Essays.—Thackeray will live in English literature as an essayist as well as a novelist. The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century (1853) and The Four Georges (1860) are among the most delightful essays of the age. The author of Henry Esmond knew Swift, Addison, Fielding, and Smollett, almost as one knows the mental peculiarities of an intimate friend. In The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, Thackeray writes of their conversations, foibles, and strong points of character, in a most easy and entertaining way. There is a constant charm about his manner, which, without effort or display of learning, brings the authors vividly before the reader. In addition to this presentation of character, the essays contain appreciative literary criticism. The essence of the humor in these eighteenth-century writers is distilled in its purest, most delicate flavor, by this nineteenth-century member of their brotherhood.
The Four Georges deals with England’s crowned heads in a satiric vein, which caused much comment among Thackeray’s contemporaries. The satire is, however, mild and subdued, never venomous. For example, he says in the essay on George III.:—
“King George’s household was a model of an English gentleman’s household. It was early; it was kindly; it was charitable; it was frugal; it was orderly; it must have been stupid to a degree which I shudder now to contemplate. No wonder all the princes ran away from the lap of that dreary domestic virtue. It always rose, rode, dined, at stated intervals. Day after day was the same. At the same hour at night the King kissed his daughters’ jolly cheeks; the Princesses kissed their mother’s hand; and Madame Thielke brought the royal nightcap.”
General Characteristics.—Dickens and Thackeray have left graphic pictures of a large portion of contemporary London life. Dickens presents interesting pictures of the vagabonds, the outcasts, and the merchants, and Thackeray portrays the suave, polite leisure class and its dependents.
Thackeray is an uncompromising realist and a satirist. He insisted upon picturing life as he believed that it existed in London society; and, to his satiric eye, that life was composed chiefly of the small vanities, the little passions, and the petty quarrels of commonplace people, whose main objects were money and title. He could conceive noble men and women, as is proved by Esmond, Lady Castlewood, and Colonel Newcome; but such characters are as rare in Thackeray as he believed they were in real life. The following passage upon mankind’s fickleness is a good specimen of his satiric vein in dealing with human weakness:—