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WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY.
William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811, his father being in the civil service of the East India Company. At seven years of age he was sent to England, stopping on the way at St. Helena, where, as he says, he saw the "Corsican ogre," and on reaching London was placed at the Charterhouse school. He was afterwards sent to Cambridge, but did not graduate. Having inherited a fortune, he determined to devote himself to art, and pursued his studies abroad for some years: but at length, after meeting with pecuniary losses, he turned his attention to literature. It has been said (though the authority cannot be given here), that his first acquaintance with Dickens came from his making some drawings to illustrate a story written by the younger and more popular novelist.
1 See extract from Bulwer Lytton's New Timon.
The first productions of our author were light sketches and tales, mostly under the name of Michael Angelo Titmarsh; and it is a coincidence that Thackeray's nose was flattened in boyhood by a blow, as the great sculptor's was by the mallet of Torregiano, a brother workman. In this early period were published The Paris Sketch-Book, The Great Hog. garty Diamond, The Irish Sketch-Book, Jeames's Diary, The Yellowplush Papers, The Book of Snobs, From Cornhill to Cairo, and Mrs. Perkins's Ball. The reputation of Thackeray was of slow growth; none of his early works made much impression, until he became known through “Punch" as the author of the inimitable observations of Jeamer. In all these comic sketches the artist was quite as conspicuous as the author. His first serial novel was Vanity Fair, a powerful but bitterly satirical work, and containing the germs of nearly all the ideas since elaborated in his other novels. This was followed at intervals by The History of Pendennis, The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians, and Lovel the Widower. He wrote and illustrated also a great number of Christ. mas stories, which are treasures of fun and of delicate sentiment. In this field he has neither equal nor second. Rebecca and Rowena, Dr. Birch and his Young Friends, The Rose and the Ring, and Our Street, are instances of the drollest conceits set off by the drollest pictures, without a touch of vulgarity, and written for the most part in a style so exquisite, that if Addison were proof-reader he would lay down his pencil in despair. Equally charming are his Lectures on the English Humorists, and on The Four Georges. These were delivered in this country as well as in England, and will never be forgotten by those who had the good fortune to hear them.
Various opinions are held as to Thackeray's novels. It is true that his heroines seldom have intellect and heart together, and that we are invited rather too often to the discovery of mean motives, and of all sorts of skeletons in closets. But there are passages in all his works that could have been dictated only by a great and generous heart; the ideas of honor and manliness are never forgotten; and, while affecting to sneer at sentiment, he paints scenes which cannot be read without tears.
It is difficult to compare him with his great rival, Dickens; most educated men will prefer the first as the more profound thinker, the more robust in character, and by far the more scholarly and more idiomatic writer in style.
Thackeray was a man of powerful frame and commanding presence. His reserve was chilling at first, but when the ice was broken, the ease, liveliness, and kindliness of his manner were indescribable. He died in 1863.
[From The History of Henry Esmond.]
THE actors in the old tragedies, as we read, piped their iambics to a tune, speaking from under a mask, and wearing stilts and a great head-dress. 'Twas thought the dignity of the Tragic Muse required these appurtenances, and that she was not to move except to a measure and cadence. So Queen Medea slew her children to a slow music and King Agamemnon perished in a dying fall (to use Mr. Dryden's words): the Chorus standing by in a set attitude, and rhythmically and decorously bewailing the fates of those great crowned persons. The Muse of History hath encumbered herself with ceremony as well as her Sister of the Theatre. She too wears the mask and the cothurnus, and speaks to measure. She too, in our age, busies herself with the affairs only of kings; waiting on them, obsequiously and stately, as if she were but a mistress of Court ceremonies, and had nothing to do with the registering of the
affairs of the common people. I have seen in his very old age and decrepitude the old French King Lewis the Fourteenth, the type and model of king-hood who never moved but to measure, who lived and died according to the laws of his Court-Marshal, persisting in enacting through life the part of Hero; and divested of poetry, this was but a little wrinkled old man, pock-marked, and with a great periwig and red heels to make him look tall, a hero for a book if you like, or for a brass statue or a painted ceiling, a god in a Roman shape, but what more than a man for Madame Maintenon, or the barber who shaved him, or Monsieur Fagon his surgeon? I wonder shall History ever pull off her periwig and cease to be courtridden? Shall we see something of France and England besides Versailles and Windsor? I saw Queen Anne at the latter place tearing down the Park slopes after her staghounds, and driving her one-horse chaise- a hot, red-faced woman, not in the least resembling that statue of her which turns its stone back upon Saint Paul's, and faces the coaches struggling up Ludgate Hill. She was neither better bred nor wiser than you and me, though we knelt to hand her a letter or a wash-hand-basin. Why shall History go on kneeling to the end of time? I am for having her rise up off her knees, and take a natural posture: not to be forever performing cringes and congées like a Court-chamberlain, and shuffling backwards out of doors in the presence of the sovereign. In a word, I would have History familiar rather than heroic and think that Mr. Hogarth and Mr. Fielding will give our children a much better idea of the manners of the present age in England, than the Court Gazette and the newspapers which we get thence.
[From The Four Georges.]
A VERY few years since, I knew familiarly a lady, who had been asked in marriage by Horace Walpole, who had been patted on the head by George I. This lady had knocked at Dr. Johnson's door; had been intimate with Fox, the beautiful Georgina of Devonshire, and that brilliant Whig society of the reign of George III.; had known the Duchess of Queensberry, the patroness of Gay and Prior, the admired young beauty of the court of Queen Anne. I often thought as I took my kind old friend's hand, how with it I held on to the old society of wits and men of the world. I could travel back