Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On A Peal of Bells.

As some bells in a church hard by are making a great holiday clanging in the summer afternoon, I am reminded somehow of a July day, a garden, and a great clanging of bells years and years ago, on the very day when George IV. was crowned. I remember a little boy lying in that garden reading his first novel. It was called the “Scottish Chiefs.” The little boy (who is now ancient and not little) read this book in the summer-house of his great grandmamma. She was eighty years of age then. A most lovely and picturesque old lady, with a long tortoise-shell cane, with a little puff, or tour, of snow-white (or was it powdered?) hair under her cap, with the prettiest little black-velvet slippers and high heels you ever saw. She had a grandson, a lieutenant in the navy; son of her son, a captain in the navy; grandson of her husband, a captain in the navy. She lived for scores and scores of years in a dear little old Hampshire town inhabited by the wives, widows, daughters of navy captains, admirals, lieutenants. Dear me! Don’t I remember Mrs. Duval, widow of Admiral Duval; and the Miss Dennets, at the Great House at the other end of the town, Admiral Dennet’s daughters; and the Miss Barrys, the late Captain Barry’s daughters; and the good old Miss Maskews, Admiral Maskew’s daughter; and that dear little Miss Norval, and the kind Miss Bookers, one of whom married Captain, now Admiral Sir Henry Excellent, K.C.B.? Far, far away into the past I look and see the little town with its friendly glimmer. That town was so like a novel of Miss Austen’s that I wonder was she born and bred there? No, we should have known, and the good old ladies would have pronounced her to be a little idle thing, occupied with her silly books and neglecting her housekeeping. There were other towns in England, no doubt, where dwelt the widows and wives of other navy captains; where they tattled, loved each other, and quarrelled; talked about Betty the maid, and her fine ribbons indeed! took their dish of tea at six, played at quadrille every night till ten, when there was a little bit of supper, after which Betty came with the lanthorn; and next day came, and next, and next, and so forth, until a day arrived when the lanthorn was out, when Betty came no more: all that little company sank to rest under the daisies, whither some folks will presently follow them. How did they live to be so old, those good people? Moi qui vous parle, I perfectly recollect old Mr. Gilbert, who had been to sea with Captain Cook; and Captain Cook, as you justly observe, dear Miss, quoting out of your “Mangnall’s Questions,” was murdered by the natives of Owhyhee, anno 1779. Ah! don’t you remember his picture, standing on the seashore, in tights and gaiters, with a musket in his hand, pointing to his people not to fire from the boats, whilst a great tattooed savage is going to stab him in the back? Don’t you remember those houris dancing before him and the other officers at the great Otaheite ball? Don’t you know that Cook was at the siege of Quebec, with the glorious Wolfe, who fought under the Duke of Cumberland, whose royal father was a distinguished officer at Ramillies, before he commanded in chief at Dettingen? Huzza! Give it them, my lads! My horse is down? Then I know I shall not run away. Do the French run? then I die content. Stop. Wo! Quo me rapis? My Pegasus is galloping off, goodness knows where, like his Majesty’s charger at Dettingen.

How do these rich historical and personal reminiscences come out of the subject at present in hand? What IS that subject, by the way? My dear friend, if you look at the last essaykin (though you may leave it alone, and I shall not be in the least surprised or offended), if you look at the last paper, where the writer imagines Athos and Porthos, Dalgetty and Ivanhoe, Amelia and Sir Charles Grandison, Don Quixote and Sir Roger, walking in at the garden-window, you will at once perceive that NOVELS and their heroes and heroines are our present subject of discourse, into which we will presently plunge. Are you one of us, dear sir, and do you love novel-reading? To be reminded of your first novel will surely be a pleasure to you. Hush! I never read quite to the end of my first, the “Scottish Chiefs.” I couldn’t. I peeped in an alarmed furtive manner at some of the closing pages. Miss Porter, like a kind dear tender-hearted creature, would not have Wallace’s head chopped off at the end of Vol. V. She made him die in prison,27 and if I remember right (protesting I have not read the book for forty-two or three years), Robert Bruce made a speech to his soldiers, in which he said, “And Bannockburn shall equal Cambuskenneth.”28 But I repeat I could not read the end of the fifth volume of that dear delightful book for crying. Good heavens! It was as sad, as sad as going back to school.

27 I find, on reference to the novel, that Sir William died on the scaffold, not in prison. His last words were, “‘My prayer is heard. Life’s cord is cut by heaven. Helen! Helen! May heaven preserve my country, and —’ He stopped. He fell. And with that mighty shock the scaffold shook to its foundations.”

28 The remark of Bruce (which I protest I had not read for forty-two years), I find to be as follows:—“When this was uttered by the English heralds, Bruce turned to Ruthven, with an heroic smile, ‘Let him come, my brave barons! and he shall find that Bannockburn shall page with Cambuskenneth!’” In the same amiable author’s famous novel of “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” there is more crying than in any novel I ever remember to have read. See, for example, the last page. . . . “Incapable of speaking, Thaddeus led his wife back to her carriage. . . . His tears gushed out in spite of himself, and mingling with hers, poured those thanks, those assurances, of animated approbation through her heart, which made it even ache with excess of happiness.” . . . And a sentence or two further. “Kosciusko did bless him, and embalmed the benediction with a shower of tears.”

The glorious Scott cycle of romances came to me some four or five years afterwards; and I think boys of our year were specially fortunate in coming upon those delightful books at that special time when we could best enjoy them. Oh, that sunshiny bench on half-holidays, with Claverhouse or Ivanhoe for a companion! I have remarked of very late days some little men in a great state of delectation over the romances of Captain Mayne Reid, and Gustave Aimard’s Prairie and Indian Stories, and during occasional holiday visits, lurking off to bed with the volume under their arms. But are those Indians and warriors so terrible as our Indians and warriors were? (I say, are they? Young gentlemen, mind, I do not say they are not.) But as an oldster I can be heartily thankful for the novels of the 1-10 Geo. IV., let us say, and so downward to a period not unremote. Let us see there is, first, our dear Scott. Whom do I love in the works of that dear old master? Amo —

The Baron of Bradwardine and Fergus. (Captain Waverley is certainly very mild.)

Amo Ivanhoe; LOCKSLEY; the Templar.

Amo Quentin Durward, and especially Quentin’s uncle, who brought the boar to bay. I forget the gentleman’s name.

I have never cared for the Master of Ravenswood, or fetched his hat out of the water since he dropped it there when I last met him (circa 1825).

Amo SALADIN and the Scotch knight in the “Talisman.” The Sultan best.

Amo CLAVERHOUSE.

Amo MAJOR DALGETTY. Delightful Major. To think of him is to desire to jump up, run to the book, and get the volume down from the shelf. About all those heroes of Scott, what a manly bloom there is, and honorable modesty! They are not at all heroic. They seem to blush somehow in their position of hero, and as it were to say, “Since it must be done, here goes!” They are handsome, modest, upright, simple, courageous, not too clever. If I were a mother (which is absurd), I should like to be mother-inlaw to several young men of the Walter-Scott-hero sort.

Much as I like those most unassuming, manly, unpretending gentlemen, I have to own that I think the heroes of another writer, viz. —

LEATHER-STOCKING,

UNCAS,

HARDHEART,

TOM COFFIN,

are quite the equals of Scott’s men; perhaps Leather-stocking is better than any one in “Scott’s lot.” La Longue Carabine is one of the great prize-men of fiction. He ranks with your Uncle Toby, Sir Roger de Coverley, Falstaff — heroic figures, all — American or British, and the artist has deserved well of his country who devised them.

At school, in my time, there was a public day, when the boys’ relatives, an examining bigwig or two from the universities, old schoolfellows, and so forth, came to the place. The boys were all paraded; prizes were administered; each lad being in a new suit of clothes — and magnificent dandies, I promise you, some of us were. Oh, the chubby cheeks, clean collars, glossy new raiment, beaming faces, glorious in youth — fit tueri coelum — bright with truth, and mirth, and honor! To see a hundred boys marshalled in a chapel or old hall; to hear their sweet fresh voices when they chant, and look in their brave calm faces; I say, does not the sight and sound of them smite you, somehow, with a pang of exquisite kindness? . . . Well. As about boys, so about Novelists. I fancy the boys of Parnassus School all paraded. I am a lower boy myself in that academy. I like our fellows to look well, upright, gentlemanlike. There is Master Fielding — he with the black eye. What a magnificent build of a boy! There is Master Scott, one of the heads of the school. Did you ever see the fellow more hearty and manly? Yonder lean, shambling, cadaverous lad, who is always borrowing money, telling lies, leering after the house-maids, is Master Laurence Sterne — a bishop’s grandson, and himself intended for the Church; for shame, you little reprobate! But what a genius the fellow has! Let him have a sound flogging, and as soon as the young scamp is out of the whipping-room give him a gold medal. Such would be my practice if I were Doctor Birch, and master of the school.

Let us drop this school metaphor, this birch and all pertaining thereto. Our subject, I beg leave to remind the reader’s humble servant, is novel heroes and heroines. How do you like your heroes, ladies? Gentlemen, what novel heroines do you prefer? When I set this essay going, I sent the above question to two of the most inveterate novel-readers of my acquaintance. The gentleman refers me to Miss Austen; the lady says Athos, Guy Livingston, and (pardon my rosy blushes) Colonel Esmond, and owns that in youth she was very much in love with Valancourt.

“Valancourt? and who was he?” cry the young people. Valancourt, my dears, was the hero of one of the most famous romances which ever was published in this country. The beauty and elegance of Valancourt made your young grandmammas’ gentle hearts to beat with respectful sympathy. He and his glory have passed away. Ah, woe is me that the glory of novels should ever decay; that dust should gather round them on the shelves; that the annual cheques from Messieurs the publishers should dwindle, dwindle! Inquire at Mudie’s, or the London Library, who asks for the “Mysteries of Udolpho” now? Have not even the “Mysteries of Paris” ceased to frighten? Alas, our novels are but for a season; and I know characters whom a painful modesty forbids me to mention, who shall go to limbo along with “Valancourt” and “Doricourt” and “Thaddeus of Warsaw.”

A dear old sentimental friend, with whom I discoursed on the subject of novels yesterday, said that her favorite hero was Lord Orville, in “Evelina,” that novel which Dr. Johnson loved so. I took down the book from a dusty old crypt at a club, where Mrs. Barbauld’s novelists repose: and this is the kind of thing, ladies and gentlemen, in which your ancestors found pleasure:—

“And here, whilst I was looking for the books, I was followed by Lord Orville. He shut the door after he came in, and, approaching me with a look of anxiety, said, ‘Is this true, Miss Anville — are you going?’

“‘I believe so, my lord,’ said I, still looking for the books.

“‘So suddenly, so unexpectedly: must I lose you?’

“‘No great loss, my lord,’ said I, endeavoring to speak cheerfully.

“‘Is it possible,’ said he, gravely, ‘Miss Anville can doubt my sincerity?’

“‘I can’t imagine,’ cried I, ‘what Mrs. Selwyn has done with those books.’

“‘Would to heaven,’ continued he, ‘I might flatter myself you would allow me to prove it!’

“‘I must run up stairs,’ cried I, greatly confused, ‘and ask what she has done with them.’

“‘You are going then,’ cried he, taking my hand, ‘and you give me not the smallest hope of any return! Will you not, my too lovely friend, will you not teach me, with fortitude like your own, to support your absence?’

“‘My lord,’ cried I, endeavoring to disengage my hand, ‘pray let me go!’

“‘I will,’ cried he, to my inexpressible confusion, dropping on one knee, ‘if you wish me to leave you.’

“‘Oh, my lord,’ exclaimed I, ‘rise, I beseech you; rise. Surely your lordship is not so cruel as to mock me.’

“‘Mock you!’ repeated he earnestly, ‘no, I revere you. I esteem and admire you above all human beings! You are the friend to whom my soul is attached, as to its better half. You are the most amiable, the most perfect of women; and you are dearer to me than language has the power of telling.’

“I attempt not to describe my sensations at that moment; I scarce breathed; I doubted if I existed; the blood forsook my cheeks, and my feet refused to sustain me. Lord Orville hastily rising supported me to a chair upon which I sank almost lifeless.

“I cannot write the scene that followed, though every word is engraven on my heart; but his protestations, his expressions, were too flattering for repetition; nor would he, in spite of my repeated efforts to leave him, suffer me to escape; in short, my dear sir, I was not proof against his solicitations, and he drew from me the most sacred secret of my heart!”29

29 Contrast this old perfumed, powdered D’Arblay conversation

with the present modern talk. If the two young people
wished to hide their emotions now-a-days, and express
themselves in modest language, the story would run:—

“Whilst I was looking for the books, Lord Orville came in.
He looked uncommonly down in the mouth, as he said: ‘Is this
true, Miss Anville; are you going to cut?’

“‘To absquatulate, Lord Orville,’ said I, still pretending
that I was looking for the books.

“‘You are very quick about it,’ said he.

“‘Guess it’s no great loss,’ I remarked, as cheerfully as I
could.

“‘You don’t think I’m chaffing?’ said Orville, with much
emotion.

“‘What has Mrs. Selwyn done with the books?’ I went on.

“‘What, going’ said he, ‘and going for good? I wish I was
such a good-plucked one as you, Miss Anville,’” &c.

The conversation, you perceive, might be easily written down
to this key; and if the hero and heroine were modern, they
would not be suffered to go through their dialogue on
stilts, but would converse in the natural graceful way at
present customary. By the way, what a strange custom that
is in modern lady novelists to make the men bully the women!
In the time of Miss Porter and Madame D’Arblay, we have
respect, profound bows and curtsies, graceful courtesy, from
men to women. In the time of Miss Bronte, absolute
rudeness. Is it true, mesdames, that you like rudeness, and
are pleased at being ill-used by men? I could point to more
than one lady novelist who so represents you.

Other people may not much like this extract, madam, from your favorite novel, but when you come to read it, YOU will like it. I suspect that when you read that book which you so love, you read it a deux. Did you not yourself pass a winter at Bath, when you were the belle of the assembly? Was there not a Lord Orville in your case too? As you think of him eleven lustres pass away. You look at him with the bright eyes of those days, and your hero stands before you, the brave, the accomplished, the simple, the true gentleman; and he makes the most elegant of bows to one of the most beautiful young women the world ever saw; and he leads you out to the cotillon, to the dear unforgotten music. Hark to the horns of Elfand, blowing, blowing! Bonne vieille, you remember their melody, and your heart-strings thrill with it still.

Of your heroic heroes, I think our friend Monseigneur Athos, Count de la Fere, is my favorite. I have read about him from sunrise to sunset with the utmost contentment of mind. He has passed through how many volumes? Forty? Fifty? I wish for my part there were a hundred more, and would never tire of him reselling prisoners, punishing ruffians, and running scoundrels through the midriff with his most graceful rapier. Ah, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, you are a magnificent trio. I think I like d’Artagnan in his own memoirs best. I bought him years and years ago, price fivepence, in a little parchment-covered Cologne-printed volume, at a stall in Gray’s Inn Lane. Dumas glorifies him and makes a Marshal of him; if I remember rightly, the original d’Artagnan was a needy adventurer, who died in exile very early in Louis XIV.‘s reign. Did you ever read the “Chevalier d’Harmenthal?” Did you ever read the “Tulipe Noire,” as modest as a story by Miss Edgeworth? I think of the prodigal banquets to which this Lucullus of a man has invited me, with thanks and wonder. To what a series of splendid entertainments he has treated me! Where does he find the money for these prodigious feasts? They say that all the works bearing Dumas’s name are not written by him. Well? Does not the chief cook have aides under him? Did not Rubens’s pupils paint on his canvases? Had not Lawrence assistants for his backgrounds? For myself, being also du metier, I confess I would often like to have a competent, respectable, and rapid clerk for the business part of my novels; and on his arrival, at eleven o’clock, would say, “Mr. Jones, if you please, the archbishop must die this morning in about five pages. Turn to article ‘Dropsy’ (or what you will) in Encyclopaedia. Take care there are no medical blunders in his death. Group his daughters, physicians, and chaplains round him. In Wales’s ‘London,’ letter B, third shelf, you will find an account of Lambeth, and some prints of the place. Color in with local coloring. The daughter will come down, and speak to her lover in his wherry at Lambeth Stairs,” &c., &c. Jones (an intelligent young man) examines the medical, historical, topographical books necessary; his chief points out to him in Jeremy Taylor (fol., London, M.DCLV.) a few remarks, such as might befit a dear old archbishop departing this life. When I come back to dress for dinner, the archbishop is dead on my table in five pages; medicine, topography, theology, all right, and Jones has gone home to his family some hours. Sir Christopher is the architect of St. Paul’s. He has not laid the stones or carried up the mortar. There is a great deal of carpenter’s and joiner’s work in novels which surely a smart professional hand might supply. A smart professional hand? I give you my word, there seem to me parts of novels — let us say the love-making, the “business,” the villain in the cupboard, and so forth, which I should like to order John Footman to take in hand, as I desire him to bring the coals and polish the boots. Ask ME indeed to pop a robber under a bed, to hide a will which shall be forthcoming in due season, or at my time of life to write a namby-pamby love conversation between Emily and Lord Arthur! I feel ashamed of myself, and especially when my business obliges me to do the love-passages, I blush so, though quite alone in my study, that you would fancy I was going off in an apoplexy. Are authors affected by their own works? I don’t know about other gentlemen, but if I make a joke myself I cry; if I write a pathetic scene I am laughing wildly all the time — at least Tomkins thinks so. You know I am such a cynic!

The editor of the Cornhill Magazine (no soft and yielding character like his predecessor, but a man of stern resolution) will only allow these harmless papers to run to a certain length. But for this veto I should gladly have prattled over half a sheet more, and have discoursed on many heroes and heroines of novels whom fond memory brings back to me. Of these books I have been a diligent student from those early days, which are recorded at the commencement of this little essay. Oh, delightful novels, well remembered! Oh, novels, sweet and delicious as the raspberry open-tarts of budding boyhood! Do I forget one night after prayers (when we under-boys were sent to bed) lingering at my cupboard to read one little half-page more of my dear Walter Scott — and down came the monitor’s dictionary upon my head! Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, I have loved thee faithfully for forty years! Thou wert twenty years old (say) and I but twelve, when I knew thee. At sixty odd, love, most of the ladies of thy Orient race have lost the bloom of youth, and bulged beyond the line of beauty; but to me thou art ever young and fair, and I will do battle with any felon Templar who assails thy fair name.

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