The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xx

Dinner-Giving Snobs Further Considered

If my friends would but follow the present prevailing fashion, I think they ought to give me a testimonial for the paper on Dinner-giving Snobs, which I am now writing. What do you say now to a handsome comfortable dinner-service of plate (NOT including plates, for I hold silver plates to be sheer wantonness, and would almost as soon think of silver teacups), a couple of neat teapots, a coffeepot, trays, &c., with a little inscription to my wife, Mrs. Snob; and a half-score of silver tankards for the little Snoblings, to glitter on the homely table where they partake of their quotidian mutton?

If I had my way, and my plans could be carried out, dinner-giving would increase as much on the one hand as dinner-giving Snobbishness would diminish:— to my mind the most amiable part of the work lately published by my esteemed friend (if upon a very brief acquaintance he will allow me to call him so), Alexis Soyer, the regenerator — what he (in his noble style) would call the most succulent, savoury, and elegant passages — are those which relate, not to the grand banquets and ceremonial dinners, but to his ‘dinners at home.’

The ‘dinner at home’ ought to be the centre of the whole system of dinner-giving. Your usual style of meal — that is, plenteous, comfortable, and in its perfection — should be that to which you welcome your friends, as it is that of which you partake yourself.

For, towards what woman in the world do I entertain a higher regard than towards the beloved partner of my existence, Mrs. Snob? Who should have a greater place in my affections than her six brothers (three or four of whom we are pretty sure will favour us with their company at seven o’clock), or her angelic mother, my own valued mother-inlaw? — for whom, finally, would I wish to cater more generously than for your very humble servant, the present writer? Now, nobody supposes that the Birmingham plate is had out, the disguised carpet-beaters introduced to the exclusion of the neat parlour-maid, the miserable ENTREES from the pastrycook’s ordered in, and the children packed off (as it is supposed) to the nursery, but really only to the staircase, down which they slide during the dinner-time, waylaying the dishes as they come out, and fingering the round bumps on the jellies, and the forced-meat balls in the soup — nobody, I say, supposes that a dinner at home is characterized by the horrible ceremony, the foolish makeshifts, the mean pomp and ostentation which distinguish our banquets on grand field-days.

Such a notion is monstrous. I would as soon think of having my dearest Bessy sitting opposite me in a turban and bird of paradise, and showing her jolly mottled arms out of blond sleeves in her famous red satin gown: ay, or of having Mr. Toole every day, in a white waistcoat, at my back, shouting, ‘Silence FAW the chair!’

Now, if this be the case; if the Brummagem-plate pomp and the processions of disguised footmen are odious and foolish in everyday life, why not always? Why should Jones and I, who are in the middle rank, alter the modes of our being to assume an ECLAT which does not belong to us — to entertain our friends, who (if we are worth anything and honest fellows at bottom,) are men of the middle rank too, who are not in the least deceived by our temporary splendour, and who play off exactly the same absurd trick upon us when they ask us to dine?

If it be pleasant to dine with your friends, as all persons with good stomachs and kindly hearts will, I presume, allow it to be, it is better to dine twice than to dine once. It is impossible for men of small means to be continually spending five-and-twenty or thirty shillings on each friend who sits down to their table. People dine for less. I myself have seen, at my favourite Club (the Senior United Service), His Grace the Duke of Wellington quite contented with the joint, one-and-three, and half-pint of sherry, nine; and if his Grace, why not you and I?

This rule I have made, and found the benefit of. Whenever I ask a couple of Dukes and a Marquis or so to dine with me, I set them down to a piece of beef, or a leg-of-mutton and trimmings. The grandees thank you for this simplicity, and appreciate the same. My dear Jones, ask any of those whom you have the honour of knowing, if such be not the case.

I am far from wishing that their Graces should treat me in a similar fashion. Splendour is a part of their station, as decent comfort (let us trust), of yours and mine. Fate has comfortably appointed gold plate for some, and has bidden others contentedly to wear the willow-pattern. And being perfectly contented (indeed humbly thankful — for look around, O Jones, and see the myriads who are not so fortunate,) to wear honest linen, while magnificos of the world are adorned with cambric and point-lace, surely we ought to hold as miserable, envious fools, those wretched Beaux Tibbs’s of society, who sport a lace dickey, and nothing besides — the poor silly jays, who trail a peacock’s feather behind them, and think to simulate the gorgeous bird whose nature it is to strut on palace-terraces, and to flaunt his magnificent fan-tail in the sunshine!

The jays with peacocks’ feathers are the Snobs of this world: and never, since the days of Aesop, were they more numerous in any land than they are at present in this free country.

How does this most ancient apologue apply to the subject in hand? — the Dinner-giving Snob. The imitation of the great is universal in this city, from the palaces of Kensingtonia and Belgravia, even to the remotest corner of Brunswick Square.

Peacocks’ feathers are stuck in the tails of most families. Scarce one of us domestic birds but imitates the lanky, pavonine strut, and shrill, genteel scream. O you misguided dinner-giving Snobs, think how much pleasure you lose, and how much mischief you do with your absurd grandeurs and hypocrisies! You stuff each other with unnatural forced-meats, and entertain each other to the ruin of friendship (let alone health) and the destruction of hospitality and good-fellowship — you, who but for the peacock’s tail might chatter away so much at your ease, and be so jovial and happy!

When a man goes into a great set company of dinner-giving and dinner-receiving Snobs, if he has a philosophical turn of mind, he will consider what a huge humbug the whole affair is: the dishes, and the drink, and the servants, and the plate, and the host and hostess, and the conversation, and the company — the philosopher included.

The host is smiling, and hob-nobbing, and talking up and down the table; but a prey to secret terrors and anxieties, lest the wines he has brought up from the cellar should prove insufficient; lest a corked bottle should destroy his calculations; or our friend the carpet-beater, by making some BEVUE, should disclose his real quality of greengrocer, and show that he is not the family butler.

The hostess is smiling resolutely through all the courses, smiling through her agony; though her heart is in the kitchen, and she is speculating with terror lest there be any disaster there. If the SOUFFLE should collapse, or if Wiggins does not send the ices in time — she feels as if she would commit suicide — that smiling, jolly woman!

The children upstairs are yelling, as their maid is crimping their miserable ringlets with hot tongs, tearing Miss Emmy’s hair out by the roots, or scrubbing Miss Polly’s dumpy nose with mottled soap till the little wretch screams herself into fits. The young males of the family are employed, as we have stated, in piratical exploits upon the landing-place.

The servants are not servants, but the before-mentioned retail tradesmen.

The plate is not plate, but a mere shiny Birmingham lacquer; and so is the hospitality, and everything else.

The talk is Birmingham talk. The wag of the party, with bitterness in his heart, having just quitted his laundress, who is dunning him for her bill, is firing off good stories; and the opposition wag is furious that he cannot get an innings. Jawkins, the great conversationalist, is scornful and indignant with the pair of them, because he is kept out of court. Young Muscadel, that cheap dandy, is talking Fashion and Almack’s out of the MORNING POST, and disgusting his neighbour, Mrs. Fox, who reflects that she has never been there. The widow is vexed out of patience, because her daughter Maria has got a place beside young Cambric, the penniless curate, and not by Colonel Goldmore, the rich widower from India. The Doctor’s wife is sulky, because she has not been led out before the barrister’s lady; old Doctor Cork is grumbling at the wine, and Guttleton sneering at the cookery.

And to think that all these people might be so happy, and easy, and friendly, were they brought together in a natural unpretentious way, and but for an unhappy passion for peacocks’ feathers in England. Gentle shades of Marat and Robespierre! when I see how all the honesty of society is corrupted among us by the miserable fashion-worship, I feel as angry as Mrs. Fox just mentioned, and ready to order a general BATTUE of peacocks.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/snobs/chapter20.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07