The Kickleburys on the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray



Any reader who may have a fancy to purchase a copy of this present edition of the “History of the Kickleburys Abroad,” had best be warned in time, that the Times newspaper does not approve of the work, and has but a bad opinion both of the author and his readers. Nothing can be fairer than this statement: if you happen to take up the poor little volume at a railroad station, and read this sentence, lay the book down, and buy something else. You are warned. What more can the author say? If after this you WILL buy — amen! pay your money, take your book, and fall to. Between ourselves, honest reader, it is no very strong potation which the present purveyor offers to you. It will not trouble your head much in the drinking. It was intended for that sort of negus which is offered at Christmas parties and of which ladies and children may partake with refreshment and cheerfulness. Last year I tried a brew which was old, bitter, and strong; and scarce any one would drink it. This year we send round a milder tap, and it is liked by customers: though the critics (who like strong ale, the rogues!) turn up their noses. In heaven’s name, Mr. Smith, serve round the liquor to the gentle-folks. Pray, dear madam, another glass; it is Christmas time, it will do you no harm. It is not intended to keep long, this sort of drink. (Come, froth up, Mr. Publisher, and pass quickly round!) And as for the professional gentlemen, we must get a stronger sort for THEM some day.

The Times’ gentleman (a very difficult gent to please) is the loudest and noisiest of all, and has made more hideous faces over the refreshment offered to him than any other critic. There is no use shirking this statement! when a man has been abused in the Times, he can’t hide it, any more than he could hide the knowledge of his having been committed to prison by Mr. Henry, or publicly caned in Pall Mall. You see it in your friends’ eyes when they meet you. They know it. They have chuckled over it to a man. They whisper about it at the club, and look over the paper at you. My next-door neighbor came to see me this morning, and I saw by his face that he had the whole story pat. “Hem!” says he, “well, I HAVE heard of it; and the fact is, they were talking about you at dinner last night, and mentioning that the Times had — ahem! —‘walked into you.’”

“My good M——” I say — and M—— will corroborate, if need be, the statement I make here —“here is the Times’ article, dated January 4th, which states so and so, and here is a letter from the publisher, likewise dated January 4th, and which says:—

“MY DEAR Sir — Having this day sold the last copy of the first edition (of x thousand) of the ‘Kickleburys Abroad,’ and having orders for more, had we not better proceed to a second edition? and will you permit me to enclose an order on,” &c. &c.?

Singular coincidence! And if every author who was so abused by a critic had a similar note from a publisher, good Lord! how easily would we take the critic’s censure!

“Yes, yes,” you say; “it is all very well for a writer to affect to be indifferent to a critique from the Times. You bear it as a boy bears a flogging at school, without crying out; but don’t swagger and brag as if you liked it.”

Let us have truth before all. I would rather have a good word than a bad one from any person: but if a critic abuses me from a high place, and it is worth my while, I will appeal. If I can show that the judge who is delivering sentence against me, and laying down the law and making a pretence of learning, has no learning and no law, and is neither more nor less than a pompous noodle, who ought not to be heard in any respectable court, I will do so; and then, dear friends, perhaps you will have something to laugh at in this book. —


“It has been customary, of late years, for the purveyors of amusing literature — the popular authors of the day — to put forth certain opuscules, denominated ‘Christmas Books,’ with the ostensible intention of swelling the tide of exhilaration, or other expansive emotions, incident upon the exodus of the old and the inauguration of the new year. We have said that their ostensible intention was such, because there is another motive for these productions, locked up (as the popular author deems) in his own breast, but which betrays itself, in the quality of the work, as his principal incentive. Oh! that any muse should be set upon a high stool to cast up accounts and balance a ledger! Yet so it is; and the popular author finds it convenient to fill up the declared deficit, and place himself in a position the more effectually to encounter those liabilities which sternly assert themselves contemporaneously and in contrast with the careless and free-handed tendencies of the season by the emission of Christmas books — a kind of literary assignats, representing to the emitter expunged debts, to the receiver an investment of enigmatical value. For the most part bearing the stamp of their origin in the vacuity of the writer’s exchequer rather than in the fulness of his genius, they suggest by their feeble flavor the rinsings of a void brain after the more important concoctions of the expired year. Indeed, we should as little think of taking these compositions as examples of the merits of their authors as we should think of measuring the valuable services of Mr. Walker, the postman, or Mr. Bell, the dust-collector, by the copy of verses they leave at our doors as a provocative of the expected annual gratuity — effusions with which they may fairly be classed for their intrinsic worth no less than their ultimate purport.

“In the Christmas book presently under notice, the author appears (under the thin disguise of Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh) in ‘propria persona’ as the popular author, the contributor to Punch, the remorseless pursuer of unconscious vulgarity and feeble-mindedness, launched upon a tour of relaxation to the Rhine. But though exercising, as is the wont of popular authors in their moments of leisure, a plentiful reserve of those higher qualities to which they are indebted for their fame, his professional instincts are not altogether in abeyance. From the moment his eye lights upon a luckless family group embarked on the same steamer with himself, the sight of his accustomed quarry — vulgarity, imbecility, and affectation — reanimates his relaxed sinews, and, playfully fastening his satiric fangs upon the familiar prey, he dallies with it in mimic ferocity like a satiated mouser.

“Though faintly and carelessly indicated, the characters are those with which the author loves to surround himself. A tuft-hunting county baronet’s widow, an inane captain of dragoons, a graceless young baronet, a lady with groundless pretensions to feeble health and poesy, an obsequious nonentity her husband, and a flimsy and artificial young lady, are the personages in whom we are expected to find amusement. Two individuals alone form an exception to the above category, and are offered to the respectful admiration of the reader — the one, a shadowy serjeant-at-law, Mr. Titmarsh’s travelling companion, who escapes with a few side puffs of flattery, which the author struggles not to render ironical, and a mysterious countess, spoken of in a tone of religious reverence, and apparently introduced that we may learn by what delicate discriminations our adoration of rank should be regulated.

“To those who love to hug themselves in a sense of superiority by admeasurement with the most worthless of their species, in their most worthless aspects, the Kickleburys on the Rhine will afford an agreeable treat, especially as the purveyor of the feast offers his own moments of human weakness as a modest entree in this banquet of erring mortality. To our own, perhaps unphilosophical, taste the aspirations towards sentimental perfection of another popular author are infinitely preferable to these sardonic divings after the pearl of truth, whose lustre is eclipsed in the display of the diseased oyster. Much, in the present instance, perhaps all, the disagreeable effect of his subject is no doubt attributable to the absence of Mr. Thackeray’s usual brilliancy of style. A few flashes, however, occur, such as the description of M. Lenoir’s gaming establishment, with the momentous crisis to which it was subjected, and the quaint and imaginative sallies evoked by the whole town of Rougetnoirbourg and its lawful prince. These, with the illustrations, which are spirited enough, redeem the book from an absolute ban. Mr. Thackeray’s pencil is more congenial than his pen. He cannot draw his men and women with their skins off, and, therefore, the effigies of his characters are pleasanter to contemplate than the flayed anatomies of the letter-press.”

There is the whole article. And the reader will see (in the paragraph preceding that memorable one which winds up with the diseased oyster) that he must be a worthless creature for daring to like the book, as he could only do so from a desire to hug himself in a sense of superiority by admeasurement with the most worthless of his fellow-creatures!

The reader is worthless for liking a book of which all the characters are worthless, except two, which are offered to his respectful admiration; and of these two the author does not respect one, but struggles not to laugh in his face; whilst he apparently speaks of another in a tone of religious reverence, because the lady is a countess, and because he (the author) is a sneak. So reader, author, characters, are rogues all. Be there any honest men left, Hal? About Printing-house Square, mayhap you may light on an honest man, a squeamish man, a proper moral man, a man that shall talk you Latin by the half-column if you will but hear him.

And what a style it is, that great man’s! What hoighth of foine language entoirely! How he can discoorse you in English for all the world as if it was Latin! For instance, suppose you and I had to announce the important news that some writers published what are called Christmas books; that Christmas books are so called because they are published at Christmas: and that the purpose of the authors is to try and amuse people. Suppose, I say, we had, by the sheer force of intellect, or by other means of observation or information, discovered these great truths, we should have announced them in so many words. And there it is that the difference lies between a great writer and a poor one; and we may see how an inferior man may fling a chance away. How does my friend of the Times put these propositions? “It has been customary,” says he, “of late years for the purveyors of amusing literature to put forth certain opuscules, denominated Christmas books, with the ostensible intention of swelling the tide of exhilaration, or other expansive emotions, incident upon the exodus of the old or the inauguration of the new year.” That is something like a sentence; not a word scarcely but’s in Latin, and the longest and handsomest out of the whole dictionary. That is proper economy — as you see a buck from Holywell Street put every pinchbeck pin, ring, and chain which he possesses about his shirt, hands, and waistcoat, and then go and cut a dash in the Park, or swagger with his order to the theatre. It costs him no more to wear all his ornaments about his distinguished person than to leave them at home. If you can be a swell at a cheap rate, why not? And I protest, for my part, I had no idea what I was really about in writing and submitting my little book for sale, until my friend the critic, looking at the article, and examining it with the eyes of a connoisseur, pronounced that what I had fancied simply to be a book was in fact “an opuscule denominated so-and-so, and ostensibly intended to swell the tide of expansive emotion incident upon the inauguration of the new year.” I can hardly believe as much even now — so little do we know what we really are after, until men of genius come and interpret.

And besides the ostensible intention, the reader will perceive that my judge has discovered another latent motive, which I had “locked up in my own breast.” The sly rogue! (if we may so speak of the court.) There is no keeping anything from him; and this truth, like the rest, has come out, and is all over England by this time. Oh, that all England, which has bought the judge’s charge, would purchase the prisoner’s plea in mitigation! “Oh, that any muse should be set on a high stool,” says the bench, “to cast up accounts and balance a ledger! Yet so it is; and the popular author finds it convenient to fill up the declared deficit by the emission of Christmas books — a kind of assignats that bear the stamp of their origin in the vacuity of the writer’s exchequer.” There is a trope for you! You rascal, you wrote because you wanted money! His lordship has found out what you were at, and that there is a deficit in your till. But he goes on to say that we poor devils are to be pitied in our necessity; and that these compositions are no more to be taken as examples of our merits than the verses which the dustman leaves at his lordship’s door, “as a provocative of the expected annual gratuity,” are to be considered as measuring his, the scavenger’s, valuable services — nevertheless the author’s and the scavenger’s “effusions may fairly be classed, for their intrinsic worth, no less than their ultimate purport.”

Heaven bless his lordship on the bench — What a gentle manlike badinage he has, and what a charming and playful wit always at hand! What a sense he has for a simile, or what Mrs. Malaprop calls an odorous comparison, and how gracefully he conducts it to “its ultimate purport.” A gentleman writing a poor little book is a scavenger asking for a Christmas-box!

As I try this small beer which has called down such a deal of thunder, I can’t help thinking that it is not Jove who has interfered (the case was scarce worthy of his divine vindictiveness); but the Thunderer’s man, Jupiter Jeames, taking his master’s place, adopting his manner, and trying to dazzle and roar like his awful employer. That figure of the dustman has hardly been flung from heaven: that “ultimate purport” is a subject which the Immortal would hardly handle. Well, well; let us allow that the book is not worthy of such a polite critic — that the beer is not strong enough for a gentleman who has taste and experience in beer.

That opinion no man can ask his honor to alter; but (the beer being the question), why make unpleasant allusions to the Gazette, and hint at the probable bankruptcy of the brewer? Why twit me with my poverty; and what can the Times’ critic know about the vacuity of my exchequer? Did he ever lend me any money? Does he not himself write for money? (and who would grudge it to such a polite and generous and learned author?) If he finds no disgrace in being paid, why should I? If he has ever been poor, why should he joke at my empty exchequer? Of course such a genius is paid for his work: with such neat logic, such a pure style, such a charming poetical turn of phrase, of course a critic gets money. Why, a man who can say of a Christmas book that “it is an opuscule denominated so-and-so, and ostensibly intended to swell the tide of expansive emotion incident upon the exodus of the old year,” must evidently have had immense sums and care expended on his early education, and deserves a splendid return. You can’t go into the market, and get scholarship like THAT, without paying for it: even the flogging that such a writer must have had in early youth (if he was at a public school where the rods were paid for), must have cost his parents a good sum. Where would you find any but an accomplished classical scholar to compare the books of the present (or indeed any other) writer to “sardonic divings after the pearl of truth, whose lustre is eclipsed in the display of the diseased oyster;” mere Billingsgate doesn’t turn out oysters like these; they are of the Lucrine lake:— this satirist has pickled his rods in Latin brine. Fancy, not merely a diver, but a sardonic diver: and the expression of his confounded countenance on discovering not only a pearl, but an eclipsed pearl, which was in a diseased oyster! I say it is only by an uncommon and happy combination of taste, genius, and industry, that a man can arrive at uttering such sentiments in such fine language — that such a man ought to be well paid, as I have no doubt he is, and that he is worthily employed to write literary articles, in large type, in the leading journal of Europe. Don’t we want men of eminence and polite learning to sit on the literary bench, and to direct the public opinion?

But when this profound scholar compares me to a scavenger who leaves a copy of verses at his door and begs for a Christmas-box, I must again cry out and say, “My dear sir, it is true your simile is offensive, but can you make it out? Are you not hasty in your figures and illusions?” If I might give a hint to so consummate a rhetorician, you should be more careful in making your figures figures, and your similes like: for instance, when you talk of a book “swelling the tide of exhilaration incident to the inauguration of the new year,” or of a book “bearing the stamp of its origin in vacuity,” &c. — or of a man diving sardonically; or of a pearl eclipsed in the display of a diseased oyster — there are some people who will not apprehend your meaning: some will doubt whether you had a meaning: some even will question your great powers, and say, “Is this man to be a critic in a newspaper, which knows what English, and Latin too, and what sense and scholarship, are?” I don’t quarrel with you — I take for granted your wit and learning, your modesty and benevolence — but why scavenger — Jupiter Jeames — why scavenger? A gentleman, whose biography the Examiner was fond of quoting before it took its present serious and orthodox turn, was pursued by an outraged wife to the very last stage of his existence with an appeal almost as pathetic — Ah, sir, why scavenger?

How can I be like a dustman that rings for a Christmas-box at your hall-door? I never was there in my life. I never left at your door a copy of verses provocative of an annual gratuity, as your noble honor styles it. Who are you? If you are the man I take you to be, it must have been you who asked the publisher for my book, and not I who sent it in, and begged a gratuity of your worship. You abused me out of the Times’ window; but if ever your noble honor sent me a gratuity out of your own door, may I never drive another dust-cart. “Provocative of a gratuity!” O splendid swell! How much was it your worship sent out to me by the footman? Every farthing you have paid I will restore to your lordship, and I swear I shall not be a halfpenny the poorer.

As before, and on similar seasons and occasions, I have compared myself to a person following a not dissimilar calling: let me suppose now, for a minute, that I am a writer of a Christmas farce, who sits in the pit, and sees the performance of his own piece. There comes applause, hissing, yawning, laughter, as may be: but the loudest critic of all is our friend the cheap buck, who sits yonder and makes his remarks, so that all the audience may hear. “THIS a farce!” says Beau Tibbs: “demmy! it’s the work of a poor devil who writes for money — confound his vulgarity! This a farce! Why isn’t it a tragedy, or a comedy, or an epic poem, stap my vitals? This a farce indeed! It’s a feller as sends round his ‘at, and appeals to charity. Let’s ‘ave our money back again, I say.” And he swaggers off; — and you find the fellow came with an author’s order.

But if, in spite of Tibbs, our “kyind friends,” &c. &c. &c. — if the little farce, which was meant to amuse Christmas (or what my classical friend calls Exodus), is asked for, even up to Twelfth Night — shall the publisher stop because Tibbs is dissatisfied? Whenever that capitalist calls to get his money back, he may see the letter from the respected publisher, informing the author that all the copies are sold, and that there are demands for a new edition. Up with the curtain, then! Vivat Regina! and no money returned, except the Times “gratuity!”


January 5, 1851.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07