Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair was in William Makepeace Thackeray’s mind as early as late 1844 or early 1845, when he sent some chapters to publishers. They weren’t at first accepted, but eventually the novel was scheduled to appear as a serial in monthly parts, beginning in mid-1846. In fact the first issue did not reach the bookstalls until January 1847, and it ran on through till July 1848, in which year it also appeared in volume form. WMT was well paid for it, and it launched him into the same league as Dickens. But though the novel had been conceived before it began to appear, much of it was written after the first numbers were in print. It can therefore be seen both as a planned and as an improvised novel. Its basic organisation is simplicity itself — the story of two young women from the time they leave school together, tracing their marriages, the different ways in which they lose their husbands, their changing social and financial status, the different circles in which they move, and of course their different characters — but this should not blind us to its subtlety and complexity. John Carey describes it as ‘by any sane reckoning, one of the major works of art of the nineteenth century’, and the only English novel of the period to challenge Tolstoy’s War and Peace in theme and range. That’s a high estimate, and suggests that the novel needs to be read with our fullest attention; we ought not to be deceived by the modesty of its original subtitle, ‘Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society’. The finished novel is much more than sketch.
There are a number of aspects which need comment, three in particular: the role of the narrator, the sense of time and history as they are felt in private lives, and the treatment of character — and, linking all three of these, the nature of our moral and psychological judgement on the characters.

One way into the novel is through the two frontispieces. The cover of the serial edition shows a jester preaching on a tub in a topsy-turvy world, where the audience wear the same donkey’s ears as the jester. In the background are the statue of the Duke of York, upside down on its pillar in Waterloo Place, and Wyatt’s giant statue of Wellington, the subject of contemporary controversy about where it should be sited. When George drives down Piccadilly to his wedding in Ch. 22 of the novel, and the narrator reminds us of the scene as it was then, in 1815 — when there were oil lamps in the street, and Wellington’s statue, ‘the hideous equestrian monster’, had not been thought of. George rides past Hyde Park Corner not as WMT’s readers knew it in 1847, but as his older readers might remember it, that is, as it was before the changes which commemorate the battle in which George will be killed six weeks later. By placing the two statues in the background, WMT hints at this crucial event in English history, which is also the pivot on which the novel turns — the action is slow and patient before it, much faster after it — but Punch and his audience have their backs to it. The later frontispiece has a different subtitle — ‘A Novel without a hero’ — and shows a different Punch. This time he is alone, leaning on a box of puppets and gazing at his own image in a cracked looking-glass: a melancholy, introverted Punch, no longer a preacher. As WMT has it in ‘Before the Curtain’, to a reflective mind ‘a feeling of profound melancholy’ is the proper one when gazing at life in Vanity Fair. The text of the novel seems to develop equally out of the two versions of the frontispiece. Thus, in Ch. 19 the narrator advises us to be generous with our compliments in Vanity Fair, because they cost us little and may gain us much; but a page later he refers to Miss Crawley’s terrors at the thought of death, and reminds us, as his ‘brother wearers of motley’, that even that the public gaiety of Vanity Fair may barely conceal the private depressions of those who live there. This is a narrator whose voice may change from moment to moment, sometimes wanting to be successful in Vanity Fair — which means making money, which in turn means being ready to flatter and deceive — and sometimes turning away in a bout of melancholy.

There are of course various ways in which this narrator shifts ground: sometimes he is married, sometimes not, at one moment he is fifty and at another much younger. He describes himself as a novelist, and asserts the novelist’s right of omniscience in Ch 3, and in Ch 15 claims to be ‘Rebecca’s confidant too, master of her secrets, and seal-keeper of that young woman’s conscience’. But at other crises WMT chooses not to be omniscient. In Ch 64, for example, he is only ‘inclined to think’ that Becky at one time neared despair, and neglected her reputation: and famously, in Ch 53, he declines to answer his own question, ‘Was she guilty or not?’ (to which I shall return).

There are other ways too in which the narrator changes ground. In Ch 62 he tells us that he, ‘the present writer of a history of which every word is true’, first met Dobbin and Amelia on their tour to Pumpernickel. This places narrator and character on the same plane — both real, or both fictional. But the novel ends with another reference to the box of puppets — ‘Come, children, let us shut up the bo and the puppets, for our play is played out’ — which separates the narrator from his characters. Or rather the novel almost ends here, since the final illustration (WMT’s own work, of course) shows Becky behind a stall at a charity fair, and Dobbin and Amelia turning away from her with their children; propped up on the counter in the stall is a doll — or is it a puppet? In Ch 8 WMT asks the reader to side with him against those who pursue only prosperity and success: ‘let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main.’ Here the narrator writes as one who has detached himself from the vanity of the world’s fair. But at the end of the following chapter, he represents himself as part of it, when he wishes for an old maiden aunt with money, so that his wife and children could woo her affections, and her money: ‘Sweet, sweet vision! Foolish, foolish dream!’ Is it foolish only because he has no such aunt, or because he knows that such dreams are ‘vanity’ — hollow, and destructive? We have no way to answer.

But I must return to Ch 15. This is a passage of characteristic irony, aimed at that sarcastic mood which WMT promises to gratify in ‘Beyond the Curtain’. Rebecca, having married Rawdon, cannot accept the proposal from the recently widowed Sir Pitt, and instantly regrets missing her chance to become Lady Crawley; but she is ‘a young lady of too much resolution and energy of character to permit herself much useless and unseemly sorrow for the irrevocable past’, and soon turns her attention to the future. We are at first likely to be stunned at this — first, that Becky would have been willing to marry the hideous Sir Pitt (WMT has provided an illustration of the proposal, to make sure we appreciate just how hideous), and second, that her secret marriage to (we guess) Rawdon was not for love but simply the result of a miscalculation about the life expectancy of the existing Lady Crawley. But we may also be impressed by the fact that here, as always, Becky really does have too much energy to spend time in regrets, and will indeed be as resilient here as she is in other crises: ‘the die was thrown, and now or to-morrow the issue must be the same.’

If we think back to the end of the previous chapter, when the proposal takes place, we’ll understand now why Becky then ‘wept some of the most genuine tears that ever fell from her eyes’. This is characteristic: we only understand one scene fully in the light of a later one. If we read on, we will come to the scene of Rawdon’s departure for the battle at Waterloo, dressed in his oldest clothes so that Becky can if he is killed sell off the finer ones; Rawdon, not so long ago a moustache-twirling dandy, is much changed, but Becky is in a mood we’ve come to recognise: ‘wisely determined not to give way to unavailing sentimentality on her husband’s departure’, she returnsto bed, and sleeps till ten, waking up fully recovered ‘the exhaustion and grief’ of the leavetaking. Becky’s genuine courage is never in doubt; like her hero Napoleon, she returns from defeat to fight again, until, like him, she is forced into a final exile. But again like Napoleon, she has little pity for those who stand in her way — her London life on nothing a year ruins the unlucky Raggles just as surely as Napoleon’s campaigns bring down John Sedley — but she doesn’t have much more to spare for those who fight on her side. .

WMT frequently allows one episode to cast lights and shadows backwards and forwards like this on other events in the novel. Like the changing role of the narrator, this has the effect of warning us that our judgements will need to be provisional. We may describe this as WMT’s technique of delayed realisation, and perhaps associate it with the partly improvised character of the novel: we might wonder, for example, whether WMT had always planned to use the love-letter George puts in Becky’s bouquet as he does (you’ll remember that Becky flourishes it in front of Amelia, putting an end to the hold his memory has on her). Was this part of a plan? or a brilliant exploitation of one of the hundreds of events and objects in this busy and overflowing text? WMT makes rather similar use of the technique which gives the novel its basic shape, of balancing one life story against another. This allows him to shift our perspective by inviting us to link two episodes which have no causal connection: so if we can think in spatial terms as well as in temporal terms, we have a technique of counterpoint, as well as one of delayed realisation. In this instance, as we see that Becky’s refusal of waste time in sentimentality is also heartless, we can’t help thinking of the tableau we’ve just seen with George and Amelia — he, for once, ‘heart-stained and shame-stricken’ at his own selfishness towards her, she — not ‘for once’ — ‘with a sob fit to break [her] little heart’. But we don’t know when we read this that she is to be a widow within twenty-four hours, nor that she is pregnant. The narrator will not help us decide how to respond, because his stance changes from moment to moment; but so too does the pattern of events in the novel. Very much, we might say, like life itself: one reason why Vanity Fair is a book that is so rewarding on second and third readings.

It’s worth providing another example of this technique of delayed realisation. Ch 5, which introduces Dobbin, was in fact a late addition to WMT’s plans, though it’s hard to imagine the novel without him. It’s obviously part of the structure of counterpointed scenes. Becky and Amelia at school parallel Dobbin and George at school, but there are significant differences. In each case one is popular and the other not, one is an outsider and the other not, but there is an implicit contrast not just between the way Becky and Dobbin regard their younger friends — we can’t imagine Becky fighting for Amelia — but also in the way each comes to term with a position of social and economic disadvantage: Becky does so by exploiting the vices of her society, Dobbin by coming to represent what is best and most worthy in it. This contrast is not worked out fully till near the end of the novel, when Becky overhears Dobbin trying to persuade Amelia to stay clear of her, and admires him: ‘if I could have had such a husband as that — a man with a heart and brains too! I would not have minded his large feet . . .’ — a wiser (or should one say sharper?) view of Dobbin than Amelia has yet reached. But if Ch 5 sets up a deep contrast which is not to be brought into the open for many pages to come, it also has more immediate effects. For example, Cuff’s easy recovery of his lost position reminds us of how easy it is to impose on the society of Vanity Fair – one moment Cock of the School, the next a defeated bully, and a moment after a hero who magnanimously accepts all the blame.

But we also note that Dobbin lacks this kind of social skill; when George writes home about the fight, he asks his father to acknowledge Dobbin’s help by buying his tea and sugar not from ‘Dobbin & Rudge’ but from ‘Figs & Rudge’ — still giving Dobbin his insulting nickname. We forget this letter until we reach Ch 24, in which old Osborne disinherits his son because of his marriage to Amelia; he does so only after turning over all the documents he has kept from George’s schooldays — letters, ‘marked and docketed, and tied with red tape’, including, perhaps, this one describing his new champion. This in turn invites to think of the different attitudes the two men, Dobbin and old Osborne, have towards George, and the different qualities they have helped to foster in him. Dobbin’s admiration is genuine, though possibly tinged by the need to admire the man who has won Amelia (he even wonders if he helped bring about the marriage ‘because his own sufferings of suspense were so unendurable that he was glad to crush them at once’), and his encouragement has led George to stand by his long engagement. But the old man’s possessive and obsessive pride, evident in the docketed letters, is also echoed in his son’s determination to defy his father rather than back down or seek for compromise. It’s no accident that the picture at the front of the Osborne family Bible is of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (a scene also recalled when Amelia is, as old Osborne so brutally puts it, ‘starved out’ and agrees to part with her son).

Each episode in this novel is tangled with another: causally related to it, parallel to it, or a later echo of it. I’ve commented on elaborate examples, but of course many of them make their effect more immediately. Ch 32 ends with the famous words: ‘and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.’ Ch 33 returns us to the home of Miss Crawley, ‘always particularly annoying and savage when she was rallying from illness — as they say wounds tingle most when they are about to heal.’ The language of wounds and savagery here is dismaying: it reminds us that it was for women like Miss Crawley that Waterloo was fought. Ch 53, which tells of Becky’s personal Waterloo, ends with her maid settling her in bed with ‘some entreaty and show of kindness’: ‘Then she went below and gathered up the trinkets which had been lying on the floor, since Rebecca dropped them there on her husband’s orders, and Lord Steyne went away.’ What is meant by ‘show of kindness’ and ‘gathered up’ becomes plain in the next chapter, when she makes off with Becky’s jewels. No wonder, as WMT says of his narrative style at one point, ‘Our history is destined in this chapter to go back and forwards in a very irresolute way seemingly’ — seemingly irresolute, but in fact deeply calculated.

Moral judgement, then, in Vanity Fair, is complicated by our awareness of other, parallel scenes, and by what Percy Lubbock calls WMT’s ‘long retrospective vision’, which glances constantly back and forth from the time of stage coaches and oil lamps, when Vauxhall Gardens were still an attraction on to the present time of the novel, the late 1840s. Even at Vauxhall however we note that Mrs Salmon performs a ‘savage cantata’ against the ‘Corsican upstart’, dealing with his reverse at the Battle of Borodino; the public world is never far away. WMT’s long vision embraces social as well as personal changes. Gordon Ray describes the novel as the best account in literature of the reform in manners between the reigns of George IV and Victoria (this is also part of Robin Gilmour’s topic) — that change which moved English society into a more domestic and in Victorian idiom more ‘serious’ mood, beginning with a reform movement within the Church of England — the Evangelical movement — and gradually widening in the mid-nineteenth century into the passion for respectability. The older Sir Pitt is a comic grotesque from a dying era; the younger Pitt Crawley is a serious politician, hoping to make his way in a serious Parliament, albeit dislodged by the re-drawing of the political map in the 1832 Reform Bill — a victim of the changes men like he had helped to bring about. Lord Steyne’s era is also gone; the present Lord Steyne lives in Naples, not in Gaunt House, and the city square in which the Lord Steyne of the novel set about seducing Becky has changed its ‘tone’ — the ‘laced lackeys and link boys’ are no more, and the brass plates on the doors indicate the success of the new commercial world — doctors, bankers, and the like have ‘penetrated’ the square. The narrator remembers how in his youth he saw the King — George IV — at Drury Lane theatre, amidst a ‘writhing and shouting mass’ of people crushed into the pit — this is a whole world away from the style of mid-Victorian monarchy, which was indeed becoming what WMT calls it in Ch 49, ‘the most squeamish if not the most moral of societies’. Rawdon Crawley’s duelling pistols in their rosewod case, ‘same which I shot Captain Marker’, Jos Sedley’s frogged frock coat and great double ring with rubies, just as much as the elaborate monument on the wall in the Osborne family church, with Britannia weeping over an urn, a broken sword and a couchant lion, belong irretrievably to the past — to, as the narrator explains, the first fifteen years of the present century.

This sense of change on a grand, historical scale deepens the melancholy of the novel. The field of Waterloo has become a tourist site, which the narrator has walked over, and which his readers too are expected to have visited. Victorian England is Colonel Dobbin, retired to a pretty little place in Hampshire, with his wife and children and his History of the Punjaub — a colonial responsibility which the Victorians took more seriously than their eighteenth century forebears — and not Colonel Crawley, guardsman, card sharp and duellist. Becky’s goal at the end of the novel is respectable society in Bath and Cheltenham, not the glittering prizes of a Gaunt House


Thackeray wrote in serious terms himself about his novel — quoted Casebook, p 36:
the intention of the novel, he writes
is to indicate in cheerful terms that we are for the most part an abominably
foolish and selfish people ‘desperately wicked’ and all eager after vanities.
Everybody is you see in that book, — for instance if I had made Amelia a
higher order of woman there would have been no vanity in Dobbins falling
in love with her, whereas the impression at present is that he is a fool for
pains that he has married a silly little thing and in fact has found out his
his error . . I want to leave everybody dissatisfied and unhappy at the end
of the story — we ought all to be with our own and all other stories. Good
God dont I see (in that may-be cracked and warped looking-glass in which
I am always looking) my own weaknesses wickednesses lust follies short-
comings? in company let us hope with better qualities . . . We must lift up
our voices about these and howl to a congregation of fools: so much at least
has been my own endeavour.

This is a mid-Victorian voice. But few novels could more constantly remind us of Lawrence’s dictum never to trust the teller, only to trust the tale. And whatever his intentions, one part of WMT’s self is surely given over to Becky in this novel. The narrator denies responsibility for her letters describing the life at Queen’s Crawley, but the disclaimers come after the letter has gone for pages; we might even notice that WMT has been willing to provide the illustration which seems to confirm her views, as the young Pitt Crawley, nose in the air, leads his cowed wife into dinner. At times too Becky is used as WMT’s surrogate in the novel. The Bareacres family snub Amelia even as they accept her hospitality, and it is Becky who repays them, first by selling her horses at an inflated price, then by taunting Lady Bareacres about the diamonds sewn into her clothes, and finally by remarking on the episode, innocently (of course), at a ball where everyone present knows they have since been pawned. Similarly, her public snubbing of George Osborne, when he speaks to her so condescendingly, seems to have WMT’s approval just as it wins our own. Even her cruel rejection of the Dixonary from Miss Jemima is understandable; however well-intentioned, the gift underlines the fact that Miss Pinkerton would not have given it, that for her Becky is beyond the pale.

There are of course other times when we dissent from Becky’s all-too-sharp views of those around her. It’s easy to understand her dismissal of George to Amelia near the end of the novel — ‘that selfish humbug, that low-bred Cockney dandy, that padded booby, who had neither wit, nor manners, nor heart’ — but we remember what else is held in WMT’s long retrospective vision, which Becky does not know — the penitent George before Waterloo, or the eager George on the same occasion, ‘his nerves quivering with excitement’ at the prospect of going into battle, even perhaps the small boy being whipped by his father across the sofa in the study while his mother sat and shuddered on the stairs.

But ‘the famous little Becky Puppet’ remains at the centre of the novel, both the sharpest observer of Vanity Fair and the darkest sinner in it — perhaps, if we are to take seriously the references to Clytemnnestra, the murderer of Jos Sedley. And the central scene is in Ch 53, where Rawdon surprises Becky with Lord Steyne. WMT told a friend that when he wrote that, when instead of fainting or protesting Becky ‘admired her husband, strong, brave, and victorious’, he slapped his fist on the table and exclaimed ‘that is a touch of genius’. So it is. It’s not just that it is only in the moment when she loses Rawdon for ever that she realises that he is not the fool she has supposed him. We also see that the blow which knocks down Lord Steyne excites her; when she first goes to Queen’s Crawley, and sees the picture of the two brothers, one in black and one in his red uniform, it is the latter she dreams about. We understand too that it gives her a satisfaction to see Steyne laid low; this is the man who has treated her as a toy, though with a grim respect for her tenacity in Vanity Fair. And, even if the episode destroys her, it also clears her from a charade, and throws her back on her own resources, not on the favour of a patron to whom she has to sell herself, and who usurps her right of self-control. But this does not answer the question, ‘Was she guilty, or not?’ Nor shall I try to. Please consider this in time for our tutorial discussions, along with the role of the narrator in the novel — it may be helpful to the discussion if you concentrate on the early chapters — and the sense of time, both personal and historical.