The British class system is a bewilderingly arcane construct, and snobbery is a sort of running commentary on it. D. J. Taylor is a novelist and critic who has made himself something of a specialist interpreter of this whole issue. He writes with deadpan humor, as if he can’t really believe all the social and literary mischief he’s stumbled upon but passes it on just the same. (Full disclosure: Bright Young People, a book he published in 2007 laying out for inspection upper-class antics between the world wars, has a section about my father entitled “Mr. Pryce-Jones’s Connections,” which could be incorporated word for word in this new book.) “Am I a snob?” Taylor asks in his opening pages here, quickly picking up on it, “I really hope not.” Giving reassurance that he is “certainly not of what used to be called a ‘good’ family,” and just as certainly not a “gentleman,” he then backtracks with the generalization that when it comes to snobbery, “we are in it together.” Snobs of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your foibles.
An outstanding example that I (not Taylor) like to recall is Virginia Woolf’s sneer at the brown shoes worn by the police chief of Ceylon when he came to lunch, as though an item of footwear invalidated an experience of humankind far more extensive than anything in Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury. Taylor matches this in the person of Mary Warnock. One of the great and good, head of an Oxford college and a public intellectual constantly appointed to sit on this committee and that, she saw fit to criticize Mrs. Thatcher, because “watching her choose clothes at Marks and Spencer, there was something really quite obscene about it.” This exceptionally clever woman, in Taylor’s words, was “basing her estimate of a politician’s competence to govern the country on the way in which she selects clothing in a department store.”
Brilliant little vignettes illustrate how snobbery falsifies personality and relationships. The main lesson is that expectations cannot be met, and Taylor describes the harm that very different characters did to themselves in the recent past on the national stage—the Regency dandy Beau Brummell; an absurd littérateur by the name of Ralph Straus; Tom Driberg, strict in all matters of protocol and manners but flamboyantly exaggerated about homosexuality; and the Kray twins, in their prime the country’s most hardened criminals. Taylor reflects how strange it is that individuals with no common background, tastes, or political opinions are similar snobs when it comes to building the image they would like. An exemplary aesthete, James Lees-Milne moved in rarified circles; his life’s work was to save the best country houses from destruction. In contrast and no less exemplary, Dennis Skinner, once a coal miner, has for years been a hard-Left Member of Parliament, known as “the Beast of Bolsover” (his constituency). To complicate things, ambition is close to pretension. Taylor thinks that two keen self-promoters, Katie Price and Lord Prescott, the former an ex-model—I had never heard of her—and the latter a Socialist politician, are both wrongly ridiculed by the public for this reason, but have only themselves to blame.
Taylor takes a lot of his material from literature, beginning with William Makepeace Thackeray, the original researcher of snobbery, moving on to Trollope, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, Anthony Powell (the Grand Master of social degree), Paul Johnson, Margaret Drabble, and finishing with Angela Carter and others whom I have never read, as well as Laura Talbot, apparently an earl’s daughter, of whom I had never even heard. The point is that snobbery and fiction connect. Every novel is only as good as the moral instruction inherent in the narrative. The novelist has to provide the details that distinguish the good from the bad, right from wrong, tragedy from comedy, so that our hero illustrates what in these circumstances ought to be done, or is not to be done. The snob is writing the part for himself.
Finally Taylor surrenders outright to fiction, in the form of half a dozen sketches describing how awkward it is for a snob to decide where to live, which school the children should attend, with whom to dine, all the effort and the risk involved in smoothing over the uncertainties of social climbing. The British happen to be in the throes of an identity crisis, and this quite short book conveys more insight into the way they are living than any number of academic studies—and it’s cheerful too.