[The following excerpt from The Victorian Age in Literature is based on Project Gutenberg's EBook #18639, which Karina Aleksandrova, Juliet Sutherland and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net produced.George P. Landow formatted the text and added links to other material in the Victorian Web. The comical “I” that begins the first paragraph comes from Vanity Fair and was drawn by the Thackeray hismelf.]

t may seem strange to say that Thackeray did not know enough of the world; yet this was the truth about him in large matters of the philosophy of life, and especially of his own time. He did not know the way things were going: he was too Victorian to understand the Victorian epoch. He did not know enough ignorant people to have heard the news. In one of his delightful asides he imagines two little clerks commenting erroneously on the appearance of Lady Kew or Sir Brian Newcome in the Park, and says: "How should Jones and Brown, who are not, vous comprenez, du monde, understand these mysteries?" But I think Thackeray knew quite as little about Jones and Brown as they knew about Newcome and Kew; his world was le monde. Hence he seemed to take it for granted that the Victorian compromise would last; while Dickens (who knew his Jones and Brown) had already guessed that it would not. Thackeray did not realise that the Victorian platform was a moving platform. To take but one instance, he was a Radical like Dickens; all really representative Victorians, except perhaps Tennyson, were Radicals. But he seems to have thought of all reform as simple and straightforward and all of a piece; as if Catholic Emancipation, the New Poor Law, Free Trade and the Factory Acts and Popular Education were all parts of one almost self-evident evolution of enlightenment. Dickens, being in touch with the democracy, had already discovered that the country had come to a dark place of divided ways and divided counsels. In Hard Times he realised Democracy at war with Radicalism; and became, with so incompatible an ally as Ruskin, not indeed a Socialist, but certainly an anti-Individualist. In Our Mutual Friend he felt the strength of the new rich, and knew they had begun to transform the aristocracy, instead of the aristocracy transforming them. He knew that Veneering had carried off Twemlow in triumph. He very nearly knew what we all know to-day: that, so far from it being possible to plod along the progressive road with more votes and more Free Trade, England must either sharply become very much more democratic or as rapidly become very much less so.


Chesterton, G (ilbert) K(eith). The Victorian Age in Literature. London: Butterworth: 1913. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1913.

Last modified 31 December 2010