The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xvi

On Literary Snobs

What will he say about Literary Snobs? has been a question, I make no doubt, often asked by the public. How can he let off his own profession? Will that truculent and unsparing monster who attacks the nobility, the clergy, the army, and the ladies, indiscriminately, hesitate when the turn comes to EGORGER his own flesh and blood?

My dear and excellent querist, whom does the schoolmaster flog so resolutely as his own son? Didn’t Brutus chop his offspring’s head off? You have a very bad opinion indeed of the present state of literature and of literary men, if you fancy that any one of us would hesitate to stick a knife into his neighbour penman, if the latter’s death could do the State any service.

But the fact is, that in the literary profession THERE ARE NO SNOBS. Look round at the whole body of British men of letters; and I defy you to point out among them a single instance of vulgarity, or envy, or assumption.

Men and women, as far as I have known them, they are all modest in their demeanour, elegant in their manners, spotless in their lives, and honourable in their conduct to the world and to each other. You MAY, occasionally, it is true, hear one literary man abusing his brother; but why? Not in the least out of malice; not at all from envy; merely from a sense of truth and public duty. Suppose, for instance, I, good-naturedly point out a blemish in my friend MR. PUNCH’S person, and say, MR. P. has a hump-back, and his nose and chin are more crooked than those features in the Apollo or Antinous, which we are accustomed to consider as our standards of beauty; does this argue malice on my part towards MR. PUNCH? Not in the least. It is the critic’s duty to point out defects as well as merits, and he invariably does his duty with utmost gentleness and candour.

An intelligent foreigner’s testimony about our manners is always worth having, and I think, in this respect the work of an eminent American, Mr. N. P. Willis is eminently valuable and impartial. In his ‘History of Ernest Clay,’ a crack magazine-writer, the reader will get an exact account of the life of a popular man of letters in England. He is always the lion of society.

He takes the PAS of dukes and earls; all the nobility crowd to see him: I forget how many baronesses and duchesses fall in love with him. But on this subject let us hold our tongues. Modesty forbids that we should reveal the names of the heart-broken countesses and dear marchionesses who are pining for every one of the contributors in PUNCH.

If anybody wants to know how intimately authors are connected with the fashionable world, they have but to read the genteel novels. What refinement and delicacy pervades the works of Mrs. Barnaby! What delightful good company do you meet with in Mrs. Armytage! She seldom introduces you to anybody under a marquis! I don’t know anything more delicious than the pictures of genteel life in ‘Ten Thousand a Year,’ except perhaps the ‘Young Duke,’ and ‘Coningsby.’ There’s a modest grace about THEM, and an air of easy high fashion, which only belongs to blood, my dear Sir — to true blood.

And what linguists many of our writers are! Lady Bulwer, Lady Londonderry, Sir Edward himself — they write the French language with a luxurious elegance and ease which sets them far above their continental rivals, of whom not one (except Paul de Kock) knows a word of English.

And what Briton can read without enjoyment the works of James, so admirable for terseness; and the playful humour and dazzling offhand lightness of Ainsworth? Among other humourists, one might glance at a Jerrold, the chivalrous advocate of Toryism and Church and State; an a Beckett, with a lightsome pen, but a savage earnestness of purpose; a Jeames, whose pure style, and wit unmingled with buffoonery, was relished by a congenial public.

Speaking of critics, perhaps there never was a review that has done so much for literature as the admirable QUARTERLY. It has its prejudices, to be sure, as which of us has not? It goes out of its way to abuse a great man, or lays mercilessly on to such pretenders as Keats and Tennyson; but, on the other hand, it is the friend of all young authors, and has marked and nurtured all the rising talent of the country. It is loved by everybody. There, again, is BLACKWOOD’S MAGAZINE— conspicuous for modest elegance and amiable satire; that review never passes the bounds of politeness in a joke. It is the arbiter of manners; and, while gently exposing the foibles of Londoners (for whom the BEAUX ESPRITS of Edinburgh entertain a justifiable contempt), it is never coarse in its fun. The fiery enthusiasm of the ATHENAEUM is well known: and the bitter wit of the too difficult LITERARY GAZETTE. The EXAMINER is perhaps too timid, and the SPECTATOR too boisterous in its praise — but who can carp at these minor faults? No, no; the critics of England and the authors of England are unrivalled as a body; and hence it becomes impossible for us to find fault with them.

Above all, I never knew a man of letters ASHAMED OF HIS PROFESSION. Those who know us, know what an affectionate and brotherly spirit there is among us all. Sometimes one of us rises in the world: we never attack him or sneer at him under those circumstances, but rejoice to a man at his success. If Jones dines with a lord, Smith never says Jones is a courtier and cringer. Nor, on the other hand, does Jones, who is in the habit of frequenting the society of great people, give himself any airs on account of the company he keeps; but will leave a duke’s arm in Pall Mall to come over and speak to poor Brown, the young penny-a-liner.

That sense of equality and fraternity amongst authors has always struck me as one of the most amiable characteristics of the class. It is because we know and respect each other, that the world respects us so much; that we hold such a good position in society, and demean ourselves so irreproachably when there.

Literary persons are held in such esteem by the nation that about two of them have been absolutely invited to court during the present reign; and it is probable that towards the end of the season, one or two will be asked to dinner by Sir Robert Peel.

They are such favourites with the public, that they are continually obliged to have their pictures taken and published; and one or two could be pointed out, of whom the nation insists upon having a fresh portrait every year. Nothing can be more gratifying than this proof of the affectionate regard which the people has for its instructors.

Literature is held in such honour in England, that there is a sum of near twelve hundred pounds per annum set apart to pension deserving persons following that profession. And a great compliment this is, too, to the professors, and a proof of their generally prosperous and flourishing condition. They are generally so rich and thrifty, that scarcely any money is wanted to help them.

If every word of this is true, how, I should like to know am I to write about Literary Snobs?

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