In Vanity Fair certain classes of society are satirized. Their intrigues, frivolities, and caprices are mercilessly dealt with. Thackeray probes almost every weakness, vanity, or ambition that leads humanity to strive for a place in society, to long for a bow from a lord, and to stint in private in order to shine in public. He uncovers the great social farce of life, which is acted with such solemn gravity by the snobs, the hypocrites, and the other superficial dramatis personae. Amid these satirized frivolities there appear occasional touches of true pathos and deep human tragedy, which are strangely effective in their unsympathetic surroundings.
[Illustration: THACKERAY’S HOME WHERE VANITY FAIR WAS WRITTEN.]
Thackeray gives in Henry Esmond (1852) an enduring picture of high life in the eighteenth century. This work is one of the great historical novels in our language. The time of queen Anne is reconstructed with remarkable skill. The social etiquette, the ideals of honor, the life and spirit of that bygone day, reappear with a powerful vividness. Thackeray even went so far as to disguise his own natural, graceful style, and to imitate eighteenth-century prose. Henry Esmond is a dangerous rival of Vanity Fair. The earlier work has a freshness of humor and a spontaneity of manner that are not so apparent in Henry Esmond. On the other hand, Esmond has a superior plot and possesses a true hero.
In The Newcomes (1854-1855), Thackeray exhibits again his incisive power of delineating character. This book would continue to live if for nothing except the simple-hearted, courtly Colonel Newcome. Few scenes in English fiction are more affecting than those connected with his death. The accompanying lines will show what a simple pathos Thackeray could command:—
“At the usual evening hour the chapel bell begin to toll, and Thomas Newcome’s hands outside the bed feebly beat time—and just as the last bell struck, a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said, ’Adsum’—and fell back. It was the word we used at school when names were called; and, lo! he whose heart was as that of a little child had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of the Master!”
The History of Pendennis (1849) and The Virginians (1857-1859) are both popular novels and take rank inferior only to the author’s three greatest works. The Virginians is a sequel to Esmond, and carries the Castlewood family through adventures in the New World.