“If it should be suggested that these little studies leave much unsaid [though not enough] and are far from exhausting the qualities of their subjects [though not their readers], I can but put myself, which admitting the charge to the full, under the protection of the most genial of all great men of letters [followed by an obligatory quotation, in French, from Lafontaine]…”
Earlier in his preface, Gosse defines “Kit-Kat” as “this modest form of portraiture, which emphasizes the head, yet does not quite exclude the hand of the sitter,” and says he “ventured to borrow from the graphic art this title for my little volume, since these are condensed portraits, each less than half-length, and each accommodated to suit limited leisure and a crowded space.” The Oxford English Dictionary is remarkably unhelpful with the first meaning of “kit-kat,” giving us “the game of tip-cat,” with citations from the seventeenth and nineteenth century. Things get more interesting with the second, starting with the Kit Kat Club: “a club of Whig politicians and men of letters founded in the reign of James II [1685-1688].” Read the etymology and the word starts making sense: “Kit (= Christopher) Cat or Catling, the keeper of the pie-house in Shire Lane, by Temple Bar, where the club originally met.”
Then we get to Gosse’s sense of kit-kat: “with size, portrait, etc.: A particular size of portrait, less than half-length, but including the hands.” A footnote explains: “Said to have been so called because the dining-room of the club at Barn Elms was hung with portraits of the members and was too low for half-size portraits.” The dictionary cites a figurative usage in an 1822 letter by Coleridge: “I destroyed the Kit-cat or bust at least of the letter I had meant to have sent you.” Gosse’s intention to write “condensed portraits” is admirable. In an age when biographies have grown morbidly obese, the concisely written brief life is always welcome. Among contemporaries, Joseph Epstein is master of the form. See his Essays in Biography (2012), or his full-length but still svelte studies, Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (2006) and Fred Astaire (2008).