Dec. 10, 1891. Sterne and Thackeray.
It is told by those who write scraps of Thackeray’s biography that a youth once ventured to speak disrespectfully of Scott in his presence. “You and I, sir,” said the great man, cutting him short, “should lift our hats at the mention of that great name.”
An admirable rebuke!–if only Thackeray had remembered it when he sat down to write those famous Lectures on the English Humorists, or at least before he stood up in Willis’s Rooms to inform a polite audience concerning his great predecessors. Concerning their work? No. Concerning their genius? No. Concerning the debt owed to them by mankind? Not a bit of it. Concerning their lives, ladies and gentlemen; and whether their lives were pure and respectable and free from scandal and such as men ought to have led whose works you would like your sons and daughters to handle. Mr. Frank T. Marzials, Thackeray’s latest biographer, finds the matter of these Lectures “excellent”:–
“One feels in the reading that Thackeray is a peer among his peers–a sort of elder brother,[A] kindly, appreciative and tolerant–as he discourses of Addison, Steele, Swift, Pope, Sterne, Fielding, Goldsmith. I know of no greater contrast in criticism–a contrast, be it said, not to the advantage of the French critic–than Thackeray’s treatment of Pope and that of M. Taine. What allowance the Englishman makes for the physical ills that beset the ‘gallant little cripple’; with what a gentle hand he touches the painful places in that poor twisted body! M. Taine, irritated apparently that Pope will not fit into his conception of English literature, exhibits the same deformities almost savagely.”
I am sorry that I cannot read this kindliness, this appreciation, this tolerance, into the Lectures–into those, for instance, of Sterne and Fielding: that the simile of the “elder brother” carries different suggestions for Mr. Marzials and for me: and that the lecturer’s attitude is to me less suggestive of a peer among his peers than of a tall “bobby”–a volunteer constable–determined to warn his polite hearers what sort of men these were whose books they had hitherto read unsuspectingly.
And even so–even though the lives and actions of men who lived too early to know Victorian decency must be held up to shock a crowd in Willis’s Rooms, yet it had been but common generosity to tell the whole truth. Then the story of Fielding’s Voyage to Lisbon might have touched the heart to sympathy even for the purely fictitious low comedian whom Thackeray presented: and Sterne’s latest letters might have infused so much pity into the polite audience that they, like his own Recording Angel, might have blotted out his faults with a tear. But that was not Thackeray’s way. Charlotte Brontë found “a finished taste and ease” in the Lectures, a “something high bred.” Motley describes their style as “hovering,” and their method as “the perfection of lecturing to high-bred audiences.” Mr. Marzials quotes this expression “hovering” as admirably descriptive. It is. By judicious selection, by innuendo, here a pitying aposiopesis, there an indignant outburst, the charges are heaped up. Swift was a toady at heart, and used Stella vilely for the sake of that hussy Vanessa. Congreve had captivating manners–of course he had, the dog! And we all know what that meant in those days. Dick Steele drank and failed to pay his creditors. Sterne–now really I know what Club life is, ladies and gentlemen, and I might tell you a thing or two if I would: but really, speaking as a gentleman before a polite audience, I warn you against Sterne.
I do not suppose for a moment that Thackeray consciously defamed these men. The weaknesses, the pettinesses of humanity interested him, and he treated them with gusto, even as he spares us nothing of that horrible scene between Mrs. Mackenzie and Colonel Newcome. And of course poor Sterne was the easiest victim. The fellow was so full of his confounded sentiments. You ring a choice few of these on the counter and prove them base metal. You assume that the rest of the bag is of equal value. You “go one better” than Sir Peter Teazle and damn all sentiment, and lo! the fellow is no better than a smirking jester, whose antics you can expose till men and women, who had foolishly laughed and wept as he moved them, turn from him, loathing him as a swindler. So it is that although Tristram Shandy continues one of the most popular classics in the language, nobody dares to confess his debt to Sterne except in discreet terms of apology.