Throughout William Makepeace Thackeray's professional life, he was plagued by explicit and implied comparisons with his great contemporary, Charles Dickens. Thackeray was born in 1811, Dickens a year later. By the mid-1830s, when the callow young Thackeray was knocking at the doors of literary London, Dickens was already in possession of the stage, the established star of the coming generation and very much the man to be measured against. As the two men aged, their relationship, cordial on the surface, would remain uneasy: they found it impossible to be friends. Thackeray, despite occasional spasms of confidence in himself and his way of writing, too often felt himself the inferior artist, while Dickens, though he never lost his position at the head of the pack, was uneasily aware of the challenge. As Thackeray was to claim late in their careers, "He [Dickens] knows that my books are a protest against his--that if one set are true, the other must be false."
In this he was wrong, of course, for felt truth can be as powerful, or more so, than the intellectual variety. In any case the comparison is unfair and pointless, for the two authors were as unlike as chalk and cheese. But the final score must be decisive: Thackeray only produced one entirely successful novel, Vanity Fair, while Dickens never wrote a bad book; his was an extraordinary, almost superhuman achievement. There is a case to be made for Vanity Fair as the best English novel of the nineteenth century, but it does not outweigh, on its own, the riches of Dickens's output--David Copperfield, Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend, A Christmas Carol, and all the others.
But Dickens was one of those great artists whose flaws were on as extravagant a scale as his gifts, and a significant number of readers have always been repelled by him. As D. J. Taylor writes in his new biography of Thackeray,(1) "A certain kind of late-Victorian middle-class home ... found Dickens vulgar; a certain kind of late-Victorian intellectual found him incorrigibly sentimental. In both cases Thackeray was a highly acceptable substitute." This is true, and Taylor need not have limited his statement to the late-Victorian period. Thackeray was the anti-sentimentalist par excellence, to the extent that he was constitutionally unable to provide happy endings even for his most deserving characters in his most conventional novels; life itself provided no such happy endings, as he knew only too well. This tough emotional realism unfortunately earned him the label of cynic, a charge against which he fought throughout his life.
The issue of Dickens's vulgarity, and of Thackeray's cultivation of a deliberately gentlemanly style, is not really of any importance at all. Gentlemanliness is as irrelevant--and possibly even detrimental--to great art as is the dubious advantage of good taste. Dickens, uninhibited by mere taste, was consistently to achieve a high emotional power that was far beyond Thackeray's reach. Yet Thackeray, to whose nature artistic excess was anathema, had compensatory qualities that eluded all other English novelists of the era, Dickens included. His very diffidence now appears, to our own age of moral relativism, an artistic strength. His muted, perpetually qualified style indicates a Peculiarly modern lack of faith in rhetoric and absolutes. And his stance of gentlemanliness--understated, unobtrusive--is the outward sign of a refreshing unwillingness to assert himself too rudely, or to advance his own theories or observations as facts.
George Henry Lewes's brilliant review of Vanity Fair in The Athenaeum still stands, after more than a century-and-a-half, as one of the shrewdest assessments of Thackeray at the height of his powers.
The style of Vanity Fair is winning, easy, masculine, felicitous, and humorous. Its pleasant pages are nowhere distorted by rant. The author indulges in no sentimentalities--inflicts …