“Thackeray,” by Nicholas Dames (2005)

Despite Thackeray being wildly popular in his time (he worked his way up from writing sketches on New Grub Street, writing Vanity Fair, Pendennis, The Newcomes and finally Henry Esmond, which Shaftsbury called perhaps the greatest novel in existence), he is now almsot completely ignored, aside from Vanity Fair. Why? He was favorably compared to Dickens as a “gentleman,” which would later become the very reason for avoiding him; Charlotte Bronte’s dedication of Jane Eyre to him turns him into an unironic Old Testament prophet, locked in scriptural battle with the political establishment. His critics, most famously Henry James, called his novels “loose baggy monsters,” an observation followed by Leavis, who couldn’t stomach the many plot digressions,authorial interventions, and sheer wordiness.

Thackeray’s difference from “the Great Tradition” is that which gives his special power. Working from the “sketch,” a mode of parody that stops short of full-bodied critique. This gift of parody enters his novels by way of servant-narrators–not the god-like view of Eliot or James narrator–that see from “below stairs.” The writer, like the servant, exists to please, but can also have a laugh at our expense, writes Dames. But most importantly, the servant offered Thackeray “a key to an entire social ontology: snobbery” (153). Snob, which originally menat someone without title (s.nob = sine nobilitate) becomes in Thackeray that which binds all classes together–“a desire that characterizes the modern individual.” Becky, for example, represents the ambitious side of snobbery, which differs so greatly from Dickensian “podsnappery.” It is at once entertainment and stark realims: snobbery so often leaves the subject in complete solitude.

Thackeray’s “historiography” can be contrasted with Walter Scott’s. Whereas a Redgantlet takes bland modern urbanites and dramatizes their being-caught up in an historical event within which they must take sides and make choices (Jacobite vs. Hanover, etc.), history in Thackeray is registered by his characters as “a shock” that must be survived despite not being understood. Thus Lukacs would accuse Thackeray of denying historical dialectics; a novel like Vanity Fair takes a position to history resembling Benjamin’s angel of history, where progress is itself the wreckage caused by the dialectic.

 

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