s so much of Thackeray's writing partakes of the nature of burlesque, it would have been unnecessary to devote a separate chapter to the subject, were it not that there are among his tales two or three so exceedingly good of their kind, coming so entirely up to our idea of what a prose burlesque should be, that were I to omit to mention them I should pass over a distinctive portion of our author's work.
The volume called Burlesques, published in 1869, begins with the Novels by Eminent Hands, and Jeames's Diary, to which I have already alluded. It contains also The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan, A Legend of the Rhine, and Rebecca and Rowena. It is of these that I will now speak. The History of the Next French Revolution and Cox's Diary, with which the volume is concluded, are, according to my thinking, hardly equal to the others; nor are they so properly called burlesques.
Nor will I say much of Major Gahagan, though his adventures are very good fun. He is a warrior, — that is, of course, — and he is one in whose wonderful narrative all that distant India can produce in the way of boasting, is superadded to Ireland's best efforts in the same line. Baron Munchausen was nothing to him; and to the bare 140" 140 and simple miracles of the baron is joined that humour without which Thackeray never tells any story. This is broad enough, no doubt, but is still humour; — as when the major tells us that he always kept in his own apartment a small store of gunpowder; "always keeping it under my bed, with a candle burning for fear of accidents." Or when he describes his courage; "I was running, — running as the brave stag before the hounds, — running, as I have done a great number of times in my life, when there was no help for it but a run." Then he tells us of his digestion. "Once in Spain I ate the leg of a horse, and was so eager to swallow this morsel, that I bolted the shoe as well as the hoof, and never felt the slightest inconvenience from either." He storms a citadel, and has only a snuff box given him for his reward. "Never mind," says Major Gahagan; "when they want me to storm a fort again, I shall know better." By which we perceive that the major remembered his Horace, and had in his mind the soldier who had lost his purse. But the major's adventures, excellent as they are, lack the continued interest which is attached to the two following stories.
Of what nature is The Legend of the Rhine, we learn from the commencement. "It was in the good old days of chivalry, when every mountain that bathes its shadow in the Rhine had its castle; not inhabited as now by a few rats and owls, nor covered with moss and wallflowers and funguses and creeping ivy. No, no; where the ivy now clusters there grew strong portcullis and bars of steel; where the wallflowers now quiver in the ramparts there were silken banners embroidered with wonderful heraldry; men-at-arms marched where now you shall only see a bank of moss or a hideous black champignon; and in place of the rats and owlets, I warrant me there were [140/141] ladies and knights to revel in the great halls, and to feast and dance, and to make love there." So that we know well beforehand of what kind will this story be. It will be pure romance, — burlesqued. "Ho seneschal, fill me a cup of hot liquor; put sugar in it, good fellow; yea, and a little hot water, — but very little, for my soul is sad as I think of those days and knights of old."
A knight is riding alone on his war-horse, with all his armour with him, — and his luggage. His rank is shown by the name on his portmanteau, and his former address and present destination by a card which was attached. It had run, "Count Ludwig de Hombourg, Jerusalem, but the name of the Holy City had been dashed out with the pen, and that of Godesberg substituted." "By St. Hugo of Katzenellenbogen," said the good knight shivering, "'tis colder here than at Damascus. Shall I be at Godesberg in time for dinner?" He has come to see his friend Count Karl, Margrave of Godesberg.
But at Godesberg everything is in distress and sorrow. There is a new inmate there, one Sir Gottfried, since whose arrival the knight of the castle has become a wretched man, having been taught to believe all evils of his wife, and of his child Otto, and a certain stranger, one Hildebrandt. Gottfried, we see with half an eye, has done it all. It is in vain that Ludwig de Hombourg tells his old friend Karl that this Gottfried is a thoroughly bad fellow, that he had been found to be a cardsharper in the Holy Land, and had been drummed out of his regiment. "'Twas but some silly quarrel over the wine-cup," says Karl. "Hugo de Brodenel would have no black bottle on the board." We think we can remember the quarrel of "Brodenel" and the black bottle, though so many things have taken place since that. [141/142]
There is a festival in the castle, and Hildebrandt comes with the other guests. Then Ludwig's attention is called by poor Karl, the father, to a certain family likeness. Can it be that he is not the father of his own child? He is playing cards with his friend Ludwig when that traitor Gottfried comes and whispers to him, and makes an appointment. "I will be there too," thought Count Ludwig, the good Knight of Hombourg.
On the next morning, before the stranger knight had shaken off his slumbers, all had been found out and everything done. The lady has been sent to a convent and her son to a monastery. The knight of the castle has no comfort but in his friend Gottfried, a distant cousin who is to inherit everything. All this is told to Sir Ludwig, — who immediately takes steps to repair the mischief. "A cup of coffee straight," says he to the servitors. "Bid the cook pack me a sausage and bread in paper, and the groom saddle Streithengst. We have far to ride." So this redresser of wrongs starts off, leaving the Margrave in his grief.
Then there is a great fight between Sir Ludwig and Sir Gottfried, admirably told in the manner of the later chroniclers, — a hermit sitting by and describing everything almost as well as Rebecca did on the tower. Sir Ludwig being in the right, of course gains the day. But the escape of the fallen knight's horse is the cream of this chapter.
Away, ay, away! — away amid the green vineyards and golden cornfields; away up the steep mountains, where he frightened the eagles in their eyries; away down the clattering ravines, where the flashing cataracts tumble; away through the dark pine-forests, where the hungry wolves are howling; away over the dreary wolds, where the wild wind walks alone; away through the splashing [142/143] quagmires, where the will-o'-the wisp slunk frightened among the reeds; away through light and darkness, storm and sunshine; away by tower and town, highroad and hamlet.... Brave horse! gallant steed! snorting child of Araby! On went the horse, over mountains, rivers, turnpikes, applewomen; and never stopped until he reached a livery-stable in Cologne, where his master was accustomed to put him up!"
The conquered knight, Sir Gottfried, of course reveals the truth. This Hildebrandt is no more than the lady's brother, — as it happened a brother in disguise, — and hence the likeness. Wicked knights when they die always divulge their wicked secrets, and this knight Gottfried does so now. Sir Ludwig carries the news home to the afflicted husband and father; who of course instantly sends off messengers for his wife and son. The wife won't come. All she wants is to have her dresses and jewels sent to her. Of so cruel a husband she has had enough. As for the son, he has jumped out of a boat on the Rhine, as he was being carried to his monastery, and was drowned!
But he was not drowned, but had only dived. "The gallant boy swam on beneath the water, never lifting his head for a single moment between Godesberg and Cologne; the distance being twenty-five or thirty miles."
Then he becomes an archer, dressed in green from head to foot. How it was is all told in the story; and he goes to shoot for a prize at the Castle of Adolf the Duke of Cleeves. On his way he shoots a raven marvellously, — almost as marvellously as did Robin Hood the twig in Ivanhoe. Then one of his companions is married, or nearly married, to the mysterious "Lady of Windeck," — would have been married but for Otto, and that the bishop and dean, who [143/144] were dragged up from their long-ago graves to perform the ghostly ceremony, were prevented by the ill-timed mirth of a certain old canon of the church named Schidnischmidt. The reader has to read the name out long before he recognises an old friend. But this of the Lady of Windeck is an episode.
How at the shooting-match, which of course ensued, Otto shot for and won the heart of a fair lady, the duke's daughter, need not be told here, nor how he quarrelled with the Rowski of Donnerblitz, — the hideous and sulky, but rich and powerful, nobleman who had come to take the hand, whether he could win the heart or not, of the daughter of the duke. It is all arranged according to the proper and romantic order. Otto, though he enlists in the duke's archer-guard as simple soldier, contrives to fight with the Rowski de Donnerblitz, Margrave of Eulenschrenkenstein, and of course kills him.
"Yield, yield, Sir Rowski!" shouted he in a calm voice. A blow dealt madly at his head was the reply. It was the last blow that the count of Eulenschrenkenstein ever struck in battle. The curse was on his lips as the crashing steel descended into his brain and split it in two. He rolled like a dog from his horse, his enemy's knee was in a moment on his chest, and the dagger of mercy at his throat, as the knight once more called upon him to yield.
The knight was of course the archer who had come forward as an unknown champion, and had touched the Rowski's shield with the point of his lance. For this story, as well as the rest, is a burlesque on our dear old favourite Ivanhoe.
That everything goes right at last, that the wife comes back from her monastery, and joins her jealous husband, and that the duke's daughter has always, in truth, known [144/145] that the poor archer was a noble knight, — these things are all matters of course.
But the best of the three burlesques is Rebecca and Rowena, or A Romance upon Romance, which I need not tell my readers is a continuation of Ivanhoe. Of this burlesque it is the peculiar characteristic that, while it has been written to ridicule the persons and the incidents of that perhaps the most favourite novel in the English language, it has been so written that it would not have offended the author had he lived to read it, nor does it disgust or annoy those who most love the original. There is not a word in it having an intention to belittle Scott. It has sprung from the genuine humour created in Thackeray's mind by his aspect of the romantic. We remember how reticent, how dignified was Rowena, — how cold we perhaps thought her, whether there was so little of that billing and cooing, that kissing and squeezing, between her and Ivanhoe which we used to think necessary to lovers' blisses. And there was left too on our minds, an idea that Ivanhoe had liked the Jewess almost as well as Rowena, and that Rowena might possibly have become jealous. Thackeray's mind at once went to work and pictured to him a Rowena such as such a woman might become after marriage; and as Ivanhoe was of a melancholy nature and apt to be hipped, and grave, and silent, as a matter of course Thackeray presumes him to have been henpecked after his marriage.
Our dear Wamba disturbs his mistress in some devotional conversation with her chaplain, and the stern lady orders that the fool shall have three-dozen lashes. "I got you out of Front de Bœuf's castle," said poor Wamba, piteously, appealing to Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, "and canst thou not save me from the lash?"
"Yes; from Front de Bœuf's castle, when you were [145/146] locked up with the Jewess in the tower!" said Rowena, haughtily replying to the timid appeal of her husband. "Gurth, give him four-dozen," — and this was all poor Wamba got by applying for the mediation of his master. Then the satirist moralises; "Did you ever know a right-minded woman pardon another for being handsomer and more love-worthy than herself?" Rowena is "always flinging Rebecca into Ivanhoe's teeth;" and altogether life at Rotherwood, as described by the later chronicles, is not very happy even when most domestic. Ivanhoe becomes sad and moody. He takes to drinking, and his lady does not forget to tell him of it. "Ah dear axe!" he exclaims, apostrophising his weapon, "ah gentle steel! that was a merry time when I sent thee crashing into the pate of the Emir Abdul Melek!" There was nothing left to him but his memories; and "in a word, his life was intolerable." So he determines that he will go and look after king Richard, who of course was wandering abroad. He anticipates a little difficulty with his wife; but she is only too happy to let him go, comforting herself with the idea that Athelstane will look after her. So her husband starts on his journey. "Then Ivanhoe's trumpet blew. Then Rowena waved her pocket-handkerchief. Then the household gave a shout. Then the pursuivant of the good knight, Sir Wilfrid the Crusader, flung out his banner, — which was argent, a gules cramoisy with three Moors impaled, — then Wamba gave a lash on his mule's haunch, and Ivanhoe, heaving a great sigh, turned the tail of his war-horse upon the castle of his fathers."
Ivanhoe finds Cœur de Leon besieging the Castle of Chalons, and there they both do wondrous deeds, Ivanhoe always surpassing the king. The jealousy of [146/147] the courtiers, the ingratitude of the king, and the melancholy of the knight, who is never comforted except when he has slaughtered some hundreds, are delightful. Roger de Backbite and Peter de Toadhole are intended to be quite real. Then his majesty sings, passing off as his own, a song of Charles Lever's. Sir Wilfrid declares the truth, and twits the king with his falsehood, whereupon he has the guitar thrown at his head for his pains. He catches the guitar, however, gracefully in his left hand, and sings his own immortal ballad of King Canute, — than which Thackeray never did anything better.
"Might I stay the sun above us, good Sir Bishop?" Canute cried;
"Could I bid the silver moon to pause upon her heavenly ride?
If the moon obeys my orders, sure I can command the tide.
Will the advancing waves obey me, Bishop, if I make the sign?"
Said the bishop, bowing lowly; "Land and sea, my lord, are thine."
Canute turned towards the ocean; "Back," he said, "thou foaming brine."
But the sullen ocean answered with a louder deeper roar,
And the rapid waves drew nearer, falling, sounding on the shore;
Back the keeper and the bishop, back the king and courtiers bore.
We must go to the book to look at the picture of the king as he is killing the youngest of the sons of the Count of Chalons. Those illustrations of Doyle's are admirable. The size of the king's head, and the size of his battle-axe as contrasted with the size of the child, are burlesque all over. But the king has been wounded by a bolt from the bow of Sir Bertrand de Gourdon while he [147/148] is slaughtering the infant, and there is an end of him. Ivanhoe, too, is killed at the siege, — Sir Roger de Backbite having stabbed him in the back during the scene. Had he not been then killed, his widow Rowena could not have married Athelstane, which she soon did after hearing the sad news; nor could he have had that celebrated epitaph in Latin and English;
Hie est Guilfridus, belli dum vixit avidus.
Cum gladeo et lancea Normannia et quoque Francia
Verbera dura dabat. Per Turcos multum equitabat.
Guilbertum occidit; — atque Hyerosolyma vidit.
Heu! nunc sub fossa sunt tanti militis ossa.
Uxor Athelstani est conjux castissima Thani.5
The translation we are told was by Wamba;
Under the stone you behold,
Buried and coffined and cold,
Lieth Sir Wilfrid the Bold.
Always he marched in advance,
Warring in Flanders and France,
Doughty with sword and with lance
Famous in Saracen fight,
Rode in his youth, the Good Knight,
Scattering Paynims in flight.
Brian, the Templar untrue,
Fairly in tourney he slew;
Saw Hierusalem too.
Now he is buried and gone,
Lying beneath the gray stone.
Where shall you find such a one?
Long time his widow deplored,
Weeping, the fate of her lord,
Sadly cut off by the sword.
When she was eased of her pain,
Came the good lord Athelstane,
When her ladyship married again. [148/149]
The next chapter begins naturally as follows; "I trust nobody will suppose, from the events described in the last chapter, that our friend Ivanhoe is really dead." He is of course cured of his wounds, though they take six years in the curing. And then he makes his way back to Rotherwood, in a friar's disguise, much as he did on that former occasion when we first met him, and there is received by Athelstane and Rowena, — and their boy! — while Wamba sings him a song:
Then you know the worth of a lass,
Once you have come to forty year!
No one, of course, but Wamba knows Ivanhoe, who roams about the country, melancholy, — as he of course would be, — charitable, — as he perhaps might be, — for we are specially told that he had a large fortune and nothing to do with it, and slaying robbers wherever he met them; — but sad at heart all the time. Then there comes a little burst of the author's own feelings, while he is burlesquing. "Ah my dear friends and British public, are there not others who are melancholy under a mask of gaiety, and who in the midst of crowds are lonely! Liston was a most melancholy man; Grimaldi had feelings; and then others I wot of. But psha! — let us have the next chapter." In all of which there was a touch of earnestness.
Ivanhoe's griefs were enhanced by the wickedness of king John, under whom he would not serve. "It was Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, I need scarcely say, who got the Barons of England to league together and extort from the king that famous instrument and palladium of our liberties, at present in the British Museum, Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, — The Magna Charta." Athelstane also quarrels with the king, whose orders he disobeys, and Rotherwood is attacked by the royal army. No one was [149/150] of real service in the way of fighting except Ivanhoe, — and how could he take up that cause? "No; be hanged to me," said the knight bitterly. "This is a quarrel in which I can't interfere. Common politeness forbids. Let yonder ale-swilling Athelstane defend his, — ha, ha! — wife; and my Lady Rowena guard her, — ha, ha! — son!" and he laughed wildly and madly.
But Athelstane is killed, — this time in earnest, — and then Ivanhoe rushes to the rescue. He finds Gurth dead at the park-lodge, and though he is all alone, — having outridden his followers, — he rushes up the chestnut avenue to the house, which is being attacked. "An Ivanhoe! an Ivanhoe!" he bellowed out with a shout that overcame all the din of battle; — "Notre Dame à la recousse?" and to hurl his lance through the midriff of Reginald de Bracy, who was commanding the assault, — who fell howling with anguish, — to wave his battle-axe over his own head, and to cut off those of thirteen men-at-arms, was the work of an instant. "An Ivanhoe! an Ivanhoe!" he still shouted, and down went a man as sure as he said "hoe!"
Nevertheless he is again killed by multitudes, or very nearly, — and has again to be cured by the tender nursing of Wamba. But Athelstane is really dead, and Rowena and the boy have to be found. He does his duty and finds them, — just in time to be present at Rowena's death. She has been put in prison by king John, and is in extremis when her first husband gets to her. "Wilfrid, my early loved,"6 slowly gasped she removing her gray [150/151] hair from her furrowed temples, and gazing on her boy fondly as he nestled on Ivanhoe's knee, — "promise me by St. Waltheof of Templestowe, — promise me one boon!"
"I do," said Ivanhoe, clasping the boy, and thinking that it was to that little innocent that the promise was intended to apply.
"By St. Waltheof?"
"By St. Waltheof!"
"Promise me then," gasped Rowena, staring wildly at him, "that you will never marry a Jewess!"
"By St. Waltheof!" cried Ivanhoe, "but this is too much,"and he did not make the promise.
"Having placed young Cedric at school at the Hall of Dotheboys, in Yorkshire, and arranged his family affairs, Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe quitted a country which had no longer any charm for him, as there was no fighting to be done, and in which his stay was rendered less agreeable by the notion that king John would hang him.
So he goes forth and fights again, in league with the Knights of St. John, — the Templars naturally having a dislike to him because of Brian de Bois Guilbert.
The only fault that the great and gallant, though severe and ascetic Folko of Heydenbraten, the chief of the Order of St. John, found with the melancholy warrior whose lance did such service to the cause, was that he did not persecute the Jews as so religious a knight should. So the Jews, in cursing the Christians, always excepted the name of the Desdichado, — or the double disinherited, as he now was, — the Desdichado Doblado. Then came the battle of Alarcos, and the Moors were all but in possession of the whole of Spain. Sir Wilfrid, like other good Christians, cannot endure this, so he takes ship in Bohemia, where he happens to be quartered, and has himself carried to Barcelona, and [151/152] proceeds "to slaughter the Moors forthwith." Then there is a scene in which Isaac of York comes on as a messenger, to ransom from a Spanish knight, Don Beltram de Cuchilla y Trabuco, y Espada, y Espelon, a little Moorish girl. The Spanish knight of course murders the little girl instead of taking the ransom. Two hundred thousand dirhems are offered, however much that may be; but the knight, who happens to be in funds at the time, prefers to kill the little girl. All this is only necessary to the story as introducing Isaac of York. Sir Wilfrid is of course intent upon finding Rebecca. Through all his troubles and triumphs, from his gaining and his losing of Rowena, from the day on which he had been "locked up with the Jewess in the tower," he had always been true to her. "Away from me!" said the old Jew, tottering. "Away, Rebecca is, — dead!" Then Ivanhoe goes out and kills fifty thousand Moors, and there is the picture of him, — killing them.
But Rebecca is not dead at all. Her father had said so because Rebecca had behaved very badly to him. She had refused to marry the Moorish prince, or any of her own people, the Jews, and had gone as far as to declare her passion for Ivanhoe and her resolution to be a Christian. All the Jews and Jewesses in Valencia turned against her, — so that she was locked up in the back-kitchen and almost starved to death. But Ivanhoe found her of course, and makes her Mrs. Ivanhoe, or Lady Wilfrid the second. Then Thackeray tells us how for many years he, Thackeray, had not ceased to feel that it ought to be so.
Indeed I have thought of it any time these five-and-twenty years, — ever since, as a boy at school, I commenced the noble study of novels, — ever since the day when, lying on sunny slopes, of half-holidays, the fair [152/153] chivalrous figures and beautiful shapes of knights and ladies were visible to me, ever since I grew to love Rebecca, that sweetest creature of the poet's fancy, and longed to see her righted.
And so, no doubt, it had been. The very burlesque had grown from the way in which his young imagination had been moved by Scott's romance. He had felt from the time of those happy half-holidays in which he had been lucky enough to get hold of the novel, that according to all laws of poetic justice, Rebecca, as being the more beautiful and the more interesting of the heroines, was entitled to the possession of the hero. We have all of us felt the same. But to him had been present at the same time all that is ludicrous in our ideas of middle-age chivalry; the absurdity of its recorded deeds, the blood-thirstiness of its recreations, the selfishness of its men, the falseness of its honour, the cringing of its loyalty, the tyranny of its princes. And so there came forth Rebecca and Rowena, all broad fun from beginning to end, but never without a purpose, — the best burlesque, as I think, in our language.
Last modified 9 August 2014