Published in time for the Christmas trade in 1849 but dated 1850 so that it could be sold the next year as well, Rebecca and Rowena is one of W. M. Thackeray’s most amusing works for the festive season. Intended as a parody of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819–20) in which Thackeray re-works the tale so that the hero marries Rebecca after Rowena’s death, it is also a wide-ranging satire of literary conventions and social mores. In the words of an anonymous reviewer in the Living Age, its ‘real purpose’ is to ridicule ‘rose-coloured accounts’ (385) of the middle ages while poking fun at the taste and sexual politics of the mid-nineteenth century. Described by the author as a ‘harmless jingle of the cap and bells’ (Rebecca vi) it is far from harmless, concealing astringent mockery in what appears to be little more than a fairy-tale or fantastical romance. In contrast to Dickens’s Christmas books, Thackeray’s slim volume, like his other contributions to the genre, is rigorously unsentimental.

His techniques in Rebecca and Rowena are his usual ones. The focus, typically, is on irony and ironic juxtaposition, this time concentrating on the mock-heroic and the farcical; and the humour, as always, is generated by the difference between what is said and how it is said, applying a deadpan style to the writing of rank absurdities and disconcerting scenes.

Thackeray’s text is self-contained, although it is accompanied by Richard Doyle’s illustrations on wood, which were expertly cut by the Dalziels. The artist was only commissioned to visualize the book when Thackeray, who usually illustrated his own writing, was too ill to do the work himself (Rebecca vi). However, Doyle’s contributions are invaluable, acting to extend the writer’s techniques and underscore his unsettling manipulation of tone. This was the author’s and artist’s first collaboration (Engen 74–5), and unlike his later work for The Newcomes< (1854–55), where the connections between the text and illustrations are sometimes tenuous, Doyle’s designs for Rebecca and Rowena are apt visualizations.

Parodic Techniques and the Ridicule of Historical Fiction

King Richard Playing to the Court

Doyle reinforces the author’s parody of Scott's medievalism by presenting a visual equivalent to the text. One of his strategies is caricature, showing the characters as comic types which have none of the imposing physical qualities of Scott’s originals and provide a mock-heroic accompaniment to Thackeray’s ironic descriptions. The scene where King Richard sings to the court exemplifies this merging of visual and written strategies. Richard’s serenade is intended to impress: “One evening, it was the evening of 27th March 1199, indeed, his Majesty, who was in a musical mood, treated the court with a quantity of his so-called compositions, until the people were fairly tired with clapping with their hands and laughing in their sleeves” (Rebecca 29–30). The King’s egotism is amusingly conveyed in the sarcastic reference to his desire to entertain the court, and Doyle reinforces the notion of the monarch as a bore by showing him as a vast figure, physically overpowering those all around him. Endowed with comic hairiness in the form of exaggerated ginger moustaches and hair, he has none of the dignity of ‘Majesty’ and seems as he is described: vain and self-absorbed. The effect of the caricature is consolidated, at the same time, by Doyle’s recreation of Thackeray’s situational comedy. The author stresses the ironic distance between the intention to impress the courtiers and the reality, and Doyle shows the effect of his entertainment in baldest of terms, depicting the retainers as bewildered, falling asleep or fixated with ennui. This is far from Scott’s heroic idiom, with the author and artist conspiring to show the Lionheart as the worst sort of domineering company, ‘thrumming on his guitar with great red fingers and thumbs’ (31) and offering no escape for his victims.

Their joint project to show the King as an object of ridicule exemplifies what Sandra Schwab describes the writer and author’s attack on the ‘clichés of historical novels’ (62). Scott’s imposing king becomes a buffoon operating in a buffoon’s context and so, by implication, do all such heroes and heroines.

But if heroes are risible, then they are also presented as killers, a strategy that undermines the chivalric ideal by showing it for what it is: violence. As Schwab explains, Thackeray and Doyle ‘undermine the heroic figures of Scott’s novel, and the brutality that is often glossed over in historical novels [in their book] is both ironized and exaggerated’ (64). This point is subtly conveyed, Schwab implies, by placing the text and its illustrations in both counterpoint and agreement.

Violence is underplayed in Thackeray’s description of Ivanhoe’s ‘pale, calm face’ assaulting the enemy (Rebecca 78). In Doyle’s illustration, by contrast, the reality of the situation is revealed by depicting Ivanhoe as he kills his adversaries, slashing away at them and surrounded, as Schwab notes, by a ‘heap of dead or dying people’ (63). The effect, Schwab continues, is ‘disconcerting’ (63), creating an ironic dissonance between bland reportage and murderous fact.

The emphasis on violence is similarly deployed by creating a literal agreement between the two sets of signs. Richard’s slaying of the children of Chalus is described in horrible detail, with only one small boy left to kill: “The brute nature of Richard was aroused: his fiendish appetite for blood rose to madness, and grinding his teeth, and with a curse too horrible to mention, the flashing axe of the royal butcher fell down on the blond ringlets of the child, and the children of Chalus were no more!” (Rebecca 42). These details are matched by the illustration, with the ‘fiendish appetite’ captured in the King’s facial expression and stance as he bears down, a huge, enlarged figure, on a diminutive child. The distortion of scale amplifies the writing’s brutal effect and the King’s irrationality is stressed by the contrast between his dynamic pose, equipped with a vast battle-axe, and the simpering stupidity of the archer in the background, whose bolt is supposed to have enraged the monarch.

Left: King Richard Killing a Child. Middle left: The Death of the Giant Cormoran. Middle Right: Torture Scene. Right: Ivanhoe Killing Moors. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Doyle’s image is especially effective as a means of reminding us that violence underpins what is essentially a re-writing of history which is mythopoeic rather than factual. Scott’s novel is really a fairy tale, and the illustration uncovers the brutality of ‘romance’, an approach Doyle employs in the image depicting the slaying of the Giant in his version of Jack and the Giants (1851). The message is further spelled out in the opening initial, an image of the King on horse-back with a cluster of decapitated heads displayed as trophies (Rebecca 1), and is made ever more explicit in a scene showing a Jew being tortured for his money (facing 76).

The King’s Trophies

In short, the text and illustrations puncture the notion of ‘chivalry’ as a matter of honour and righteousness by re-inscribing it as the exercise of merciless brutality; stripped of the courtly apparatus of Scott’s novel, it is shown as plain murder. Offering a critique of brutality driven, to a large extent, by racism, Thackeray and Doyle’s ‘Romance upon Romance’, has the unsettling effect, as if were, of smiling at the audience while describing ugly events.

Another technique, and the source of more sour humour, is mockery of the historical genre by revealing its anachronisms. As generations of critics have observed, Scott’s novel is suffused with historical inaccuracies. Thackeray gleefully ridicules these mistakes by including references to objects and situations out of time and Doyle privileges this type of ridicule in the form of small but discordant details.

A telling moment is when the King and Ivanhoe are playing chess. Thackeray notes how ‘chess was a favourite amusement with the chivalry of the period’ (Rebecca 84), but Doyle shows them moving modern pieces, in tiny particularization, that any middle-class reader could have purchased in 1849 (facing 84). Musical instruments are similarly subject to Doyle’s ironic scrutiny. Although he depicts the King playing a mandolin in disobedience of Thackeray’s description of his guitar, in the pictorial frontispiece he suggests the wide inaccuracies of the historical genre by showing performers playing music instruments that did not exist in the twelfth century. The minstrels here are apparently time-travellers: one plays a euphonium (invented 1843), another a bass-viol (1543) – or is it a double-bass? – and another a triangle (the 16th century). The sound they would make would be both ridiculously dissonant and absurdly up-to-date.

These small details underscore Thackeray’s off-hand but telling allusions to history yet to happen. The author notably ridicules Ivanhoe by providing precise dates such as the King’s playing on ‘the evening of 27th March 1199’ (Rebecca 29). This technique satirises the genre by combining exactitude (suggesting the history is genuine) with anachronism (demonstrating it must be fake). Rebecca and Rowena is underpinned by this comic incongruity and Thackeray and Doyle insist that historical novels are just as inconsistent – and just as ridiculous – as their own.

Doyle adds another layer to this ridicule by presenting his illustrations in a mock-medieval style. Thackeray does not write in the cod-middle English idiom of Scott – retaining instead the urbane, bantering diction of Vanity Fair – but Doyle presents his illustrations as visual parodies of the art of the twelfth century. Drawing on the imagery of his neo-medieval pastiche in Punch and in Selections from the Rejected Cartoons (1848), which satirises the Westminster Hall competitions, he travesties Ivanhoe’s linguistic anachronisms by jumbling artistic conventions from different historical periods.

Doyle plays with these styles. In the hand-coloured versions of the book (sold at 7/6 rather than 5 shillings), the artist offers his designs as pastiche illuminations, as if the volume were a precious account, contemporaneous with Ivanhoe’s tale. The illustrations further recreate the disparities of scale in painting of the middle-ages – but immediately confuse the effect by retaining the spatial schemes of the Renaissance.

The Assault on Chalus. Click on image to enlarge it.

In the siege of Chalus, for instance, the walls are besieged and defended by figures far too large for their architectural setting, with the King being almost as tall as the gate he is attacking. Yet the figures themselves are anything but flat or linear in the manner of medieval illuminations or painted panels. The inclusion of pot-bellied grotesques in robust perspective is a droll contradiction of the medieval style; the effect is rather like the Bayeux Tapestry, projected forward three or four centuries (facing 39).

The illustrations are a free borrowing from historical periods, and as in Thackeray’s text the emphasis is on the incongruity of using these materials to construct a reality that is flawed by its inconsistencies. In an advertisement in The Athenaeum, Rebecca and Rowena is ironically marketed as a book of ‘Profound Historical Knowledge’ (1316). Nothing could be more amusingly untrue.

Sarcastic Social Satire: Doyle, Thackeray and the Mockery of Contemporary Mores

Doyle and Thackeray’s pastiche is a tightly-focused critique of the historical novel and, more generally, of the mid-Victorian taste for antiquarianism in architecture and art. Like all effective parodies, it works like a curse or an infection; if Scott’s neo-medieval novels are rotten with anachronism, then it is reasonable, the text seems to argue, to condemn Augustus Pugin’s fanciful recreations of the past, or to ridicule the medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites. These cultural productions are as absurd, the book suggests, as a medieval king who knows the words to 'Rule Britannia’ – written 1740 – (Rebecca 30), or a military siege in which the defenders throw down not only the usual stones and arrows but ‘crockery, umbrellas … a copper coal-scuttle’ and a ‘mahogany wardrobe’ (39–40). This is a rich vein of humour, but its mockery of the medievalist tendency is just as penetrating as Dickens’s dismissal of the Pre-Raphaelites’ archaic style in ‘Old Lamps for New Ones’ (1850).

The historical novel and all such revivalism is out of place, Thackeray argues, in the age of machinery, reminding the contemporary viewer of the mismatch by re-casting his sequel in the terms of railway speculation, noting that it seemed as if his work for the ‘Ísaac-of-York-and-Ivanhoe Junction’ (Rebecca v) would never be completed. In this type of satire, the past and the present intermingle freely; and if the writing of history is ridiculed, the present is equally subject to critical evaluation. This project is managed, as before, in the dialogue between the text and the illustrations.

Thackeray’s satire of the acrimonious relationship between Ivanhoe and Rowena is an amusing new perspective on the original novel, but it is also a commentary on failing marriages of the nineteenth century. The jealous Rowena never allows her husband to forget his connection with Rebecca and constantly nags him about her rival, “always flinging Rebecca into Ivanhoe’s teeth. There was not a day in his life but that unhappy warrior was made to remember that a Hebrew damsel had been in love with him and that a Christian lady could never forgive the insult” (9). This focus is not reproduced in the illustrations, but Doyle adds the domestic context in which the perpetual conflict between men and women is enacted. The pictorial frontispiece establishes the idea of the battle of the sexes in the form of a dance; ladies both young and old are propositioned by a brace of buffoons and offers are both declined and accepted. Though apparently set in medieval times, the scene satirises the social behaviour of the Victorian middle-classes. All that is needed is a change of costume and the image would relocate to the mid-nineteenth century, anticipating Doyle’s later commentaries on high society in Bird’s Eye Views of Society (1862–64).

This sort of interchangeability, using the medieval to mock the modern, is especially used to ridicule the bourgeois home. Thackeray provides a starting point in the scene where Ivanhoe goes in disguise to Athelstane’s hall; at first it has the strangeness of a distant past, but the romance is instantly undercut by the prosaic sound of the ‘supper gong sounding’ (Rebecca 54) and leads into a domestic scene practically indistinguishable from one of the 1850s.

Left: Ivanhoe in Disguise. Middle: Ivanhoe and the King Playing Chess. Right: Rebecca and Rowena. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Thackeray sets the tone and in Doyle’s illustration, likewise, the moment is mid-Victorian. Athelstane is plump papa (in the manner of John Leech) sitting comfortably by his fireside, a servant brings the meal and dogs and children play on the floor. The thane and his wife inquire of the death of Richard, but they could just as easily be discussing a day at the office. There is nothing heroic or romantic in their bearing and the image is a gentle commentary on the complacency of the book’s audience.

It is precisely this contentment that Rebecca and Rowena sets out to unsettle. Its critique of the historical novel undermines the reading habits of the bourgeois consumer and subverts the taste for the neo-medieval by revealing its absurd inappropriateness in the modern age. As one reviewer noted in The Athenaeum, the book is ‘a harlequinade of whim, irony and provocation for curiosity’ (29 December 1849: 1330). Though never as popular as Dickens’s Christmas books, Rebecca and Rowena offered a distinct alternative – by turns sour and silly, ironic and challenging – for the festive fireside. If Dickens’s seasonal offerings made the audience cry, then Thackeray and Doyle, like bitter, mischievous children, made their readers laugh out loud.

Works Cited

[Anon].Rebecca and Rowena.’ Advertisement in The Athenaeum 22 December 1849: 1316.

[Anon].‘Thackeray’s Rebecca and Rowena.’ Living Age 302 (2 March 1850): 385–6.

Dickens, Charles. ‘Old Lamps for New Ones.’ Household Words 15 June 1850: 265–67.

Doyle, Richard. Bird’s Eye Views of Society. London: Smith Elder, 1864.

Doyle, Richard.Selections from the Rejected Cartoons. London: McLean, 1848.

Doyle, Richard. The Story of Jack and the Giants. London: Cundall & Addey, 1850 [1851].

Engen, Rodney. Richard Doyle. Stroud: The Catalpa Press, 1983.

Punch<. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1843–50.

Schwab, Sandra Martina. ‘Richard Doyle’s Comic Histories: a Victorian Look at the Middle Ages.’ History and Humour: British and American Perspective. Eds. Barbara Korte & Doris Lechner. Bielfeld: Transcript, 2013.

Scott, Walter. Ivanhoe. Edinburgh: Constable, 1820.

Thackeray, W. M. The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family. With illustrations on steel and wood by Richard Doyle. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854–55. First published in 23 monthly serial parts, October 1853– August 1855.

Thackeray, W. M. Vanity Fair. Illustrations on steel and wood by Thackeray, London: Bradbury & Evans, 1848. The novel was first published in parts, 1847–8.

Titmarsh, M. A. [W. M. Thackeray]. Rebecca and Rowena. London: Chapman & Hall, 1850.

Last modified 8 May 2017