On Gentility, Nonsense — Illustrations of Gentility
What is gentility? People in different stations in England entertain different ideas of what is genteel, 193 but it must be something gorgeous, glittering, or tawdry to be considered genteel by any of them. The beau-ideal of the English aristocracy, of course with some exceptions, is some young fellow with an imperial title, a military personage, of course, for what is military is so particularly genteel, with flaming epaulets, a cocked hat and a plume, a prancing charger, and a band of fellows called generals and colonels, with flaming epaulets, cocked hats, and plumes, and prancing chargers vapouring behind him. It was but lately that the daughter of an English marquis was heard to say that the sole remaining wish of her heart — she had known misfortunes, and was not far from fifty — was to be introduced to — whom? The Emperor of Austria! The sole remaining wish of the heart of one who ought to have been thinking of the grave and judgment was to be introduced to the miscreant who had caused the blood of noble Hungarian females to be whipped out of their shoulders, for no other crime than devotion to their country and its tall and heroic sons. The middle classes — of course there are some exceptions — admire the aristocracy, and consider them pinks, the aristocracy who admire the Emperor of Austria, and adored the Emperor of Russia till he became old, ugly, and unfortunate, when their adoration instantly terminated; for what is more ungenteel than age, ugliness, and misfortune! The beau-ideal with those of the lower classes, with peasants and mechanics, is some flourishing railroad contractor — look, for example, how they worship Mr. Flamson. 194 This person makes his grand debut in the year ‘39, at a public meeting in the principal room of a country inn. He has come into the neighbourhood with the character of a man worth a million pounds who is to make everybody’s fortune; at this time, however, he is not worth a shilling of his own, though he flashes about dexterously three or four thousand pounds, part of which sum he has obtained by specious pretences, and part from certain individuals who are his confederates. But in the year ‘49 he is really in possession of the fortune which he and his agents pretended he was worth ten years before — he is worth a million pounds. By what means has he come by them? By railroad contracts, for which he takes care to be paid in hard cash before he attempts to perform them, and to carry out which he makes use of the sweat and blood of wretches who, since their organization, have introduced crimes and language into England to which it was previously almost a stranger — by purchasing, with paper, shares by hundreds in the schemes to execute which he contracts, and which are of his own devising; which shares he sells as soon as they are at a high premium, to which they are speedily forced by means of paragraphs, inserted by himself and agents, in newspapers devoted to his interest, utterly reckless of the terrible depreciation to which they are almost instantly subjected. But he is worth a million pounds, there can be no doubt of the fact — he has not made people’s fortunes, at least, those whose fortunes it was said he would make; he has made them away, but his own he has made, emphatically made it — he is worth a million pounds. Hurrah for the millionaire! The clown who views the pandemonium of red brick which he has built on the estate which he has purchased in the neighbourhood of the place of his grand debut, in which every species of architecture, Greek, Indian, and Chinese, is employed in caricature — who hears of the grand entertainment he gives at Christmas in the principal dining-room, the hundred wax candles, the waggon-load of plate, and the oceans of wine which form parts of it, and above all the two ostrich poults, one at the head and the other at the foot of the table, exclaims: ‘Well, if he a’n’t bang up, I don’t know who be; why he beats my lord hollow!’ The mechanic of the borough town, who sees him dashing through the streets in an open landau, drawn by four milk-white horses, amidst its attendant out-riders; his wife, a monster of a woman, by his side, stout as the wife of Tamerlane, who weighed twenty stone, and bedizened out like her whose person shone with the jewels of plundered Persia, stares with silent wonder, and at last exclaims: ‘That’s the man for my vote!’ You tell the clown that the man of the mansion has contributed enormously to corrupt the rural innocence of England; you point to an incipient branch railroad, from around which the accents of Gomorrah are sounding, and beg him to listen for a moment and then close his ears. Hodge scratches his head and says: ‘Well, I have nothing to say to that; all I know is that he is bang up, and I wish I were he’; perhaps he will add — a Hodge has been known to add —‘He has been kind enough to put my son on that very railroad; ’tis true the company is somewhat queer, and the work rather killing; but he gets there half-a-crown a day, whereas from the farmers he would only get eighteenpence.’ You remind the mechanic that the man in the landau has been the ruin of thousands, and you mention people whom he himself knows, people in various grades of life, widows and orphans amongst them, whose little all he has dissipated, and whom he has reduced to beggary by inducing them to become sharers in his delusive schemes. But the mechanic says: ‘Well the more fools they to let themselves be robbed. But I don’t call that kind of thing robbery, I merely call it out-witting; and everybody in this free country has a right to outwit others if he can. What a turn-out he has!’ One was once heard to add, ‘I never saw a more genteel-looking man in all my life except one, and that was a gentleman’s walley, who was much like him. It is true he is rather undersized, but then madam, you know, makes up for all.’
193 Genteel with them seems to be synonymous with Gentile and Gentoo; if so, the manner in which it has been applied for ages ceases to surprise, for genteel is heathenish. Ideas of barbaric pearl and gold, glittering armour, plumes, tortures, blood-shedding, and lust, should always be connected with it. Wace, in his grand Norman poem, calls the Baron genteel:
‘La furent li gentil Baron,’ etc.
And he certainly could not have applied the word better than to the strong Norman thief, aimed cap-a-pie, without one particle of ruth or generosity; for a person to be a pink of gentility, that is heathenism, should have no such feelings; and, indeed, the admirers of gentility seldom or never associate any such feelings with it. It was from the Norman, the worst of all robbers and miscreants, who built strong castles, garrisoned them with devils, and tore out poor wretches’ eyes, as the Saxon Chronicle says, that the English got their detestable word genteel. What could ever have made the English such admirers of gentility, it would be difficult to say; for, during three hundred years, they suffered enough by it. Their genteel Norman landlords were their scourgers, their torturers, the plunderers of their homes, the dishonourers of their wives, and the deflowerers of their daughters. Perhaps, after all, fear is at the root of the English veneration for gentility. (G.B.)
194 Sir Samuel Morton Peto (1809–89), M.P. for Norwich, 1847–54.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48