Vanity Fair

New post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

Sometime between 1845 and 1846, the literary journalist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863) drafted a few short pieces entitled Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society (illustrated by himself), which he hoped would constitute the opening chapters of an as yet unspecified longer work. ‘The truth forces itself upon me,’ he wrote to his friend William Aytoun (half of ‘Bon Gaultier’), ‘now is the time, my lad, to make your A when the sun at length has begun to shine. Well, I think if I can make a push at the present minute, I may go up with a run to a pretty fair place in my trade.’ With a kind of desperate optimism, he viewed the proposed project as a way to break out of the low-paid hell of blue collar writing and achieve the same level of success as his friends Dickens and Ainsworth, and his enemy Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Thackeray was 35, and as his early biographer Lewis Melville was forced to admit, ‘the undisputed fact remains that in 1846 Thackeray was unknown outside literary circles and his own intimate friends.’ Thackeray was by then the father of two surviving daughters (a third, Jane, had died before her first birthday), and his wife Isabella had fallen into the chronic mental ill-health that would dominate the rest of her tragic life. Although born of good family and privately educated (Charterhouse and Cambridge), he had lost a significant portion of his inheritance to professional gamblers while a student, the last of it going through the Agency House Crisis in Calcutta when the Bank of Hindoostan collapsed. (As an Anglo-Indian, Thackeray’s remaining patrimony had all been tied-up in Indian investments.) Desperate to support his family, he was, as he often told his friends, ‘writing for his life’. He offered the new project – now provisionally entitled A Novel Without a Hero – to the publisher Henry Colburn for inclusion in the New Monthly Magazine, for which he already wrote comic sketches, alongside his frantic freelance contributions to Fraser’s Magazine, the Morning Chronicle, the Foreign Quarterly Review, The Times, and Punch. Colburn took one look at it, saw nothing new, and turned it down.

The Sketches were duly shelved, but not forgotten, while Thackeray began to finally make a modest name for himself writing ‘The Snobs of England, by one of themselves’ – later The Book of Snobs – for Punch. While engaged in this enterprise, revelation struck. As he wrote to his friend Kate Perry: ‘I jumped out of bed and ran three times around my room, uttering as I went: Vanity Fair! Vanity Fair! Vanity Fair!

As he was one of their own – ‘Michael Angelo Titmarsh’ – Punch took it on and published it in 20 serial parts printed by Bradbury & Evans, commencing in January 1847, at which point only three instalments had been written. This immediately followed the Book of Snobs, which ran in Punch from February 1846 to February 1847.Thackeray received a fee of £60 a number. Like Dickens’ serials from Chapman & Hall, each issue took the form of a pamphlet with a steel engraving (by Thackeray) on the cover wrapping three or four chapters, a couple of woodcut illustrations (also by the author) and some ads, price 1s. Dickens’ serials always bore a teal cover so pedestrians could spot his latest on the newsstand, and Bradbury & Evans did the same for Thackeray, selecting a vivid canary yellow that thereafter became his signature colour. When the serial concluded in July the following year, Bradbury & Evans published it in a single bound volume, now subtitled ‘A Novel without a Hero’. Critics in the main hailed Vanity Fair a work of genius and its author the equal of Dickens. ‘Currer Bell’ (as yet unidentified as Charlotte Brontë) effusively dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray:

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition of ‘JANE EYRE.’

Thackeray made two grand in royalties alone that first year. Once more, he was a gentleman of means, but better still, he had finally achieved the literary recognition he had craved since the 1830s. He remained ‘at the top of the tree’, as he put it, for the rest of his life.

Like its author, Vanity Fair is unique within the English Victorian literary cannon. In fact, to find anything like a correlative at all we must go to Tolstoy’s similarly epic War and Peace, serialised between 1865–1867 and more than a little inspired by Thackeray. (Aged 30 in 1853, Tolstoy had written that ‘There is one fact I must remind myself of as often as possible: at thirty, Thackeray was just preparing to write his first book.’ This wasn’t true, but you can see where he’s going here.) Both novels share several notional similarities. They are both set during the Napoleonic Wars, and Tolstoy’s protagonist Pyotr ‘Pierre’ Kirillovich Bezukhov is, like Thackeray’s Major William Dobbin, large-bodied, ungainly, and socially awkward but possessed of a heart of gold. In the Classical sense of rising and falling action, Waterloo represents Vanity Fair’s climax as the Battle of Borodino (1812) does War and Peace. Similarly significant plot points at both battles also set up each novel’s romantic resolution, although Tolstoy’s is somewhat more upbeat than Thackeray’s. And just as Amelia Sedley’s family is ruined by her father’s financial mismanagement in Vanity Fair, so is that of Tolstoy’s heroine, Natasha Rostova. And on a textual level, there are scenes in War and Peace that are not a million miles from some of Thackeray’s. Most importantly, Thackeray’s project, like Tolstoy’s, was one of Realism not Romanticism. In fact, there is a case to be made that Vanity Fair is the first truly English Realist novel, heralding the literary prose form that would dominate the latter part of the 19th century across Europe until its absolute representational certainty died on the battlefields of the First World War.

When reading Vanity Fair, as one reads a novel by Dickens, it is best to remember that these things began as serials, sometimes with story arcs planned well in advance, sometimes with instalments written on the fly to meet the deadline. There is thus a touch of the soap opera about Vanity Fair when it comes to plotting, with cliff-hanging chapter endings and startling reversals of fortune, all of which make for fun reading and go a long way towards explaining the novel’s continuing popularity as a subject of costume drama. (There are seven movies to date, including a racy pre-code version starring Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp – ‘Children not admitted!’ screamed the poster; four radio versions, six television dramas, the most recent by ITV and Amazon in 2018, and four plays, not counting all the Victorian theatrical knock-offs.) The story traces the interweaving lives of two socially juxtaposed female friends during the years leading up to Waterloo and its aftermath, beginning when the two girls graduate from Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. The naïvely bourgeois Amelia Sedley is beloved by all, with a ‘smiling, tender, gentle, generous heart’, and leaves school demurely weeping. Her companion, the penniless and bohemian Becky Sharp, orphaned child of an artist and a French dancer, departs hurling the proffered leaving gift of Johnson’s Dictionary out of the window of the coach, symbolically cutting the mooring line with the values of social cohesion, patriarchal authority, and respect for tradition enshrined in that mighty volume. Amelia is the daughter of a successful stockbroker and is engaged to her childhood sweetheart, the soldier George Osbourne, the handsome but vain son of a wealthy merchant. Becky, meanwhile, who first stays with Amelia at the Sedley home in Russell Square, has the ‘dismal precocity of poverty’. She is highly intelligent, resourceful, and ambitious, with apparently no moral compass whatsoever, and sets her sights on trapping Amelia’s pompous and useless brother into marriage, thus achieving financial security and safe social status. Having no family to negotiate an advantageous marriage, Becky, as her author concedes, has no choice but to make the running herself. Although her ‘first move showed considerable skill’, Jos Sedley, the ‘Collector of Boggley Wollah’ (a bleak East India Company outpost), takes himself out of the picture after disgracing himself at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Becky goes to ‘Queen’s Crawley’ in Hampshire to become governess to the children of the grotesque and semi-literate miser and MP, Sir Pitt Crawley. Things do not go as planned, naturally. The novel unfolds as Becky continues to attempt to advance her own interests while Amelia waits to marry the posing and profligate snob, George (who she idolises), while his best friend, Dobbin, looks on longingly from the side-lines. Napoleon escapes from Elba, and the friends, lovers and brothers all end up in Brussels as history drags them towards the inevitable carnage of Waterloo, after which nothing will ever be the same for any of them again… (And that’s only the first half of the novel.)

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