The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IX. Thackeray

§ 6. The Book of Snobs

On the covers of Vanity Fair, the Titmarsh of the Sketch Books, the Jeames and Mr. Snob of Punch, used his real name. His Protean changes of pseudonym may have had the effect of obscuring the reputation which his miscellaneous work deserved, and it was not until the new novel was well advanced in its serial course that it arrested popular interest. Much of the mass of writing which Thackeray had produced during the ten years which preceded Vanity Fair was purely fugitive: much is even flat and poor in quality. But he had acquired practice in a style which, allowing for its impatience of minor correctnesses of phrase and for some losseness of construction, is the perfection of natural ease. The history and literature of the eighteenth Barry Lyndon over and above the adventures of the hero. The combination of character-drawing with narrative and genial comment in The Book of Snobs traced its ancestry directly to The Spectator: the familiar tone of these essays, in which the barrier of literary convention is broken down and Mr. Snob talks at his ease with an audience of average education, is that of the eighteenth-century essayists, smooth and graceful. It would be useless to claim any eighteenth-century author as definitely the parent of a style which was Thackeray’s birthright: his kinship to the writers of this period was one of predilection and natural sentiment. In Fielding’s tolerant view of life he found the closest response to his own feelings, his appreciation of generosity and hatred of meanness. Just as he fell short, however, of Fielding’s pitiless consistency of irony, so, in his confidences to his readers, he had less of the assured superiority with which Fielding “seems to bring his armchair to the proscenium and chat with us in all the lusty ease of his fine English.” Fielding makes himself at home with us with a condescension which we welcome, treating us to conversation and criticism which are free from all extremes of passion and sentimentality, and judging character upon the broad basis of its merits without insisting upon casual detail. Mr. Snob, on the other hand, runs the risk of being dismissed as an intruder. He constitutes himself the critic of a society of which he assumes that snobbishness, “the mean admiration of mean things,” is the master passion. No detail escapes his eye. The hospitality of the Ponto household is not sacred to him: he dissects with unsparing minuteness the pretentiousness which sacrifices comfort to position. The sherry is marsala, the gin hollands, the groom who acts as footman has dirty hands and smells of the stable. Not that Mr. Snob is blind to the pathetic aspect of these subterfuges. It is impossible, nevertheless, to dwell, however lightly and amusingly, upon such trifles without a feeling of contempt; and this feeling is a constant corrective to pathos. While he anatomises snobbishness, its characteristic signs delight and feed his humour. He may assail it with invective or cover its victims with sympathy, but the pettinesses which he uncloaks and condemns are essential to his amusement.