"On Vulgarity and Affectation" 1
Few subjects are more nearly allied than these two -- vulgarity and affectation. It may be said of them truly that 'thin partitions do their bounds divide.' There cannot be a surer proof of a low origin or of an innate meanness of disposition than to be always talking and thinking of being genteel. One must feel a strong tendency to that which one is always trying to avoid: whenever we pretend, on all occasions, a mighty contempt for anything, it is a pretty clear sign that we feel ourselves very nearly on a level with it. Of the two classes of people, I hardly know which is to be regarded with most distaste, the vulgar aping the genteel, or the genteel constantly sneering at and endeavouring to distinguish themselves from the vulgar. These two sets of persons are always thinking of one another; the lower of the higher with envy, the more fortunate of their less happy neighbours with contempt. They are habitually placed in opposition to each other; jostle in their pretensions at every turn; and the same objects and train of thought (only reversed by the relative situation of either party) occupy their whole time and attention. The one are straining every nerve, and outraging common sense, to be thought genteel; the others have no other object or idea in their heads than not to be thought vulgar. This is but poor spite; a very pitiful style of ambition. To be merely not that which one heartily despises is a very humble claim to superiority: to despise what one really is, is still worse. Most of the characters in Miss Burney's novels2 -- the Branghtons, the Smiths, the Dubsters, the Cecilias, the Delvilles, etc. -- are well met in this respect, and much of a piece: the one half are trying not to be taken for themselves, and the other half not to be taken for the first. They neither of them have any pretensions of their own, or real standard of worth. 'A feather will turn the scale of their avoirdupois'; though the fair authoress was not aware of the metaphysical identity of her principal and subordinate characters. Affectation is the master-key to both.
Gentility is only a more select and artificial kind of vulgarity. It cannot exist but by a sort of borrowed distinction. It plumes itself up and revels in the homely pretensions of the mass of mankind. It judges of the worth of everything by name, fashion, and opinion; and hence, from the conscious absence of real qualities or sincere satisfaction in itself, it builds its supercilious and fantastic conceit on the wretchedness and wants of others. Violent antipathies are always suspicious, and betray a secret affinity. The difference between the 'Great Vulgar and the Small' is mostly in outward circumstances. The coxcomb criticises the dress of the clown, as the pedant cavils at the bad grammar of the illiterate, or the prude is shocked at the backslidings of her frail acquaintance. Those who have the fewest resources in themselves naturally seek the food of their self-love elsewhere. The most ignorant people find most to laugh at in strangers: scandal and satire prevail most in country-places; and a propensity to ridicule every [even] the slightest or most palpable deviation from what we happen to approve, ceases with the progress of common sense and decency.3 True worth does not exult in the faults and deficiencies of others; as true refinement turns away from grossness and deformity, instead of being tempted to indulge in an unmanly triumph over it. Raphael would not faint away at the daubing of a signpost, nor Homer hold his head the higher for being in the company of a Grub Street bard. Real power, real excellence, does not seek for a foil in inferiority; nor fear contamination from coming in contact with that which is coarse and homely. It reposes on itself, and is equally free from spleen and affectation. But the spirit of gentility is the mere essence of spleen and affectation; of affected delight in its own would-be qualifications, and of ineffable disdain poured out upon the involuntary blunders or accidental disadvantages of those whom it chooses to treat as its inferiors. Thus a fashionable Miss titters till she is ready to burst her sides at the uncouth shape of a bonnet or the abrupt drop of a curtsey (such as Jeanie Deans would make) in a country-girl who comes to be hired by her Mamma as a servant; yet to show how little foundation there is for this hysterical expression of her extreme good opinion of herself and contempt for the untutored rustic, she would herself the next day be delighted with the very same shaped bonnet if brought her by a French milliner and told it was all the fashion, and in a week's time will become quite familiar with the maid, and chatter with her (upon equal terms) about caps and ribbons and lace by the hour together. There is no difference between them but that of situation in the kitchen or in the parlour: let circumstances bring them together, and they fit like hand and glove. It is like mistress, like maid. Their talk, their thoughts, their dreams, their likings and dislikes are the same. The mistress's head runs continually on dress and finery, so does the maid's: the young lady longs to ride in a coach and six, so does the maid, if she could; Miss forms a beau-ideal of a lover with black eyes and rosy cheeks, which does not differ from that of her attendant; both like a smart man, the one the footman and the other his master, for the same reason; both like handsome furniture and fine houses; both apply the terms shocking and disagreeable to the same things and persons; both have a great notion of balls, plays, treats, song-books, and love-tales; both like a wedding or a christening, and both would give their little fingers to see a coronation -- with this difference, that the one has a chance of getting a seat at it, and the other is dying with envy that she has not. Indeed, this last is a ceremony that delights equally the greatest monarch and the meanest of his subjects -- the vilest of the rabble. Yet this which is the height of gentility and consummation of external distinction and splendour, is, I should say, a vulgar ceremony. For what degree of refinement, of capacity, of virtue is required in the individual who is so distinguished, or is necessary to his enjoying this idle and imposing parade of his person? Is he delighted with the stage-coach and gilded panels? So is the poorest wretch that gazes at it. Is he struck with the spirit, the beauty, and symmetry of the eight cream-coloured horses? There is not one of the immense multitude who flock to see the sight from town or country, St. Giles's or Whitechapel, young or old, rich or poor, gentle or simple, who does not agree to admire the same object. Is he delighted with the yeomen of the guard, the military escort, the groups of ladies, the badges of sovereign power, the kingly crown, the marshal's truncheon and the judge's robe, the array that precedes and follows him, the crowded streets, the windows hung with eager looks? So are the mob, for they 'have eyes and see them!' There is no one faculty of mind or body, natural or acquired, essential to the principal figure in this procession more than is common to the meanest and most despised attendant on it. A waxwork figure would answer the same purpose: a Lord Mayor of London has as much tinsel to be proud of. I would rather have a king do something that no one else has the power or magnanimity to do, or say something that no one else has the wisdom to say, or look more handsome, more thoughtful, or benign than any one else in his dominions. But I see nothing to raise one's idea of him in his being made a show of: if the pageant would do as well without the man, the man would do as well without the pageant! Kings have been declared to be 'lovers of low company'; and this maxim, besides the reason sometimes assigned for it, viz. that they meet with less opposition to their wills from such persons, will I suspect be found to turn at last on the consideration I am here stating, that they also meet with more sympathy in their tastes. The most ignorant and thoughtless have the greatest admiration of the baubles, the outward symbols of pomp and power, the sound and show, which are the habitual delight and mighty prerogative of kings. The stupidest slave worships the gaudiest tyrant. The same gross motives appeal to the same gross capacities, flatter the pride of the superior and excite the servility of the dependant; whereas a higher reach of moral and intellectual refinement might seek in vain for higher proofs of internal worth and inherent majesty in the object of its idolatry, and not finding the divinity lodged within, the unreasonable expectation raised would probably end in mortification on both sides! -- There is little to distinguish a king from his subjects but the rabble's shout -- if he loses that and is reduced to the forlorn hope of gaining the suffrages of the wise and good, he is of all men the most miserable. -- But enough of this.
'I like it,' says Miss Branghton4 in Evelina (meaning the opera), 'because it is not vulgar.' That is, she likes it, not because there is anything to like in it, but because other people are prevented from liking or knowing anything about it. Janus Weathercock, Esq., laugheth to scorn and spitefully entreateth and hugely condemneth my dramatic criticisms in the London, for a like exquisite reason. I must therefore make an example of him in terrorem to all such hypercritics. He finds fault with me and calls my taste vulgar, because I go to Sadler's Wells ('a place he has heard of' -- 0 Lord, sir!) -- because I notice the Miss Dennetts, 'great favourites with the Whitechapel orders' -- praise Miss Valancy, 'a bouncing Columbine at Ashley's and them there places, as his barber informs him' (has he no way of establishing himself in his own good opinion but by triumphing over his barber's bad English?) -- and finally, because I recognised the existence of the Coburg and the Surrey theatres, at the names of which he cries 'Faugh' with great significance, as if he had some personal disgust at them, and yet he would be supposed never to have entered them. It is not his cue as a well-bred critic. C'est beau ca. Now this appears to me a very crude, unmeaning, indiscriminate, wholesale, and vulgar way of thinking. It is prejudicing things in the lump, by names and places and classes, instead of judging of them by what they are in themselves, by their real qualities and shades of distinction. There is no selection, truth, or delicacy in such a mode of proceeding. It is affecting ignorance, and making it a title to wisdom. It is a vapid assumption of superiority. It is exceeding impertinence. It is rank coxcombry. It is nothing in the world else. To condemn because the multitude admire is as essentially vulgar as to admire because they admire. There is no exercise of taste or judgment in either case: both are equally repugnant to good sense, and of the two I should prefer the good-natured side. I would as soon agree with my barber as differ from him; and why should I make a point of reversing the sentence of the Whitechapel orders? Or how can it affect my opinion of the merits of an actor at the Coburg or the Surrey theatres, that these theatres are in or out of the Bills of Mortality? This is an easy, short-hand way of judging, as gross as it is mechanical. It is not a difficult matter to settle questions of taste by consulting the map of London, or to prove your liberality by geographical distinctions. Janus jumbles things together strangely. If he had seen Mr. Kean in a provincial theatre, at Exeter or Taunton, he would have thought it vulgar to admire him; but when he had been stamped in London, Janus would no doubt show his discernment and the subtlety of his tact for the display of character and passion by not being behind the fashion. The Miss Dennetts are 'little unformed girls,' for no other reason than because they danced at one of the minor theatres: let them but come out on the opera boards, and let the beauty and fashion of the season greet them with a fairy shower of delighted applause, and they would outshine Milanie 'with the foot of fire.' His gorge rises at the mention of a certain quarter of the town: whatever passes current in another, he 'swallows total grist unsifted, husks and all.' This is not taste, but folly. At this rate, the hackney-coachman who drives him, or his horse Contributor whom he has introduced as a select personage to the vulgar reader, knows as much of the matter as he does. -- In a word, the answer to all this in the first instance is to say what vulgarity is. Now its essence, I imagine, consists in taking manners, actions, words, opinions on trust from others, without examining one's own feelings or weighing the merits of the case. It is coarseness or shallowness of taste arising from want of individual refinement, together with the confidence and presumption inspired by example and numbers. It may be defined to be a prostitution of the mind or body to ape the more or less obvious defects of others, because by so doing we shall secure the suffrages of those we associate with. To affect a gesture, an opinion, a phrase, because it is the rage with a large number of persons, or to hold it in abhorrence because another set of persons very little, if at all, better informed cry it down to distinguish themselves from the former, is in either case equal vulgarity and absurdity. A thing is not vulgar merely because it is common. 'Tis common to breathe, to see, to feel, to live. Nothing is vulgar that is natural, spontaneous, unavoidable. Grossness is not vulgarity, ignorance is not vulgarity, awkwardness is not vulgarity; but all these become vulgar when they are affected and shown off on the authority of others, or to fall in with the fashion or the company we keep. Caliban is coarse enough, but surely he is not vulgar. We might as well spurn the clod under our feet and call it vulgar. Cobbett is coarse enough, but he is not vulgar. He does not belong to the herd. Nothing real, nothing original, can be vulgar; but I should think an imitator of Cobbett a vulgar man. Emery's Yorkshireman is vulgar, because he is a Yorkshireman. It is the cant and gibberish, the cunning and low life of a particular district; it has 'a stamp exclusive and provincial.' He might 'gabble most brutishly' and yet not fall under the letter of the definition; but 'his speech bewrayeth him,' his dialect (like the jargon of a Bond Street lounger) is the damning circumstance. If he were a mere blockhead, it would not signify; but he thinks himself a knowing hand, according to the notions and practices of those with whom he was brought up, and which he thinks the go everywhere. In a word, this character is not the offspring of untutored nature but of bad habits; it is made up of ignorance and conceit. It has a mixture of slang in it. All slang phrases are for the same reason vulgar; but there is nothing vulgar in the common English idiom. Simplicity is not vulgarity; but the looking to affectation of any sort for distinction is. A cockney is a vulgar character, whose imagination cannot wander beyond the suburbs of the metropolis; so is a fellow who is always thinking of the High Street, Edinburgh. We want a name for this last character. An opinion is vulgar that is stewed in the rank breath of the rabble; nor is it a bit purer or more refined for having passed through the well-cleansed teeth of a whole court. The inherent vulgarity is in having no other feeling on any subject than the crude, blind, headling, gregarious notion acquired by sympathy with the mixed multitude or with a fastidious minority, who are just as insensible to the real truth, and as indifferent to everything but their own frivolous and vexatious pretensions. The upper are not wiser than the lower orders because they resolve to differ from them. The fashionable have the advantage of the unfashionable in nothing but the fashion. The true vulgar are the servum pecus imitatorum -- the herd of pretenders to what they do not feel and to what is not natural to them, whether in high or low life. To belong to any class, to move in any rank or sphere of life, is not a very exclusive distinction or test of refinement. Refinement will in all classes be the exception, not the rule; and the exception may fall out in one class as well as another. A king is but an hereditary title. A nobleman is only one of the House of Peers. To be a knight or alderman is confessedly a vulgar thing. The king the other day made Sir Walter Scott a baronet, but not all the power of the Three Estates could make another Author of Waverley. Princes, heroes, are often commonplace people: Hamlet was not a vulgar character, neither was Don Quixote. To be an author, to be a painter, is nothing. It is a trick, it is a trade.
There is a well-dressed and an ill-dressed mob, both which I hate. Odi profanum vulgus, et arceo. The vapid affectation of the one to me is even more intolerable than the gross insolence and brutality of the other. If a set of low-lived fellows are noisy, rude, and boisterous to show their disregard of the company, a set of fashionable coxcombs are, to a nauseous degree, finical and effeminate to show their thorough breeding. The one are governed by their feelings, however coarse and misguided, which is something; the others consult only appearances, which are nothing, either as a test of happiness or virtue. Hogarth in his prints has trimmed the balance of pretension between the downright blackguard and the soi-disant fine gentleman unanswerably. It does not appear in his moral demonstrations (whatever it may do in the genteel letter-writing of Lord Chesterfield or the chivalrous rhapsodies of Burke) that vice by losing all its grossness loses half its evil. It becomes more contemptible, not less disgusting. What is there in common, for instance, between his beaux and belles, his rakes and his coquettes, and the men and women, the true heroic and ideal characters in Raphael? But his people of fashion and quality are just upon a par with the low, the selfish, the unideal characters in the contrasted view of human life, and are often the very same characters, only changing places. If the lower ranks are actuated by envy and uncharitableness towards the upper, the latter have scarcely any feelings but of pride, contempt, and aversion to the lower. If the poor would pull down the rich to get at their good things, the rich would tread down the poor as in a wine-press, and squeeze the last shilling out of their pockets and the last drop of blood out of their veins. If the headstrong self-will and unruly turbulence of a common alehouse are shocking, what shall we say to the studied insincerity, the insipid want of common sense, the callous insensibility of the drawing-room and boudoir? I would rather see the feelings of our common nature (for they are the same at bottom) expressed in the most naked and unqualified way, than see every feeling of our nature suppressed, stifled, hermetically sealed under the smooth, cold, glittering varnish of pretended refinement and conventional politeness. The one may be corrected by being better informed; the other is incorrigible, wilful, heartless depravity. I cannot describe the contempt and disgust I have felt at the tone of what would be thought good company, when I have witnessed the sleek, smiling, glossy, gratuitous assumption of superiority to every feeling of humanity, honesty, or principle, as a part of the etiquette, the mental and moral costume of the table, and every profession of toleration or favour for the lower orders, that is, for the great mass of our fellow-creatures, treated as an indecorum and breach of the harmony of well-regulated society. In short, I prefer a bear-garden to the adder's den; or, to put this case in its extremest point of view, I have more patience with men in a rude state of nature outraging the human form than I have with apes 'making mops and mows' at the extravagances they have first provoked. I can endure the brutality (as it is termed) of mobs better than the inhumanity of courts. The violence of the one rages like a fire; the insidious policy of the other strikes like a pestilence, and is more fatal and inevitable. The slow poison of despotism is worse than the convulsive struggles of anarchy. 'Of all evils,' says Hume, 'anarchy is the shortest lived.' The one may 'break out like a wild overthrow'; but the other from its secret, sacred stand, operates unseen, and undermines the happiness of kingdoms for ages, lurks in the hollow cheek, and stares you in the face in the ghastly eye of want and agony and woe. It is dreadful to hear the noise and uproar of an infuriated multitude stung by the sense of wrong and maddened by sympathy; it is more appalling to think of the smile answered by other gracious smiles, of the whisper echoed by other assenting whispers, which doom them first to despair and then to destruction. Popular fury finds its counterpart in courtly servility. If every outrage is to be apprehended from the one, every iniquity is deliberately sanctioned by the other, without regard to justice or decency. The word of a king, 'Go thou and do likewise,' makes the stoutest heart dumb: truth and honesty shrink before it.5 If there are watchwords for the rabble, have not the polite and fashionable their hackneyed phrases, their fulsome, unmeaning jargon as well? Both are to me anathema!
To return to the first question, as it regards individual and private manners. There is a fine illustration of the effects of preposterous and affected gentility in the character of Gertrude, in the old comedy of Eastward Hoe, written by Ben Jonson, Marston, and Chapman in conjunction. This play is supposed to have given rise to Hogarth's series of prints of the Idle and Industrious Apprentice; and there is something exceedingly Hogarthian in the view both of vulgar and of genteel life here displayed. The character of Gertrude, in particular, the heroine of the piece, is inimitably drawn. The mixture of vanity and meanness, the internal worthlessness and external pretence, the rustic ignorance and fine lady-like airs, the intoxication of novelty and infatuation of pride, appear like a dream or romance, rather than anything in real life. Cinderella and her glass slipper are common-place to it. She is not, like Millamant (a century afterwards), the accomplished fine lady, but a pretender to all the foppery and finery of the character. It is the honeymoon with her ladyship, and her folly is at the full. To be a wife, and the wife of a knight, are to her pleasures 'worn in their newest gloss,' and nothing can exceed her raptures in the contemplation of both parts of the dilemma. It is not familiarity, but novelty, that weds her to the court. She rises into the air of gentility from the ground of a city life, and flutters about there with all the fantastic delight of a butterfly that has just changed its caterpillar state. The sound of My Lady intoxicates her with delight, makes her giddy, and almost turns her brain. On the bare strength of it she is ready to turn her father and mother out of doors, and treats her brother and sister with infinite disdain and judicial hardness of heart. With some speculators the modern philosophy has deadened and distorted all the natural affections; and before abstract ideas and the mischievous refinements of literature were introduced, nothing was to be met with in the primeval state of society but simplicity and pastoral innocence of manners --
Without going into this at length, there is one circumstance I would mention in which I think there has been a striking improvement in the family economy of modern times -- and that is in the relation of mistresses and servants. After visits and finery, a married woman of the old school had nothing to do but to attend to her housewifery. She had no other resource, no other sense of power, but to harangue and lord it over her domestics. Modern book-education supplies the place of the old-fashioned system of kitchen persecution and eloquence. A well-bred woman now seldom goes into the kitchen to look after the servants: -- formerly what was called a good manager, an exemplary mistress of a family, did nothing but hunt them from morning to night, from one year's end to another, without leaving them a moment's rest, peace, or comfort. Now a servant is left to do her work without this suspicious and tormenting interference and fault-finding at every step, and she does it all the better. The proverbs about the mistress's eye, etc., are no longer held for current. A woman from this habit, which at last became an uncontrollable passion, would scold her maids for fifty years together, and nothing could stop her: now the temptation to read the last new poem or novel, and the necessity of talking of it in the next company she goes into, prevent her -- and the benefit to all parties is incalculable.
1 Hazlitt's "On Vulgarity and Affectation" is to be found in Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners (1822).
2 Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840): Miss. Burney (she eventually married a French émigré by the name of D'Arblay) was an English novelist, one of the first females to be published. She was a portrayer of the domestic scene and is said to have been a forerunner of Jane Austen. (Chambers.) Her first and best novel was Evelina (1778) which "describes the entry of a country girl into the gaieties of London life."
3 [Original note.] "If a European, when he has cut off his beard and put false hair on his head, or bound up his own natural hair in regular hard knots, as unlike nature as he could possibly make it; and after having rendered them immovable by the help of the fat of hogs, has covered the whole with flour, laid on by a machine with the utmost regularity; if when thus attired he issues forth, and meets with a Cherokee Indian, who has bestowed as much time at his toilet, and laid on with equal care and attention his yellow and red oker on particular parts of his forehead or cheeks, as he judges most becoming; whoever of these two despises the other for this attention to the fashion of his country, whichever first feels himself provoked to laugh, is the barbarian." -- Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, vol. i. pp. 231, 232.
4 [Original note.] This name was originally spelt Braughton in the manuscript, and was altered to Branghton by a mistake of the printer. Branghton, however, was thought a good name for the occasion and was suffered to stand. 'Dip it in the ocean,' as Sterne's barber says of the buckle, 'and it will stand!'
5 [Original note.] A lady of quality, in allusion to the gallantries of a reigning prince, being told, 'I suppose it will be your turn next?' said, 'No, I hope not; for you know it is impossible to refuse!'
6 [Original note omitted.]