What is social snobbery

The prestigious society

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Book review / archive | Article from July 18, 2011

William Makepeace Thackeray: "The Book of Snobs". Manesse, Zurich, 464 pages

William Makepeace Thackeray in a contemporary presentation. (picture alliance / dpa)

The vicious feature articles by the author William Makepeace Thackeray appeared in the satirical magazine "Punch" in 1846/47. Almost every line of this sparkling gem full of ridicule and esprit reveals that the snob by no means died out with the Victorian era.

Arrogant, pompous, unsympathetic: you think you know pretty well what a snob is. It is still not known where the word actually comes from, at least it supposedly does not come from the Latin "sine nobilitate" ("s.nob." For short, meaning "without refinement").

What is certain, however, is what brought the snob on everyone's lips: It was William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) who popularized the type. As if he had warmed himself up for his great social novel "The Vanity Fair", he wrote a gorgeously comical typology of this type of people, which has not gone out of fashion to this day, in 52 chapters.

"Snobs are to be explored like other objects of the natural sciences and they are part of the beautiful," he says in the foreword. And he shows them in strange contortions trying to represent something they are not: would-be gentlemen, impostors, parvenus. He moves everyone on the fur, the blasé high nobility, city bankers on the verge of bankruptcy, conceited epaulets, "fashion victims", the slaves of fashion, or wheel-turning intellectuals.

He caricatures the factory owner's wife at lordship banquets as well as the snobbish arrogance of the nobleman, who can afford the inherited idleness with servants in peach-colored trousers only thanks to marriage with middle-class money. In delicious anecdotes full of sensual details, Thackeray unfolds the panorama of a prestigious society that, like the golden calf, worships social status. The author by no means puts himself out of the line of fire. Anything but a bitter moralist, he can always be found wherever the best society puts the door handle in the ice-covered hand and whiskey and champagne flow.

According to Thackeray, snobs come in many varieties, they appear in almost every situation, as club snobs, continental snobs, snobs in marriage, radical snobs, university snobs. The pleasure of reading lies in the razor-sharp observations on the psychology of social advancement - and the respect that the author has for a system that he completely sees through, but which, precisely because of its bizarre nature, does not simply judge it.

Thackeray, born in Calcutta, India in 1811 as the son of a British colonial official, studied this species in many parts of the world, in England, where he grew up, in Paris and Rome, where he learned to paint, in Weimar, where he was introduced to Goethe London clubs. There he got by with journalistic work.

His wonderfully snappy feature articles appeared weekly in the satirical magazine "Punch" in 1846/47. Now, for the first time, they are completely available in German. In Gisbert Haefs, a translator has been found who is able to translate Thackeray's distinctive vocabulary, including stylistic glories, into German in a virtuoso manner. Pleasantly concise notes not only guide the reader reliably through the who's who of English society, but they also convey the necessary background knowledge about quotations from the Bible and Shakespeare or fashion drugs of the time such as the sherry cubbler. Almost every line of this sparkling gem full of ridicule and esprit reveals that the snob by no means died out with the Victorian era.

Reviewed by Edelgard Abenstein

William Makepeace Thackeray: "The Book of Snobs". From the English by Gisbert Haefs, Manesse-Verlag, Zurich 2011, 464 pages, 22.95 euros.