The Valet's Tragedy, by Andrew Lang

X. THE MYSTERY OF LORD BATEMAN

Ever and again, in the literary and antiquarian papers, there flickers up debate as to the Mystery of Lord Bateman. This problem in no way concerns the existing baronial house of Bateman, which, in Burke, records no predecessor before a knight and lord mayor of 1717. Our Bateman comes of lordlier and more ancient lineage. The question really concerns ‘The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman. Illustrated by George Cruikshank, London: Charles Tilt, Fleet Street. And Mustapha Syried, Constantinople. MDCCCXXXIX.’

The tiny little volume in green cloth, with a design of Lord Bateman’s marriage ceremony, stamped in gold, opens with a ‘Warning to the Public, concerning the Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman.’ The Warning is signed George Cruikshank, who, however, adds in a postscript: ‘The above is not my writing.’ The ballad follows, and then comes a set of notes, mainly critical. The author of the Warning remarks: ‘In some collection of old English Ballads there is an ancient ditty, which, I am told, bears some remote and distant resemblance to the following Epic Poem.’

Again, the text of the ballad, here styled ‘The Famous History of Lord Bateman,’ with illustrations by Thackeray, ‘plain’ (the original designs were coloured), occurs in the Thirteenth Volume of the Biographical Edition of Thackeray’s works. (pp. lvi-lxi).

The problems debated are: ‘Who wrote the Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman, and who wrote the Notes?’ The disputants have not shown much acquaintance with ballad lore in general.

First let us consider Mr. Thackeray’s text of the ballad. It is closely affiliated to the text of ‘The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman,’ whereof the earliest edition with Cruikshank’s illustrations was published in 1839.255 The edition here used is that of David Bryce and Son, Glasgow (no date).

255 There are undated cheap broadside copies, not illustrated, in the British Museum.

Mr. Blanchard Jerrold, in his ‘Life of Cruikshank,’ tells us that the artist sang this ‘old English ballad’ at a dinner where Dickens and Thackeray were present. Mr. Thackeray remarked: ‘I should like to print that ballad with illustrations,’ but Cruikshank ‘warned him off,’ as he intended to do the thing himself. Dickens furnished the learned notes. This account of what occurred was given by Mr. Walter Hamilton, but Mr. Sala furnished another version. The ‘authorship of the ballad,’ Mr. Sala justly observed, ‘is involved in mystery.’ Cruikshank picked it up from the recitation of a minstrel outside a pot-house. In Mr. Sala’s opinion, Mr. Thackeray ‘revised and settled the words, and made them fit for publication.’ Nor did he confine himself to the mere critical work; he added, in Mr. Sala’s opinion, that admired passage about ‘The young bride’s mother, who never before was heard to speak so free,’ also contributing ‘The Proud Young Porter,’ Jeames. Now, in fact, both the interpellation of the bride’s mamma, and the person and characteristics of the proud young porter, are of unknown antiquity, and are not due to Mr. Thackeray — a scholar too conscientious to ‘decorate ‘ an ancient text. Bishop Percy did such things, and Scott is not beyond suspicion; but Mr. Thackeray, like Joseph Ritson, preferred the authentic voice of tradition. Thus, in the text of the Biographical Edition, he does not imitate the Cockney twang, phonetically rendered in the version of Cruikshank. The second verse, for example, runs thus:

Cruikshank:

He sail-ed east, he sail-ed vest,
Until he came to famed Tur-key,
Vere he vos taken and put to prisin,
Until his life was quite wea-ry.

Thackeray:

He sailed East, and he sailed West,
Until he came to proud Turkey,
Where he was taken and put to prison,
Until his life was almost weary.

There are discrepancies in the arrangement of the verses, and a most important various reading.

Cruikshank:

Now sevin long years is gone and past,
And fourteen days vell known to me;
She packed up all her gay clouthing,
And swore Lord Bateman she would go see.

To this verse, in Cruikshank’s book, a note (not by Cruikshank) is added:

‘“Now sevin long years is gone and past,
And fourteen days well known to me.

In this may be recognised, though in a minor degree, the same gifted hand that portrayed the Mussulman, the pirate, the father, and the bigot, in two words (“This Turk”).

‘“The time is gone, the historian knows it, and that is enough for the reader. This is the dignity of history very strikingly exemplified.”’

That note to Cruikshank’s text is, like all the delightful notes, if style is evidence, not by Dickens, but by Thackeray. Yet, in his own text, with an exemplary fidelity, he reads: ‘And fourteen days well known to THEE.’ To whom? We are left in ignorance; and conjecture, though tempting, is unsafe. The reading of Cruikshank, ‘vell known to ME’— that is, to the poet — is confirmed by the hitherto unprinted ‘Lord Bedmin.’ This version, collected by Miss Wyatt Edgell in 1899, as recited by a blind old woman in a workhouse, who had learned it in her youth, now lies before the present writer. He owes this invaluable document to the kindness of Miss Wyatt Edgell and Lady Rosalind Northcote. Invaluable it is, because it proves that Lord Bateman (or Bedmin) is really a volkslied, a popular and current version of the ancient ballad. ‘Famed Turkey’ becomes ‘Torquay’ in this text, probably by a misapprehension on the part of the collector or reciter. The speech of the bride’s mother is here omitted, though it occurs in older texts; but, on the whole, the blind old woman’s memory has proved itself excellent. In one place she gives Thackeray’s reading in preference to that of Cruikshank, thus:

Cruikshank:

Ven he vent down on his bended knee.

Thackeray:

Down on his bended knees fell he.

Old Woman:

Down on his bended knee fell he.

We have now ascertained the following facts: Cruikshank and Thackeray used a text with merely verbal differences, which was popular among the least educated classes early in last century. Again, Thackeray contributed the notes and critical apparatus to Cruikshank’s version. For this the internal evidence of style is overpowering: no other man wrote in the manner and with the peculiar humour of Mr. Titmarsh. In the humble opinion of the present writer these Notes ought to be appended to Mr. Thackeray’s version of ‘Lord Bateman.’ Finally, Mr. Sala was wrong in supposing that Mr. Thackeray took liberties with the text received from oral tradition.

What was the origin of that text? Professor Child, in the second part of his ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’256 lays before us the learning about Lord Bateman, Lord Bedmin, Young Bicham, Young Brechin, Young Bekie, Young Beichan and Susie Pie (the heroine, Sophia, in Thackeray), Lord Beichan, Young Bondwell, and Markgraf Backenweil; for by all these names is Lord Bateman known. The student must carefully note that ‘Thackeray’s List of Broadsides,’ cited, is NOT by Mr. W. M. Thackeray.

256 Pt. ii. p. 454 et seq., and in various other places.

As the reader may not remember the incidents in the Thackeray, Cruikshank, and Old Woman version (which represents an ancient ballad, now not so much popularised as vulgarised), a summary may be given. Lord Bateman went wandering: ‘his character, at this time, and his expedition, would seem to have borne a striking resemblance to those of Lord Byron. . . . SOME foreign country he wished to see, and that was the extent of his desire; any foreign country would answer his purpose — all foreign countries were alike to him.’- -(Note, apud Cruikshank.) Arriving in Turkey (or Torquay) he was taken and fastened to a tree by his captor. He was furtively released by the daughter of ‘This Turk.’ ‘The poet has here, by that bold license which only genius can venture upon, surmounted the extreme difficulty of introducing any particular Turk, by assuming a foregone conclusion in the reader’s mind; and adverting, in a casual, careless way, to a Turk hitherto unknown as to an old acquaintance. . . . “THIS Turk he had” is a master-stroke, a truly Shakespearian touch’—(Note.) The lady, in her father’s cellar (‘Castle,’ Old Woman’s text), consoles the captive with ‘the very best wine,’ secretly stored, for his private enjoyment, by the cruel and hypocritical Mussulman. She confesses the state of her heart, and inquires as to Lord Bateman’s real property, which is ‘half Northumberland.’ To what period in the complicated mediaeval history of the earldom of Northumberland the affair belongs is uncertain.

The pair vow to be celibate for seven years, and Lord Bateman escapes. At the end of the period, Sophia sets out for Northumberland, urged, perhaps, by some telepathic admonition. For, on arriving at Lord Bateman’s palace (Alnwick Castle?), she summons the proud porter, announces herself, and finds that her lover has just celebrated a marriage with another lady. In spite of the remonstrances of the bride’s mamma, Lord Bateman restores that young lady to her family, observing

She is neither the better nor the worse for me.

So Thackeray and Old Woman. Cruikshank prudishly reads,

O you’ll see what I’ll do for you and she.

‘Lord Bateman then prepared another marriage, having plenty of superfluous wealth to bestow upon the Church.’—(Note.) All the rest was bliss.

The reader may ask: How did Sophia know anything about the obscure Christian captive? WHY did she leave home exactly in time for his marriage? How came Lord Bateman to be so fickle? The Annotator replies: ‘His lordship had doubtless been impelled by despair of ever recovering his lost Sophia, and a natural anxiety not to die without leaving an heir to his estate.’ Finally how was the difficulty of Sophia’s religion overcome?

To all these questions the Cockney version gives no replies, but the older forms of the ballad offer sufficient though varying answers, as we shall see.

Meanwhile one thing is plain from this analysis of the pot-house version of an old ballad, namely, that the story is constructed out of fragments from the great universal store of popular romance. The central ideas are two: first, the situation of a young man in the hands of a cruel captor (often a god, a giant, a witch, a fiend), but here — a Turk. The youth is loved and released (commonly through magic spells) by the daughter of the gaoler, god, giant, witch, Turk, or what not. In Greece, Jason is the Lord Bateman, Medea is the Sophia, of the tale, which was known to Homer and Hesiod, and was fully narrated by Pindar. THE OTHER YOUNG PERSON, the second bride, however, comes in differently, in the Greek. In far-off Samoa, a god is the captor.257 The gaoler is a magician in Red Indian versions.258

257 Turner’s ‘Samoa,’ p. 102.

258 For a list, though an imperfect one, of the Captor’s Daughter story, see the Author’s Custom and Myth, pp. 86–102.

As a rule, in these tales, from Finland to Japan, from Samoa to Madagascar, Greece and India, the girl accompanies her lover in his flight, delaying the pursuer by her magic. In ‘Lord Bateman’ another formula, almost as widely diffused, is preferred.

The old true love comes back just after her lover’s wedding. He returns to her. Now, as a rule, in popular tales, the lover’s fickleness is explained by a spell or by a breach of a taboo. The old true love has great difficulty in getting access to him, and in waking him from a sleep, drugged or magical.

The bloody shirt I wrang for thee,
The Hill o’ Glass I clamb for thee,
And wilt thou no waken and speak to me?

He wakens at last, and all is well. In a Romaic ballad the deserted girl, meeting her love on his wedding-day, merely reminds him of old kindness. He answers —

Now he that will may scatter nuts,
And he may wed that will,
But she that was my old true love
Shall be my true love still.

This incident, the strange, often magically caused oblivion of the lover, whose love returns to him, like Sophia, at, or after, his marriage, is found in popular tales of Scotland, Norway, Iceland, Germany, Italy, Greece, and the Gaelic Western Islands. It does not occur in ‘Lord Bateman,’ where Mr. Thackeray suggests probable reasons for Lord Bateman’s fickleness. But the world-wide incidents are found in older versions of ‘Lord Bateman,’ from which they have been expelled by the English genius for the commonplace.

Thus, if we ask, how did Sophia at first know of Bateman’s existence? The lovely and delicate daughter of the Turk, doubtless, was unaware that, in the crowded dungeons of her sire, one captive of wealth, noble birth, and personal fascination, was languishing. The Annotator explains: ‘She hears from an aged and garrulous attendant, her only female adviser (for her mother died while she was yet an infant), of the sorrows and sufferings of the Christian captive.’ In ancient versions of the ballad another explanation occurs. She overhears a song which he sings about his unlucky condition. This account is in Young Bekie (Scottish: mark the name, Bekie), where France is the scene and the king’s daughter is the lady. The same formula of the song sung by the prisoner is usual. Not uncommon, too, is a TOKEN carried by Sophia when she pursues her lost adorer, to insure her recognition. It is half of her broken ring. Once more, why does Sophia leave home to find Bateman in the very nick of time? Thackeray’s version does not tell us; but Scottish versions do. ‘She longed fu’ sair her love to see.’ Elsewhere a supernatural being, ‘The Billy Blin,’ or a fairy, clad in green, gives her warning. The fickleness of the hero is caused, sometimes, by constraint, another noble ‘has his marriage,’ as his feudal superior, and makes him marry, but only in form.

There is a marriage in yonder hall,
Has lasted thirty days and three,
The bridegroom winna bed the bride,
For the sake o’ one that’s owre the sea.

In this Scottish version, by the way, occurs —

Up spoke the young bride’s mother,
Who never was heard to speak so free,

wrongly attributed to Mr. Thackeray’s own pen.

The incident of the magical oblivion which comes over the bridegroom occurs in Scandinavian versions of ‘Lord Bateman’ from manuscripts of the sixteenth century.259 Finally, the religious difficulty in several Scottish versions is got over by the conversion and baptism of Sophia, who had professed the creed of Islam. That all these problems in ‘Lord Bateman’ are left unsolved is, then, the result of decay. The modern vulgar English version of the pot-house minstrel (known as ‘The Tripe Skewer,’ according to the author of the Introduction to Cruikshank’s version) has forgotten, has been heedless of, and has dropped the ancient universal elements of folk-tale and folk-song.

259 Child, ii. 459–461.

These graces, it is true, are not too conspicuous even in the oldest and best versions of ‘Lord Bateman.’ Choosing at random, however, we find a Scots version open thus:

In the lands where Lord Beichan was born,
Among the stately steps o’ stane,
He wore the goud at his left shoulder,
But to the Holy Land he’s gane.

That is not in the tone of the ditty sung by the Tripe Skewer. Again, in his prison,

He made na his moan to a stock,
He made na it to a stone,
But it was to the Queen of Heaven
That he made his moan.

The lines are from a version of the North of Scotland, and, on the face of it, are older than the extirpation of the Catholic faith in the loyal North. The reference to Holy Land preserves a touch of the crusading age. In short, poor as they may be, the Scottish versions are those of a people not yet wholly vulgarised, not yet lost to romance. The singers have ‘half remembered and half forgot’ the legend of Gilbert Becket (Bekie, Beichan), the father of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Gilbert, in the legend, went to Holy Land, was cast into a Saracen’s prison, and won his daughter’s heart. He escaped, but the lady followed him, like Sophia, and, like Sophia, found and wedded him; Gilbert’s servant, Richard, playing the part of the proud young porter. Yet, as Professor Child justly observes, the ballad ‘is not derived from the legend,’ though the legend as to Gilbert Becket exists in a manuscript of about 1300. The Bateman motive is older than Gilbert Becket, and has been attached to later versions of the adventures of that hero. Gilbert Becket about 1300 was credited with a floating, popular tale of the Bateman sort, and out of his legend, thus altered, the existing ballads drew their ‘Bekie’ and ‘Beichan,’ from the name of Becket.

The process is: First, the popular tale of the return of the old true love; that tale is found in Greece, Scandinavia, Denmark, Iceland, Faroe, Spain, Germany, and so forth. Next, about 1300 Gilbert Becket is made the hero of the tale. Next, our surviving ballads retain a trace or two of the Becket form, but they are not derived from the Becket form. The fancy of the folk first evolved the situations in the story, then lent them to written literature (Becket’s legend, 1300), and thirdly, received the story back from written legend with a slight, comparatively modern colouring.

In the dispute as to the origin of our ballads one school, as Mr. T. F. Henderson and Professor Courthope, regard them as debris of old literary romances, ill-remembered work of professional minstrels.260 That there are ballads of this kind in England, such as the Arthurian ballads, I do not deny. But in my opinion many ballads and popular tales are in origin older than the mediaeval romances, as a rule. As a rule the romances are based on earlier popular data, just as the ‘Odyssey’ is an artistic whole made up out of popular tales. The folk may receive back a literary form of its own ballad or story, but more frequently the popular ballad comes down in oral tradition side by side with its educated child, the literary romance on the same theme.

260 Cf. The Queen’s Marie.

Mr. Henderson has answered that the people is unpoetical. The degraded populace of the slums may be unpoetical, like the minstrel named ‘Tripe Skewer,’ and may deprave the ballads of its undegraded ancestry into such modern English forms as ‘Lord Bateman.’ But I think of the people which, in Barbour’s day, had its choirs of peasant girls chanting rural snatches on Bruce’s victories, or, in still earlier France, of Roland’s overthrow. If THEIR songs are attributed to professional minstrels, I turn to the Greece of 1830, to the Finland of today, to the outermost Hebrides of today, to the Arapahoes of Northern America, to the Australian blacks, among all of whom the people are their own poets and make their own dirges, lullabies, chants of victory, and laments for defeat. THESE peoples are not unpoetical. In fact, when I say that the people has been its own poet I do not mean the people which goes to music halls and reads halfpenny newspapers. To the true folk we owe the legend of Lord Bateman in its ancient germs; and to the folk’s degraded modern estate, crowded as men are in noisome streets and crushed by labour, we owe the Cockney depravation, the Lord Bateman of Cruikshank and Thackeray. Even that, I presume, being old, is now forgotten, except by the ancient blind woman in the workhouse. To the workhouse has come the native popular culture — the last lingering shadow of old romance. That is the moral of the ballad of Lord Bateman.

In an article by Mr. Kitton, in Literature (June 24, 1899, p. 699), this learned Dickensite says: ‘The authorship of this version’ (Cruikshank’s) ‘of an ancient ballad and of the accompanying notes has given rise to much controversy, and whether Dickens or Thackeray was responsible for them is still a matter of conjecture, although what little evidence there is seems to favour Thackeray.’

For the ballad neither Thackeray nor Dickens is responsible. The Old Woman’s text settles that question: the ballad is a degraded Volkslied. As to the notes, internal evidence for once is explicit. The notes are Thackeray’s. Any one who doubts has only to compare Thackeray’s notes to his prize poem on ‘Timbuctoo.’

The banter, in the notes, is academic banter, that of a university man, who is mocking the notes of learned editors. This humour is not the humour of Dickens, who, however, may very well have written the Introduction to Cruikshank’s version. That morceau is in quite a different taste and style. I ought, in fairness, to add the following note from Mr. J. B. Keene, which may be thought to overthrow belief in Thackeray’s authorship of the notes:—

Dear Sir — Your paper in the ‘Cornhill’ for this month on the Mystery of Lord Bateman interested me greatly, but I must beg to differ from you as to the authorship of the Notes, and for this reason.

I have before me a copy of the first edition of the ‘Loving Ballad’ which was bought by my father soon after it was issued. At that time — somewhere about 1840 — there was a frequent visitor at our house, named Burnett, who had married a sister of Charles Dickens, and who gave us the story of its production.

He said, as you state, that Cruikshank had got the words from a pot-house singer, but the locality he named was Whitechapel,261 where he was looking out for characters. He added that Cruikshank sung or hummed the tune to him, and he gave it the musical notation which follows the preface. He also said that Charles Dickens wrote the notes. His personal connection with the work and his relation to Dickens are, I think, fair evidence on the question.

I am, dear Sir,

Yours truly,
J. B. KEENE.

Kingsmead House, 1 Hartham Road,

Camden Road, N., Feb. 13,1900.

Mr. Keene’s evidence may, perhaps, settle the question. But, if Dickens wrote the Introduction, that might be confused in Mr. Burnett’s memory with the Notes, from internal evidence the work of Thackeray. If not, then in the Notes we find a new aspect of the inexhaustible humour of Dickens. It is certain, at all events, that neither Dickens nor Thackeray was the author of the ‘Loving Ballad.’

261 P.S. — The preface to the ballad says Battle Bridge.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03