Vanity Fair, Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in India while his father was employed by the East India Company, was shipped back to England to start school on his father’s death in 1815, and during a short stopover at St Helena had the ex-Emperor Napoleon pointed out to him (wiki).

During his lifetime he was apparently second only to Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in the ranks of great Victorian novelists, though really only Vanity Fair (1847-48) of all his works has endured. He regarded Dickens as a ‘sentimentalist’ and himself as a ‘realist’ though in fact he made his reputation as a satirist, and his authorial interpolations in this novel hark back to novelists of the previous century like Fielding (here).

I have never studied this period, between Jane Austen (who died in 1817) and the early Australians who began writing novels in the 1850s and 60s (here), so was keen to begin filling in the gap, though I have still to write anything about Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott who remained influential (with guy writers anyway) throughout the nineteenth century.

Vanity Fair, all 18 31 hours worth! playing on the truck speakers as I drive, is to some extent Historical Fiction, in that the events it describes take place three to four decades before it was written. And in fact it overlaps by a decade the last years of Jane Austen’s fiction. This provides considerable interest as both authors discuss the lives of the wealthy middle class, although from radically different angles. Austen from the point of view of the landed gentry interacting with upwardly mobile naval officers and merchants, Uncle Gardiner in particular; and Thackeray from the point of view of stockbrokers and entrepreneurs only one or two generations removed from the slums, whom he satirises for aspiring to gentility, and their sons in Wellington’s army or the East India Company.

In this novel without a hero the central character is Becky Sharp of whom I have often heard and never before met. We first see Becky on her last day at Miss Pinkerton’s where she had been a tutor and her late father before her, drawing master. She is going with her friend, final year pupil Amelia (Emmy) Sedley for a couple of week’s holiday before commencing as a governess with Sir Pitt Crawley.

I could take the next 800 words and still not give you a lucid summary of the plot, but here is a very brief overview. Becky’s mother had been a dancer and Becky had lived very rough indeed until accepted at Miss Pinkerton’s. She angles first for Emmy’s fat, well-off brother, Joseph, home from the East India Company, without success; goes to Queens Crawley where the dissolute Sir Pitt uses her as a secretary and his young daughters are ignored; looks for a while like she might become companion to Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister; is found to be secretly married to Rawdon, a captain in the guards and Sir Pitt’s younger son; the aunt disinherits Rawdon.

Meanwhile Emmy is promised to her childhood sweetheart George Osborne, a lieutenant in a line regiment and is secretly loved by William Dobbin, George’s friend, a captain in the same regiment and whose fathers look down on each other in their capacities as merchants and stockbrokers.

Emmy’s father is bankrupted; George is forbidden to marry her; but with the connivance of Becky and William does anyway; and is disinherited. They all go down to Brighton in Jos’s carriage. Napoleon escapes, war breaks out, and in May-June 1815, in the days before Waterloo, they make their various ways to Brussells. There’s lots and lots more, centred around Becky and Rawdon living on Becky’s wits and Rawdon’s card playing, living well on nothing per year as Thackeray puts it, and describes in some detail as many novelists don’t what misery this causes amongst the lower classes who provide the services and don’t get paid.

There must be a century and half of scholarship around Vanity Fair on which I have chosen not to draw, so these are just my own impressions. I see the ‘Fair’ of the title as reflecting not what we might think first – a field full of merry-go-rounds and amusements – but more a marketplace, as in a horse fair. Thackeray refers repeatedly to ‘Vanity Fair’ in the text as though it were conceptually at least a place, a place where the aspiring middle classes trade furiously for advantage, selling their sons, their daughters, their honour.

The final question I wish to consider is, Is Becky Sharp an early Independent Woman? She certainly has an independent spirit, was taught early by her parents how to deal with (the non-payment of) creditors; cheerfully as a young woman seeks employment – and refuses to do one scintilla more than that for which she has been contracted. She approaches the idea of marriage with the repulsive Jos Sedley calculatingly and without sentiment. It comes as a surprise then to find her married almost without explanation to Rawdon Crawley, though she deals with his predictable disinheritance with characteristic cheerfulness. Thackeray discusses the disadvantages of not having a mama to do her marriage-dealing for her, which reminds me of early Australian author Catherine Martin:

We sometimes forget that the freedom of choice in marriage which is permitted to women of the Anglo-Saxon race has the effect of making some of them regard the institution on cool business principles. It is an ‘arrangement’ made by themselves instead of by the mothers, as in France. [An Australian Girl (1890)]

Becky is cold-blooded in her self-promotion, and in her mothering, and Rawdon is happy to do what he is told. Thackeray makes it clear in his oft-declared imperfect understanding of women that he doesn’t like her particularly, especially in comparison to the milksop Emmy. He has Becky solicit and receive gifts from her husband’s superior officers, and if she doesn’t actually go to bed with them that is probably more reflective of the morals of Thackeray’s mid-Victorian period readers than of Becky’s own. If she were a Rosa Praed heroine she would have ditched Rawdon by the half-way mark and married into money and a title.

 

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, first published in Punch over 19 monthly episodes, London, 1847-48. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by John Castle, 2008


Sun. With about three hours of the book left to go I am having an unexpected couple of days off. If I happen on any surprises between now and posting on Tues morning, I will let you know.

Mon night. The big surprise was to see that the novel takes not 18 but 31 hours. After a long day’s work I still have “three hours” to go, Dobbin has grey hair and still pines after Amelia, Jos has grown prosperous in India, and Becky and Rawdon … well for those of you, like me, who haven’t seen the TV series, that would involve spoilers.

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Yesterday (Sunday)I had to drop off granddaughter and friend at the movies (Black Panther) and came home via Crow Books. A couple of you, Lisa Hill and Kate W probably, have spoken of the cheering properties of book-buying, not that I need cheering, but I was positively elated to come across this near perfect 1958 hard back edition of The Pea Pickers for just TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS. More so as the boring Patrick White next to it, which I already own, was $55. As you can see I picked up a few others which were on my list (and a couple which weren’t).