This article has been transcribed from a copy of the Cardiff Times in the online collection of scanned Welsh newspapers 1804-1919 in the National Library of Wales, with grateful recognition of the free access accorded to all readers. Paragraph breaks have been introduced for easier reading.
According to OED Shabby-Gentility is the attempt to look genteel and keep up appearances in spite of shabbiness. For many in the Victorian period, Thackeray and Dickens were the authors who best defined this condition. Samuel lacks their descriptive flair and their social and economic understanding, and hence presents his subject with less sympathy.
'the cup that cheers and inebriates' is from Thomas Cowper, The Task: 'the cup that cheers and not inebriates' i.e, tea.
here is no more tantalising state of existence in this vale of tears and sorrow, sir, than that known to the world as shabby-genteel. Like the proverbial drop of water on the rock it has a wearing effect, a tendency to make men bitter and women mean. The whole atmosphere surrounding the kingdom of shabby-gentility is tinged with cynicism and its inmates are apt to degenerate into scoffers. They always find what they call Fate against them; their Iives are one round of shadows, and it not unfrequently happens that when the grim old reaper calls for one of their fellows the careworn remnants of humanity he leaves behind almost regret he had not called for them and left their comrade.
Left: The Major. Right: The governess's mother.
Few outside the fringe of shabby genteel domain know the ways and manners of its people. They little think of the struggle life is to them — especially to those who in brighter scenes lived happier lives. There is no house in the semi-respectable back streets and byeways where shabby gentility resides that has not got a history encased within its doors. No need to leave the neighbourhood if you desire to hear a thrilling story or a sad romance. They are all here, sir, ready to your hand, if only you can get their heroes and heroines to unfold them for you. But shabby gentility is proud, sir — very proud. Close clasped within hearts that beat beneath its threadbare garments it keeps its secrets, and full often takes them with it to its last home in the green churchyard, where sorrow sleepeth and life’s shadows cease.
Yes, sir, there is some humour to be found in the midst of all the sadness, some eccentricity of character worthy the study of a Dickens or a Sims. There is, for instance, the military type of shabby gentility who once held a commission in her Majesty's army, and who, having retired from active service and gone through a fortune left him by a benevolent relative, has entered the land of the shabby-genteel to eke out the remainder of his days on the munificent pension granted him by a not-too-grateful country. He is a figure in his little world and is familiarly known as 'The Major.' He has lost his money, but he has preserved his style; and though his clothes are not of the latest, yet there is a certain air of aristocracy about them that never fails to have its effect upon the casual observer. 'Once a gentleman always a gentleman' is his belief, and in spite of all his reverses he has never lost that undefinable something that stamps a man of birth and breeding. He may only be able to wear the simplest flower in his closely-buttoned frock coat, but he wears it with all the air of aristocracy with which he was wont to sport his expensive button-holes in other days in the Strand or Rotten Row. The damsel who supplies him with his morning bitter at the hotel he frequents prizes more a simple pansy from his button-hole than she does the expensive roses brought her by her wealthy but plebeian admirers. Yet he is shabby genteel, and he feels his position acutely when by accident an old friend passes him by with the stoniest of smiles and the slightest inclination of a wealthy head. He is considered a real good sort of fellow by those who meet him in the evening at the aforesaid hostelry, where he tells tales of the world he once knew over the cup that cheers and inebriates. He can crack a joke with the best of them, and when the laughter rings out loud and long what think his chorus of the memories gnawing at his heart-strings, or of the black ghosts of the dead past that rise to greet him in his back room on his return to the place he has of necessity made his home. They are not shabby-genteel.
Shabby genteel clerk.
Then there is the neat-figured young lady who goes out about half-past eight in the morning and returns within measurable distance of six in the evening. She has seen better days, and is now employed in the not too congenial occupations attached to the office of a daily governess. Her pallid face, gradually decaying garments, and sad smile tell of the wear and tear of shabby gentility. She was wont – and that not many years ago — to dwell in the halls of dazzling light, and to receive the flattery and adulation of the wealthy and the aristocratic. Speculation, reckless expenditure, and over-reaching after position in the world of society ended in ruin and disgrace, and the once-adored darling of the country-side found herself reduced to the necessity of earning her own living in a world which has a contempt for shabby-genteel people. Her life is one daily round of drudgery, of trying to cram her stock of knowledge into minds not noted for their receptivity, and of bearing patiently the impertinence of her pupils, who, being the children of middle-class opulence, are not lacking in middle-class arrogance, and look upon a governess as a being two or three degrees removed from a housemaid or a gardener. Small wonder if the girl, after a long round of such drudgery as this, falls a victim to the pleading of some good-looking scoundrel and leaves the haunts shabby-gentility for what to her looks like a dream of bliss, but which, alas too often turns out to be a reality of degradation.
Another type of the shabby-genteel is the white-haired lawyer's clerk, who has struggled for years for position and peace, but who is as near his goal to-day as he was 30 years ago. He is not unlike the lawyers one sees on the stage, staid, respectable, and poor -- very poor. He has a regular salary, and is in the employ of a firm of some note in the world. But his salary is not a large one, and he is expected to keep up a decent appearance in the interest of his employers, who never think for a moment that the salary they pay him must, to a man with a wife and family, mean an existence and not a living. He is one of those unfortunate people who are too useful to make any mark in the world. Anything in the ordinary routine work of his office he can do, and it is his misfortune to have it to do on any occasion when there is a push of business. He has grown up in the dingy old office, where he went as a youth years ago, and has pottered on in regulation fashion, whilst less able but more spasmodically brilliant juniors were promoted over his head. No one ever appeared to think of him being promoted — the place would not seem the same if he were removed from his position, and when he once asked for a change his employers laughed and said he was too useful where he was, and they really could not think of a change. And so he went on vegetating, earning the respect and confidence of all about him, but getting no nearer the top of the tree than he was the first day he mounted the stool he will in all probability occupy until he dies. He has grown so used to shabby-gentility now that he would feel ill at ease if he were suddenly removed to a sphere where pinching and scraping to make ends meet did not form part and parcel of his daily life. There is, sir, not much difference in the lives of those who live in this world I write of. They are all occupied with the same object – the terrible attempt to make their neighbours think they are not what they are. They tend with care their garments and their secrets, and try to hide both from the Iight of day. They do not live, they only exist, and few, if any, of those without the pale know what an awful heartaching business such existing is. Therefore, I say to those who are well favoured by Dame Fortune, do not sneer at the shabby-genteel, but lend them a helping hand when occasion offers, and believe me, you will get more satisfaction out of the action than you are ever likely to obtain from the usual sneer, which has an effect you do not wot of upon the lives of these poor unfortunates.
Last modified 8 April 2022