In April 1842 Thackeray began reviewing books for the Foreign Quarterly Review, frequently drawing on German reminiscences and widening his German reading. The first of his contributions is a satiric piece on Victor Hugo’s Le Rhin, which begins by aligning Hugo with other French writers, from Chateaubriand to Lamartine, who have sought to add ‘the profession of statesman’ to their ‘own peculiar one’. Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Palestine and Poland have all been ‘colonized’ by such writers. Hugo therefore had to look for ‘other lands where his vast genius might find room to reign and has discovered the River Rhine’ (v. 306).
He looks at it from some towering pinnacle of thought, and says—It is a fair country and good to conquer—it has stately towns and castles, meadows and goodly vineyards, the people look happy, but they are not—I see they are not—they are pining to become Frenchmen,—I will go among them and conquer them, with the mild sword of genius I will penetrate them. I will appear before their strong places, and, by blowing a little on my trumpet, behold! their walls shall fall down; I will ride into my cities preceded by loud-shouting metaphors clad in rich attire and scattering smiles for largesse among the people. If they must rebel I will hammer them down with historic facts, and crush them with such battering-rams of argument, that they must needs fall down and obey! And so he has gone and taken possession of the Rhine, the two volumes of Lettres à un Ami are like bulletins of the campaign, and a strange production at the close of them, entitled ‘Conclusion,’ may be likened to a huge windy castle in the air, which he has erected and garrisoned, and which commands the conquered country, (v. 370)Thackeray discovers nothing but windy rhetoric in this work, and tries to expose this by translating some of Hugo’s sentences literally 164into English. The French writer’s prophetic pose becomes particularly ridiculous when he exposes his ignorance of the German language:
Hugo comprehends German, though he cannot read it or speak it any more than Chinese. If he did not comprehend German, how could he find out that the Rhinelanders are really most friendly to France, and that the left bank is French in fact? The people don’t speak French, not even the waiters, but he penetrated at once into the soul of their language, and resolved the riddle of that barbaric jargon as well as if he had studied Mr. Ollendorf for a year. (v. 374)‘A year’ is in fact a long time for the study of the writings of Heinrich Godefroy Ollendorf, who followed up his Ecriture allemande simplifiée, ou Méthode pour apprendre I’écriture allemande en deux lecons (London, 1838) with a book that offered to teach beginners to read, write and speak German in six months: Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à lire, à ecrire et à parler une langue en six mots, appliquée à l’allemand (London, n.d.). ‘With his bad taste and egotism, his pompous airs and dogmatizing… his constant tendency to exaggeration’, and his habit of eking out from unacknowledged guidebooks what he has clearly not seen, Hugo is still a man of genius, who can make ‘a delightful companion’ (v. 387). All delight stops, however, when, in the conclusion of his work, Hugo claims for France the left bank of the Rhine, which ‘has been actually German for a thousand years’.
The only wonder is that when the ghost of Hoche was heard shouting, France must retake the Rhine, the echoes in the neighbourhood did not reply, Let France come and try.
To be sure M. Hugo would not have understood them. He does not know a single syllable of German—of German politics, of German feelings, he is perfectly ignorant. He has been for two months on the Rhine, and fancies he has made discoveries—he says the people of the left bank are French, and how can he tell? If he had lighted on the ten tribes talking Hebrew by the river Sabbatikon, he would have interpreted their feelings just as well. He might hear the Rhinelanders, big and little, as every traveller in the country has heard them within the last two years, shouting down the streets of every town on the left bank, Sie sollen ihn nicht haben; and the French Academician is a sort of man who would turn round and say, ‘Hearken to that melody: ’tis sung by patriots. All patriots are poets. Sie sollen ihn nicht haben means, the Rhinelanders of the left bank await their brethren of France.’ (v. 390)Whatever aesthetic doubts Thackeray may have about Nikolaus Becker’s song about the free German Rhine, which the French ‘shall never have’, he is fully in accord with its sentiments. The Cossacks, 165he asserts, have as good a claim to Paris as the French have to Cologne.