Fifty years ago the world of readers was divisible into the partisans of two great novelists, who, despite their limitations, made more obvious by the development of fiction on the Continent, still rank among the highest. William Makepeace Thackeray, who went back, as has been said, to the work of Fielding for his models, devoted himself chiefly to the picturing of English society, in the more restricted sense of the word, from Queen Anne to Queen Victoria. Definitely and perhaps restrictedly English in his outlook on life, his view of the human scene is somewhat insular. His natural sentiment was tempered by an acute perception of the meaner elements in human nature to such a degree that his work has a strong satirical element, and some have even been misled into thinking him characteristically a cynic. Gifted with a superb style, with profound sympathy and insight into human emotion, and with a power of rendering the picturesque aspects of a society, Thackeray remains a great master.

The work of his contemporary, Charles Dickens, has had an even greater popular success. Dickens’s early career gave him a knowledge of a much humbler grade of society than Thackeray pictures, and at the same time left him with a vivid sense of the wrongs under which the more unfortunate members of that society suffered. This led him to devote many of his works to the redress of social grievances, and connects him with the general humanitarian movements of modern times. Powerful as was Dickens’s influence for reform in his own time, it seems clear that the very specific nature of the evils he attacked is bound to impair the permanence of his work, as it always impaired the artistic value. But we relish still his buoyant humor and geniality, the binding interest of his complex though sometimes confusing plots, and the charm of his immense throng of creations, typical to the point of caricature, but in their setting vital, appealing, and eminently memorable.

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