Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thorns in the Cushion.

In the Essay with which this volume commences, the Cornhill Magazine was likened to a ship sailing forth on her voyage, and the captain uttered a very sincere prayer for her prosperity. The dangers of storm and rock, the vast outlay upon ship and cargo, and the certain risk of the venture, gave the chief officer a feeling of no small anxiety; for who could say from what quarter danger might arise, and how his owner’s property might be imperilled? After a six months’ voyage, we with very thankful hearts could acknowledge our good fortune: and, taking up the apologue in the Roundabout manner, we composed a triumphal procession in honor of the Magazine, and imagined the Imperator thereof riding in a sublime car to return thanks in the Temple of Victory. Cornhill is accustomed to grandeur and greatness, and has witnessed, every ninth of November, for I don’t know how many centuries, a prodigious annual pageant, chariot, progress, and flourish of trumpetry; and being so very near the Mansion House, I am sure the reader will understand how the idea of pageant and procession came naturally to my mind. The imagination easily supplied a gold coach, eight cream-colored horses of your true Pegasus breed, huzzaing multitudes, running footmen, and clanking knights in armor, a chaplain and a sword-bearer with a muff on his head, scowling out of the coach-window, and a Lord Mayor all crimson, fur, gold chain, and white ribbons, solemnly occupying the place of state. A playful fancy could have carried the matter farther, could have depicted the feast in the Egyptian Hall, the Ministers, Chief Justices, and right reverend prelates taking their seats round about his lordship, the turtle and other delicious viands, and Mr. Toole behind the central throne, bawling out to the assembled guests and dignitaries: “My Lord So-and-so, my Lord What-d’ye-call-’im, my Lord Etcaetera, the Lord Mayor pledges you all in a loving-cup.” Then the noble proceedings come to an end; Lord Simper proposes the ladies; the company rises from table, and adjourns to coffee and muffins. The carriages of the nobility and guests roll back to the West. The Egyptian Hall, so bright just now, appears in a twilight glimmer, in which waiters are seen ransacking the dessert, and rescuing the spoons. His lordship and the Lady Mayoress go into their private apartments. The robes are doffed, the collar and white ribbons are removed. The Mayor becomes a man, and is pretty surely in a fluster about the speeches which he has just uttered; remembering too well now, wretched creature, the principal points which he DIDN’T make when he rose to speak. He goes to bed to headache, to care, to repentance, and, I dare say, to a dose of something which his body-physician has prescribed for him. And there are ever so many men in the city who fancy that man happy!

Now, suppose that all through that 9th of November his lordship has had a racking rheumatism, or a toothache, let us say, during all dinner-time — through which he has been obliged to grin and mumble his poor old speeches. Is he enviable? Would you like to change with his lordship? Suppose that bumper which his golden footman brings him, instead i’fackins of ypocras or canary, contains some abomination of senna? Away! Remove the golden goblet, insidious cupbearer! You now begin to perceive the gloomy moral which I am about to draw.

Last month we sang the song of glorification, and rode in the chariot of triumph. It was all very well. It was right to huzza, and be thankful, and cry, Bravo, our side! and besides, you know, there was the enjoyment of thinking how pleased Brown, and Jones, and Robinson (our dear friends) would be at this announcement of success. But now that the performance is over, my good sir, just step into my private room, and see that it is not all pleasure — this winning of successes. Cast your eye over those newspapers, over those letters. See what the critics say of your harmless jokes, neat little trim sentences, and pet waggeries! Why, you are no better than an idiot; you are drivelling; your powers have left you; this always overrated writer is rapidly sinking to, &c.

This is not pleasant; but neither is this the point. It may be the critic is right, and the author wrong. It may be that the archbishop’s sermon is not so fine as some of those discourses twenty years ago which used to delight the faithful in Granada. Or it may be (pleasing thought!) that the critic is a dullard, and does not understand what he is writing about. Everybody who has been to an exhibition has heard visitors discoursing about the pictures before their faces. One says, “This is very well;” another says, “This is stuff and rubbish;” another cries, “Bravo! this is a masterpiece:” and each has a right to his opinion. For example, one of the pictures I admired most at the Royal Academy is by a gentleman on whom I never, to my knowledge, set eyes. This picture is No. 346, “Moses,” by Mr. S. Solomon. I thought it had a great intention, I thought it finely drawn and composed. It nobly represented, to my mind, the dark children of the Egyptian bondage, and suggested the touching story. My newspaper says: “Two ludicrously ugly women, looking at a dingy baby, do not form a pleasing object;” and so good-by, Mr. Solomon. Are not most of our babies served so in life? and doesn’t Mr. Robinson consider Mr. Brown’s cherub an ugly, squalling little brat? So cheer up, Mr. S. S. It may be the critic who discoursed on your baby is a bad judge of babies. When Pharaoh’s kind daughter found the child, and cherished and loved it, and took it home, and found a nurse for it, too, I dare say there were grim, brick-dust colored chamberlains, or some of the tough, old, meagre, yellow princesses at court, who never had children themselves, who cried out, “Faugh! the horrid little squalling wretch!” and knew he would never come to good; and said, “Didn’t I tell you so?” when he assaulted the Egyptian.

Never mind then, Mr. S. Solomon, I say, because a critic pooh-poohs your work of art — your Moses — your child — your foundling. Why, did not a wiseacre in Blackwood’s Magazine lately fall foul of “Tom Jones?” O hypercritic! So, to be sure, did good old Mr. Richardson, who could write novels himself — but you, and I, and Mr. Gibbon, my dear sir, agree in giving our respect, and wonder, and admiration, to the brave old master.

In these last words I am supposing the respected reader to be endowed with a sense of humor, which he may or may not possess; indeed, don’t we know many an honest man who can no more comprehend a joke than he can turn a tune. But I take for granted, my dear sir, that you are brimming over with fun — you mayn’t make jokes, but you could if you would — you know you could: and in your quiet way you enjoy them extremely. Now many people neither make them, nor understand them when made, nor like them when understood, and are suspicious, testy, and angry with jokers. Have you ever watched an elderly male or female — an elderly “party,” so to speak, who begins to find out that some young wag of the company is “chaffing” him? Have you ever tried the sarcastic or Socratic method with a child? Little simple he or she, in the innocence of the simple heart, plays some silly freak, or makes some absurd remark, which you turn to ridicule. The little creature dimly perceives that you are making fun of him, writhes, blushes, grows uneasy, bursts into tears — upon my word it is not fair to try the weapon of ridicule upon that innocent young victim. The awful objurgatory practice he is accustomed to. Point out his fault, and lay bare the dire consequences thereof: expose it roundly, and give him a proper, solemn, moral whipping — but do not attempt to castigare ridendo. Do not laugh at him writhing, and cause all the other boys in the school to laugh. Remember your own young days at school, my friend — the tingling cheeks, burning ears, bursting heart, and passion of desperate tears, with which you looked up, after having performed some blunder, whilst the doctor held you to public scorn before the class, and cracked his great clumsy jokes upon you — helpless, and a prisoner! Better the block itself, and the lictors, with their fasces of birch-twigs, than the maddening torture of those jokes!

Now with respect to jokes — and the present company of course excepted — many people, perhaps most people, are as infants. They have little sense of humor. They don’t like jokes. Raillery in writing annoys and offends them. The coarseness apart, I think I have met very, very few women who liked the banter of Swift and Fielding. Their simple, tender natures revolt at laughter. Is the satyr always a wicked brute at heart, and are they rightly shocked at his grin, his leer, his horns, hoofs, and ears? Fi donc, le vilain monstre, with his shrieks, and his capering crooked legs! Let him go and get a pair of well-wadded black silk stockings, and pull them over those horrid shanks; put a large gown and bands over beard and hide; and pour a dozen of lavender-water into his lawn handkerchief, and cry, and never make a joke again. It shall all be highly-distilled poesy, and perfumed sentiment, and gushing eloquence; and the foot SHAN’T peep out, and a plague take it. Cover it up with the surplice. Out with your cambric, dear ladies, and let us all whimper together.

Now, then, hand on heart, we declare that it is not the fire of adverse critics which afflicts or frightens the editorial bosom. They may be right; they may be rogues who have a personal spite; they may be dullards who kick and bray as their nature is to do, and prefer thistles to pineapples; they may be conscientious, acute, deeply learned, delightful judges, who see your joke in a moment, and the profound wisdom lying underneath. Wise or dull, laudatory or otherwise, we put their opinions aside. If they applaud, we are pleased: if they shake their quick pens, and fly off with a hiss, we resign their favors and put on all the fortitude we can muster. I would rather have the lowest man’s good word than his bad one, to be sure; but as for coaxing a compliment, or wheedling him into good-humor, or stopping his angry mouth with a good dinner, or accepting his contributions for a certain Magazine, for fear of his barking or snapping elsewhere — allons donc! These shall not be our acts. Bow-wow, Cerberus! Here shall be no sop for thee, unless — unless Cerberus is an uncommonly good dog, when we shall bear no malice because he flew at us from our neighbor’s gate.

What, then, is the main grief you spoke of as annoying you — the toothache in the Lord Mayor’s jaw, the thorn in the cushion of the editorial chair? It is there. Ah! it stings me now as I write. It comes with almost every morning’s post. At night I come home and take my letters up to bed (not daring to open them), and in the morning I find one, two, three thorns on my pillow. Three I extracted yesterday; two I found this morning. They don’t sting quite so sharply as they did; but a skin is a skin, and they bite, after all, most wickedly. It is all very fine to advertise on the Magazine, “Contributions are only to be sent to Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co., and not to the Editor’s private residence.” My dear sir, how little you know man — or woman-kind, if you fancy they will take that sort of warning! How am I to know, (though, to be sure, I begin to know now,) as I take the letters off the tray, which of those envelopes contains a real bona fide letter, and which a thorn? One of the best invitations this year I mistook for a thorn-letter, and kept it without opening. This is what I call a thorn-letter:—


“SIR— May I hope, may I entreat, that you will favor me by perusing the enclosed lines, and that they may be found worthy of insertion in the Cornhill Magazine. We have known better days, sir. I have a sick and widowed mother to maintain, and little brothers and sisters who look to me. I do my utmost as a governess to support them. I toil at night when they are at rest, and my own hand and brain are alike tired. If I could add but a LITTLE to our means by my pen, many of my poor invalid’s wants might be supplied, and I could procure for her comforts to which she is now a stranger. Heaven knows it is not for want of WILL or for want of ENERGY on my part, that she is now in ill-health, and our little household almost without bread. Do — do cast a kind glance over my poem, and if you can help us, the widow, the orphans will bless you! I remain, sir, in anxious expectancy,

“Your faithful servant,

“S. S. S.”

And enclosed is a little poem or two, and an envelope with its penny stamp — heaven help us! — and the writer’s name and address.

Now you see what I mean by a thorn. Here is the case put with true female logic. “I am poor; I am good; I am ill; I work hard; I have a sick mother and hungry brothers and sisters dependent on me. You can help us if you will.” And then I look at the paper, with the thousandth part of a faint hope that it may be suitable, and I find it won’t do: and I knew it wouldn’t do: and why is this poor lady to appeal to my pity and bring her poor little ones kneeling to my bedside, and calling for bread which I can give them if I choose? No day passes but that argument ad misericordiam is used. Day and night that sad voice is crying out for help. Thrice it appealed to me yesterday. Twice this morning it cried to me: and I have no doubt when I go to get my hat, I shall find it with its piteous face and its pale family about it, waiting for me in the hall. One of the immense advantages which women have over our sex is, that they actually like to read these letters. Like letters? O mercy on us! Before I was an editor I did not like the postman much:— but now!

A very common way with these petitioners is to begin with a fine flummery about the merits and eminent genius of the person whom they are addressing. But this artifice, I state publicly, is of no avail. When I see THAT kind of herb, I know the snake within it, and fling it away before it has time to sting. Away, reptile, to the waste-paper basket, and thence to the flames!

But of these disappointed people, some take their disappointment and meekly bear it. Some hate and hold you their enemy because you could not be their friend. Some, furious and envious, say: “Who is this man who refuses what I offer, and how dares he, the conceited coxcomb, to deny my merit?”

Sometimes my letters contain not mere thorns, but bludgeons. How are two choice slips from that noble Irish oak, which has more than once supplied alpeens for this meek and unoffending skull:—


“SIR — I have just finished reading the first portion of your Tale, Lovel the Widower, and am much surprised at the unwarrantable strictures you pass therein on the corps de ballet.

“I have been for more than ten years connected with the theatrical profession, and I beg to assure you that the majority of the corps de ballet are virtuous, well-conducted girls, and, consequently, that snug cottages are not taken for them in the Regent’s Park.

“I also have to inform you that theatrical managers are in the habit of speaking good English, possibly better English than authors.

“You either know nothing of the subject in question, or you assert a wilful falsehood.

“I am happy to say that the characters of the corps de ballet, as also those of actors and actresses, are superior to the snarlings of dyspeptic libellers, or the spiteful attacks and brutum fulmen of ephemeral authors.

“I am, sir, your obedient servant,

“A. B. C.”

The Editor of the Cornhill Magazine.


“SIR — I have just read in the Cornhill Magazine for January, the first portion of a Tale written by you, and entitled Lovel the Widower.

“In the production in question you employ all your malicious spite (and you have great capabilities that way) in trying to degrade the character of the corps de ballet. When you imply that the majority of ballet-girls have villas taken for them in the Regent’s Park, I SAY YOU TELL A DELIBERATE FALSEHOOD.

“Haveing been brought up to the stage from infancy, and though now an actress, haveing been seven years principal dancer at the opera, I am competent to speak on the subject. I am only surprised that so vile a libeller as yourself should be allowed to preside at the Dramatic Fund dinner on the 22nd instant. I think it would be much better if you were to reform your own life, instead of telling lies of those who are immeasurably your superiors.

“Yours in supreme disgust,

“A. D.”

The signatures of the respected writers are altered, and for the site of their Theatre Royal an adjacent place is named, which (as I may have been falsely informed) used to be famous for quarrels, thumps, and broken heads. But, I say, is this an easy chair to sit on, when you are liable to have a pair of such shillelaghs flung at it? And, prithee, what was all the quarrel about? In the little history of “Lovel the Widower” I described, and brought to condign punishment, a certain wretch of a ballet-dancer, who lived splendidly for a while on ill-gotten gains, had an accident, and lost her beauty, and died poor, deserted, ugly, and every way odious. In the same page, other little ballet-dancers are described, wearing homely clothing, doing their duty, and carrying their humble savings to the family at home. But nothing will content my dear correspondents but to have me declare that the majority of ballet-dancers have villas in the Regent’s Park, and to convict me of “deliberate falsehood.” Suppose, for instance, I had chosen to introduce a red-haired washerwoman into a story? I might get an expostulatory letter saying, “Sir, in stating that the majority of washerwomen are red-haired, you are a liar! and you had best not speak of ladies who are immeasurably your superiors.” Or suppose I had ventured to describe an illiterate haberdasher? One of the craft might write to me, “Sir, in describing haberdashers as illiterate, you utter a wilful falsehood. Haberdashers use much better English than authors.” It is a mistake, to be sure. I have never said what my correspondents say I say. There is the text under their noses, but what if they choose to read it their own way? “Hurroo, lads! here’s for a fight. There’s a bald head peeping out of the hut. There’s a bald head! It must be Tim Malone’s.” And whack! come down both the bludgeons at once.

Ah me! we wound where we never intended to strike; we create anger where we never meant harm; and these thoughts are the thorns in our Cushion. Out of mere malignity, I suppose, there is no man who would like to make enemies. But here, in this editorial business, you can’t do otherwise: and a queer, sad, strange, bitter thought it is, that must cross the mind of many a public man: “Do what I will, be innocent or spiteful, be generous or cruel, there are A and B, and C and D, who will hate me to the end of the chapter — to the chapter’s end — to the Finis of the page — when hate, and envy, and fortune, and disappointment shall be over.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00