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XLIXe Congrès de la S.A.E.S. à l'Université de Bordeaux III

“An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer”: a Systemic Approach to Thackeray’s Preface to The Kickleburys on the Rhine

Maxime Leroy
p. 483-494

Résumé

Thackeray’s preface was written in response to an unfavourable review published in The Times. Using systemic triangulation will consist in reading it from three different but complementary angles: its functional, structural and historical aspects. The article will show how the preface is part of a broader peritextual pattern in which Thackeray defines the roles of author and reader both from a literary and an economic perspective.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 William M. Thackeray, The Memoirs of Mr. Charles J. Yellowplush, ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray (...)
  • 2 William M. Thackeray, The Kickleburys on the Rhine (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1866), Preface, i. (...)
  • 3 Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997) 240.
  • 4 Gérard Donnadieu, Daniel Durand, Danièle Neel, Emmanuel Nunez, Lionel Saint-Paul, “L’Approche systé (...)

1“Why must we always, in prefizzes and what not, be a-talking about ourselves and our igstrodnary merrats, woas, and injuries?” Yellowplush complained in his “Epistle to the Literati”.1 Twelve years later, Thackeray may have remembered the lament of his former persona. In December 1850, his fourth Christmas book, The Kickleburys on the Rhine, came out. On January 4, 1851, a Times critic gave the book a sound slating, but in view of its popular success the publisher decided on the same day to go for a reprint, and Thackeray seized the opportunity to respond to the critic by writing a “Preface to the Second Edition, being an Essay on Thunder and Small Beer”.2 Genette’s definition of the “later preface” as “a response to the first reactions of the first public and the critics”3 obviously comes to mind, even if in this case it appeared shortly after the original edition and was dated January 5, one day only after the review. One could expect the essay to be nothing but the impromptu reaction of an author stung to the quick, but it actually develops themes central to the author’s conception of literary functions: author, writer, reader and critic. In order to show what those are, I will read the “Essay” in the broader context of Thackeray’s other prefatory writings and I will use the triangulation model described by the theoreticians of the AFSCET group in their article “L’Approche systémique: de quoi s’agit-il?”.4 Using systemic triangulation will consist in reading the preface from three different but complementary angles: its functional, structural and historical aspects. This diagram shows the importance of interactions between the three aspects and some of the questions that will arise:

  • 5 “Essay” 2.
  • 6 “Essay” 2-3.
  • 7 “Essay” 3.
  • 8 “Essay” 3.

2The critic censured Thackeray on two grounds: The Kickleburys and other Christmas books were churned out for money; characterization is poor. The money objection comes first: the author’s “principal incentive” was “to cast up accounts and balance a ledger,” and Christmas books are “a kind of literary assignats, representing to the emitter expunged debts, to the receiver an investment of enigmatical value.”5 Regarding characterization, the author is accused of lapsing into facile caricature as opposed to witty satire: “an inane captain of the dragoons, a graceless young baronet, a lady with groundless pretensions to feeble health and poesy, an obsequious nonentity her husband... are the personages in whom we are expected to find amusement.”6 This, along with “the absence of Mr. Thackeray’s usual brilliancy of style,” makes the reading generally “disagreeable.”7 The critic ends his review with a double-edged praise of the illustrations: “Mr. Thackeray’s pencil is more congenial than his pen. He cannot draw his men and women with their skins off, and, therefore, the effigies of his characters are pleasanter to contemplate than the flayed anatomies of the letter-press.”8

  • 9 See François Recanati, “Open quotation,” Mind 110-439 (2001) 637-687.
  • 10 Barbara Abbott, “Some notes on quotation,” Belgian Journal of Linguistics 17 (2003) 3.

3Surprisingly, the review is cited in its entirety in the preface. This is for the benefit of those who have not read it in The Times but one may wonder at the publicity for the attack. From a linguistic point a view, the quotation is obviously non-cumulative, that it to say that the speaker dissociates himself from the content of the quote.9 In such cases, the “general purpose of [the quotation] is to distance the author from the quoted material”10—the author and of course the reader. Not only is the review reproduced but some of the critic’s phrases are repeated several times—naturally the most bombastic bits. Here is a typical example:

First quotation from the whole review

It has been customary, of late years, for the purveyors of amusing literature... to put forth certain opuscules, denominated “Christmas Books,” with the ostensible intention of swelling the tide of exhilaration, or other expansive emotions, incident upon the exodus of the old and the inauguration of the new year

Repeat 1

It has been customary,” says he, “of late years, for the purveyors of amusing literature to put forth certain opuscules, denominated “Christmas Books,” with the ostensible intention of swelling the tide of exhilaration, or other expansive emotions, incident upon the exodus of the old and the inauguration of the new year.”

Repeat 2

I had no idea what I was really about in writing... until my friend the critic... pronounced that... the book was in fact “an opuscule denominated so-and-so, and ostensibly intended to swell the tide of expansive emotion incident upon the inauguration of the new year.”

Repeat 3

“And besides the ostensible intention... ”

Repeat 4

Why, a man who can say of a Christmas book that “it is an opuscule denominated so-and-so, and ostensibly intended to swell the tide of expansive emotion incident upon the exodus of the old year... ”

Repeat 5

you talk of a book “swelling the tide of exhilaration incident to the inauguration of the new year... ”

  • 11 “Essay” 3.
  • 12 Abbott 5.
  • 13 Kickleburys 10.

4The purpose of it is of course mockery: “What hoighth of foine language entoirely! How he can discourse you in English for all the world as if it was Latin!”11 In other words, the “quoted material... is, in essence, treated twice over, once as conveying the meaning of what [the critic] says and once as conveying the words [he] used.”12 Clearly, the pompous style of the review made the task easier and Thackeray probably inserted it in his preface assuming that its grandiloquence would speak for itself. It is also an echo to Captain Hicks in the story, whose pompous accent is mocked in a very similar way: “He said, ‘O—ah–the Biogwaphie Universelle... I always fancy you are going to CAWICKACHAW me.’”13

  • 14 Robert F. Metzdorf, “M.L. Parrish and William Makepeace Thackeray,” The Princeton University Librar (...)
  • 15 Peter L. Shillingsburg, Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and William Makepeace Thackeray (C (...)
  • 16 “Essay” 1-2-4-5-6.
  • 17 “Essay” 2.
  • 18 “Essay” 6.
  • 19 Mikael Sundström, “Connecting Social Science and Information Technology through an Interface-Centri (...)

5The identity of the author of The Kickleburys was well-known, but the Times review was unsigned and the identity of the critic has been a matter of conjecture for literary historians. Metzdorf in 1956 attributed it to Samuel Phillips14 but in 1992 Shillingsburg mentioned that the review was “later attributed to Charles Lamb Kenny.”15 Whoever it was, and whether Thackeray knew it or not, he is only referred to in the “Essay” as “the critic,” “the Times’ gentleman,” “my friend of the times,” “the judge,” “my judge,” “his lordship,” “his honour,” “this profound scholar”16—ironical names but also names that confine him to his narrative status as reader. Where the critic asserts that “the author appears (under the thin disguise of Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh) in “propria persona” as the popular author,”17 Thackeray maintains the discrepancy between narrator and writer by signing his preface “M. A. Titmarsh”18 and is turning to his advantage a situation in which “it may, or may not... be possible for the sender to stay anonymous when conveying a message, just as it may (or may not) be possible for the recipient to stay anonymous when picking it up.”19 In the present case, the critic exposes Thackeray behind Titmarsh, thus ignoring the relevance of the different pen names the author used, while the other sticks to the impersonality, if not the anonymity, of the respective narrative functions. Moreover, the voice of the critic is not the only one that can be heard in the preface, as the following passages show:

  • 20 “Essay” 1.
  • 21 “Essay” 1.

Here is a letter from a publisher, likewise dated January 4th, and which says:—
“My dear Sir,—Having this day sold the last copy of the first edition (of x thousand) of “The Kickleburys Abroad,” and having orders for more, had we not better proceed to a second edition? And will you permit me to enclose an order,” &c. &c.?20
My next door neighbour came to see me this morning, and I saw by his face that he had the whole story pat. “Hem!” says he, “well, I HAVE heard of it; and the fact is, they were talking about you at dinner last night, and mentioning that the Times had—ahem!—‘walked into you.’”21

  • 22 Shillingsburg 225.
  • 23 Sundström 6.

6Thackeray refuses the one-to-one debate with the critic and opens his preface to the voices of real or imaginary characters (even the publisher’s letter is probably apocryphal although the facts are accurate: “there was a bonus check, and there was a second edition.”)22 The aim is to point at the multiplicity of the communicative patterns, which culminates in the anecdote of the young man hired for booing—a perfect illustration of the need for “recipient verification of sender authenticity”23, and an ironic reminder to the critic that there is no such thing as bad publicity:

  • 24 “Essay” 6.

[The] loudest critic of all is our friend the cheap buck, who sits yonder and makes his remarks, so that all the audience may hear. “THIS is a farce!” says Beau Tibbs: “demmy!” it’s the work of a poor devil who writes for money,—confound his vulgarity! This is a farce! Why isn’t it a tragedy, or a comedy, or an epic poem, stap my vitals? This is a farce indeed! It’s a feller as sends round his ‘at, and appeals to charity. Let’s ‘ave our money back again, I say. And he swaggers off;—and you find the fellow came with an author’s order.24

  • 25 “Essay” 5.
  • 26 “Essay” 6.
  • 27 “Essay” 4.

7To the accusation of writing for financial profit, Titmarsh’s response combines two classical rhetorical devices, acknowledging the fault because it isn’t one and turning the accusation against the accuser: “Does not [he] himself write for money?... If he finds no disgrace in being paid, why should I?”25 Another rhetorical device gives the “Essay” its name: The Kickleburys was but “a little farce, which was meant to amuse Christmas”26—in other words a simple story (“small beer”) that was not worthy of such a storm of criticisms (“thunder”)27. We should not think, however, that the “Essay” is just a witty pamphlet functioning as pro domo plea. Rhetoric plays a deeper role in it. In his Literary Theory, Eagleton characterizes it as follows:

  • 28 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) (...)

Rhetoric in its major phase was neither a “humanism,” concerned in some intuitive way with people’s experience of language, nor a “formalism,” preoccupied simply with analysing linguistic devices. It looked at such devices in terms of concrete performance—they were means of pleading, persuading, inciting and so on... It saw speaking and writing not merely as textual objects, to be aesthetically contemplated or endlessly deconstructed, but as forms of activity inseparable from the wide social relations between writers and readers, orators and audiences, and as largely unintelligible outside the social purposes and conditions in which they were embedded.28

  • 29 Kickleburys 10.
  • 30 Shillingsburg 220.

8My point is that this is precisely what Thackeray is doing here—using rhetoric to delineate the roles of author, writer, critic and reader. This can explain the great paradox of the preface—the fact that it provides no response whatsoever to the critic’s severe objections on characterization although the narrator in the story programmatically stated that this was “a chronicle of feelings and characters, not of events and places, so much.”29 In the preface, the question is simply passed over in silence, as “it seems to have been a principle with Thackeray that readers and critics were welcome to their opinions about texts—these were matters of taste—but beware of any comments on the writer and his motives.”30 Now, although the “Essay” is supposed to be an improvised riposte, its central motif, literature as art vs. literature as trade, was by no means new in Thackeray’s prefaces. The last paragraph strikingly echoes “Before the Curtain”, the preface to Vanity Fair, directing the reader’s attention to other possible intertextual connections. In both texts the author assumes the position of a playwright performing for an audience and appeals to the readers as ultimate judges of the works—an indirect way of responding to the attacks on style and characterization:

Before the Curtain (1848)31

An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer (1851)

As the manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards and looks into the Fair...

Let me suppose, for a minute, that I am a writer of a Christmas farce, who sits in the pit, and sees the performance of his own piece...

There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary...

There comes applause, hissing, yawning, laughter, as may be…

What more has the Manager of the Performance to say? To acknowledge the kindness with which it has been received in all the principal towns of England...

[All] the copies are sold, and...there are demands for a new edition...32

9The “Essay” can thus be read as fitting into a series of prefaces that all address similar issues but do not repeat each other. It may even seem contradictory, for instance, that in the “Overture” to The Newcomes the legitimate role of critics on the literary scene should be praised:

If authors sneer, it is the critic’s business to sneer at them for sneering. He must pretend to be their superior, or who would care about his opinion? And his livelihood is to find fault. Besides, he is right sometimes.33

10Likewise, speaking, this time as “W. M. Thackeray” to his readers in the preface to Pendennis, he admits that it is impossible to say “You shall not find fault with my art, or fall asleep over my pages,” but he asks them “to believe that this person writing strives to tell the truth. If there is not that, there is nothing.”34 In fact there is no contradiction with the “Essay”. The dual personality (“this person writing”) suggests a necessary distinction to be made between the author as artist and the writer as producer of a commodity, which is a distinction that the Times critic precisely fails to see. This is why his accusations are a contrast with those made by Yellowplush to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, although they are apparently of the same nature:

You wrote it for money,—money from the maniger, money from the bookseller, for the same reason that I write this. Sir, Shakespeare wrote for the very same reasons, and I never heard that he bragged about serving the drama. Away with this canting about great motifs! Let us not be too prowd, my dear Barnet, and fansy ourselves marters of the truth, marters or apostels. We are but tradesmen, working for bread, and not for righteousness’ sake. Let’s try and work honestly; but don’t let us be prayting pompisly about our “sacred calling.”35

11Here of course, Yellowplush meant that writing for money is “a natural and correct motive, not a shameful one.” Another passage from the same text anticipates Titmarsh’s words of protest in the “Essay”:

Epistle to the Literati (1838)

An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer (1851)

There’s no need to... tell the British public that Fitzroy Y-ll-wpl-sh is short of money, or that the sallybrated hauthor of the Y—Papers is in peskewniary difficklties, or is fiteagued by his superhuman littery labours, or by his famly suckmstansies, or by any other pusnal matter: my maxim, dear B, is on these pints to be as quiet as posbile.

[Why] make unpleasant allusions to the Gazette, and hint at the probable bankruptcy of the brewer? Why twit me with my poverty; and what can the Times’ critic know about the vacuity of my exchequer? (“Essay” 5)

  • 36 Cited in Shillingsburg 223.

12One last example: in the “Postscript to the second edition” of the Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846) the writer speaks to the potential purchaser of the book, rather than its actual reader when hoping “that in its present and cheaper form, my little volume may be found welcome to those... who were deterred hitherto, perhaps by the price, from reading it.”36 Here again, the paratext is casting the parts by making distinctions between writer and author, and between purchaser and reader, in other words between parties involved in economic life and parties involved in literary activities. It is in this broader critical context only, constructed over many years, that the virulence and the significance of the response to the Times critic can be apprehended.

13In conclusion, here is my proposal for a systemic triangulation of the “Essay on Thunder and Small Beer”:

  • 37 Donnadieu et al. 8.

14We now understand how the three aspects constantly interact with one another. For example, the use of rhetoric as activity is linked to the use of multiple voices, which is itself a way of pursuing an existing dialogue on the roles of author/writer and purchaser/reader/critic. This is also why reading this preface today obviously modifies its original function but is still possible because beyond the critic, all potential or actual readers can recognize themselves as its addressees. As the members of the AFSCET group write: “on se déplace d’un aspect à un autre au cours d’un processus en hélice qui permet, à chaque passage, de gagner en approfondissement et en compréhension.”37 It has been the modest ambition of this paper to pave the way for subsequent systemic readings of this and other texts.

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Bibliographie

Primary sources

Thackeray W. M., “An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer” in The Kickleburys on the Rhine. London: Smith & Elder, 1866.

Thackeray W. M., Vanity Fair, “Before the Curtain”,
http://www.readbookonline.net/read/7619/19574 (August 2009).

Thackeray W. M., The Memoirs of Mr. Charles J. Yellowplush, “Epistle to the Literati”,
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/yellow/chapter7.html (August 2009).

Thackeray W. M., Pendennis, Preface http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7265/7265-h/7265-h.htm (August 2009).

Secondary sources

Abbott Barbara, “Some notes on quotation” in Belgian Journal of Linguistics 17 (2003).

Donnadieu Gérard, Durand Daniel, Neel Danièle, Nunez Emmanuel and Saint-Paul Lionel, “L’Approche systémique: de quoi s’agit-il? Synthèse des travaux du groupe AFSCET. Diffusion de la pensée systémique http://www.afscet.asso.fr/SystemicApproach.pdf , (August 2009).

Eagleton Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Genette Gérard, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Recanati François, “Open quotation” in Mind 110-439 (2001).

Shillingsburg Peter L., Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and William Makepeace Thackeray. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Sundström Mikael, “Connecting Social Science and Information Technology through an Interface-Centric Framework of Analysis” in Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics 6-3 (2008). http://www.iiisci.org/Journal/SCI/(August 2009).

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Notes

1 William M. Thackeray, The Memoirs of Mr. Charles J. Yellowplush, ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/yellow/chapter7.html (August 2009).

2 William M. Thackeray, The Kickleburys on the Rhine (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1866), Preface, i. Hereafter referred to as “Essay”.

3 Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997) 240.

4 Gérard Donnadieu, Daniel Durand, Danièle Neel, Emmanuel Nunez, Lionel Saint-Paul, “L’Approche systémique: de quoi s’agit-il? Synthèse des travaux du groupe AFSCET. Diffusion de la pensée systémique,” http: //www.afscet.asso.fr/SystemicApproach.pdf (August 2009).

5 “Essay” 2.

6 “Essay” 2-3.

7 “Essay” 3.

8 “Essay” 3.

9 See François Recanati, “Open quotation,” Mind 110-439 (2001) 637-687.

10 Barbara Abbott, “Some notes on quotation,” Belgian Journal of Linguistics 17 (2003) 3.

11 “Essay” 3.

12 Abbott 5.

13 Kickleburys 10.

14 Robert F. Metzdorf, “M.L. Parrish and William Makepeace Thackeray,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle XVII-2 (Winter 1956) 69.

15 Peter L. Shillingsburg, Pegasus in Harness: Victorian Publishing and William Makepeace Thackeray (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992) 73.

16 “Essay” 1-2-4-5-6.

17 “Essay” 2.

18 “Essay” 6.

19 Mikael Sundström, “Connecting Social Science and Information Technology through an Interface-Centric Framework of Analysis,” Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics 6-3 (2008). From /www.iiisci.org/Journal/SCI (August 2009) 2.

20 “Essay” 1.

21 “Essay” 1.

22 Shillingsburg 225.

23 Sundström 6.

24 “Essay” 6.

25 “Essay” 5.

26 “Essay” 6.

27 “Essay” 4.

28 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) 176.

29 Kickleburys 10.

30 Shillingsburg 220.

31 All quotes from www.readbookonline.net/read/7619/19574 (August 2009).

32 “Essay” 6.

33 William Makepeace Thackeray, The Newcomes, Overture, www.readbookonline.net/read/7638/19883 (August 2009).

34 William M. Thackeray, Pendennis, Preface, www.gutenberg.org/files/7265/7265-h/7265-h.htm (August 2009).

35 William M. Thackeray, The Memoirs of Mr. Charles J. Yellowplush, ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/yellow/chapter7.html (August 2009).

36 Cited in Shillingsburg 223.

37 Donnadieu et al. 8.

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Table des illustrations

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Maxime Leroy, « “An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer”: a Systemic Approach to Thackeray’s Preface to The Kickleburys on the Rhine », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 71 Printemps | 2010, 483-494.

Référence électronique

Maxime Leroy, « “An Essay on Thunder and Small Beer”: a Systemic Approach to Thackeray’s Preface to The Kickleburys on the Rhine », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 71 Printemps | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 octobre 2016, consulté le 18 octobre 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/3105 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3105

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Auteur

Maxime Leroy

Université de Mulhouse.
Maxime Leroy est maître de conférences à l’université de Haute-Alsace (Mulhouse) depuis 2007. Il a soutenu en 2003 sa thèse sur “La préface de roman comme système communicationnel: autour de Walter Scott, Henry James et Joseph Conrad” (consultable et téléchargeable sur www.iquesta.com). Il travaille sur le paratexte textuel et iconographique

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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