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" that exquisite tact that enabled him to carry his reader through the veriest dens of vice and villainy without a breath to shock the ear or a stain to sully the robe of the most shrinking delicacy. . . . It is a rare gift to be able to paint low life without being low, and to be comic without the least taint of vulgarity.”
Dickens could do this because his sympathy with the humblest and lowest types of humanity enabled him to see the good in everything, and his sensitive soul perceived, what many modern realists fail to see, that goodness is as real as vice.
Although an admirer of the Established Church, he was not ecclesiastical in religion. He was charged with attacking religion when he was merely ridiculing cant and hypocrisy. An admirer of the teachings of the New Testament, he paraphrased parts of it for the use of his children. The following extract from a letter of September, 1868, to his youngest son, who was going to Australia, shows the fine Christian sentiment of the author:
“Never take a mean advantage of any one in any transaction, and never be hard upon people who are in your power. Try to do to others as you would have them do to you, and do not be discouraged if they fail sometimes. It is much better for you that they should fail in obeying the greatest rule laid down by our Saviour than that you should I put a New Testament among your books for the very same reasons, and with the very same hopes, that made me write an easy account of it for you, when you were a little child. Because it is the best book that ever was, or will be, known in the world; and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature, who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty, can possibly be guided. ... You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it. ... Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”
Rank as Writer. The chief faults that have been charged
against Dickens are that he exaggerates and that he is lacking in
style. It is undoubtedly true that many of his characters are caricatures rather than lifelike portraits; and that much of his work lacked distinction; that it was even bad, might be expected from his method of composition. But moderation and style are not the be-all and end-all of art; Shakspere himself is at times bombastic, and Walter Pater is a stylist of moderation, but Pater is not greater than Shakspere.
A sensibility that gave him a keen sense of humor, a deep realization of the pathos of life, imagination, a strong instinct for the dramatic, an eye for detail, a heart that loved his fellowman - these are the qualities that furnished the equipment of the most popular writer of his time. In his own day the professional critic would have hesitated to assert whether Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, or George Eliot would bear the palm of fame. (Today, more than a century after the birth of Dickens, Thackeray alone disputes his supremacy, not as to popularity, but as to literary ability. Dickens has always been the more popular because he appeals both to educated and uneducated. To decide which of the two is the greater is a tre
a trap futile task. Each will be read as long as the English-speaking people shall find profit and pleasure in the art of the story-teller, and that will be as long as the English language survives.
Life of Charles Dickens. FORSTER.
Charles Dickens as a Man of Letters. MEYNELL. Atl., vol. 91, p. 52.
In London with Dickens. MARTIN. Scrib., vol. 21, p. 649.
writers of English fiction.
“I cannot help telling the truth as I view it, and describing what I see. To describe it otherwise than it seems to me would be falsehood to that calling in which it has pleased Heaven to place me, treason to that conscience which says that men are weak, that truth must be told, that fault must be owned, that pardon must be prayed for, and that love reigns supreme over all.” Such is the serious attitude, such the philosophy of this interesting personality, this great-hearted, gifted writer whose theory of fiction places him among the realists, but whose practice is shot through and through with an idealism, a tenderness that precludes our classifying him with the strict disciples of realism. With malice toward none and with charity for all he held the mirror up to life as he saw it; that his mirror did not reflect a world of enchanting beauty and goodness must not be attributed to cynicism but to sincerity. While it is true that in his novels we hear the repetition of the depressing refrain of Vanitas vanitatum, it is equally true that above the still sad music of humanity we hear the insistent note "that love reigns supreme over all.”
Birth and Boyhood. -- William Makepeace Thackeray was born at Calcutta on July 18, 1811. Both father and grandfather had been employed in the Indian civil service. Shortly after the birth of William, the father was promoted to be Collector of the Calcutta Districts, the highest office in the gift of the Governor. When the son was four years old and the mother but twentythree, the father died. In 1817 the young son was sent to England to be educated.
“I came from India as a child (writes Thackeray himself), and our ship touched at an island on the way home, where my black servant took me a long way over rocks and hills until we reached a garden, where we saw a man walking: 'That is he,' said the black man, 'that is Bonaparte! He eats three sheep every day, and all the little children he can lay hands on!'"
He attended private schools; first in Hampshire and later at Chiswick. It was while at Chiswick that his mother and stepfather, for Mrs. Thackeray had married again, her husband being Major Carmichael Smyth, came to England. "He had a perfect memory of me," in later years said Mrs. Smyth concerning the reunion," he could not speak, but kissed me, and looked at me again and again." Young Thackeray and his stepfather soon became good friends, for Major Carmichael had the qualities that would endear him to any boy, his acquaintances in later years insisting that he was the original of Colonel Newcome, that “finest of all English gentlemen." The mother herself is described by Trollope as “a handsome, spare, grey-haired lady, whom Thackeray treated with a courtly deference as well as constant affection.”
At the Charterhouse. When eleven years old he was sent to the Charterhouse School, then located near Smithfield. He remained there as a student until May, 1828. Many years before Addison and Steele had attended this school, and it is here that the novelist has placed many of his characters. Young Rawdon Crawley, Pendennis, Colonel Newcome and his son, and Philip Firmin are among those who attended the Charterhouse. Some of his biographers quote from one of his letters to prove that he was unhappy at the Charterhouse:
“I really think I am becoming terribly industrious, though I can't get Dr. Russell to think so. It is so hard, when you endeavor to work hard, to find your attempts nipped in the bud. ... There are but 370 in the school. I wish there were only 369."
But though timid and sensitive, he was of too healthy a nature not to extract some enjoyment from his school life.