Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Screens in Dining-Rooms.

A grandson of the late Rev. Dr. Primrose (of Wakefield, vicar) wrote me a little note from his country living this morning, and the kind fellow had the precaution to write “No thorn” upon the envelope, so that, ere I broke the seal, my mind might be relieved of any anxiety lest the letter should contain one of those lurking stabs which are so painful to the present gentle writer. Your epigraph, my dear P., shows your kind and artless nature; but don’t you see it is of no use? People who are bent upon assassinating you in the manner mentioned will write “No thorn” upon their envelopes too; and you open the case, and presently out flies a poisoned stiletto, which springs into a man’s bosom, and makes the wretch howl with anguish. When the bailiffs are after a man, they adopt all sorts of disguises, pop out on him from all conceivable corners, and tap his miserable shoulders. His wife is taken ill; his sweetheart, who remarked his brilliant, too brilliant appearance at the Hyde Park review, will meet him at Cremorne, or where you will. The old friend who has owed him that money these five years will meet him at so-and-so and pay. By one bait or other the victim is hooked, netted, landed, and down goes the basket-lid. It is not your wife, your sweetheart, your friend who is going to pay you. It is Mr. Nab the bailiff. YOU know — you are caught. You are off in a cab to Chancery Lane.

You know, I say? WHY should you know? I make no manner of doubt you never were taken by a bailiff in your life. I never was. I have been in two or three debtors’ prisons, but not on my own account. Goodness be praised! I mean you can’t escape your lot; and Nab only stands here metaphorically as the watchful, certain, and untiring officer of Mr. Sheriff Fate. Why, my dear Primrose, this morning along with your letter comes another, bearing the well-known superscription of another old friend, which I open without the least suspicion, and what do I find? A few lines from my friend Johnson, it is true, but they are written on a page covered with feminine handwriting. “Dear Mr. Johnson,” says the writer, “I have just been perusing with delight a most charming tale by the Archbishop of Cambray. It is called ‘Telemachus;’ and I think it would be admirably suited to the Cornhill Magazine. As you know the Editor, will you have the great kindness, dear Mr. Johnson, to communicate with him PERSONALLY (as that is much better than writing in a roundabout way to the Publishers, and waiting goodness knows how long for an answer), and state my readiness to translate this excellent and instructive story. I do not wish to breathe A WORD against ‘Lovel Parsonage,’ ‘Framley the Widower,’ or any of the novels which have appeared in the Cornhill Magazine, but I AM SURE ‘Telemachus’ is as good as new to English readers, and in point of interest and morality far,” &c. &c. &c.

There it is. I am stabbed through Johnson. He has lent himself to this attack on me. He is weak about women. Other strong men are. He submits to the common lot, poor fellow. In my reply I do not use a word of unkindness. I write him back gently, that I fear “Telemachus” won’t suit us. He can send the letter on to his fair correspondent. But however soft the answer, I question whether the wrath will be turned away. Will there not be a coolness between him and the lady? and is it not possible that henceforth her fine eyes will look with darkling glances upon the pretty orange cover of our Magazine?

Certain writers, they say, have a bad opinion of women. Now am I very whimsical in supposing that this disappointed candidate will be hurt at her rejection, and angry or cast down according to her nature? “Angry, indeed!” says Juno, gathering up her purple robes and royal raiment. “Sorry, indeed!” cries Minerva, lacing on her corselet again, and scowling under her helmet. (I imagine the well-known Apple case has just been argued and decided.) “Hurt, forsooth! Do you suppose WE care for the opinion of that hobnailed lout of a Paris? Do you suppose that I, the Goddess of Wisdom, can’t make allowances for mortal ignorance, and am so base as to bear malice against a poor creature who knows no better? You little know the goddess nature when you dare to insinuate that our divine minds are actuated by motives so base. A love of justice influences US. We are above mean revenge. We are too magnanimous to be angry at the award of such a judge in favor of such a creature.” And rustling out their skirts, the ladies walk away together. This is all very well. You are bound to believe them. They are actuated by no hostility: not they. They bear no malice — of course not. But when the Trojan war occurs presently, which side will they take? Many brave souls will be sent to Hades. Hector will perish. Poor old Priam’s bald numskull will be cracked, and Troy town will burn, because Paris prefers golden-haired Venus to ox-eyed Juno and gray-eyed Minerva.

The last Essay of this Roundabout Series, describing the griefs and miseries of the editorial chair, was written, as the kind reader will acknowledge, in a mild and gentle, not in a warlike or satirical spirit. I showed how cudgels were applied; but surely, the meek object of persecution hit no blows in return. The beating did not hurt much, and the person assaulted could afford to keep his good-humor; indeed, I admired that brave though illogical little actress, of the T. R. D-bl-n, for her fiery vindication of her profession’s honor. I assure her I had no intention to tell l — s — well, let us say monosyllables — about my superiors: and I wish her nothing but well, and when Macmahon (or shall it be Mulligan?) Roi d’Irlande ascends his throne, I hope she may be appointed professor of English to the princesses of the royal house. Nuper — in former days — I too have militated; sometimes, as I now think, unjustly; but always, I vow, without personal rancor. Which of us has not idle words to recall, flippant jokes to regret? Have you never committed an imprudence? Have you never had a dispute, and found out that you were wrong? So much the worse for you. Woe be to the man qui croit toujours avoir raison. His anger is not a brief madness, but a permanent mania. His rage is not a fever-fit, but a black poison inflaming him, distorting his judgment, disturbing his rest, embittering his cup, gnawing at his pleasures, causing him more cruel suffering than ever he can inflict on his enemy. O la belle morale! As I write it, I think about one or two little affairs of my own. There is old Dr. Squaretoso (he certainly was very rude to me, and that’s the fact); there is Madame Pomposa (and certainly her ladyship’s behavior was about as cool as cool could be). Never mind, old Squaretoso: never mind, Madame Pomposa! Here is a hand. Let us be friends as we once were, and have no more of this rancor.

I had hardly sent that last Roundabout Paper to the printer (which, I submit, was written in a pacable and not unchristian frame of mind), when Saturday came, and with it, of course, my Saturday Review. I remember at New York coming down to breakfast at the hotel one morning, after a criticism had appeared in the New York Herald, in which an Irish writer had given me a dressing for a certain lecture on Swift. Ah my dear little enemy of the T. R, D., what were the cudgels in YOUR little billet-doux compared to those noble New York shillelaghs? All through the Union, the literary sons of Erin have marched alpeen-stock in hand, and in every city of the States they call each other and everybody else the finest names. Having come to breakfast, then, in the public room, I sit down, and see — that the nine people opposite have all got New York Heralds in their hands. One dear little lady, whom I knew, and who sat opposite, gave a pretty blush, and popped her paper under the tablecloth. I told her I had had my whipping already in my own private room, and begged her to continue her reading. I may have undergone agonies, you see, but every man who has been bred at an English public school comes away from a private interview with Dr. Birch with a calm, even a smiling face. And this is not impossible, when you are prepared. You screw your courage up — you go through the business. You come back and take your seat on the form, showing not the least symptom of uneasiness or of previous unpleasantries. But to be caught suddenly up, and whipped in the bosom of your family — to sit down to breakfast, and cast your innocent eye on a paper, and find, before you are aware, that the Saturday Monitor or Black Monday Instructor has hoisted you and is laying on — that is indeed a trial. Or perhaps the family has looked at the dreadful paper beforehand, and weakly tries to hide it. “Where is the Instructor, or the Monitor?” say you. “Where is that paper?” says mamma to one of the young ladies. Lucy hasn’t it. Fanny hasn’t seen it. Emily thinks that the governess has it. At last, out it is brought, that awful paper! Papa is amazingly tickled with the article on Thomson; thinks that show up of Johnson is very lively; and now — heaven be good to us! — he has come to the critique on himself:—“Of all the rubbish which we have had from Mr. Tomkins, we do protest and vow that this last cartload is” &c. Ah, poor Tomkins! — but most of all, ah! poor Mrs. Tomkins, and poor Emily, and Fanny, and Lucy, who have to sit by and see paterfamilias put to the torture!

Now, on this eventful Saturday, I did not cry, because it was not so much the Editor as the Publisher of the Cornhill Magazine who was brought out for a dressing; and it is wonderful how gallantly one bears the misfortunes of one’s friends. That a writer should be taken to task about his books, is fair, and he must abide the praise or the censure. But that a publisher should be criticised for his dinners, and for the conversation which did NOT take place there — is this tolerable press practice, legitimate joking, or honorable warfare? I have not the honor to know my next-door neighbor, but I make no doubt that he receives his friends at dinner; I see his wife and children pass constantly; I even know the carriages of some of the people who call upon him, and could tell their names. Now, suppose his servants were to tell mine what the doings are next door, who comes to dinner, what is eaten and said, and I were to publish an account of these transactions in a newspaper, I could assuredly get money for the report; but ought I to write it, and what would you think of me for doing so?

And suppose, Mr. Saturday Reviewer — you censor morum, you who pique yourself (and justly and honorably in the main) upon your character of gentleman, as well as of writer, suppose, not that you yourself invent and indite absurd twaddle about gentlemen’s private meetings and transactions, but pick this wretched garbage out of a New York street, and hold it up for your readers’ amusement — don’t you think, my friend, that you might have been better employed? Here, in my Saturday Review, and in an American paper subsequently sent to me, I light, astonished, on an account of the dinners of my friend and publisher, which are described as “tremendously heavy,” of the conversation (which does not take place), and of the guests assembled at the table. I am informed that the proprietor of the Cornhill, and the host on these occasions, is “a very good man, but totally unread;” and that on my asking him whether Dr. Johnson was dining behind the screen, he said, “God bless my soul, my dear sir, there’s no person by the name of Johnson here, nor any one behind the screen,” and that a roar of laughter cut him short. I am informed by the same New York correspondent that I have touched up a contributor’s article; that I once said to a literary gentleman, who was proudly pointing to an anonymous article as his writing, “Ah! I thought I recognized YOUR HOOF in it.” I am told by the same authority that the Cornhill Magazine “shows symptoms of being on the wane,” and having sold nearly a hundred thousand copies, he (the correspondent) “should think forty thousand was now about the mark.” Then the graceful writer passes on to the dinners, at which it appears the Editor of the Magazine “is the great gun, and comes out with all the geniality in his power.”

Now suppose this charming intelligence is untrue? Suppose the publisher (to recall the words of my friend the Dublin actor of last month) is a gentleman to the full as well informed as those whom he invites to his table? Suppose he never made the remark, beginning —“God bless my soul, my dear sir,” nor anything resembling it? Suppose nobody roared with laughing? Suppose the Editor of the Cornhill Magazine never “touched up” one single line of the contribution which bears “marks of his hand?” Suppose he never said to any literary gentleman, “I recognized YOUR HOOF” in any periodical whatever? Suppose the 40,000 subscribers, which the writer to New York “considered to be about the mark,” should be between 90,000 and 100,000 (and as he will have figures, there they are)? Suppose this back-door gossip should be utterly blundering and untrue, would any one wonder? Ah! if we had only enjoyed the happiness to number this writer among the contributors to our Magazine, what a cheerfulness and easy confidence his presence would impart to our meetings! He would find that “poor Mr. Smith” had heard that recondite anecdote of Dr. Johnson behind the screen; and as for “the great gun of those banquets,” with what geniality should not I “come out” if I had an amiable companion close by me, dotting down my conversation for the New York Times!

Attack our books, Mr. Correspondent, and welcome. They are fair subjects for just censure or praise. But woe be to you, if you allow private rancors or animosities to influence you in the discharge of your public duty. In the little court where you are paid to sit as judge, as critic, you owe it to your employers, to your conscience, to the honor of your calling, to deliver just sentences; and you shall have to answer to heaven for your dealings, as surely as my Lord Chief Justice on the Bench. The dignity of letters, the honor of the literary calling, the slights put by haughty and unthinking people upon literary men — don’t we hear outcries upon these subjects raised daily? As dear Sam Johnson sits behind the screen, too proud to show his threadbare coat and patches among the more prosperous brethren of his trade, there is no want of dignity in HIM, in that homely image of labor ill-rewarded, genius as yet unrecognized, independence sturdy and uncomplaining. But Mr. Nameless, behind the publisher’s screen uninvited, peering at the company and the meal, catching up scraps of the jokes, and noting down the guests’ behavior and conversation — what a figure his is! Allons, Mr. Nameless! Put up your note-book; walk out of the hall; and leave gentlemen alone who would be private, and wish you no harm.

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