Archive > The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs – 50th Anniversary
First published in 1965, The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs was a collaboration between Hungarian-born British author George Mikes (1912–1987), illustrator Nicolas Bentley (1907–1978), and John Ian Robert Russell, 13th Duke of Bedford and Marquess of Tavistock (1917–2002).
Mikes (pronounced MEE-kez) was famous for his enormously successful book How to be an Alien (1946) and its many sequels. Born in Siklos, Hungary, Mikes had a outsider’s perspective on British culture – effectively he is the ‘alien’ (or foreigner) of the title. He had a rare, dry wit that was very appealing, and this, combined with Nicolas Bentley’s unsparing caricatures and cartoons, meant his books were repeatedly reprinted and are still much prized today. The combination – put together by Peter Owen’s friend, fellow émigré publisher André Deutsch – was inspired. Back in 1945, Deutsch had asked Mikes if he had anything to publish. “I told him,” Mikes later recalled, “that I was fiddling about with some little essays which were linked by a basic idea: how to be an alien. Why I was staying on the Isle of Wight I can no longer remember, but I must have been doing so, or why would he have come there to collect the manuscript?”
Mikes and Deutsch had known each other in Budapest. Deutsch (1917-2000) was five years junior to Mikes and, wrote Mikes in 1958, “used to go, once upon a time, to the same school as my younger brother. I knew him from the old days and it was quite obvious to me even then, in Budapest, when he was only twelve and wore shorts, that he would make an excellent publisher in London if he only had the chance . . . Mr Deutsch was at that time working for another firm . . . Now, however, André Deutsch has bought all the rights of my past and future output . . . and the original team of Deutsch, Bentley and myself are together again under the imprint of the first named gentleman. We are all twelve years older and Mr Deutsch does not wear shorts any more, or not in the office, at any rate.”
Peter Owen put together the team for the The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs. Fifty years on, he recalls that he was singularly unimpressed with the Duke’s manners – something he wishes to discuss further in his forthcoming memoir. Mikes and Bentley he liked, of course, though he had to persuade André Deutsch to give his blessing to the project, and that it was a one-off, anxious as Deutsch was that Owen was about to filch his much-prized and valuable duo. The book was an enormous success for Peter Owen Publishers and an important breakthrough in terms of popular awareness of Peter’s publishing house.
Though ostensibly a collaboration with the titular Duke, the text of the The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs is essentially the work of George Mikes. As with his other books, Mikes is both celebrating and sending-up his subject matter in a way that might well have escaped his aristocratic colleague’s attention. There is to his work a subtle subversiveness concealed beneath superficially innocuous writing and a wit as dry as a bone in a desert.
Of course, the book is dated in the sense that it is very much of its time. But this is no bad thing; it gives us a window into a Britain on the cusp of a period of enormous change. More importantly, it is still very funny.
The chapter entitled On The Season refers to the practice of presenting young aristocratic ladies who had reached the age of ‘maturity’ (twenty-one) before the monarch at Court. Queen Elizabeth II saw the last debs in 1958 before abolishing the ceremony – but of
course the practice effectively carried on – and still exists to this day – with aristocrats and daughters of new and old money parading at social events which consitute ‘the Season’. As Mikes says in the book, “It is true that the Season is less noisy and less conspicuous than it used to be. But it is very much alive . . . ”
Mikes writes that William Makepeace Thackeray “wrote of snobs as though they were a special species: as though some people were snobs and others were not . . . The truth is that all people breathe and sweat; and all people are snobs . . . Snobbishness may also vary in degree . . . But not to be snobbish means not to be human. To attack snobs is to attack those who breathe.”
The book is in two parts. The first, “Theory”, includes subjects such as What is a Snob?, What to Revere, and How Not to Be a Peer. The second part, “Practice” includes sections on names, clothing, cars, dinner parties, sports and games, the arts, travelling, house-parties, servants, illness and “macro-snobbism”. The book opens, though, with a section on Snobocracy:
“Britain is not a Democracy; it is a Snobocracy . . . People act as if the world belonged to them, particularly if it doesn’t any more.”
Has anything much changed in 50 years?
The book is now available as a print-on-demand paperback from AmazonUK. Second hand copies of the 1965 editions still circulate too. To purchase a copy of the print-on-demand paperback, follow this link: The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs.
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