The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xiii

On Clerical Snobs

Among the varieties of the Snob Clerical, the University Snob and the Scholastic Snob ought never to be forgotten; they form a very strong battalion in the black-coated army.

The wisdom of our ancestors (which I admire more and more every day) seemed to have determined that education of youth was so paltry and unimportant a matter, that almost any man, armed with a birch and regulation cassock and degree, might undertake the charge: and many an honest country gentleman may be found to the present day, who takes very good care to have a character with his butler when he engages him and will not purchase a horse without the warranty and the closest inspection; but sends off his son, young John Thomas, to school without asking any questions about the Schoolmaster, and places the lad at Switchester College, under Doctor Block, because he (the good old English gentleman) had been at Switchester, under Doctor Buzwig, forty years ago.

We have a love for all little boys at school; for many scores of thousands of them read and love PUNCH:— may he never write a word that shall not be honest and fit for them to read! He will not have his young friends to be Snobs in the future, or to be bullied by Snobs, or given over to such to be educated. Our connexion with the youth at the Universities is very close and affectionate. The candid undergraduate is our friend. The pompous old College Don trembles in his common room, lest we should attack him and show him up as a Snob.

When railroads were threatening to invade the land which they have since conquered, it may be recollected what a shrieking and outcry the authorities of Oxford and Eton made, lest the iron abominations should come near those seats of pure learning, and tempt the British youth astray. The supplications were in vain; the railroad is in upon them, and the old-world institutions are doomed. I felt charmed to read in the papers the other day a most veracious puffing advertisement headed, ‘To College and back for Five Shillings.’ ‘The College Gardens (it said) will be thrown open on this occasion; the College youths will perform a regatta; the Chapel of King’s College will have its celebrated music;’— and all for five shillings! The Goths have got into Rome; Napoleon Stephenson draws his republican lines round the sacred old cities and the ecclesiastical big-wigs who garrison them must prepare to lay down key and crosier before the iron conqueror.

If you consider, dear reader, what profound snobbishness the University System produced, you will allow that it is time to attack some of those feudal middle-age superstitions. If you go down for five shillings to look at the ‘College Youths,’ you may see one sneaking down the court without a tassel to his cap; another with a gold or silver fringe to his velvet trencher; a third lad with a master’s gown and hat, walking at ease over the sacred College grass-plats, which common men must not tread on.

He may do it because he is a nobleman. Because a lad is a lord, the University gives him a degree at the end of two years which another is seven in acquiring. Because he is a lord, he has no call to go through an examination. Any man who has not been to College and back for five shillings, would not believe in such distinctions in a place of education, so absurd and monstrous do they seem to be.

The lads with gold and silver lace are sons of rich gentlemen and called Fellow Commoners; they are privileged to feed better than the pensioners, and to have wine with their victuals, which the latter can only get in their rooms.

The unlucky boys who have no tassels to their caps, are called sizars — SERVITORS at Oxford —(a very pretty and gentlemanlike title). A distinction is made in their clothes because they are poor; for which reason they wear a badge of poverty, and are not allowed to take their meals with their fellow-students.

When this wicked and shameful distinction was set up, it was of a piece with all the rest — a part of the brutal, unchristian, blundering feudal system. Distinctions of rank were then so strongly insisted upon, that it would have been thought blasphemy to doubt them, as blasphemous as it is in parts of the United States now for a nigger to set up as the equal of a white man. A ruffian like Henry VIII. talked as gravely about the divine powers vested in him, as if he had been an inspired prophet. A wretch like James I. not only believed that there was in himself a particular sanctity, but other people believed him. Government regulated the length of a merchant’s shoes as well as meddled with his trade, prices, exports, machinery. It thought itself justified in roasting a man for his religion, or pulling a Jew’s teeth out if he did not pay a contribution, or ordered him to dress in a yellow gabardine, and locked him in a particular quarter.

Now a merchant may wear what boots he pleases, and has pretty nearly acquired the privilege of buying and selling without the Government laying its paws upon the bargain. The stake for heretics is gone; the pillory is taken down; Bishops are even found lifting up their voices against the remains of persecution, and ready to do away with the last Catholic Disabilities. Sir Robert Peel, though he wished it ever so much, has no power over Mr. Benjamin Disraeli’s grinders, or any means of violently handling that gentleman’s jaw. Jews are not called upon to wear badges: on the contrary, they may live in Piccadilly, or the Minories, according to fancy; they may dress like Christians, and do sometimes in a most elegant and fashionable manner.

Why is the poor College servitor to wear that name and that badge still? Because Universities are the last places into which Reform penetrates. But now that she can go to College and back for five shillings, let her travel down thither.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00