Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE ADVENTURES OF PHILIP ON HIS WAY THROUGH THE WORLD. ( From The Spectator, 9 th August, 1862.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE ADVENTURES OF PHILIP ON HIS WAY THROUGH THE WORLD. ( From “ The Spectator, ” 9 th August, 1862.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE ADVENTURES OF PHILIP ON HIS WAY THROUGH THE WORLD.
Mr. Thackeray has arrived at a peculiar distinction in the world of art. When we look at a new picture of any recognised school—suppose the Dutch School of Art—we do not expect to receive any entirely novel idea. We look at the pictures of Wouverman’s, and we ask where is the White Horse: we look at Teniers or Ostade, and we expect to see our old friends, the old clay jug, the old merry boors, the old natural bourgeois life. Of each new picture, we judge, or attempt to judge, whether that new specimen of the familiar class is of the first excellence in that class. If a person says, “Teniers is occupied with low subjects,” we answer, “Of course he is! how young you are!” In the same way, when we read a new book of Mr. Thackeray’s, we know precisely that which we have to anticipate. We are well aware that human life will be delineated in a certain characteristic way, and according to certain very peculiar and characteristic conventions. That is Thackeray, we say: we know what he is, and we do not expect him to change; we compare himself with himself; we only ask whether he is good to-day in comparison to what he was yesterday.
Mr. Thackeray is a writer to whom this peculiar sort of fame is especially natural and appropriate. His most obvious merit is an artistic expression. His words have a felicity in conveying what he means, which no other words would have. His delineation is inexplicably, but somehow certainly, better than any other sort of delineation of the same kind. You say those sentiments are low; they are, at any rate, not the highest; but if you try to express those sentiments yourself, you will find that you come to nothing, or that you become unendurable. The author of Vanity Fair can describe the world as if it were a vanity fair, and all men read him, and those who study the art of expression study him for that art; but we should laugh at a baby imitator. We should say, “My dear young sir, it takes years of worldly study and years of deep feeling, at once worldly and unworldly, to know how to use these worldly words so spiritually and so nicely. You can hardly talk as yet. Do not try to imitate the delicate finesse of the practised raconteur, or the melancholy mirth of the Belgravian novelist. It is not for young enthusiasts, it is not for patient-thinking men so to dress thought or a near approach to thought, that the unthinking world will read and re-read it.”
In this book, Philip, Mr. Thackeray is evidently trying to baffle his critics. They have said very often that he could never make a plot. He is now trying to show that he can. He has accumulated all the best traditional material. An eager, impetuous hero, who is skilful in getting into scrapes, and unskilful in extricating himself from them; a nice little heroine, gentle on all other matters, but biting like a tigress when her lover is attacked; a bad father, who commits forgery and seduction; a bad mother, who wishes to induce her daughter to abandon her lover, partly from a just belief that the match is a bad one, but partly also from a maternal impulse to bully and tyrannise; a professional nurse who is still not very old, and who was seduced in her youth, and who passes her life in doing good actions to a son of her seducer by a different woman; an old lord of diabolical principles and conversation to match; a marriage perhaps valid, perhaps invalid; a long period, during which the hero is interestingly poor; a sudden discovery of a lost will by which he is reinstated in comfort and opulence; these are good materials. They are the best part of the recognised stock in hand of narrative artists. If a writer could accomplish nothing with this capital apparatus, it is not likely that he will accomplish much with any other. He has as good a chance with this machinery as he is ever likely to have with any.
Nevertheless as far as “plot” is concerned, Philip is a failure. No one of all its most numerous readers has probably read it with eager interest as a story. You no more care what becomes of any of Mr. Thackeray’s celebrated characters than you want a biography of a Dutch boor or a Dutch utensil in Teniers’ pictures. There the characters are in “Thackeray”; you contemplate them with pleasure and indulgence and satisfaction; and you watch them as you watch your companions at a party only that you feel that you understand them better. Thackeray is like the edited and illustrated edition of a great dinner; but as for caring what becomes of those people, of the adjacent crinolines and opposite white ties, no, you cannot do that. You see what they are but you cannot be interested in their future. Mr. Thackeray, as we know well, cares for the people in the book, and Providence (we suppose) will care for the people at the dinner, but we cannot in either case concern ourselves with the subject.
Mr. Thackeray evidently feels this himself. He has no great impulse to tell us what happened to his characters. He must have a story, he knows, to tell us, and, therefore, he concocts or adapts a story, and involves his characters in it as best he may, but he can do no more. His feeling is the opposite of Mr. Canning’s knife-grinder; the latter had nothing to relate, and was sorry for it: Mr. Thackeray must relate something, and is sorry for that also. His characteristic exclamation is, “Story! God bless you, I have one to tell you, Sir; but do not ask me to tell it, Sir; it is such a bore, Sir”.
Mr. Thackeray likes to have a characteristic particular in every book, and he has one here. It is the relation of children to their parents. We do not mean the sentimental relation in which each is fond of the other, or the pecuniary relation in which one inherits from the other, but a more complex relation in which one of them is contrasted with the other. With a very peculiar watchfulness Nature has provided us with an instinctive aversion to what our parents do. “I won’t do that at any rate,” says the eager vanity, the improving conceit of youth. From the faults and vanities of our fathers we rush, angry and ardent, to follies of our own. Even with the very best children of the best parents it is so. The religious daughter of a Puritan mother has very early a latent weakness for the Virgin Mary. In the early self-will that accompanies second teeth, she peruses the Christian Year as a secret study, not being quite sure whether she enjoys most the overt excellence of the pure book or the latent flavour of her slight disobedience. All the Wilberforces are anti-Evangelical, and the Bishop of Oxford has very little anti-slavery fanaticism. The good children of good parents are sure to have, at any rate, a very different sort of goodness from that of their parents. And the good children of bad parents feel the reaction too, and make a much better use of it. They are excellent with the very virtues which their progenitors missed, and loathe all the offences in which those progenitors especially indulged. Philip is bold, outspoken, and unworldly because his father is mean, cringing, and parasitical. Nature won’t have a monotonous world at any rate. With an impatience of what it has always seen, an antipathy to what it has always heard, and a frantic wish to be original, an eager youth flounders into life. “May I be delivered from father and mother!” so begins his litany. And his prayer is granted. The world strikes him hard enough and often enough, but it has an insidious pleasure in exiling him far from his paternal home and driving him far from his ancestral creed.
We do not mean that Mr. Thackeray resembles Sir Archibald Alison. His books are not sermons with narratives between them. Mr. Thackeray’s favourite art is a sort of annotated picture. He describes to you Philip and Charlotte, the mother-in-law and the aunt-in-law, and then he likes to pause to analyse, to assure you that Philip was very impetuous and eager, which was a disadvantage to him generally in life; but an advantage to him in this case, for else he would never have been bold enough to seize that pretty little girl; and as to Charlotte, he tells you that she is a weak little thing, which is also a difficulty for her in the general course of life, but an advantage now, for if she had had any mind, she might have obtruded it during the courtship, and so disconcerted and startled her admirer. Any particular intellect in either party would rather, the commentator says, disenchant than enchant the other. And so he goes on volume after volume painting for us pretty scenes, and covering them with worldly remarks.
It is for these sort of half-cynical, half-true delineations that Mr. Thackeray’s pen was meant. He looks at the spectacle of society, the play which is going on in the miscellaneous theatre of the world. He rather yawns at the great passions, and but torpidly wonders at its great efforts and troublesome events. The “grand style” may be grand, but it is a little tiresome; it is rather a young notion to be taken in by all that. Some divines earnestly counsel us not to be busy about “public matters which concern us not”; the true philosophy of this world is of the same mind. “If you bore yourself, my son,” it says, “you will become a bore; leave the great tasks of life to the few who are entrusted with them and paid for them; it is ridiculous to be an amateur statesman: if you have an opinion on such subjects secrete it; sooner or later it will bring you into trouble, and you will be laughed at for it.”
Such is Mr. Thackeray’s evident belief. He won’t encumber himself with big ideas. If he should encounter a serious discussion, as will happen to the lightest writers, he will lounge through it if he can. He is great in minute anatomy. The subsoil of life—not the very surface, but just the next layer which one little painful scratch will bring up—this is his region, and it is an immense one. The great passions are few and simple; lists of the best situations might well be drawn up, and categories of the highest characters even more easily. The peaks of great mountains are much like one another, and an artist who was celebrated only for painting them would have but few pictures to sell. Various art is, in its essence, sublunary. Do not be exaggerated, do not aim too low; do not take the worst of the world; extreme badness is as monotonous and of as few species as the best excellence. Live on the ordinary common follies of the ordinary common world; analyse most men as they stand before you, interested in most things and practising most things. By natural tact and studious pains Mr. Thackeray does so inimitably well, and therefore his art is copious as well as excellent.
aberdeen: the university press