The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xxii

Continental Snobbery Continued

We are accustomed to laugh at the French for their braggadocio propensities, and intolerable vanity about La France, la gloire, l’Empereur, and the like; and yet I think in my heart that the British Snob, for conceit and self-sufficiency and braggartism in his way, is without a parallel. There is always something uneasy in a Frenchman’s conceit. He brags with so much fury, shrieking, and gesticulation; yells out so loudly that the Francais is at the head of civilization, the centre of thought, &c.; that one can’t but see the poor fellow has a lurking doubt in his own mind that he is not the wonder he professes to be.

About the British Snob, on the contrary, there is commonly no noise, no bluster, but the calmness of profound conviction. We are better than all the world; we don’t question the opinion at all; it’s an axiom. And when a Frenchman bellows out, ‘LA FRANCE, MONSIEUR, LA FRANCE EST A LA TETE DU MONDE CIVILISE!’ we laugh good-naturedly at the frantic poor devil. WE are the first chop of the world: we know the fact so well in our secret hearts that a claim set up elsewhere is simply ludicrous. My dear brother reader, say, as a man of honour, if you are not of this opinion? Do you think a Frenchman your equal? You don’t — you gallant British Snob — you know you don’t: no more, perhaps, does the Snob your humble servant, brother.

And I am inclined to think it is this conviction, and the consequent bearing of the Englishman towards the foreigner whom he condescends to visit, this confidence of superiority which holds up the head of the owner of every English hat-box from Sicily to St. Petersburg, that makes us so magnificently hated throughout Europe as we are; this — more than all our little victories, and of which many Frenchmen and Spaniards have never heard — this amazing and indomitable insular pride, which animates my lord in his travelling-carriage as well as John in the rumble.

If you read the old Chronicles of the French wars, you find precisely the same character of the Englishman, and Henry V.‘s people behaved with just the cool domineering manner of our gallant veterans of France and the Peninsula. Did you never hear Colonel Cutler and Major Slasher talking over the war after dinner? or Captain Boarder describing his action with the ‘Indomptable?’ ‘Hang the fellows,’ says Boarder, ‘their practice was very good. I was beat off three times before I took her.’ ‘Cuss those carabineers of Milhaud’s,’ says Slasher, ‘what work they made of our light cavalry!’ implying a sort of surprise that the Frenchman should stand up against Britons at all: a good-natured wonder that the blind, mad, vain-glorious, brave poor devils should actually have the courage to resist an Englishman. Legions of such Englishmen are patronizing Europe at this moment, being kind to the Pope, or good-natured to the King of Holland, or condescending to inspect the Prussian reviews. When Nicholas came here, who reviews a quarter of a million of pairs of moustaches to his breakfast every morning, we took him off to Windsor and showed him two whole regiments of six or eight hundred Britons a-piece, with an air as much as to say — ‘There, my boy, look at THAT. Those are ENGLISHMEN, those are, and your master whenever you please,’ as the nursery song says. The British Snob is long, long past scepticism, and can afford to laugh quite good-humouredly at those conceited Yankees, or besotted little Frenchmen, who set up as models of mankind. THEY forsooth!

I have been led into these remarks by listening to an old fellow at the Hotel du Nord, at Boulogne, and who is evidently of the Slasher sort. He came down and seated himself at the breakfast-table, with a surly scowl on his salmon-coloured bloodshot face, strangling in a tight, cross-barred cravat; his linen and his appointments so perfectly stiff and spotless that everybody at once recognized him as a dear countryman. Only our port-wine and other admirable institutions could have produced a figure so insolent, so stupid, so gentleman-like. After a while our attention was called to him by his roaring out, in a voice of plethoric fury, ‘O!’

Everybody turned round at the ‘O,’ conceiving the Colonel to be, as his countenance denoted him, in intense pain; but the waiters knew better, and instead of being alarmed, brought the Colonel the kettle. ‘O,’ it appears, is the French for hot-water. The Colonel (though he despises it heartily) thinks he speaks the language remarkably well. Whilst he was inhausting his smoking tea, which went rolling and gurgling down his throat, and hissing over the ‘hot coppers’ of that respectable veteran, a friend joined him, with a wizened face and very black wig, evidently a Colonel too.

The two warriors, waggling their old heads at each other, presently joined breakfast, and fell into conversation, and we had the advantage of hearing about the old war, and some pleasant conjectures as to the next, which they considered imminent. They psha’d the French fleet; they pooh-pooh’d the French commercial marine; they showed how, in a war, there would be a cordon (‘a cordong, by ——’) of steamers along our coast, and ‘by — — ’ ready at a minute to land anywhere on the other shore, to give the French as good a thrashing as they got in the last war, ‘by ——’. In fact, a rumbling cannonade of oaths was fired by the two veterans during the whole of their conversation.

There was a Frenchman in the room, but as he had not been above ten years in London, of course he did not speak the language, and lost the benefit of the conversation. ‘But, O my country!’ said I to myself, it’s no wonder that you are so beloved! If I were a Frenchman, how I would hate you!’

That brutal, ignorant, peevish bully of an Englishman is showing himself in every city of Europe. One of the dullest creatures under heaven, he goes travelling Europe under foot, shouldering his way into galleries and cathedrals, and bustling into palaces with his buck-ram uniform. At church or theatre, gala or picture-gallery, HIS face never varies. A thousand delightful sights pass before his bloodshot eyes, and don’t affect him. Countless brilliant scenes of life and manners are shown him, but never move him. He goes to church, and calls the practices there degrading and superstitious: as if HIS altar was the only one that was acceptable. He goes to picture-galleries, and is more ignorant about Art than a French shoeblack. Art, Nature pass, and there is no dot of admiration in his stupid eyes: nothing moves him, except when a very great man comes his way, and then the rigid, proud, self-confident, inflexible British Snob can be as humble as a flunkey and as supple as a harlequin.

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