he wrote that.
It is all satire; but there is generally a touch of pathos even through the satire. It is satire when Miss Quigley, the governess in Park Street, falls in love with the old colonel after some dim fashion of her own. “When she is walking with her little charges in the Park, faint signals of welcome appear on her wan cheeks. She knows the dear colonel amidst a thousand horsemen.” The colonel had drunk a glass of wine with her after his stately fashion, and the foolish old maid thinks too much of it. Then we are told how she knits purses for him, “as she sits alone in the schoolroom — high up in that lone house, when the little ones are long since asleep — before her dismal little tea-tray, and her little desk containing her mother’s letters and her mementoes of home.” Miss Quigley is an ass; but we are made to sympathise entirely with the ass, because of that morsel of pathos as to her mother’s letters.
Clive Newcome, our hero, who is a second Pen, but a better fellow, is himself a satire on young men — on young men who are idle and ambitious at the same time. He is a painter; but, instead of being proud of his art, is half ashamed of it — because not being industrious he has not, while yet young, learned to excel. He is “doing” a portrait of Mrs. Pendennis, Laura, and thus speaks of his business. “No. 666,”— he is supposed to be quoting from the catalogue of the Royal Academy for the year — “No. 666. Portrait of Joseph Muggins, Esq., Newcome, George Street. No. 979. Portrait of Mrs. Muggins on her gray pony, Newcome. No. 579. Portrait of Joseph Muggins, Esq.‘s dog Toby, Newcome. This is what I am fit for. These are the victories I have set myself on achieving. Oh Mrs. Pendennis! isn’t it humiliating? Why isn’t there a war? Why haven’t I a genius? There is a painter who lives hard by, and who begs me to come and look at his work. He is in the Muggins line too. He gets his canvases with a good light upon them; excludes the contemplation of other objects; stands beside his picture in an attitude himself; and thinks that he and they are masterpieces. Oh me, what drivelling wretches we are! Fame! — except that of just the one or two — what’s the use of it?” In all of which Thackeray is speaking his own feelings about himself as well as the world at large. What’s the use of it all? Oh vanitas vanitatum! Oh vanity and vexation of spirit! “So Clive Newcome,” he says afterwards, “lay on a bed of down and tossed and tumbled there. He went to fine dinners, and sat silent over them; rode fine horses, and black care jumped up behind the moody horseman.” As I write this I have before me a letter from Thackeray to a friend describing his own success when Vanity Fair was coming out, full of the same feeling. He is making money, but he spends it so fast that he never has any; and as for the opinions expressed on his books, he cares little for what he hears. There was always present to him a feeling of black care seated behind the horseman — and would have been equally so had there been no real care present to him. A sardonic melancholy was the characteristic most common to him — which, however, was relieved by an always present capacity for instant frolic. It was these attributes combined which made him of all satirists the most humorous, and of all humorists the most satirical. It was these that produced the Osbornes, the Dobbins, the Pens, the Clives, and the Newcomes, whom, when he loved them the most, he could not save himself from describing as mean and unworthy. A somewhat heroic hero of romance — such a one, let us say, as Waverley, or Lovel in The Antiquary, or Morton in Old Mortality — was revolting to him, as lacking those foibles which human nature seemed to him to demand.
The story ends with two sad tragedies, neither of which would have been demanded by the story, had not such sadness been agreeable to the author’s own idiosyncrasy. The one is the ruin of the old colonel’s fortunes, he having allowed himself to be enticed into bubble speculations; and the other is the loss of all happiness, and even comfort, to Clive the hero, by the abominations of his mother-inlaw. The woman is so iniquitous, and so tremendous in her iniquities, that she rises to tragedy. Who does not know Mrs. Mack the Campaigner? Why at the end of his long story should Thackeray have married his hero to so lackadaisical a heroine as poor little Rosey, or brought on the stage such a she-demon as Rosey’s mother? But there is the Campaigner in all her vigour, a marvel of strength of composition — one of the most vividly drawn characters in fiction; — but a woman so odious that one is induced to doubt whether she should have been depicted.
The other tragedy is altogether of a different kind, and though unnecessary to the story, and contrary to that practice of story-telling which seems to demand that calamities to those personages with whom we are to sympathise should not be brought in at the close of a work of fiction, is so beautifully told that no lover of Thackeray’s work would be willing to part with it. The old colonel, as we have said, is ruined by speculation, and in his ruin is brought to accept the alms of the brotherhood of the Grey Friars. Then we are introduced to the Charter House, at which, as most of us know, there still exists a brotherhood of the kind. He dons the gown — this old colonel, who had always been comfortable in his means, and latterly apparently rich — and occupies the single room, and eats the doled bread, and among his poor brothers sits in the chapel of his order. The description is perhaps as fine as anything that Thackeray ever did. The gentleman is still the gentleman, with all the pride of gentry; — but not the less is he the humble bedesman, aware that he is living upon charity, not made to grovel by any sense of shame, but knowing that, though his normal pride may be left to him, an outward demeanour of humility is befitting.
And then he dies. “At the usual evening hour the chapel bell began to toll, and Thomas Newcome’s hands outside the bed feebly beat time — and, just as the last bell struck, a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said, ‘Adsum,’— and fell back. It was the word we used at school when names were called; and, lo, he whose heart was as that of a little child had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of his Maker!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55