The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter iii

The Influence of the Aristocracy On Snobs

Last Sunday week, being at church in this city, and the service just ended, I heard two Snobs conversing about the Parson. One was asking the other who the clergyman was? ‘He is Mr. So-and-so,’ the second Snob answered, ‘domestic chaplain to the Earl of What-d’ye-call’im.’ ‘Oh, is he’ said the first Snob, with a tone of indescribable satisfaction. — The Parson’s orthodoxy and identity were at once settled in this Snob’s mind. He knew no more about the Earl than about the Chaplain, but he took the latter’s character upon the authority of the former; and went home quite contented with his Reverence, like a little truckling Snob.

This incident gave me more matter for reflection even than the sermon: and wonderment at the extent and prevalence of Lordolatory in this country. What could it matter to Snob whether his Reverence were chaplain to his Lordship or not? What Peerageworship there is all through this free country! How we are all implicated in it, and more or less down on our knees. — And with regard to the great subject on hand, I think that the influence of the Peerage upon Snobbishness has been more remarkable than that of any other institution. The increase, encouragement, and maintenance of Snobs are among the ‘priceless services,’ as Lord John Russell says, which we owe to the nobility.

It can’t be otherwise. A man becomes enormously rich, or he jobs successfully in the aid of a Minister, or he wins a great battle, or executes a treaty, or is a clever lawyer who makes a multitude of fees and ascends the bench; and the country rewards him for ever with a gold coronet (with more or less balls or leaves) and a title, and a rank as legislator. ‘Your merits are so great,’ says the nation, ‘that your children shall be allowed to reign over us, in a manner. It does not in the least matter that your eldest son be a fool: we think your services so remarkable, that he shall have the reversion of your honours when death vacates your noble shoes. If you are poor, we will give you such a sum of money as shall enable you and the eldest-born of your race for ever to live in fat and splendour. It is our wish that there should be a race set apart in this happy country, who shall hold the first rank, have the first prizes and chances in all government jobs and patronages. We cannot make all your dear children Peers — that would make Peerage common and crowd the House of Lords uncomfortably — but the young ones shall have everything a Government can give: they shall get the pick of all the places: they shall be Captains and Lieutenant-Colonels at nineteen, when hoary-headed old lieutenants are spending thirty years at drill: they shall command ships at one-and-twenty, and veterans who fought before they were born. And as we are eminently a free people, and in order to encourage all men to do their duty, we say to any man of any rank — get enormously rich, make immense fees as a lawyer, or great speeches, or distinguish yourself and win battles — and you, even you, shall come into the privileged class, and your children shall reign naturally over ours.’

How can we help Snobbishness, with such a prodigious national institution erected for its worship? How can we help cringing to Lords? Flesh and blood can’t do otherwise. What man can withstand this prodigious temptation? Inspired by what is called a noble emulation, some people grasp at honours and win them; others, too weak or mean, blindly admire and grovel before those who have gained them; others, not being able to acquire them, furiously hate, abuse, and envy. There are only a few bland and not-inthe-least-conceited philosophers, who can behold the state of society, viz., Toadyism, organised:— base Man-and-Mammon worship, instituted by command of law:— Snobbishness, in a word, perpetuated — and mark the phenomenon calmly. And of these calm moralists, is there one, I wonder, whose heart would not throb with pleasure if he could be seen walking arm-inarm with a couple of dukes down Pall Mall? No it is impossible in our condition of society, not to be sometimes a Snob.

On one hand it encourages the commoner to be snobbishly mean, and the noble to be snobbishly arrogant. When a noble marchioness writes in her travels about the hard necessity under which steam-boat travellers labour of being brought into contact ‘with all sorts and conditions of people:’ implying that a fellowship with God’s creatures is disagreeable to to her Ladyship, who is their superior:— when, I say, the Marchioness of —— writes in this fashion, we must consider that out of her natural heart it would have been impossible for any woman to have had such a sentiment; but that the habit of truckling and cringing, which all who surround her have adopted towards this beautiful and magnificent lady — this proprietor of so many black and other diamonds — has really induced her to believe that she is the superior of the world in general: and that people are not to associate with her except awfully at a distance. I recollect being once at the city of Grand Cairo, through which a European Royal Prince was passing India-wards. One night at the inn there was a great disturbance: a man had drowned himself in the well hard by: all the inhabitants of the hotel came bustling into the Court, and amongst others your humble servant, who asked of a certain young man the reason of the disturbance. How was I to know that this young gent was a prince? He had not his crown and sceptre on: he was dressed in a white jacket and felt hat: but he looked surprised at anybody speaking to him: answered an unintelligible monosyllable, and — BECKONED HIS AID-DE-CAMP TO COME AND SPEAK TO ME. It is our fault, not that of the great, that they should fancy themselves so far above us. If you WILL fling yourself under the wheels, Juggernaut will go over you, depend upon it; and if you and I, my dear friend, had Kotow performed before us every day — found people whenever we appeared grovelling in slavish adoration, we should drop into the airs of superiority quite naturally, and accept the greatness with which the world insisted upon endowing us.

Here is an instance, out of Lord L——‘s travels, of that calm, good-natured, undoubting way in which a great man accepts the homage of his inferiors. After making some profound and ingenious remarks about the town of Brussells, his lordship says:—‘Staying some day at the Hotel de Belle Vue, a greatly overrated establishment, and not nearly as comfortable as the Hotel de France — I made acquaintance with Dr. L— — the physician of the Mission. He was desirous of doing the honours of the place to me, and he ordered for us a DINER EN GOURMAND at the chief restaurateur’s, maintaining it surpassed the Rocher at Paris. Six or eight partook of the entertainment, and we all agreed it was infinitely inferior to the Paris display, and much more extravagant. So much for the copy.

And so much for the gentleman who gave the dinner. Dr. L— — desirous to do his lordship ‘the honour of the place,’ feasts him with the best victuals money can procure — and my lord finds the entertainment extravagant and inferior. Extravagant! it was not extravagant to HIM; — Inferior! Mr. L—— did his best to satisfy those noble jaws, and my lord receives the entertainment, and dismisses the giver with a rebuke. It is like a three-tailed Pasha grumbling about an unsatisfactory backsheesh.

But how should it be otherwise in a country where Lordolatry is part of our creed, and where our children are brought up to respect the ‘Peerage’ as the Englishman’s second Bible?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/snobs/chapter3.html

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