« PreviousContinue »
his instrument; one feels he could run up and down the keyboard for ever, and never strike a false note. Certainly no other writer of novels approaches him in this quality of liquid ease. It may sometimes be too garrulous and conversational; and, of course, it was never meant to handle and never tries to handle the great things of nature and art. It could not have done the work of Scott or Hardy or Meredith. But when one comes fresh from a long summer bathe in its cool smooth waters, how much other people suffer by the comparison; how stilted and conventional much of Scott seems, how crude nearly all Dickens, how tainted with virtuosity a large part of Meredith !
Thackeray found the novel divided between the historical romance of Scott and the exquisite parlour miniatures of Miss Austen. What he did with it was to give it the modernism that was not in Scott and the scale and range that was not in Jane Austen. Both he and Dickens deserted the strict construction of Miss Austen, and to some extent of Scott, in favour of the old loose epic model. And both turned to their own day for their material. But Thackeray was far more interested in character than Dickens, and knew immeasurably more about it. Dickens lives by his exuberant vitality, his inexhaustible humour, and the immense pleasure he takes in the spectacle of life, not by his characters, which, whether they belong to melodrama or farce, are seldom of the sort that convince. Thackeray lives, on the other hand, by his subtle insight into character, by the charm of his style, by the essential permanence of the world he described. The world does not grow poorer; and wherever there is a rich society there will Lady Kew and Major Pendennis be gathered together. Dickens, on the contrary, suffers by the fact that the lives of the poor and the lower middle class which he described so vividly have changed so much in half a century that the manners and customs we find in his books are almost as remote from us as those of Scott's Crusaders. And one other thing. Dickens devoted himself in his novels to the assault upon special evils—bad schools, bad law courts, bad workhouses and so forth. These are all now reformed or extinct, and his novels suffer in consequence from a certain air of tilting at windmills. Thackeray's subject, on the other
hand, was the struggle between the spirit of the world and the best instincts of the human heart, a struggle which is not likely to be concluded this year or next.
So these two very different men go down the generations bearing their very different sheaves with them ; and no one can confidently say as yet which sheaf will prove more valuable in the ultimate market of posterity. Thackeray, at any rate, must fight his own battle; for he left no successors. And since his day the novel has followed other paths. The chief, perhaps, is one that his path led us into. The worst of the good sort of realism is that it will lead to naturalism. When people have been given real life under the conditions of art, as in • Vanity Fair,' they soon want it without those conditions, as in • Zola.' In an age of science there is inevitably a confusion between the province of science and that of art. People very easily forget that art is the child of the imagination, and that, as Mr Hardy has told us, a good work of imagination is truer than any literally exact history. But to forget that is to accept the substitution of facts for truth. The conversations in many recent novels are as stupidly true as if they had been taken down by a reporter in a boarding house. The sayings and doings in such a book as “The Card’ are as uninteresting as the photographs in the shop-windows, as like life as they are, and as empty and superficial. But naturalism, however fatal for the moment to such artistic realism as Thackeray's, can have no permanent life because it is not art at all, but a bastard kind of science intruding into the world of art.
Thackeray has, however, suffered from the arising of other needs which neither he nor Dickens could satisfy. As the novel increased in importance and became the principal vehicle of literary expression, people naturally demanded that it should express their attitude towards the great problems of life and destiny. In a word, they demanded from it something like a philosophy of the meaning of things. And so, many people turned from Thackeray to such writers as George Eliot and George Meredith, who were felt to make an attempt to explain, if no longer perhaps to justify, the ways of God to man. And finally those who thought as well as read were certain not to rest content for ever with the ruthlessly prosaic note of Thackeray or the sentimentalism which was almost his solitary escape from it. If the novel was to absorb the work of all other forms of literature, it must needs satisfy the eternal demand for poetry. And so those to whom Thackeray seemed to be immeshed in this visible world as we know it drew away from him to one who appeared to give so much more--the invisible, intangible essence of life, its spirit, in a word its poetry-and transferred their allegiance to Mr Hardy. The love of nature too, the sense of a Presence about us which the forms of nature somehow reveal has been growing ever since Wordsworth's day; and the novel could not do with
; out it for ever, as Thackeray did; so that for this reason again people turned from him to the Brontës, to George Eliot, to George Meredith, and above all again to Mr Hardy.
All these things are against Thackeray, yet so much is for him that he triumphantly survives them. Non omnes omnia.' He cannot give us what others give, but he gives us of his own no mean or ordinary gift. After all the great fact remains. · Vanity Fair' was written in 1847; and it is still doubtful whether, in spite of all its limitations, it is not on the whole the greatest novel in the language. A writer who is still talked of for the first prize in the race which he began to run longer ago than the historic Sixty Years Since can have no complaint to make of his treatment at the hands of Fame.
Art. 7.–AGRICULTURAL LABOURERS AND LAND
1. The Village Labourer 1760–1832. By J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond. London: Longmans, 1911, .
. 2. British Rural Life and Labour. By Francis George
Heath. London: King and Son, 1911. The two books which head this article differ widely in scope and character. Together they present a continuous history of the conditions of agricultural labour from 1760 to the present day. Though Mr Heath is mainly occupied with the present and the future of the peasant' his retrospect bridges the gap between 1832 and 1911. It may be read with interest and profit. This is true also of Mr Hammond's book. But from the first page to the last it must be read with caution. It is social history written for political purposes. The volume contains much truth, worth telling, and admirably told. But the story is very far from being the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Mr Hammond, who loves literary allusions, introduces us to many of the local tyrants whom Fielding and Richardson depict among the rural squirearchy. He never mentions Squire Allworthy. Yet a Justice Frolic was drawn from the novelist's imagination, while Squire Allworthy is understood to have been a portrait from real life.
Mr Hammond devotes his first chapter to a contrast between the history of the French and English peasantry. He conveys the impression that the surrender of their seignorial dues by the French nobility in 1789 created the five million peasant proprietors who already existed in France, and suggests that, if the English aristocracy had acted in the same way in 1660, their action would have produced the same result. The suggestion is scarcely justified by facts. If English landlords in 1660 had sacrificed their seignorial dues, the customary freeholders of the North might have become absolute owners. But beyond this very limited class, no occupier would have been transformed into the owner of the soil which he cultivated. In support of his theory, however, Mr Hammond calls two witnesses. In the first place, he misquotes from Roger North's 'Lives of the Norths' the
description which the first Lord Guildford (1637–1685) gives of his experiences as steward of manorial courts. *He used' (says Mr Hammond) 'to describe the copyhold exactions, and to say that in many cases that came under his notice small tenements and pieces of land which had been in a poor family for generations were swallowed up in the monstrous fines imposed on copyholders.' Lord Guildford's statement really is as follows:* And in very good earnest, it is a miserable thing to observe how sharpers that now are commonly court-keepers pinch the poor copyholders in their fees. Small tenements and pieces of land that have been man's inheritances for divers generations, to say nothing of the fines, are devoured by fees.' Mr Hammond may possibly have confused fines for renewal paid to the land-owner with the court fees paid to the steward. The second witness is Sir Henry Maine, from whom is quoted the statement that the seignorial dues, against which the French peasant revolted, resembled the dues which in this country were extinguished by the peaceful process of copyhold enfranchisement. Presumably the reference is to “The Early History of Institutions' (Lecture V). If so, Mr Hammond might have quoted with advantage an earlier passage in the same Lecture. Maine says that, in France, the sense of property in the soil was not in the lord but in the peasant, because feudal dues and petty monopolies, not rents, formed the land revenues of the bulk of the French nobility. But, continues Maine, 'a certain number of noblemen, besides their feudal rights, had their terres, or domain, belonging to them in absolute property, and sometimes of enormous extent; and the wealthiest members of this limited class ... formed the counterpart, from the legal point of view, of the English landed proprietary
Mr Hammond's introductory chapter cannot be regarded entirely as a rhetorical flourish. The theory which it expounds pervades the whole volume. But his main purpose is to discuss the changes which were produced in English village life between 1760 and 1832, and to attribute them, not to economic causes or national necessities, but to the grasping tyranny of an omnipotent landed aristocracy.