Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE SEMI-DETACHED HOUSE. 1 ( From The Saturday Review, 27 th August, 1859.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE SEMI-DETACHED HOUSE. 1 ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 27 th August, 1859.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE SEMI-DETACHED HOUSE.1
Although this is not exactly a novel with a dogma, it is a novel with a notion. The notion is that we ought not to dislike to live in a semi-detached house. “Oh, Aunt Sarah,” exclaims one of the ladies, in the first page, “you don’t mean that you expect me to live in a semi-detached house.”—“Why not, my dear, if it suits you in other respects?”—“Why because I should hate my semi-detachment, or whatever the occupants of the other half may call themselves.”—“They call themselves Hopkinson,” continued Aunt Sarah coolly.—“I knew it,” said Blanche triumphantly, “I felt certain their names would be either Tompkinson or Hopkinson. . . . Did you see any of the Hopkinson when you went to look at the house?”—“Yes, they went in at their door just as I went in at yours. The mother, as I suppose, and two daughters, and a little boy.”—“Oh dear me! a little boy, who will always be throwing stones at the palings, and making me jump; daughters who will be always playing ‘Partant pour la Syrie’; and the mother”—“Well, what will she do to offend your Highness?”—“She will be immensely fat, wear mittens, thick heavy mittens, and contrive to know what I have for dinner every day.”
The lady who objects to the “semi-detachment” is a certain Lady Chester, and the book is to teach us that she ought not to object. Mrs. Hopkinson does turn out to be fat, but also turns out to be very sensible, good-humoured and obliging, to have two nice daughters, and to be capable of giving wise counsel on the management of the kitchen chimney. The purpose of the book, in so far as it has a purpose, is to teach us that we should take life easily and frankly—associate with the people whom chance throws in our way, if they seem sensible and pleasant—that we should not be too much pleased at speaking to persons of superior rank, nor too anxious to avoid those who may be below us. Our readers will say that, after all, this is not very new, and it certainly is not. But it is a great achievement to teach an old lesson in an enlivening way, and this is a lesson which it is rather difficult to teach with perfect good taste. Mr. Thackeray, for example, has been teaching it with consummate ability for many years; but perhaps he makes too much of it. We fancy he considers it both more difficult and more important than it really is. He a little overrates the intensity of the snobbish propensities—he dwells on them almost sympathisingly. A certain dean of a departed generation cautioned his hearers against “That besetting liquor, old port wine, by which even some of our clergy have been led astray”. In a somewhat similar spirit our great satirist warns us that no literary ability, no fame, no mental power is an effectual protection against the desire to speak to Dukes. Wherever he looks through the world, this is the desire he perceives. The insidious temptation creeps into all hearts, and injures wherever it enters. We own that we think this an exceedingly exaggerated kind of teaching. The snobbish desires undoubtedly exist, and are diffused most widely; but it is only in rare cases that they are extremely powerful. They would take most people a little way, but very few people a great way. Mr. Thackeray, too, we think, fancies his lesson too important. Like all missionaries, he intensifies the evil against which he is preaching. Many people who do care too much about the great, and who are too much afraid of talking to those below them, are nevertheless very good people. They have their faults, as others have theirs; but for all that their nature may in the main be sound, and their capacity for substantial excellence may in most of its parts not be much impaired. Snobbishness is an insidious endemic, but it is rarely a mortal malady. We can scarcely perhaps give the Semi-Detached House a higher sort of praise than that it teaches Mr. Thackeray’s peculiar doctrine in a healthier and better way than he does. The two varieties of snobbishness—that of running from our inferiors and that of making up to our superiors—both occur pretty often in this book, and both are laughed at. They are allowed to be venial sins, but it is shown that they are ludicrous—that they interfere with the tranquillity of life and with the chances of enjoyment that turn up in it—that sensible persons, whatever their rank may be, laugh at them. Of course there is nothing new in the lesson; but there is a good-natured contempt in the way it is given that is telling. We can fancy it curing, or half-curing, the vice. Mr. Thackeray, we fear, only teaches people to hide the indications of it.
A novel of this sort necessarily has its scene in the middle rank of social life—with some people who are lords and ladies and some who are neither; and it has the sort of merits which such a novel may be expected to have. The dialogue is very good, very witty and buoyant—jolly, though yet lady-like. The events are the ordinary ones of social life. Two families live in the two halves of one house, and are naturally thrown together; and as one is of rank, and the other by no means of rank, the scenes can be made amusing. The lady of no rank fancies, moreover, that the lady of rank is not all which she should be, and this is made amusing too. The authoress has one peculiarity which is invaluable to a painter of common social life—she has a genius for middle-aged women. For obvious reasons young people are made more prominent in novels than they are in reality. Perhaps the discovery of this is one of the sorest disappointments of early life. Young people come out with romantic notions of various sorts, and it is disappointing to find middle-aged people with the influence which they in fact have. As to men it does not seem to matter so much; they have occupations, and briefs, and offices, which seem to explain it. But that the social half of life should be subject to the administrative vivacity of ladies with historical complexions is for a time a trial. A novel like the Semi-Detached House, which brings out this fact, and shows how far the middle aged régime may be made tolerable, is instructive.
There are two middle-aged women in this book—one good and the other bad, but both fat and both energetic. We may give a specimen of the conversation of the former:—
“Ah, there they are,” said Mrs. Hopkinson, jumping up in a fright. “Oh, John, what shall we do? I knew they would come to us in our turn.”
“Who would come, Jane?” said Captain Hopkinson, who was half-asleep.
“Why, the burglars, of course! What will become of us! Where’s my purse? I always keep a purse ready to give them, it makes them so good-humoured. Oh, dear, what a noise they make, and they will be quite savage if they are kept waiting,” she said, as another violent ringing was heard. “John, John, you must not go down to them; they will knock you down. Let me go.”
“I don’t see,” said John, laughing, “why I am to let you go and be knocked down instead of me. But, my dear, there is no danger; burglars do not come and ring the bell and ask to be let in like a morning visitor. It must be the policeman.”
“Ah, poor man! I daresay with his head knocked to pieces with a life-preserver, and all over kicks and bites. But, perhaps, he is only come to tell us the house is on fire,” said Mrs. Hopkinson, with a sudden accession of cheerfulness. “I should not mind that, anything is better than robbers. Oh, John, now don’t put your head out so far, those ticket-of-leave men fire in all directions. And do keep calling out Thomas and John, and I will answer in a gruff voice,” said poor Mrs. Hopkinson, who was so terrified her whisper could scarcely be heard.
“My dear,” said John, withdrawing his head, “there is nothing to be alarmed at. It is Lord Chester; Lady Chester is taken ill, and he wants you to go to her.”
“And so that is all,” said Mrs. Hopkinson, instantly beginning to dress. “Ah, poor soul, of course I will. Well, now, this is neighbourly of them, and I take it very kindly their sending for me. Why, they are two babies themselves, and they can’t know what to do with a third.”
The snobbish fat lady is a certain Baroness Sampson, the wife of a certain Jewish millionaire in the City, who is discovered at the end of the book not to be a millionaire, and decamps. This lady is not, indeed, asked to the Queen’s balls, but intends to bring her Majesty “to her senses next year,” and lives upon that pretension in the meantime. That she pretends to know persons whom she has never seen, and is very anxious to know people who will upon no account know her, it is not necessary for us to relate.
One defect of the lesson not to object to a “semi-detached house” is that it will not make a plot of itself. The authoress of the book, wishing to have a plot, like other novelists, has been obliged to annex one from other sources. She has not, however, thought it worth while to look out for a complicated one. The hero is a certain man named Willis, who has lost his wife, and trades on his disconsolateness ever after. He really makes a great deal of it in general society. Much attention is paid him by way of relief, and the minor comforts of life are constantly offered to him by way of compensation. These, however, he resists, and perseveres in his unconquerable depression, naturally feeling that while it obtained him so many pleasant things it would be foolish to relinquish it.
There is one pursuit in life in which a conspicuous grief for a deceased wife is likely to be rather an encumbrance than a help—and that is, the wooing of a second. In Mr. Willis’s case the difficulty is increased by his having selected a matter-of-fact young lady who works out her ideas with unusual distinctness. “Either,” she says to Mr. Willis, “you do not still care for your late wife, for whom you are in the deepest mourning, or you do not care for me. If you like me, leave off your mourning; if you must keep your mourning, leave me alone. Either your love is false or your grief is false; please make your selection.” Mr. Willis is logician enough to feel the force of this reasoning, and ceases to be disconsolate.
We do not know whether such a plot was intended to be anything; but it is nothing. No art could spin much out of so slight a material. Besides, the moment Mr. Willis ceases to be mournful, he ceases to be anything. He has, in other respects, no more character than the mute in a funeral. He displays all through the book one trait, and one only. The moment he loses that, he vanishes in our fancy entirely. As this is the case, we need not say that the merit of the book does not lie in the story, but in its sparkling dialogue, its good subsidiary characters, and its cheerful and habitual good sense.
[1 ]The Semi-Detached House. Edited by Lady Teresa Lewis. London: Bentley, 1859.