The following passage, which comes from Thackeray’s Book of Snobs makes an interesting satiric example of Herbert Spencer’s critical comments on Victorian formal dinner parties and other social practices of the middle and upper classes. — Jacqueline Banerjee
When a man goes into a great set company of dinner-giving and dinner-receiving Snobs, if he has a philosophical turn of mind, he will consider what a huge humbug the whole affair is: the dishes, and the drink, and the servants, and the plate, and the host and hostess, and the conversation, and the company,—the philosopher included.
The host is smiling, and hob-nobbing, and talking up and down the table; but a prey to secret terrors and anxieties, lest the wines he has brought up from the cellar should prove insufficient; lest a corked bottle should destroy his calculations; or our friend the carpet-beater, by making some BEVUE, should disclose his real quality of greengrocer, and show that he is not the family butler.
The hostess is smiling resolutely through all the courses, smiling through her agony; though her heart is in the kitchen, and she is speculating with terror lest there be any disaster there. If the SOUFFLE should collapse, or if Wiggins does not send the ices in time—she feels as if she would commit suicide—that smiling, jolly woman!
The children upstairs are yelling, as their maid is crimping their miserable ringlets with hot tongs, tearing Miss Emmy's hair out by the roots, or scrubbing Miss Polly's dumpy nose with mottled soap till the little wretch screams herself into fits. The young males of the family are employed, as we have stated, in piratical exploits upon the landing-place.
The servants are not servants, but the before-mentioned retail tradesmen.
The plate is not plate, but a mere shiny Birmingham lacquer; and so is the hospitality, and everything else.
The talk is Birmingham talk. The wag of the party, with bitterness in his heart, having just quitted his laundress, who is dunning him for her bill, is firing off good stories; and the opposition wag is furious that he cannot get an innings. Jawkins, the great conversationalist, is scornful and indignant with the pair of them, because he is kept out of court. Young Muscadel, that cheap dandy, is talking Fashion and Almack's out of the MORNING POST, and disgusting his neighbour, Mrs. Fox, who reflects that she has never been there. The widow is vexed out of patience, because her daughter Maria has got a place beside young Cambric, the penniless curate, and not by Colonel Goldmore, the rich widower from India. The Doctor's wife is sulky, because she has not been led out before the barrister's lady; old Doctor Cork is grumbling at the wine, and Guttleton sneering at the cookery.
And to think that all these people might be so happy, and easy, and friendly, were they brought together in a natural unpretentious way, and but for an unhappy passion for peacocks' feathers in England. Gentle shades of Marat and Robespierre! when I see how all the honesty of society is corrupted among us by the miserable fashion-worship, I feel as angry as Mrs. Fox just mentioned, and ready to order a general BATTUE of peacocks.
- Herbert Spencer on the Folly of Victorian Formal Dinners
- Herbert Spencer on Social Satire
- Social Class
- The Gentleman
Last modified 19 November 2019