The History of Pendennis, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXVI

The Pall Mall Gazette

Considerable success at first attended the new journal. It was generally stated, that an influential political party supported the paper; and great names were cited amongst the contributors to its columns. Was there any foundation for these rumours? We are not at liberty to say whether they were ill-founded; but this much we may divulge, that an article upon foreign policy, which was generally attributed to a noble Lord, whose connexion with the Foreign Office is very well known, was in reality composed by Captain Shandon, in the parlour of the Bear and Staff public-house near Whitehall Stairs, whither the printer’s boy had tracked him, and where a literary ally of his, Mr. Bludyer, had a temporary residence; and that a series of papers on finance questions, which were universally supposed to be written by a great Statesman of the House of Commons, were in reality composed by Mr. George Warrington of the Upper Temple.

That there may have been some dealings between the Pall Mall Gazette and this influential party, is very possible, Percy Popjoy (whose father, Lord Falconet, was a member of the party) might be seen not unfrequently ascending the stairs to Warrington’s chambers; and some information appeared in the paper which it gave a character, and could only be got from very peculiar sources. Several poems, feeble in thought, but loud and vigorous in expression, appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, with the signature of “P. P.”; and it must be owned that his novel was praised in the new journal in a very outrageous manner.

In the political department of the paper Mr. Pen did not take any share; but he was a most active literary contributor. The Pall Mall Gazette had its offices, as we have heard, in Catherine Street, in the Strand, and hither Pen often came with his manuscripts in his pocket, and with a great deal of bustle and pleasure; such as a man feels at the outset of his literary career, when to see himself in print is still a novel sensation, and he yet pleases himself to think that his writings are creating some noise in the world.

Here it was that Mr. Jack Finucane, the sub-editor, compiled with paste and scissors the Journal of which he was supervisor. With an eagle eye he scanned all the paragraphs of all the newspapers which had anything to do with the world of fashion over which he presided. He didn’t let a death or a dinner-party of the aristocracy pass without having the event recorded in the columns of his Journal; and from the most recondite provincial prints, and distant Scotch and Irish newspapers, he fished out astonishing paragraphs and intelligence regarding the upper classes of society. It was a grand, nay, a touching sight, for a philosopher, to see Jack Finucane, Esquire, with a plate of meat from the cookshop and glass of porter from the public-house, for his meal, recounting the feasts of the great as if h had been present at them; and in tattered trousers and dingy shirt-sleeves, cheerfully describing and arranging the most brilliant fetes of the world of fashion. The incongruity of Finucane’s avocation, and his manners and appearance amused his new friend Pen. Since he left his own native village, where his rank probably was not very, lofty Jack had seldom seen any society but such as used the parlour of the taverns which he frequented, whereas from his writing you would have supposed that he dined with ambassadors, and that his common lounge was the bow-window of White’s. Errors of description, it is true, occasionally slipped from his pen; but the Ballinafad Sentinel, of which he was own correspondent, suffered by these, not the Pall Mall Gazette, in which Jack was not permitted to write much, his London chiefs thinking that the scissors and the paste were better wielded by him than the pen.

Pen took a great deal of pains with the writing of his reviews, and having a pretty fair share of desultory reading, acquired in the early years of his life an eager fancy and a keen sense of fun, his articles pleased his chief and the public, and he was proud to think that he deserved the money which he earned. We may be sure that the Pall Mall Gazette was taken in regularly at Fairoaks, and read with delight by the two ladies there. It was received at Clavering Park, too, where we know there was a young lady of great literary tastes; and old Doctor Portman himself, to whom the widow sent her paper after she had got her son’s articles by heart, signified his approval of Pen’s productions, saying that the lad had spirit, taste, and fancy, and wrote, if not like a scholar, at any rate like a gentleman.

And what was the astonishment and delight of our friend Major Pendennis, on walking into one of his clubs, the Regent, where Wenham, Lord Falconet, and some other gentlemen of good reputation and fashion were assembled, to hear them one day talking over a number of the Pall Mall Gazette, and of an article which appeared in its columns, making some bitter fun of the book recently published by the wife of a celebrated member of the opposition party. The book in question was a Book of Travels in Spain and Italy, by the Countess of Muffborough, in which it was difficult to say which was the most wonderful, the French or the English, in which languages her ladyship wrote indifferently, and upon the blunders of which the critic pounced with delightful mischief. The critic was no other than Pen: he jumped and danced round about his subject with the greatest jocularity and high spirits: he showed up the noble lady’s faults with admirable mock gravity and decorum. There was not a word in the article which was not polite and gentlemanlike; and the unfortunate subject of the criticism was scarified and laughed at during the operation. Wenham’s bilious countenance was puckered up with malign pleasure as he read the critique. Lady Muffborough had not asked him to her parties during the last year. Lord Falconet giggled and laughed with all his heart; Lord Muffborough and he had been rivals ever since they began life; and these complimented Major Pendennis, who until now had scarcely paid any attention to some hints which his Fairoaks correspondence threw out of “dear Arthur’s constant and severe literary occupations, which I fear may undermine the poor boy’s health,” and had thought any notice of Mr. Pen and his newspaper connexions quite below his dignity as a Major and a gentleman.

But when the oracular Wenham praised the boy’s production; when Lord Falconet, who had had the news from Percy Popjoy, approved of the genius of young Pen; when the great Lord Steyne himself, to whom the Major referred the article, laughed and sniggered over it, swore it was capital, and that the Muffborough would writhe under it, like a whale under a harpoon, the Major, as in duty bound, began to admire his nephew very much, said, “By gad, the young rascal had some stuff in him, and would do something; he had always said he would do something;” and with a hand quite tremulous with pleasure, the old gentleman sate down to write to the widow at Fairoaks all that the great folks had said in praise of Pen; and he wrote to the young rascal, too, asking when he would come and eat a chop with his old uncle, and saying that he was commissioned to take him to dinner at Gaunt House, for Lord Steyne liked anybody who could entertain him, whether by his folly, wit, or by his dulness, by his oddity, affectation, good spirits, or any other quality. Pen flung his letter across the table to Warrington: perhaps he was disappointed that the other did not seem to be much affected by it.

The courage of young critics is prodigious: they clamber up to the judgment-seat, and, with scarce a hesitation, give their opinion upon works the most intricate or profound. Had Macaulay’s History or Herschel’s Astronomy been put before Pen at this period, he would have looked through the volumes, meditated his opinion over a cigar, and signified his august approval of either author, as if the critic had been their born superior and indulgent master and patron. By the help of the Biographie Universelle or the British Museum, he would be able to take a rapid resume of a historical period, and allude to names, dates, and facts, in such a masterly, easy way, as to astonish his mamma at home, who wondered where her boy could have acquired such a prodigious store of reading and himself, too, when he came to read over his articles two or three months after they had been composed, and when he had forgotten the subject and the books which he had consulted. At that period of his life, Mr. Pen owns that he would not have hesitated, at twenty-four hours’ notice, to pass his opinion upon the greatest scholars, or to give a judgment upon the Encyclopaedia. Luckily he had Warrington to laugh at him and to keep down his impertinence by a constant and wholesome ridicule, or he might have become conceited beyond all sufferance; for Shandon liked the dash and flippancy of his young aide-de-camp, and was, indeed, better pleased with Pen’s light and brilliant flashes, than with the heavier metal which his elder coadjutor brought to bear.

But though he might justly be blamed on the score of impertinence and a certain prematurity of judgment, Mr. Pen was a perfectly honest critic; a great deal too candid for Mr. Bungay’s purposes, indeed, who grumbled sadly at his impartiality. Pen and his chief, the Captain, had a dispute upon this subject one day. “In the name of common-sense, Mr. Pendennis,” Shandon asked, “what have you been doing — praising one of Mr. Bacon’s books? Bungay has been with me in a fury this morning at seeing a laudatory article upon one of the works of the odious firm over the way.”

Pen’s eyes opened with wide astonishment. “Do you mean to say,” he asked, “that we are to praise no books that Bacon publishes: or that, if the books are good, we are to say they are bad?”

“My good young friend — for what do you suppose a benevolent publisher undertakes a critical journal, to benefit his rival?” Shandon inquired.

“To benefit himself certainly, but to tell the truth too,” Pen said, “ruat coelum, to tell the truth.”

“And my prospectus,” said Shandon, with a laugh and a sner; “do you consider that was a work of mathematical accuracy of statement?”

“Pardon me, that is not the question,” Pen said “and I don’t think you very much care to argue it. I had some qualms of conscience about that same prospectus, and debated the matter with my friend Warrington. We agreed, however,” Pen said, laughing “that because the prospectus was rather declamatory and poetical, and the giant was painted upon the show-board rather larger than the original, who was inside the caravan; we need not be too scrupulous about this trifling inaccuracy, but might do our part of the show, without loss of character or remorse of conscience. We are the fiddlers, and play our tunes only; you are the showman.”

“And leader of the van,” said Shandon. “Well, I am glad that your conscience gave you leave to play for us.”

“Yes, but,” said Pen, with a fine sense of the dignity of his position, “we are all party men in England, and I will stick to my party like a Briton. I will be as good-natured as you like to our own side, he is a fool who quarrels with his own nest; and I will hit the enemy as hard as you like — but with fair play, Captain, if you please. One can’t tell all the truth, I suppose; but one can tell nothing but the truth; and I would rather starve, by Jove, and never earn another penny by my pen” (this redoubted instrument had now been in use for some six weeks, and Pen spoke of it with vast enthusiasm and respect) “than strike an opponent an unfair blow, or, if called upon to place him, rank him below his honest desert.”

“Well, Mr. Pendennis, when we want Bacon smashed, we must get some other hammer to do it,” Shandon said, with fatal good-nature; and very likely thought within himself, “A few years hence perhaps the young gentleman won’t be so squeamish.” The veteran Condottiere himself was no longer so scrupulous. He had fought and killed on so many a side for many a year past, that remorse had long left him. “Gad,” said he, “you’ve a tender conscience, Mr. Pendennis. It’s the luxury of all novices, and I may have had one once myself; but that sort of bloom wears off with the rubbing of the world, and I’m not going to the trouble myself of putting on an artificial complexion, like our pious friend Wenham, or our model of virtue, Wagg.”

“I don’t know whether some people’s hypocrisy is not better, Captain, than other’s cynicism.”

“It’s more profitable, at any rate,” said the Captain, biting his nails. “That Wenham is as dull a quack as ever quacked: and you see the carriage in which he drove to dinner. Faith, it’ll be a long time before Mrs. Shandon will take a drive in her own chariot. God help her, poor thing!” And Pen went away from his chief, after their little dispute and colloquy, pointing his own moral to the Captain’s tale, and thinking to himself, “Behold this man, stored with genius, wit, learning, and a hundred good natural gifts: see how he has wrecked them, by paltering with his honesty, and forgetting to respect himself. Wilt thou remember thyself, O Pen? thou art conceited enough! Wilt thou sell thy honour for a bottle? No, by heaven’s grace, we will be honest, whatever befalls, and our mouths shall only speak the truth when they open.”

A punishment, or, at least, a trial, was in store for Mr. Pen. In the very next number of the Pall Mall Gazette, Warrington read out, with roars of laughter, an article which by no means amused Arthur Pendennis, who was himself at work with a criticism for the next week’s number of the same journal; and in which the Spring Annual was ferociously maltreated by some unknown writer. The person of all most cruelly mauled was Pen himself. His verses had not appeared with his own name in the Spring Annual, but under an assumed signature. As he had refused to review the book, Shandon had handed it over to Mr. Bludyer, with directions to that author to dispose of it. And he had done so effectually. Mr. Bludyer, who was a man of very considerable talent, and of a race which, I believe, is quite extinct in the press of our time, had a certain notoriety in his profession, and reputation for savage humour. He smashed and trampled down the poor spring flowers with no more mercy than a bull would have on a parterre; and having cut up the volume to his heart’s content, went and sold it at a bookstall, and purchased a pint of brandy with the proceeds of the volume.

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