W.M. Thacheray’s The Book of Snobs (Alan Sutton 1989)
I’ve just reblogged Jaynelinney’s article criticising the media’s use of the poor as a kind of zoo, who can be patronised on camera by visits from ostensibly well-meaning celebrities and TV producers, expressing concerns about their plight. Her piece was inspired by the article, to which she links, in ‘Independent Voices’ in the Indie, about how the middle classes have been regularly traipsing into slums and working class poverty to see how the ‘other half’ live for almost 200 years now. That article mentions, amongst others, Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor, and George Orwell’s classic, The Road to Wigan Pier, as well as more recent works by Polly Toynbee. Orwell comes in for something of a bashing as he undertook his journey to the heart of industrial darkness as a journo in search of a subject, not as a social campaigner. The book that followed annoyed a member of the National Unemployed Union so much, that he wrote his own book, tracing the journey in reverse, so that he travelled from the depressed areas to the leafy suburbs of Epsom. For the writer of the Independent article, what we need are fewer middle class writers patronising the working class, and more working class writers casting acerbic, jaundiced prose and writing at the Middle and Upper classes and their lives of wealth and luxury.
Thackeray and Snobs, Ancient and Modern
This would, actually, be an interesting experiment, and could produce something really radical. In the hands of a good writer, it could produce something like Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, but with added social bite. Thackeray was, of course, solidly middle class, and certainly didn’t deny it. The book is subtitled ‘By One of Themselves’. It was originally published by Punch, when it was still slightly subversive, more like Private Eye today than the eminently respectable, establishment organ it later became. Each chapter describes a particular class of snob, who were defined as ‘someone who meanly admires mean things’. Reading it I was struck by how modern it still sounds, despite having first seen print in 1846-7. For example, Thackeray’s chapter on ‘University Snobs’ has this to say about the ‘Philosophical Snob’.
The Philosophical Snob of the 1840s and Their Modern University Descendants
Then there were Philosophical Snobs, who used to ape statesmen at the spouting-clubs, and who believed as a fact that Government always had an eye on the University for the selection of orators for the House of Commons. There were audacious young free-thinkers, who adored nobody or nothing, except perhaps Robespierre and the Koran, and panted for the day when the pale name of priest should shrink and dwindle away before the indignation of an enlightened world.
If you think of the earnest young people, who discovered radical politics at university, or who joined the Student Union and the various political associations with a view to starting a career in politics, or simply read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Uni before joining the staff of an MP on graduation as a researcher, then Thackeray’s description above actually isn’t that different from what goes on today. Robespierre, of course, was the leader of the dreaded Committee for Public Safety, responsible for killing hundreds of thousands during the French Revolution in the name of republicanism, democracy and Deism, so you can easily see a parallel there between the snobs earnestly reading his works, and some of the radicals in the 1960s, who joined the various Communist parties and loudly hailed Mao’s Little Red Book. As for the free-thinkers, who used to toast the day when the last king would be strangled in the bowels of the last priest, that reminds me of the various atheist and secularist societies that sprang up on campuses a few years ago, all talking earnestly about the threat of religion to science and quoting Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert.
the Upper Classes at Uni, and the Perils of their Lower Class Imitators
But it is the poor university students who try to copy their far wealthier social superiors, about whom Thackeray is most scathing. He states:
But the worst of all University Snobs are those unfortunates who go to rack and ruin from their desire to ape their betters. Smith becomes acquainted with great people at college, and is ashamed of his father the tradesman. Jones has fine acquaintances, and lives after their fashion like a gay free-hearted fellow as he is, and ruins his father, and robs his sister’s portion, and cripples his younger brother’s outset in life, for the pleasure of entertaining my lord, and riding by the side of Sir John And though it may be very good fun for Robinson to fuddle himself at home as he does at College, and to be brought home by the policeman he has just been trying to knock down-think what fun for the poor old soul his mother!-the half-pay captain’s widow, who has been pinching herself all her life long, in order that that jolly young fellow might have a university education.
Unfortunately, little also seems to have changed here in the last nearly 170 year since Thackeray wrote that. I did some voluntary work a few weeks ago for M Shed here in Bristol. Many of the other volunteers were also university students and graduates, who were hoping to find a career in museum work. Discussing the country’s problems, one older lady stated very forcefully that the problem was that none of the country’s leaders now came from the working class. Just about everyone agreed with her on this point. One of the university students made the point very many have also made, about politicians coming directly from Oxford, where they studied PPE, and haven’t done a proper day’s work in their lives. The girl told us that one of her friends, who was ‘a little bit posh’, had gone to Oxford and been shocked at how dominated it was by the aristocracy. And have I heard of students, who have managed to irritate their fellows by copying the manners of Oxford upper crust.
Domination of Society by the Upper Classes, regardless of Merit
As for the chapter ‘What Snobs Admire’, where Thackeray describes the life and career of a fictional snob, Lord Buckram, who goes and gets flogged at Eton, studies at Oxford, and then marries well on graduation to a rich heiress, before taking his place among the gilded youth. Thackeray could be describing modern snobbery in all its pomp today, especially, but not exclusively, amongst the cabinet:
Suppose he is a young nobleman of a literary turn, and that he published poems ever so foolish and feeble; the Snobs would purchase thousands of his volumes: the publishers (who refused my Passion-Flowers, and my grand Epic at any price) would give him his own. Suppose he is a nobleman of a jovial turn, and has a fancy for wrenching off knockers, frequenting gin-shops, and half murdering policemen: the public will sympathize good-naturedly with his amusements, and say he is a hearty, honest fellow. Suppose he is fond of play and the turf, and has a fancy to be a blackleg, and occasionally condescends to pluck a pigeon at cards; the public will pardon him, and many honest people will court him, as they would court a housebreaker if he happened to be a Lord. Suppose he is an idiot; yet, by the glorious constitution, he is good enough to govern us. Suppose he is an honest, high-minded gentleman; so much the better for himself. But he may be an ass, and yet respected; or a ruffian, and yet be exceeding popular; or a rogue, and yet excuses will be found for him. Snow sill still worship him. Male snobs will do him honour, and females look kindly on him, however hideous he may be.
Snobbishness Revived, and Britain Going Back to 19th century
This just about describes the social privileges and the expectations of immediate public deference of the entire Tory front bench. All this was, of course, supposed to have been done away in the ‘white heat’ of the ’60s, when, along with the development of new technology, and new classlessness was supposed to have swept through the nation. Well, that may have been the case then, but things have since gone backwards. There are now fewer Labour MPs, who come from a working class background, than there were before the ’60s. Hugh Massingberd, in one of his essays in the Times in the 1980s, celebrated the revival of the fortunes of the aristocracy and the country house under Maggie Thatcher as ‘a new social restoration’. The Libertarians have emerged from out of the Union of Conservative Students to preach Von Hayek and Von Mises’ revival of classical economics, with all its faults, with the exception that in general the 19th century economists approved of trade unions. Well, the new classlessness of the 1960s has thoroughly died down, and the Coalition is leading us forward into the 19th century.