The Book of Snobs, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter xlii

Club Snobs

Every well-bred English female will sympathize with the subject of the harrowing tale, the history of Sackville Maine, I am now about to recount. The pleasures of Clubs have been spoken of: let us now glance for a moment at the dangers of those institutions, and for this purpose I must introduce you to my young acquaintance, Sackville Maine.

It was at a ball at the house of my respected friend, Mrs. Perkins, that I was introduced to this gentleman and his charming lady. Seeing a young creature before me in a white dress, with white satin shoes; with a pink ribbon, about a yard in breadth, flaming out as she twirled in a polka in the arms of Monsieur de Springbock, the German diplomatist; with a green wreath on her head, and the blackest hair this individual set eyes on — seeing, I say, before me a charming young woman whisking beautifully in a beautiful dance, and presenting, as she wound and wound round the room, now a full face, then a three-quarter face, then a profile — a face, in fine, which in every way you saw it, looked pretty, and rosy, and happy, I felt (as I trust) a not unbecoming curiosity regarding the owner of this pleasant countenance, and asked Wagley (who was standing by, in conversation with an acquaintance) who was the lady in question?

‘Which?’ says Wagley.

‘That one with the coal-black eyes,’ I replied.

‘Hush!’ says he; and the gentleman with whom he was talking moved off, with rather a discomfited air.

When he was gone Wagley burst out laughing. ‘COAL-BLACK eyes!’ said he; ‘you’ve just hit it. That’s Mrs. Sackville Maine, and that was her husband who just went away. He’s a coal-merchant, Snob my boy, and I have no doubt Mr. Perkins’s Wallsends are supplied from his wharf. He is in a flaming furnace when he hears coals mentioned. He and his wife and his mother are very proud of Mrs. Sackville’s family; she was a Miss Chuff, daughter of Captain Chuff, R.N. That is the widow; that stout woman in crimson tabinet, battling about the odd trick with old Mr. Dumps, at the card-table.’

And so, in fact, it was. Sackville Maine (whose name is a hundred times more elegant, surely, than that of Chuff) was blest with a pretty wife, and a genteel mother-inlaw, both of whom some people may envy him.

Soon after his marriage the old lady was good enough to come and pay him a visit — just for a fortnight — at his pretty little cottage, Kennington Oval; and, such is her affection for the place, has never quitted it these four years. She has also brought her son, Nelson Collingwood Chuff, to live with her; but he is not so much at home as his mamma, going as a day-boy to Merchant Taylors’ School, where he is getting a sound classical education.

If these beings, so closely allied to his wife, and so justly dear to her, may be considered as drawbacks to Maine’s happiness, what man is there that has not some things in life to complain of? And when I first knew Mr. Maine, no man seemed more comfortable than he. His cottage was a picture of elegance and comfort; his table and cellar were excellently and neatly supplied. There was every enjoyment, but no ostentation. The omnibus took him to business of a morning; the boat brought him back to the happiest of homes, where he would while away the long evenings by reading out the fashionable novels to the ladies as they worked; or accompany his wife on the flute (which he played elegantly); or in any one of the hundred pleasing and innocent amusements of the domestic circle. Mrs. Chuff covered the drawing-rooms with prodigious tapestries, the work of her hands. Mrs. Sackville had a particular genius for making covers of tape or network for these tapestried cushions. She could make home-made wines. She could make preserves and pickles. She had an album, into which, during the time of his courtship, Sackville Maine bad written choice scraps of Byron’s and Moore’s poetry, analogous to his own situation, and in a fine mercantile hand. She had a large manuscript receipt-book — every quality, in a word, which indicated a virtuous and well-bred English female mind.

‘And as for Nelson Collingwood,’ Sackville would say, laughing, ‘we couldn’t do without him in the house. If he didn’t spoil the tapestry we should be ‘over-cushioned in a few months; and whom could we get but him to drink Laura’s home-made wine?’ The truth is, the gents who came from the City to dine at the ‘Oval’ could not be induced to drink it — in which fastidiousness, I myself, when I grew to be intimate with the family, confess that I shared.

‘And yet, sir, that green ginger has been drunk by some of England’s proudest heroes,’ Mrs. Chuff would exclaim. ‘Admiral Lord Exmouth tasted and praised it, sir, on board Captain Chuff’s ship, the “Nebuchadnezzar,” 74, at Algiers; and he had three dozen with turn in the “Pitchfork” frigate, a part of which was served out to the men before he went into his immortal action with the “Furibonde,” Captain Choufleur, in the Gulf of Panama.’

All this, though the old dowager told us the story every day when the wine was produced, never served to get rid of any quantity of it — and the green ginger, though it had fired British tars for combat and victory, was not to the taste of us peaceful and degenerate gents of modern times.

I see Sackville now, as on the occasion when, presented by Wagley, I paid my first visit to him. It was in July — a Sunday afternoon — Sackville Maine was coming from church, with his wife on one arm, and his mother-ill-law (in red tabinet, as usual,) on the other. A half-grown, or hobbadehoyish footman, so to speak, walked after them, carrying their shining golden prayer-books — the ladies had splendid parasols with tags and fringes. Mrs. Chuff’s great gold watch, fastened to her stomach, gleamed there like a ball of fire. Nelson Collingwood was in the distance, shying stones at an old horse on Kennington Common. ’Twas on that verdant spot we met — nor can I ever forget the majestic courtesy of Mrs. Chuff, as she remembered having had the pleasure of seeing me at Mrs. Perkins’s — nor the glance of scorn which she threw at an unfortunate gentleman who was preaching an exceedingly desultory discourse to a sceptical audience of omnibus-cads and nurse-maids, on a tub, as we passed by. ‘I cannot help it, sir,’ says she; ‘I am the widow of an officer of Britain’s Navy: I was taught to honour my Church and my King: and I cannot bear a Radical or a Dissenter.’

With these fine principles I found Sackville Maine impressed. ‘Wagley,’ said he, to my introducer, ‘if no better engagement, why shouldn’t self and friend dine at the “Oval?” Mr. Snob, sir, the mutton’s coming off the spit at this very minute. Laura and Mrs. Chuff’ (he said LAURAR and Mrs. Chuff; but I hate people who make remarks on these peculiarities of pronunciation,) ‘will be most happy to see you; and I can promise you a hearty welcome, and as good a glass of port-wine as any in England.’

‘This is better than dining at the “Sarcophagus,”’ thinks I to myself, at which Club Wagley and I had intended to take our meal; and so we accepted the kindly invitation, whence arose afterwards a considerable intimacy.

Everything about this family and house was so good-natured, comfortable, and well-conditioned, that a cynic would have ceased to growl there. Mrs. Laura was all graciousness and smiles, and looked to as great advantage in her pretty morning-gown as in her dress-robe at Mrs. Perkins’s. Mrs. Chuff fired off her stories about the ‘Nebuchadnezzar,’ 74, the action between the ‘Pitchfork’ and the ‘Furibonde’— the heroic resistance of Captain Choufleur, and the quantity of snuff he took, &c. &c.; which, as they were heard for the first time, were pleasanter than I have subsequently found them. Sackville Maine was the best of hosts. He agreed in everything everybody said, altering his opinions without the slightest reservation upon the slightest possible contradiction. He was not one of those beings who would emulate a Schonbein or Friar Bacon, or act the part of an incendiary towards the Thames, his neighbour — but a good, kind, simple, honest, easy fellow — in love with his wife — well disposed to all the world — content with himself, content even with his mother-inlaw. Nelson Collingwood, I remember, in the course of the evening, when whisky-and-water was for some reason produced, grew a little tipsy. This did not in the least move Sackville’s equanimity. ‘Take him upstairs, Joseph,’ said he to the hobbadehoy, ‘and — Joseph — don’t tell his mamma.’

What could make a man so happily disposed, unhappy? What could cause discomfort, bickering, and estrangement in a family so friendly and united? Ladies, it was not my fault — it was Mrs. Chuff’s doing — but the rest of the tale you shall have on a future day.

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