Story type: Essay
TO MR. BROOKFIELD
September 16, 1849
Have you read Dickens? Oh, it is charming! Brave Dickens!
“David Copperfield” has some of his prettiest touches,
and the reading of the book has done another author a
great deal of good.
There are certain good old ladies in every community who wear perennial mourning. They attend every funeral, carrying black-bordered handkerchiefs, and weep gently at the right time. I have made it a point to hunt out these ancient dames at their homes, and, over the teacups, I have discovered that invariably they enjoy a sweet peace–a happiness with contentment–that is a great gain. They seem to be civilization’s rudimentary relic of the Irish keeners and the paid mourners of the Orient.
And there is just a little of this tendency to mourn with those who mourn in all mankind. It is not difficult to bear another’s woe–and then there is always a grain of mitigation, even in the sorrow of the afflicted, that makes their tribulation bearable.
Burke affirms, in “On the Sublime,” that all men take a certain satisfaction in the disasters of others. Just as Frenchmen lift their hats when a funeral passes and thank God that they are not in the hearse, so do we in the presence of calamity thank Heaven that it is not ours.
Perhaps this is why I get a strange delight from walking through a graveyard by night. All about are the white monuments that glisten in the ghostly starlight, the night-wind sighs softly among the grassy mounds–all else is silent–still.
This is the city of the dead, and of all the hundreds or thousands who have traveled to this spot over long and weary miles, I, only I, have the power to leave at will. Their ears are stopped, their eyes are closed, their hands are folded–but I am alive.
One of the first places I visited on reaching London was Kensal Green Cemetery. I quickly made the acquaintance of the First Gravedigger, a rare wit, over whose gray head have passed full seventy pleasant summers. I presented him a copy of “The Shroud,” the organ of the American Undertakers’ Association, published at Syracuse, New York. I subscribe for “The Shroud” because it has a bright wit-and-humor column, and also for the sweet satisfaction of knowing that there is still virtue left in Syracuse.
The First Gravedigger greeted me courteously, and when I explained briefly my posthumous predilections we grasped hands across an open grave (that he had just digged) and were fast friends.
“Do you believe in cremation, sir?” he asked.
“No, never; it’s pagan.”
“Aye, you are a gentleman–and about burying folks in churches?”
“Never! A grave should be out under the open sky, where the sun by day and the moon and stars—-“
“Right you are. How Shakespeare can ever stand it to have his grave walked over by a boy choir is more than I can understand. If I had him here I could look after him right. Come, I’ll show you the company I keep!”
Not twenty feet from where we stood was a fine but plain granite block to the memory of the second wife of James Russell Lowell.
“Just Mr. Lowell and one friend stood by the grave when we lowered the coffin–just two men and no one else but the young clergyman who belongs here. Mr. Lowell shook hands with me when he went away. He gave me a guinea and wrote me two letters afterward from America; the last was sent only a week before he died. I’ll show ’em to you when we go to the office. Say, did you know him?”
He pointed to a slab, on which I read the name of Sydney Smith. Then we went to the graves of Mulready, the painter; Kemble, the actor; Sir Charles Eastlake, the artist. Next came the resting-place of Buckle–immortal for writing a preface–dead at thirty-seven, with his history unwrit; Leigh Hunt sleeps near, and above his dust a column that explains how it was erected by friends. In life he asked for bread; when dead they gave him a costly pile of stone.
Here are also the graves of Madame Tietjens; of Charles Mathews, the actor; and of Admiral Sir John Ross, the Arctic explorer.
“And just down the hill aways another big man is buried. I knew him well; he used to come and visit us often. The last time I saw him I said as he was going away, ‘Come again, sir; you are always welcome!’
“‘Thank you, Mr. First Gravedigger,’ says he; ‘I will come again before long, and make you an extended visit.’ In less than a year the hearse brought him. That’s his grave–push that ivy away and you can read the inscription. Did you ever hear of him?”
It was a plain, heavy slab placed horizontally, and the ivy had so run over it that the white of the marble was nearly obscured. But I made out this inscription:
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY
Born July 18, 1811
Died Dec. 24, 1863
ANNE CARMICHAEL SMYTH
Died Dec. 18, 1864, aged 72–his mother
by her first marriage
The unpoetic exactness of that pedigree gave me a slight chill. But here they sleep–mother and son in one grave. She who gave him his first caress also gave him his last; and when he was found dead in his bed, his mother, who lived under the same roof, was the first one called. He was the child of her girlhood–she was scarcely twenty when she bore him. In life they were never separated, and in death they are not divided. It is as both desired.
Thackeray was born in India, and was brought to England on the death of his father, when he was six years of age. On the way from Calcutta the ship touched at the Island of Saint Helena. A servant took the lad ashore and they walked up the rocky heights to Longwood, and there, pacing back and forth in a garden, they saw a short, stout man.
“Lookee, lad, lookee quick–that’s him! He eats three sheep every day and all the children he can get!”
“And that’s all I had to do with the Battle of Waterloo,” said “Old Thack,” forty years after. But you will never believe it after reading those masterly touches concerning the battle, in “Vanity Fair.”
Young Thackeray was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he was considered rather a dull boy. He was big and good-natured, and read novels when he should have studied arithmetic. This tendency to “play off” stuck to him at Cambridge–where he did not remain long enough to get a degree, but to the relief of his tutors went off on a tour through Europe.
Travel as a means of education is a very seductive bit of sophistry. Invalids whom the doctors can not cure, and scholars whom teachers can not teach, are often advised to take “a change.” Still there is reason in it.
In England Thackeray was intent on law; at Paris he received a strong bent toward art; but when he reached Weimar and was introduced at the Court of Letters and came into the living presence of Goethe, he caught the infection and made a plan for translating Schiller.
Schiller dead was considered in Germany a greater man than Goethe living, as if it were an offense to live and a virtue to die. And young William Makepeace wrote home to his mother that Schiller was the greatest man that ever lived and that he was going to translate his books and give them to England.
No doubt there are certain people born with a tendency to infectiousness in regard to certain diseases; so there are those who catch the literary mania on slight exposure.
“I’ve got it,” said Thackeray, and so he had.
He went back to England and made groggy efforts at Blackstone, and Somebody’s Digest, and What’s-His-Name’s Compendium, but all the time he scribbled and sketched.
The young man had come into possession of a goodly fortune from his father’s estate–enough to yield him an income of over two thousand dollars a year. But bad investments and signing security for friends took the money the way that money usually goes when held by a man who has not earned it.
“Talk about riches having wings,” said Thackeray; “my fortune had pinions like a condor, and flew like a carrier-pigeon.”
When Thackeray was thirty he was eking out a meager income writing poems, reviews, criticisms and editorials. His wife was a confirmed invalid, a victim of mental darkness, and his sorrows and anxieties were many.
He was known as a bright writer, yet London is full of clever, unsuccessful men. But in Thackeray’s thirty-eighth year “Vanity Fair” came out, and it was a success from the first.
In “Yesterdays With Authors,” Mr. Fields says: “I once made a pilgrimage with Thackeray to the various houses where his books had been written; and I remember when we came to Young Street, Kensington, he said, with mock gravity, ‘Down on your knees, you rogue, for here “Vanity Fair” was penned; and I will go down with you, for I have a high opinion of that little production myself.’”
Young Street is only a block from the Kensington Metropolitan Railway-Station. It is a little street running off Kensington Road. At Number Sixteen (formerly Number Thirteen), I saw a card in the window, “Rooms to Rent to Single Gentlemen.”
I rang the bell, and was shown a room that the landlady offered me for twelve shillings a week if I paid in advance; or if I would take another room one flight up with a “gent who was studying hart” it would be only eight and six. I suggested that we go up and see the “gent.” We did so, and I found the young man very courteous and polite.
He told me that he had never heard Thackeray’s name in connection with the house. The landlady protested that “no man by the name o’ Thack’ry has had rooms here since I rented the place; leastwise, if he has been here he called hisself by sumpthink else, which was like o’nuff the case, as most ev’rybody is crooked now’days–but surely no decent person can blame me for that!”
I assured her that she was in no wise to blame.
From this house in Young Street the author of “Vanity Fair” moved to Number Thirty-six Onslow Square, where he wrote “The Virginians.” On the south side of the Square there is a row of three-storied brick houses. Thackeray lived in one of these houses for nine years. They were the years when honors and wealth were being heaped upon him; and he was worldling enough to let his wants keep pace with his ability to gratify them. He was made of the same sort of clay as other men, for his standard of life conformed to his pocketbook and he always felt poor.
From this fine house on Onslow Square he moved to a veritable palace, which he built to suit his own taste, at Number Two Palace Green, Kensington. But mansions on earth are seldom for long–he died here on Christmas Eve, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-three. And Charles Dickens, Mark Lemon, Millais, Trollope, Robert Browning, Cruikshank, Tom Taylor, Louis Blanc, Charles Mathews and Shirley Brooks were among the friends who carried him to his rest.
* * * * *
To take one’s self too seriously is a great mistake. Complacency is the unpardonable sin, and the man who says, “Now I’m sure of it,” has at that moment lost it.
Villagers who have lived in one little place until they think themselves great, having lost the sense of proportion through lack of comparison, are generally “in dead earnest.”
Surely they are often intellectually dead, and I do not dispute the fact that they are in earnest. All those excellent gentlemen in the days gone by who could not contemplate a celestial bliss that did not involve the damnation of those who disagreed with them were in dead earnest.
Cotton Mather once saw a black cat perched on the shoulder of an innocent, chattering old gran’ma. The next day a neighbor had a convulsion; and Cotton Mather went forth and exorcised Tabby with a hymn-book, and hanged gran’ma by the neck, high on Gallows Hill, until she was dead.
Had the Reverend Mr. Mather possessed but a mere modicum of humor he might have exorcised the cat, but I am sure he would never have troubled old gran’ma. But alas, Cotton Mather’s conversation was limited to yea, yea, and nay, nay–generally, nay, nay–and he was in dead earnest.
In the Boston Public Library is a book written in Sixteen Hundred Eighty-five by Cotton Mather, entitled, “Wonders of the Invisible World.” This book received the endorsement of the Governor of the Province and also of the President of Harvard College. The author cites many cases of persons who were bewitched; and also makes the interesting statement that the Devil knows Greek, Latin and Hebrew, but speaks English with an accent. These facts were long used at Harvard as an argument in favor of the Classics. And when Greek was at last made optional, the Devil was supposed to have filed a protest with the Dean of the Faculty.
The Reverend Francis Gastrell, who razed New Place, and cut down the poet’s mulberry-tree to escape the importunities of visitors, was in dead earnest. Attila, and Herod, and John Calvin were in dead earnest. And were it not for the fact that Luther had lucid intervals when he went about with his tongue in his cheek he surely would have worked grievous wrong.
Recent discoveries in Egyptian archeology show that in his lifetime Moses was esteemed more as a wit than as a lawmaker. His jokes were posted upon the walls and explained to the populace, who it seems were a bit slow.
Job was a humorist of a high order, and when he said to the wise men, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you,” he struck twelve. When the sons of Jacob went down into Egypt and Joseph put up the price of corn, took their money, and then secretly replaced the coin in the sacks, he showed his artless love of a quiet joke.
Shakespeare’s fools were the wisest and kindliest men at court. When the master decked a character in cap and bells, it was as though he had given bonds for the man’s humanity. Touchstone followed his master into exile; and when all seemed to have forsaken King Lear the fool bared himself to the storm and covered the shaking old man with his own cloak. And if Costard, Trinculo, Touchstone, Jaques and Mercutio had lived in Salem in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two, there would have been not only a flashing of merry jests, but a flashing of rapiers as well, and every gray hair of every old dame’s head would have been safe so long as there was a striped leg on which to stand.
Lincoln, liberator of men, loved the motley. In fact, the individual who is incapable of viewing the world from a jocular basis is unsafe, and can be trusted only when the opposition is strong enough to laugh him into line.
In the realm of English letters, Thackeray is prince of humorists. He could see right through a brick wall, and never mistook a hawk for a hernshaw. He had a just estimate of values, and the temperament that can laugh at all trivial misfits. And he had, too, that dread capacity for pain which every true humorist possesses, for the true essence of humor is sensibility.
In all literature that lives there is mingled like pollen an indefinable element of the author’s personality. In Thackeray’s “Lectures on English Humorists” this subtle quality is particularly apparent. Elusive, delicate, alluring–it is the actinic ray that imparts vitality.
When wit plays skittles with dulness, dulness gets revenge by taking wit at his word. Vast numbers of people taking Thackeray at his word consider him a bitter pessimist.
He even disconcerted bright little Charlotte Bronte, who went down to London to see him, and then wrote back to Haworth that “the great man talked steadily with never a smile. I could not tell when to laugh and when to cry, for I did not know what was fun and what fact.”
But finally the author of “Jane Eyre” found the combination, and she saw that beneath the brusk exterior of that bulky form there was a woman’s tender sympathy.
Thackeray has told us what he thought of the author of “Jane Eyre,” and the author of “Jane Eyre” has told us what she thought of the author of “Vanity Fair.” One was big and whimsical, the other was little and sincere, but both were alike in this: their hearts were wrung at the sight of suffering, and both had tears for the erring, the groping, and the oppressed.
A Frenchman can not comprehend a joke that is not accompanied by grimace and gesticulation; and so M. Taine chases Thackeray through sixty solid pages, berating him for what he is pleased to term “bottled hate.”
Taine is a cynic who charges Thackeray with cynicism, all in the choicest of biting phrase. It is a beautiful example of sinners calling the righteous to repentance–a thing that is often done, but seldom with artistic finish.
The fun is too deep for Monsieur, or mayhap the brand is not the yellow label to which his palate is accustomed, so he spews it all. Yet Taine’s criticism is charming reading, although he is only hot after an aniseed trail of his own dragging. But the chase is a deal more exciting than most men would lead, were there real live game to capture.
If pushed, I might suggest several points in this man’s make-up where God could have bettered His work. But accepting Thackeray as we find him, we see a singer whose cage Fate had overhung with black until he had caught the tune. The “Ballad of Boullabaisse” shows a tender side of his spirit that he often sought to conceal. His heart vibrated to all finer thrills of mercy; and his love for all created things was so delicately strung that he would, in childish shame, sometimes issue a growl to drown its rising, tearful tones.
In the character of Becky Sharp, he has marshaled some of his own weak points and then lashed them with scorn. He looked into the mirror and seeing a potential snob he straightway inveighed against snobbery. The punishment does not always fit the crime–it is excess. But I still contest that where his ridicule is most severe, it is Thackeray’s own back that is bared to the knout.
The primal recipe for roguery in art is, “Know Thyself.” When a writer portrays a villain and does it well–make no mistake, he poses for the character himself. Said gentle Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I have capacity in me for every crime.”
The man of imagination knows those mystic spores of possibility that lie dormant, and like the magicians of the East who grow mango-trees in an hour, he develops the “inward potential” at will. The mere artisan in letters goes forth and finds a villain and then describes him, but the artist knows a better way: “I am that man.”
One of the very sweetest, gentlest characters in literature is Colonel Newcome. The stepfather of Thackeray, Major Carmichael Smyth, was made to stand for the portrait of the lovable Colonel; and when that all-round athlete, F. Hopkinson Smith, gave us that other lovable old Colonel he paid high tribute to “The Newcomes.”
Thackeray was a poet, and as such was often caught in the toils of doubt–the crux of the inquiring spirit. He aspired for better things, and at times his imperfections stood out before him in monstrous shape, and he sought to hiss them down.
In the heart of the artist-poet there is an Inmost Self that sits over against the acting, breathing man and passes judgment on his every deed. To satisfy the world is little; to please the populace is naught; fame is vapor; gold is dross; and every love that has not the sanction of that Inmost Self is a viper’s sting. To satisfy the demands of the God within is the poet’s prayer.
What doubts beset, what taunting fears surround, what crouching sorrows lie in wait, what dead hopes drag, what hot desires pursue, and what kindly lights do beckon on–ah! “’tis we musicians know.”
Thackeray came to America to get a pot of money, and was in a fair way of securing it, when he chanced to pick up a paper in which a steamer was announced to sail that evening for England. A wave of homesickness swept over the big boy–he could not stand it. He hastily packed up his effects and without saying good-by to any one, and forgetting all his engagements, he hastened to the dock, leaving this note for the kindest of kind friends: “Good-by, Fields; good-by, Mrs. Fields–God bless everybody, says W.M.T.”
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