Monday, December 12, 2016

Week-day preachers

On Wednesday evening Mr. Thackeray delivered in Saint Martin's Hall a Lecture on "Week-day Preachers." The greater part of it he had previously delivered on other occasions— a fact which he acknowledged at the commencement. He stated that, as he was walking the day before in the streets of an ancient city, he observed an advertisement in a bookseller's window announcing that manuscript sermons were on sale within. It was not, he said, very usual with the gentlemen who purchased such works to confess to their congregations that the discourse they were going to offer had been bought at the rate of fifteen shillings a dozen; but he would be more candid, and tell his audience at once that what they were going to hear was not entirely new. The allusion to the ancient city was received with loud cheers, which sufficiently showed that, if the speaker had failed at Oxford, he had many warm friends and admirers in London. And even if, the lecture was not throughout expressly written for the occasion, it was so well worth hearing that those who had heard it before might well be glad to hear it again.

By week-day preachers Mr. Thackeray means the humorists, whose essays, tales, or poems lead men to think kindly and charitably of each other, and to make a genial interest in the welfare of their neighbours. Addison begins the list, and what Mr. Thackeray thinks of Addison and of his cotemporaries and successors, in the eighteenth century is too well known to need notice here. He went over the old ground, with all his old affection for the men and liking for the subject. He read a paper from the Spectator, and expressed his reverence for its author— he pardoned the failings of Steele, saying that the preaching was so good we might overlook the short-comings of the preacher—he refused to pardon the failings of Sterne, because his kindliness was artificial. Especially he dwelt on the popular sympathy which the week-day preachers have displayed, and on their readiness to take the weaker side, and to help the poor against the rich. Mr. Thackeray described a visit he had recently paid to a penny theatre, where the general tenor of the pieces was, he said, in perfect harmony with this part of the teaching of the humorists. The wicked lord was always worsted, and the virtuous maiden always united to the humble object of her affections. Perhaps the resemblance might be pushed a little further than Mr, Thackeray intended, and we might find reason to think that the humorists, especially those of the present day, are apt to look on society from the penny-theatre point of view, and to reckon all lords as base deceivers, and all poor men as ex officio noble, generous, and manly.

The interest was much greater when Mr. Thackeray came to speak of himself and Mr. Dickens. He acknowledged that he took a more sombre view of life than his rival, but he pleaded that he could only write according to the bent of his mind, and tell what seemed to him the real truth. But he asked the audience to bear witness that he too was not wanting in the benevolence of humour, and had sometimes written in a kindly and a consoling strain. He read, as an illustration, the beautiful paper called "The Curate's Walk," which, some years ago, he contributed to Punch, and which is one of the most charming productions of his pen. Of Mr. Dickens he spoke in terms of something more than praise, declaring that he thought that writer specially commissioned by Divine Benevolence to instruct mankind. He spoke of the delight which children derive from reading the works of Mr. Dickens, and mentioned that one of his own children said to him that she wished he would write stories like those which Mr. Dickens wrote. The same young lady, he continued, when she was ten years old, read Nicholas Nickleby, morning, noon, and night, beginning it again as soon as she had finished it, and never wearying of its fun. We thoroughly sympathize with that devoted reader. It is the most mortifying part of Mr. Dickens's later publications to think at what a cost we have them. It is not only that they are wearisome misstatements of matters entirely out of the range of a novelist, but they come to us as substitutes for the works that really showed the greatness of Mr. Dickens's genius. It is provoking to think that the author who gave us Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit should be induced, by any consideration whatever, to thrust on us such poor, paltry, dry bundles of nonsense as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. The more we read the better works of Mr. Dickens, the more we are struck with the wonderful variety of his powers, with the reality of his descriptions, with the humour, the geniality, and the force of his creations. It is as amusing to dip into the records of Mrs. Gamp or Mr. Micawber as it was to read them at first. They never tire us, never cease to make us laugh. But what human being who, with pain and grief, and a conscientious wish to do justice to Mr. Dickens, has plodded on through the twenty numbers of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, will ever endure again to confront those dreary publications? We have inveighed against Mr. Dickens's recent political and legal crudities, not only because he has written hastily, ignorantly; and unjustly, but because we long to have once more something like the old funny, genial, admirable stories.

Mr. Thackeray's lecture was delivered in aid of the fund collected for the family of the late Mr. Douglas Jerrold, and it was therefore incumbent on the lecturer to speak of the author whose name was associated with the occasion. It was a difficult task, but Mr. Thackeray discharged it with sense and taste, and, what was still more important, with honesty. He did not dress up an idol for the moment, that a timid or good-natured audience might fall down and worship it. Mr. Jerrold was, he said, the most witty man he had ever known, and he had, under great dis-advantages, worked his way up. When, therefore, such a man left relations in poverty, he liked to help them if he could. This was putting the matter in a rational light. He did not speak highly of Mr. Jerrold's writings, nor did he criticise them the least unfavourably. He merely said that they had at least one of the characteristics of humoristic preaching, for they warmly supported the poor against the rich. He could not exactly say that kindliness was one of their prominent traits, if they were judged by what appeared on the surface; but they contained a basis of benevolent feeling. Their author, in the same way, though caustic and severe, was personally a kind man and a warm friend. He might therefore claim to be admitted to, at any rate, a subordinate-place in the list of week-day preachers, and be considered to have done-something to expound the doctrines of general benevolence. We have nothing to object to in this. Mr. Thackeray's temperate and discriminating remarks were exactly fitted to his subject. They did justice—they conciliated the audience—but they were entirely free from sentimental exaggeration.

Saturday Review, July 25, 1857.

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