Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dickens on Dobbs

“My father's great-great grandfather is discussed in a story by Charles Dickens. One can find it in the Miscellaneous Papers Of Charles Dickens, a collection of some of Dickens' journalism. The tale is dated May 26, 1855 and its title is ‘The Toady Tree’ (pp.49-54).”

Dickens Journals Online

‘Toady’ (abbreviation of ‘toad-eater’) was nineteenth-century slang for someone who fawned on those of higher social rank or greater wealth. Dickens draws on the legend of the deadly poisonous Upas Tree of Java to provide his device for this satirical onslaught on the proneness of the English to abase themselves before aristocrats.


The Toady Tree
by Charles Dickens

It is not a new remark, that any real and true change for the public benefit, must derive its vitality from the practice of consistent people. Whatever may be accepted as the meaning of the adage, Charity begins at home—which for the most part has very little meaning that I could ever discover—it is pretty clear that Reform begins at home. If I had the lungs of Hercules and the eloquence of Cicero, and devoted them at any number of monster-meetings to a cause which I deserted in my daily life whensoever the opportunity of desertion was presented to me (say on an average fifty times a day), I had far better keep my lungs and my eloquence to myself, and at all times and seasons leave that cause alone.

The humble opinion of the present age, is, that no privileged class should have an inheritance in the administration of the public affairs, and that a system which fails to enlist in the service of the country, the greatest fitness and merit that the country produces, must have in it something inherently wrong. It might be supposed, the year One having been for some time in the calendar of the past, that this is on the whole a moderate and reasonable opinion—not very far in advance of the period, or of any period, and involving no particularly unchristian revenge for a great national break-down. Yet, to the governing class in the main, the sentiment is altogether so novel and extraordinary, that we may observe it to be received as an incomprehensible and incredible thing. I have been seriously asking myself, whose fault is this? I have come to the conclusion that it is the fault of the over-cultivation of the great Toady Tree; the tree of many branches, which grows to an immense height in England, and which overshadows all the land.

My name is Cobbs. Why do I, Cobbs, love to sit like a Patriarch, in the shade of my Toady Tree! What have I to do with it? What comfort do I derive from it, what fruit of self-respect does it yield to me, what beauty is there in it? To lure me to a Public Dinner, why must I have a Lord in the chair? To gain me to a Subscription- list, why do I need fifty Barons, Marquises, Viscounts, Dukes, and Baronets, at the head of it, in larger type and longer lines than the commonalty? If I don't want to be perpetually decorated with these boughs from the Toady Tree—if it be my friend Dobbs, and not I, Cobbs, in whose ready button-hole such appliances are always stuck—why don't I myself quietly and good-humouredly renounce them? Why not! Because I will be always gardening, more or less, at the foot of the Toady Tree.

Take Dobbs. Dobbs is a well-read man, an earnest man, a man of strong and sincere convictions, a man who would be deeply wounded if I told him he was not a true Administrative Reformer in the best sense of the word. When Dobbs talks to me about the House of Commons, (and lets off upon me those little revolvers of special official intelligence which he always carries, ready loaded and capped), why does he adopt the Lobby slang: with which he has as much to do as with any dialect in the heart of Africa? Why must he speak of Mr. Fizmaili as "Fizzy," and of Lord Gambaroon as "Gam"? How comes it that he is acquainted with the intentions of the Cabinet six weeks beforehand—often, indeed, so long beforehand that I shall infallibly die before there is the least sign of their having ever existed? Dobbs is perfectly clear in his generation that men are to be deferred to for their capacity for what they undertake, for their talents and worth, and for nothing else. Aye, aye, I know he is. But, I have seen Dobbs dive and double about that Royal Academy Exhibition, in pursuit of a nobleman, in a marvellously small way. I have stood with Dobbs examining a picture, when the Marquis has entered, and I have known of the Marquis's entrance without lifting my eyes or turning my head, solely by the increased gentility in the audible tones of Dobbs's critical observations. And then, the Marquis approaching, Dobbs has talked to me as his lay figure, at and for the Marquis, until the Marquis has said, "Ha, Dobbs?" and Dobbs, with his face folded into creases of deference, has piloted that illustrious nobleman away, to the contemplation of some pictorial subtleties of his own discovery. Now, Dobbs has been troubled and abashed in all this; Dobbs's voice, face, and manner, with a stubbornness far beyond his control, have revealed his uneasiness; Dobbs, leading the noble Marquis away, has shown me in the expression of his very shoulders that he knew I laughed at him, and that he knew he deserved it; and yet Dobbs could not for his life resist the shadow of the Toady Tree, and come out into the natural air!

The other day, walking down Piccadilly from Hyde Park Corner, I overtook Hobbs. Hobbs had two relations starved to death with needless hunger and cold before Sebastopol, and one killed by mistake in the hospital at Scutari. Hobbs himself had the misfortune, about fifteen years ago, to invent a very ingenious piece of mechanism highly important to dockyards, which has detained him unavailingly in the waiting-rooms of public offices ever since, and which was invented last month by somebody else in France, and immediately adopted there. Hobbs had been one of the public at Mr. Roebuck's committee, the very day I overtook him, and was burning with indignation at what he had heard. "This Gordian knot of red tape," said Hobbs, "must be cut. All things considered, there never was a people so abused as the English at this time, and there never was a country brought to such a pass. It will not bear thinking of—(Lord Joddle)." The parenthesis referred to a passing carriage, which Hobbs turned and looked after with the greatest interest. "The system," he continued, "must be totally changed. We must have the right man in the right place (Duke of Twaddleton on horseback), and only capability and not family connexions placed in office (brother-in-law of the Bishop of Gorhambury). We must not put our trust in mere idols (how do you do!—Lady Coldveal— little too highly painted, but fine woman for her years), and we must get rid as a nation of our ruinous gentility and deference to mere rank. (Thank you, Lord Edward, I am quite well. Very glad indeed to have the honour and pleasure of seeing you. I hope Lady Edward is well. Delighted, I am sure)." Pending the last parenthesis, he stopped to shake hands with a dim old gentleman in a flaxen wig, whose eye he had been exceedingly solicitous to catch, and, when we went on again, seemed so refreshed and braced by the interview that I believe him to have been for the time actually taller. This in Hobbs, whom I knew to be miserably poor, whom I saw with my eyes to be prematurely grey, the best part of whose life had been changed into a wretched dream from which he could never awake now, who was in mourning without and in mourning within, and all through causes that any half-dozen shopkeepers taken at random from the London Directory and shot into Downing Street out of sacks could have turned aside—this, I say, in Hobbs, of all men, gave me so much to think about, that I took little or no heed of his further conversation until I found we had come to Burlington House. "A little sketch" he was saying then, "by a little child, and two hundred and fifty pounds already bid for it! Well, it's very gratifying, isn't it? Really, it's very gratifying! Won't you come in? Do come in!" I excused myself, and Hobbs went in without me: a drop in a swollen current of the general public. I looked into the courtyard as I went by, and thought I perceived a remarkably fine specimen of the Toady Tree in full growth there.

There is my friend Nobbs, A man of sufficient merit, one would suppose, to be calmly self-reliant, and to preserve that manly equilibrium which as little needs to assert itself overmuch, as to derive a sickly reflected light from any one else. I declare in the face of day, that I believe Nobbs to be morally and physically unable to sit at a table and hear a man of title mentioned, whom he knows, without putting in his claim to the acquaintance. I have observed Nobbs under these circumstances, a thousand times, and have never found him able to hold his peace. I have seen him fidget, and worry himself, and try to get himself away from the Toady Tree, and say to himself as plainly as he could have said aloud, "Nobbs, Nobbs, is not this base in you, and what can it possibly matter to these people present, whether you know this man, or not?" Yet, there has been a compulsion upon him to say, "Lord Dash Blank? Oh, yes! I know him very well; very well, indeed. I have known Dash Blank—let me see—really I am afraid to say how long I have known Dash Blank. It must be a dozen years. A very good fellow, Dash Blank!" And, like my friend Hobbs, he has been positively taller for some moments afterwards. I assert of Nobbs, as I have already in effect asserted of Dobbs, that if I could be brought blindfold into a room full of company, of whom he made one, I could tell in a moment, by his manner of speaking, not to say by his mere breathing, whether there were a title present. The ancient Egyptians in their palmiest days, had not an enchanter among them who could have wrought such a magical change in Nobbs, as the incarnation of one line from the book of the Peerage can effect in one minute.

Pobbs is as bad, though in a different way. Pobbs affects to despise these distinctions. He speaks of his titled acquaintances, in a light and easy vein, as "the swells." According as his humour varies, he will tell you that the swells are, after all, the best people a man can have to do with, or that he is weary of the swells and has had enough of them. But, note, that to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, Pobbs would die of chagrin, if the swells left off asking him to dinner. That he would rather exchange nods in the Park with a semi-idiotic Dowager, than fraternise with another Shakespeare. That he would rather have his sister, Miss Pobbs (he is greatly attached to her, and is a most excellent brother), received on sufferance by the swells, than hold her far happier place in the outer darkness of the untitled, and be loved and married by some good fellow, who could daff the world of swells aside, and bid it pass. Yet, O, Pobbs, Pobbs! if for once—only for once—you could hear the magnificent patronage of some of those Duchesses of yours, casually making mention of Miss Pobbs, as "a rather pretty person!"

I say nothing of Robbs, Sobbs, Tobbs, and so on to Zobbs, whose servility has no thin coating of disguise or shame upon it, who grovel on their waistcoats with a sacred joy, and who turn and roll titles in their mouths as if they were exquisite sweetmeats. I say nothing of Mayors and such like;—to lay on adulation with a whitewashing brush and have it laid on in return, is the function of such people, and verily they have their reward. I say nothing of County families, and provincial neighbourhoods, and lists of Stewards and Lady Patronesses, and electioneering, and racing, and flower-showing, and demarcations and counter-demarcations in visiting, and all the forms in which the Toady Tree is cultivated in and about cathedral towns and rural districts. What I wish to remark in conclusion is not that, but this:

If, at a momentous crisis in the history and progress of the country we all love, we, the bulk of the people, fairly embodying the general moderation and sense, are so mistaken by a class, undoubtedly of great intelligence and public and private worth, as that, either they cannot by any means comprehend our resolution to live henceforth under a Government, instead of a Hustlement and Shufflement; or, comprehending it, can think to put it away by cocking their hats in our faces (which is the official exposition of policy conceded to us on all occasions by our chief minister of State); the fault is our own. As the fault is our own, so is the remedy. We do not present ourselves to these personages as we really are, and we have no reason for surprise or complaint, if they take us for what we are at so much pains to appear. Let every man, therefore, apply his own axe to his own branch of the Toady Tree. Let him begin the essential Reform with himself, and he need have no fear of its ending there. We require no ghost to tell us that many inequalities of condition and distinction there must always be. Every step at present to be counted in the great social staircase would be still there, though the shadow of the Toady Tree were cleared away. More than this, the whole of the steps would be safer and stronger; for, the Toady Tree is a tree infected with rottenness, and its droppings wear away what they fall upon.

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