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Eighteenth-century allusions in Henry Esmond.

Thackeray is one of the most successful pasticheurs in the language, so accomplished in his evocation of the eighteenth century that we are barely conscious of the mechanisms by which he achieves success in this field. The Addisonian chastity of his style--very different from the orotundity and encrustedness favored by the nineteenth century at large--is one key to his success, and so too his immersion in, and innate sympathy with, the Augustan culture of moderation and cui bono common sense. The tenor of his vision was at odds with the Manichean stylizations through which Dickens forged his compound of the real and the fantastical grotesque, since Quilp, for example, would not work without the countervailing presence of Little Nell, nor she without him, the extremity of each being the function of the other's. Notwithstanding the brilliance and success of his achievement, sui generis in the history of the novel, Dickens felt a little defensive about his fictive methods, given the fact that it was sometimes compared unfavorably with Thackeray's. Trollope's attack is fairly typical in this regard:

Mr Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuine honest so very honest.... If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts, as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street. (226)

Thackeray, by contrast, habitually destilted his characters and therefore never incurred the judgment of their being "so very good" or "so very hard." It is not surprising, therefore, that Dickens fought back against his critics, and presented a veiled critique of Thackeray in Little Dorrit. Discussing the Weltanschauung of Henry Gowan in that novel, Trey Philpot suggests that it is "a response to a long discussion between Arthur Pendennis and George Warrington towards the end of Thackeray's Pendennis (1848-50)" (203, 221), whereas I would argue that it more cogently addresses a credal passage from Henry Esmond, published more than two years after its predecessor, and therefore likely to have lodged more recently in Dickens's memory:

As, according to the famous maxim of Monsieur de Rochefoucault, "in our friends' misfortunes there's something secretly pleasant to us"; so, on the other hand, their good fortune is disagreeable. If 'tis hard for a man to bear his own good luck, 'tis harder still for his friends to bear it for him; and but few of them ordinarily can stand that trial: whereas one of the "precious uses" of adversity is, that it is a great reconciler; that it brings back averted kindness, disarms animosity, and causes yesterday's enemy to fling his hatred aside, and hold out a hand to the fallen friend of old days. There's pity and love, as well as envy, in the same heart and towards the same person. The rivalry stops when the competitor tumbles; and, as I view it, we should look at these agreeable and disagreeable qualities of our humanity humbly alike. They are consequent and natural, and our kindness and meanness both manly. (204-5)

If we set this against Gowan's professed philosophy, we become aware of salient points of contact:

It appeared, before the breakfast was over, that everybody whom this Gowan knew was either more or less of an ass, or more or less of a knave; but was, notwithstanding, the most loveable, the most engaging, the simplest, truest, kindest, dearest, best fellow that ever lived. The process by which this unvarying result was attained, whatever the premises, might have been stated by Mr. Henry Gowan thus: "I claim to be always book-keeping, with a peculiar nicety, in every man's case, and posting up a careful little account of Good and Evil with him. I do this so conscientiously, that I am happy to tell you I find the most worthless of men to be the dearest old fellow too; and am in a condition to make the gratifying report, that there is much less difference than you are inclined to suppose between an honest man and a scoundrel." The effect of this cheering discovery happened to be, that while he seemed to be scrupulously finding good in most men, he did in reality lower it where it was, and set up where it was not; but that was its only disagreeable or dangerous feature. (204-5)

Conscious that the dramatic polarities on which his fiction was erected derive from the Gothic romance rather than the more temperate, quotidian tone of the Augustan novel, Dickens tries to bring Thackeray's fictive method within the compass of his own, and so to dismantle it from within. There are no superlatives in the matching passage from Henry Esmond, whereas Gowan piles them on with the aim to have them cancel each other out and so to leave an indistinguishable moral residuum. As Dickens sees it, Thackeray's laissez-faire detachment causes human nature to revert to a greyish norm, a norm at odds with the chiaroscuro of villainy and sanctity from which he builds his novels. However, that is not the chief gravamen of his charge. "Cheering discovery" suggests that cynicism, because it acquiesces in the incorrigibility of human nature, lazily exempts itself from the nisus of reform. Gowan is as much a moral dilettante as he is a painterly one, shrugging off the social responsibility that, in Dickens's scheme of things, an artist ought to embrace. Reformers are always to a greater or lesser extent Pelagian; to accept that original sin will weigh us down no matter what is finally to embrace, out of a sheer sense of futility, the injustice of "Whatever IS, is RIGHT" (Pope 515)--a tenet as much Augustinian as Augustan. Gowan's superlatives, which are metonyms for Dickens's own fictive method, have no place in Esmond's eighteenth-century discourse, a discourse in which Manichean extremes and enthusiasm are discounted in favor of reasonable compromise.

Dickens deplores the way in which this sort of Byronic cynicism corrodes and finally equates the antithetical absolutes of his moral universe. Friendship had been defined by De Amicitia as something heroic, exalted, high-pitched--"Sed hoc primum sentio, nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse" (Cicero) ("but I feel in the first instance that friendship can obtain only between good men," author's trans.)--whereas in Rochefoucault's sober, reductive judgment, it is corrupted at its core by the ungenerousness of human nature. Thackeray at no point denies the scintilla of treacherous Schadenfreude that the aphorist detects in friendship's breast, even though he manages to adduce a slightly more generous corollary, and then works it into toward his credal summation: "we should look at these agreeable and disagreeable qualities of our humanity humbly alike. They are consequent and natural, and our kindness and meanness both manly." He advances "manly" as a synonym for "human" (as Auden would later juxtapose "human" with "faithless" in his berceuse). But to make "meanness" an attribute of "manliness" would have been anathema to Dickens, who would have translated the adjective not as "humanus" but rather as "virtuosus," derived from the classical ideal of "virtus," which in Lewis and Short encompasses "strength, vigor; bravery, courage; aptness, capacity; worth, excellence." Just as Quilp countervails Little Nell, so Ralph Nickleby countervails Nicholas, the latter's manliness the negation of his uncle's meanness:

... the uncle and nephew looked at each other for some seconds without speaking. The face of the old man was stern, hard-featured, and forbidding; that of the young one, open, handsome, and ingenuous. The old man's eye was keen with the twinklings of avarice and cunning; the young man's bright with the light of intelligence and spirit. His figure was somewhat slight, but manly and well formed; and, apart from all the grace of youth and comeliness, there was an emanation from the warm young heart in his look and bearing which kept the old man down. (24)

This passage could not function without its Manichean polarity. It would collapse if, in the manner of Thackeray, a tertium quid had been generated by the blending of extremes, by a titration of good and bad into a greyish, savorless salt. Dickens accordingly has Gowan construct what is in effect a corrupt anti-tract on friendship, perverting the language of manly affection to valorize worthless objects. An instance of such language, properly applied, occurs when John Westlock, frank and open, addresses Tom Pinch, generous and trusting: "I tell you, my dear good old fellow," cried his friend, shaking him to and fro with both hands" (Martin Chuzzlewit 265). And in David Copperfield, too, Steerforth uses the same clubbish register in respect of Traddles, though there with an inflection of patronage: "I extolled Traddles in reply, as highly as I could; for I felt that Steerforth rather slighted him. Steerforth, dismissing the subject with a light nod, and a smile, and the remark that he would be glad to see the old fellow too, for he had always been an odd fish" (486). So when Gowan undiscriminatingly applies the same familiarities (the affectionate, non-meaning use of "old," the bonhomie of "fellow") to corrupt individuals--"I am happy to tell you I find the most worthless of men to be the dearest old fellow too"--Dickens has espoused the Ciceronian ideal of friendship to expose what he would conceive as being a reductive Rochefoucaultian (and Thackeravian) travesty, driving the point home when Gowan embraces Rigaud, the double-dyed villain of the plot, as a friend of sorts.

Another way in which Thackeray imparts an Augustan color to the prose of Henry Esmond is quietly to purloin eighteenth-century materials and then to gusset them seamlessly into his prose. It is noteworthy that in the passage quoted above, he uses quotation marks to flag the Duke Senior's speech in As You Like It 2.1 and also to hold as it were in tweezers the conventional acceptation of that phrase, substituting his own more realistic, cynical--and yes, Gowanesque--take on the matter. He transplants it from its proto-democratic forest idyll and reapplies it to the circumstances of life in eighteenth-century London, mapping out his distance from what, after all, in the original play, amounts to a Pelagian fantasy. However, he dispenses with obvious quotation marks when he slips in eighteenth-century matter that accords with the vision of the novel. We see this in the case of Gray's "Ode to Adversity," insinuated with such subtlety and craft (not so much as a quotation mark in sight) that we are barely aware of it, even though, once lodged in the prose, the Augustan poet "authenticates" the pastiche with an (undeclared) resonance:

He was older than most of his seniors, and had a further advantage which belonged to but very few of the army gentlemen in his day--many of whom could do little more than write their names--that he had read much, both at home and at the University, was master of two or three languages, and had that further education which neither books nor years will give, but which some men get from the silent teaching of adversity. She is a great schoolmistress, as many a poor fellow knows, that hath held his hand out to her ferule, and whimpered over his lesson before her awful chair. (Thackeray 198)

That last sentence distils the substance of the poem--
   Daughter of Jove, relentless power,
   Thou tamer of the human breast,
   Whose iron scourge and torturing hour.
   The bad affright, afflict the best! (Gray 70)

--but tones down the afflatus (as Gray himself does before the ode is done--"Oh, gently on thy suppliant's head, / Dread goddess, lay thy chastening hand") (72). Thackeray moderates the Aeschylean "iron scourge" of the goddess into a "ferule," and although the original ode does not expressly set her on a throne, she still seems, as the "Daughter of Jove," to deserve the honor. Thackeray for his part ensconces her on a chair that remains thronal to the extent of being "awful." This mock-heroism adds additional color augustanus to the prose, since it marries Gray with memories of another eighteenthcentury poem--Shenstone's "Schoolmistress," with its mock-heroic account of corporal punishment:
      When he, in abject wise, implores the dame,
      Ne hopeth aught of sweet reprieve to gain;
      Or when from high she levels well her aim,
   And through the thatch, his cries each falling stroke proclaim. (268)

This looks ahead to Thackeray's whimpering fellow before Adversity's awful chair, but fails to trivialize her lessons. Rather, it makes the idiom more temperate and accessible than Gray's sublimity would have done (a sublimity that had already begun to part company with the ethos of high Augustanism).

And then consider this passage concerning Beatrix, a character to all intents and purposes modeled on Pope's Belinda in The Rape of the Lock. Here is the original--
   Her lively Looks a sprightly Mind discloese,
   Quick as her Eyes, and as unfix'd as those:
   Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends,
   Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
   Bright as the Sun, here Eyes the Gazers strike,
   And, like the Sun, they shine on all alike. (223)

--and here is its quiet, undemonstrative ingestion into the prose of Henry Esmond:

Beatrix's haughty spirit brooked remonstrances from no superior, much less from her mother, the gentlest of creatures whom the girl commanded rather than obeyed. And feeling she was wrong, and that by a thousand coquetries (which she could no more help exercising on every man that came near her, than the sun can help shining on great and small) she had provoked the prince's dangerous admiration, and allured him to the expression of it, she was only the more wilful and imperious the more she felt her error. (426)

The creation of Beatrix-like figures fell well within Dickens's powers, and he painted a memorable gallery of willful and imperious women from Edith Dombey to Bella Wilfer. But his inherited romance tradition lent a different tone to their treatment. There is a detached Theophrastan quality about Thackeray's vignette, its record of casual unfiliality as damaging and (yet as true) as the whiff of bad faith that Rochefoucault discovers in the breast of friendship: "whom the girl commanded rather than obeyed." This is far removed from the smoldering theatrical pride and notional obedience of Edith Dombey, which derives much more obviously from intemperate idealism than it does from adjustable pragmatism:

Edith did not withdraw her hand, nor did she strike his fair face with it, despite the flush upon her cheek, the bright light in her eyes, and the dilation of her whole form. But when she was alone in her own room, she struck it on the marble chimney-shelf, so that, at one blow, it was bruised, and bled; and held it from her, near the burning fire, as if she could have thrust it in and burned it. (655)

Rodney Stenning Edgecombe


RODNEY STENNING EDGECOMBE lectures English literature at the University of Cape Town, and holds one of its Distinguished Teacher Awards. He took his MA with distinction at Rhodes University, where he won the Royal Society of St. George Prize for English, and his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the Members' English Prize, 1978/1979. He has published twelve books--the most recent being on Thomas Lovell Beddoes--and 424 articles on topics that range from Shakespeare to nineteenth-century ballet and opera.


Cicero. De Amicitia. U Cape Town, 8 Feb. 2016, organizations/SAL/texts/latin/classical/cicero/deamicitiaifram.html.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Edited and introduction by Andrew Sanders. Penguin, 2002.

--. The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Edited and introduction by Philip Nicholas Furbank. Penguin, 1968.

--. Little Dorrit. Introduction by Lionel Trilling. Oxford UP, 1953.

--. Nicholas Nickleby. Introduction by Sibyl Thorndike. Oxford UP, 1950.

--. The Personal History of David Copperfield. Edited by Trevor Blount. Penguin, 1966.

Gray, Thomas. The Poems of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith. Edited by Roger Lonsdale. Longman, 1969.

Philpot, Trey. The Companion to Little Dorrit. Helm, 2005.

Pope, Alexander. The Poems of Alexander Pope: A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations. Edited by John Butt. Methuen, 1963.

Shenstone, William. The Poetical Works with Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes. Edited by George Gilfillan. J. Nichol, 1854.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. Edited and introduction by Donald Hawes. Oxford UP, 1991.

Trollope, Anthony. The Warden. Introduction by Kathleen Tillotson. J. M. Dent, 1967.
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Author:Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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