Look at Life: Snobbery

12th October 2018

The Infinite Cycle of Snobbery

by Deborah Mulhearn

A correction in a magazine made me laugh recently. It was about a political candidate, who ‘likes to spend his free time reading Tolstoy, and not watching Toy Story, as originally reported’. 

If the essence of snobbery is a wish to impress other people, as writer Virginia Woolf said, this is a revealing example of the social anxiety that underpins it, whether it’s material or intellectual.

But whose snobbery is being exposed here? That of the candidate, desperate to be thought of as a serious contender, or of the political party – panicking because their man gave the wrong impression? Or the magazine, pandering to the intellectual aspirations of its readers? Does it, even, say something about me because I think it’s funny?

Everyone knows what a snob is – someone who considers someone else inferior, in breeding, class, education, wealth or taste. But it’s not as simple as that. It cuts both ways, for a start. If you are looking down at someone, you must also be looking up at someone else. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that the candidate’s highbrow tastes could work against him, and that he’d actually get more votes if he admitted to watching endless Toy Story re-runs. 

Snobbery is all about class division and social aspirations. Any avid reader of Jane Austen will tell you that – although you won’t find the word ‘snob’ in her books. It was William Makepeace Thackeray, the writer of Vanity Fair, who brought the word into common currency in the 1840s. Before that it was a dialect word for a shoemaker. 

Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of Vanity Fair, is a determined social climber, but she was a snob in Thackeray’s original sense: someone who imitates the tastes and behaviour of their ‘betters’. Becky was also a victim of snobbery, in the way we understand it now, because her low social class and poverty meant she also suffered the condescension of those betters. 

Snobbery had long been Thackeray’s theme – before Vanity Fair was published in 1848 he was writing weekly sketches for Punch under the pseudonym Mr Snob, mocking snobbery at all levels and corners of society, and eventually published as The Book of Snobs. 

It’s no coincidence that snobbery and snobbish characters abound in 19th century novels. The rise of the novel coincided with the rise of the middle class and social mobility. Its modern meaning, as someone who shows off their superiority, came later, with the rise of consumerism and mass culture in the 20th century. 

It’s also a shifting concept, subject to fashions and fads. In the days before such a bewildering array of TV channels, I was a TV channel snob. I would have turned my nose up at Vanity Fair because it was on ITV, but happily watched it on BBC. Yet these distinctions are meaningless now, because high production values and A-list actors are everywhere on today’s tv.

Snobs pervade all classes, noted Thackeray. Snobbery can’t exist in a vacuum, and we are all snobs about something. You may look down on me because I drive a Skoda, but I may sneer at you because you are impressed by flash cars. 

Cars, schools, shoes, handbags, books, wine, coffee, accents, even postcodes - there’s an endless list of things to be snobbish about. 

Maybe snobbery serves a social purpose – it’s good to be more discerning, right? Well, not really, because it has real and damaging consequences. It’s used to exclude people for spurious reasons, from school cliques to old boys’ networks like golf clubs, not to mention being overlooked for a job or a promotion, or the odious ‘poor’ doors in some housing schemes (separate entrances for social housing tenants). 

To be a snob, you have to create a barrier between the perceived ‘elite’ to which you aspire, and everyone else. But there’s an inherent contradiction in it all. Snob value, the reasoning goes, creates a ‘virtuous’ circle of demand. But surely it loses its snob appeal as it gets more popular? It’s irrational as it is ridiculous, as comedy writers are well aware.

On the other hand, we may go to great lengths to prove we are not snobs. I’m not a supermarket snob, for example. I go to the nearest, which happens to be Aldi. But then so does everyone now – which means I may just check out the new Lidl that’s opened nearby… just to get away from the crowds, you understand.

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