Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

TOM BURKE OF OURS is an excellent example of the rough-and-ready style of fiction that made Charles Lever famous. The vivacity of the novel, the picture it presents of devil-may-care, hard-riding Irish gentry, and a certain down-to-earth comic realism, make it entertaining reading. The book presents a vivid picture of the life and sentiments prevalent in Ireland during the early nineteenth century.

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Lever, the most popular of nineteenth century Irish novelists, was a great admirer of Napoleon, so much so that TOM BURKE OF OURS presents one of the most idealized portraits of that historical personage to be found in any literature. In a preface to this novel, Lever called the Napoleonic period the most wonderful and eventful in modern history. The story proper covers Napoleon’s career from the days of the first consulship to the fall of the empire. Although theatrical, the plot is absorbing, and the battle scenes, particularly those of Austerlitz, Jena, and the engagements of the famous “Week of Glory,” are presented with dash and brilliance. As a result, the book has the vividness and swift action of a good film. The chief defect of the work is the fact that Lever, intent upon telling a romantic story, maintains no consistent point of view in his presentation of either the history or the society of the period.

TOM BURKE OF OURS is the story of a second son, a younger brother who must make his own way in the world: a common story in British fiction. The first-person narration is not always plausible, and the style makes little effort at consistency, but the vitality of the writing sweeps the reader along. The characters are drawn with a bold brush and often seem to possess a life of their own. Darby M’Keown is particularly fine; a dynamic and forceful personality, he is an example of the Irish patriots of nearly two centuries ago, a man who held up the ideals of independence and of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Captain Bubbleton and his sister, Anna Maria, are quite different, although excellent characterizations; while they are genuinely humorous characters almost worthy of Dickens, the author pushes too hard in an effort to make them extraordinary. Lever possesses a tendency to overwrite, a danger that probably stems from his technique of rattling off a story in the manner of a raconteur.

Although Lever’s later novels are more strongly plotted and written with more control, this early, picaresque novel of the life and adventures of Tom Burke is considered one of his best. The very extravagance of the tale and the writing give the book its chief virtues. The novel’s greatness almost seems to arise from its defects. Although there are serious passages in the novel, such as a thoughtful discussion of the Irish attitude toward death, it is the humor of the book that most readers will remember. The original edition of TOM BURKE OF OURS was embellished with masterful humorous illustrations by Phiz, who already was illustrating the novels of Lever’s younger contemporary, Dickens. The style of caricature for which Phiz was famous was particularly suited to the flamboyant writing of Lever. TOM BURKE OF OURS and Lever’s other novels have been overshadowed by the more famous works of his great contemporaries, but they are worth reading and treasuring for their vitality and humor.

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