The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xxiii

English Snobs On the Continent

‘WHAT is the use of Lord Rome’s telescope?’ my friend Panwiski exclaimed the other day. ‘It only enables you to see a few hundred thousands of miles farther. What were thought to be mere nebulae, turn out to be most perceivable starry systems; and beyond these, you see other nebulae, which a more powerful glass will show to be stars, again; and so they go on glittering and winking away into eternity.’ With which my friend Pan, heaving a great sigh, as if confessing his inability to look Infinity in the face, sank back resigned, and swallowed a large bumper of claret.

I (who, like other great men, have but one idea), thought to myself, that as the stars are, so are the Snobs:— the more you gaze upon those luminaries, the more you behold — now nebulously congregated — now faintly distinguishable — now brightly defined — until they twinkle off in endless blazes, and fade into the immeasurable darkness. I am but as a child playing on the sea-shore. Some telescopic philosopher will arise one day, some great Snobonomer, to find the laws of the great science which we are now merely playing with, and to define, and settle, and classify that which is at present but vague theory, and loose though elegant assertion.

Yes: a single eye can but trace a very few and simple varieties of the enormous universe of Snobs. I sometimes think of appealing to the public, and calling together a congress of SAVANS, such as met at Southampton — each to bring his contributions and read his paper on the Great Subject. For what can a single poor few do, even with the subject at present in hand? English Snobs on the Continent — though they are a hundred thousand times less numerous than on their native island, yet even these few are too many. One can only fix a stray one here and there. The individuals are caught — the thousands escape. I have noted down but three whom I have met with in my walk this morning through this pleasant marine city of Boulogne.

There is the English Raff Snob, that frequents ESTAMINETS and CABARETS; who is heard yelling, ‘We won’t go home till morning!’ and startling the midnight echoes of quiet Continental towns with shrieks of English slang. The boozy unshorn wretch is seen hovering round quays as packets arrive, and tippling drains in inn bars where he gets credit. He talks French with slang familiarity: he and his like quite people the debt-prisons on the Continent. He plays pool at the billiard-houses, and may be seen engaged at cards and dominoes of forenoons. His signature is to be seen on countless bills of exchange: it belonged to an honourable family once, very likely; for the English Raff most probably began by being a gentleman, and has a father over the water who is ashamed to hear his name. He has cheated the old ‘governor’ repeatedly in better days, and swindled his sisters of their portions, and robbed his younger brothers. Now he is living on his wife’s jointure: she is hidden away in some dismal garret, patching shabby finery and cobbling up old clothes for her children — the most miserable and slatternly of women.

Or sometimes the poor woman and her daughters go about timidly, giving lessons in English and music, or do embroidery and work under-hand, to purchase the means for the POT-AU-FEU; while Raff is swaggering on the quay, or tossing off glasses of cognac at the CAFÉ. The unfortunate creature has a child still every year, and her constant hypocrisy is to try and make her girls believe that their father is a respectable man, and to huddle him out of the way when the brute comes home drunk.

Those poor ruined souls get together and have a society of their own, the which it is very affecting to watch — those tawdry pretences at gentility, those flimsy attempts at gaiety: those woful sallies: that jingling old piano; oh, it makes the heart sick to see and hear them. As Mrs. Raff, with her company of pale daughters, gives a penny tea to Mrs. Diddler, they talk about bygone times and the fine society they kept; and they sing feeble songs out of tattered old music-books; and while engaged in this sort of entertainment, in comes Captain Raff with his greasy hat on one side, and straightway the whole of the dismal room reeks with a mingled odour of smoke and spirits.

Has not everybody who has lived abroad met Captain Raff? His name is proclaimed, every now and then, by Mr. Sheriff’s Officer Hemp; and about Boulogne, and Paris, and Brussels, there are so many of his sort that I will lay a wager that I shall be accused of gross personality for showing him up. Many a less irreclaimable villain is transported; many a more honourable man is at present at the treadmill; and although we are the noblest, greatest, most religious, and most moral people in the world, I would still like to know where, except in the United Kingdom, debts are a matter of joke, and making tradesmen ‘suffer’ a sport that gentlemen own to? It is dishonourable to owe money in France. You never hear people in other parts of Europe brag of their swindling; or see a prison in a large Continental town which is not more or less peopled with English rogues.

A still more loathsome and dangerous Snob than the above transparent and passive scamp, is frequent on the continent of Europe, and my young Snob friends who are travelling thither should be especially warned against him. Captain Legg is a gentleman, like Raff, though perhaps of a better degree. He has robbed his family too, but of a great deal more, and has boldly dishonoured bills for thousands, where Raff has been boggling over the clumsy conveyance of a ten-pound note. Legg is always at the best inn, with the finest waistcoats and moustaches, or tearing about in the flashest of britzkas, while poor Raff is tipsifying himself with spirits, and smoking cheap tobacco. It is amazing to think that Legg, so often shown up, and known everywhere, is flourishing yet. He would sink into utter ruin, but for the constant and ardent love of gentility that distinguishes the English Snob. There is many a young fellow of the middle classes who must know Legg to be a rogue and a cheat; and yet from his desire to be in the fashion, and his admiration of tip-top swells, and from his ambition to air himself by the side of a Lord’s son, will let Legg make an income out of him; content to pay, so long as he can enjoy that society. Many a worthy father of a family, when he hears that his son is riding about with Captain Legg, Lord Levant’s son, is rather pleased that young Hopeful should be in such good company.

Legg and his friend, Major Macer, make professional tours through Europe, and are to be found at the right places at the right time. Last year I heard how my young acquaintance, Mr. Muff, from Oxford, going to see a little life at a Carnival ball at Paris, was accosted by an Englishman who did not know a word of the d —— language, and hearing Muff speak it so admirably, begged him to interpret to a waiter with whom there was a dispute about refreshments. It was quite a comfort, the stranger said, to see an honest English face; and did Muff know where there was a good place for supper? So those two went to supper, and who should come in, of all men in the world, but Major Macer? And so Legg introduced Macer, and so there came on a little intimacy, and three-card loo, &c. &c.. Year after year scores of Muffs, in various places in the world, are victimised by Legg and Macer. The story is so stale, the trick of seduction so entirely old and clumsy, that it is only a wonder people can be taken in any more: but the temptations of vice and gentility together are too much for young English Snobs, and those simple young victims are caught fresh every day. Though it is only to be kicked and cheated by men of fashion, your true British Snob will present himself for the honour.

I need not allude here to that very common British Snob, who makes desperate efforts at becoming intimate with the great Continental aristocracy, such as old Rolls, the baker, who has set up his quarters in the Faubourg Saint Germain, and will receive none but Carlists, and no French gentleman under the rank of a Marquis. We can all of us laugh at THAT fellow’s pretensions well enough — we who tremble before a great man of our own nation. But, as you say, my brave and honest John Bull of a Snob, a French Marquis of twenty descents is very different from an English Peer; and a pack of beggarly German and Italian Fuersten and Principi awaken the scorn of an honest-minded Briton. But our aristocracy! — that’s a very different matter. They are the real leaders of the world — the real old original and-no-mistake nobility.

Off with your cap, Snob; down on your knees, Snob, and truckle.

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