Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History is a series of great satires written by William Thackeray for Punch magazine in 1842. The imaginary Miss Wilhelmina Maria Tickletoby is an august old lady who tutors rich people’s children; a formidable teacher who has “none of the new-fangled notions regarding the uselessness of corporal punishments, but, remembering their effects in her own case, does not hesitate to apply them whenever necessity urges”.
The lectures, which take place in her house, are addressed principally to her pupils, but adults “of rank and fashion” and the press are also present. I like them because Thackeray’s imitation of Miss Tickletoby’s voice and his parody of Victorian perspectives on British history are nothing short of hilarious. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be posting the best bits of each lecture, from the ancient Britons to Edward III, together with Victorian illustrations of the events being described. Take them as reliable accounts at your peril…
BRITAIN BEFORE KING ALFRED
‘MY LOVES, – With regard to the early history of our beloved country, before King Alfred ascended the throne, I have very little indeed to say: in the first place, because the story itself is none of the most moral – consisting of accounts of murders agreeably varied by invasions; and secondly, dears, to tell you the truth, I have always found those first chapters so abominably stupid that I have made a point to pass them over…
Well, then, about the abominable Danes and Saxons, the Picts and the Scots, I know very little, and I must say have passed through life pretty comfortably in spite of my ignorance. Not that this should be an excuse to you – no,no, darlings: learn for learning’s sake; if not, I have something hanging up in the cupboard, and you know my name is Tickletoby. [Great sensation.]
How first our island became inhabited is a point which nobody knows. I do not believe a word of that story at the beginning of the “Seven Champions of Christendom”, about King Brute and his companions; and as for the other hypotheses (let Miss Biggs spell the word “hypothesis”, and remember not to confound it with “apothecary”), they are not worth consideration. For as the first man who ever entered the island could not write, depend upon it he never set down the date of his arrival; and I leave you to guess what a confusion about dates there would speedily be – you who can’t remember whether it was last Thursday or Friday that you had gooseberry pudding for dinner.
Those little dears who have not seen Mrs. Trimmer’s “History of England” have no doubt beheld pictures of Mr Oldridge’s Balm of Columbia [a product which promised hair growth and preservation]. The ancient Britons were like the lady represented there, only not black; the excellent Mrs. T’s pictures of these no doubt are authentic, and there our ancestors are represented as dressed in painted skins, and wearing their hair as long as possible. I need not say that it was their own skins they painted, because, as for clothes, they were not yet invented.
As for the religion of the ancient Britons, as it was a false and abominable superstition, the less we say about it the better. If they had a religion, you may be sure they had a clergy. This body of persons were called Druids. The historian Hume says that they instructed the youth of the country, which, considering not one boy in 1,000,000,000,000 could read, couldn’t give the Druids much trouble. The Druids likewise superintended the law matters and government of Britain, and in return for their kindness were handsomely paid, as all teachers of youth, lawyers and ministers ought to be. [“Hear, hear,” from Lord ABINGER and Sir ROBERT PEEL].The ancient Britons were of a warlike, rude nature (and loved broils and battles, like Master Spry yonder). They used to go forth with clubs for weapons, and bulls’ horns for trumpets; and so with their clubs and their trumps they would engage their enemies, who sometimes conquered them, and sometimes were conquered by them, according to luck.
The priests remained at home and encouraged them – praying to their gods, and longing no doubt for a share of the glory and danger; but they learned, they said, to sacrifice themselves for the public good. Not only did they sacrifice themselves; I grieve to say that it was their custom to sacrifice other people: for when the Britons returned from war with their prisoners, the priests carried the latter into certain mysterious groves, where they slew them on the horrid altars of their gods. The gods, they said, delighted in these forests and these dreadful human sacrifices, and you will better remember the facts by my representing these gods to you as so many wicked Lovegroves, and their victims as unfortunate Whitebait. [Immense sensation.]
And as your papas have probably taken some of you to see the opera of “Norma”, which relates to these very Druids that we are talking about, you will know that the ancient Britons had not only priests, but priestesses – that is, clergywomen. Remember this, and don’t talk commit an error which is common in society, and talk of two clerical gentlemen as priestesses. It is a gross blunder. One might as well…talk of having your breakfasteses, as I have heard the Duchess of ____ often do…What is the singular of Breakfasts, Miss Higgins?
Miss Higgins. I don’t know.
Master Smith (delighted and eager). I know.
Miss Tickletoby. Speak, my dear, and tell that inattentive Miss Higgins what is the singular of “breakfasts”.
Master Smith (clearing his voice by rubbing his jacket sleeve across his nose). The most singular breakfast I know is old John Wapshot’s, who puts sugar in his muffins and takes salt in his tea!
[Master Smith was preparing to ascend to the head of the class, but was sternly checked by MISS TICKLETOBY, who resumed her discourse.]It was not to be supposed that the wickedness of these Priests could continue forever; and accordingly we find (though upon my word I don’t know upon what authority) that, eighteen hundred and ninety-seven years ago, Julius Caesar, that celebrated military man, landed at Deal. He conquered a great number of princes with jaw-breaking names, as did the Roman Emperors, his successors – such as the Trinobantes, the Atrebates, the Silures, all richly deserving their fate, doubtless, as I fear they were but savages at best. They were masters of the Britons for pretty near five hundred years; and though the Scotch pretend that the Romans never conquered their part of it, I am inclined to suppose it was pretty much for the reasons that the clothes are not taken off a scarecrow in the fields – because they are not worth the taking.