Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, the first major work published by William Thackeray under his own name, was published serially in London in 1847 and 1848. Previously, under various comic pseudonyms (such as Michael Angelo Titmarsh and George Savage Fitzboodle) Thackeray made clear, both in his role as the narrator of Vanity Fair and in his private correspondence about the book, that he meant it to be not just entertaining, but instructive. Like all satire, Vanity Fair has a mission and a moral. The first published installment had an illustration on its cover of a congregation listening to a preacher; both speaker and listeners were shown with donkey ears. In the pages, Thackeray explains the illustration thus:
my kind reader will please to remember that these histories … have "Vanity Fair" for a title and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretentions. And while the moralist who is holding forth on the cover (an accurate portrait of your humble servant) professes to wear neither gown nor bands, but only the very same long-eared livery in which his congregation is arrayed: yet, look you, one is bound to speak the truth as far as one knows it.
That Becky is allowed to live, and to live well, is perfectly consistent with Thackeray's view of life and morality…. Losing is vanity, and winning is vanity.
By the halfway point in its serial publication, Thackeray's long, rambling tale of relentless and corrupt social climbing, told with biting humor and cynicism, was the talk of London. Readers eagerly awaited new episodes in the life of Thackeray's deeply immoral, self-serving anti-heroine, Becky Sharp, who has since become one of the most well-known and most argued-about characters in literature. The novel secured Thackeray's place among the literary giants of his time; and the giants of his time, among them Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, and Alfred Tennyson, have endured as giants to this day. Vanity Fair is considered a classic of English literature and one of the great works of satire in all history.
William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, on July 18, 1811, the only child of English parents. His father, Richmond, worked for the East India Company until he died four years after William's birth.
At the age of six, William was sent to a boarding school in England while his mother, Anne Becher Thackeray, remained in India. Unsurprisingly, the young child was lonely and unhappy. In 1819, his mother remarried and returned to England where she and her new husband were able to give him the family life for which he longed.
Thackeray attended Charterhouse School and went on to Cambridge University's Trinity College but did not earn a degree. He studied art in Paris and later illustrated many of his written works, including Vanity Fair. It was in Paris that Thackeray met and married Isabella Shawe, an Irish woman. They soon moved back to London where Thackeray launched his writing career. He wrote for magazines, including the famous humor magazine Punch.
Isabella Thackeray suffered from mental illness after the birth of the couple's third child. After many failed attempts to cure her, Thackeray was forced, in 1842, to send his wife away to be cared for. Unable to rear his young daughters alone, he was separated from them, as well. The loneliness and separation from family that had been so difficult for Thackeray as a child were no less painful for him as a grown man. Because his wife was alive (in fact, she outlived him by many years) and divorce was not an option, Thackeray never remarried.
The first work Thackeray published under his own name was Vanity Fair, a long, sprawling satire that was published in four installments in 1847 and 1848. It remains among his most well-known novels, along with The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century (later published as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon) and The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century, inspired by Thackeray's travels in the United States in 1852–1853 and 1855–1856.
Thackeray was prolific, writing short fiction and nonfiction as well as novels. By the end of his life, he had achieved both critical and financial success. In addition, he had the joy of having his mother and two of his daughters living with him and of seeing daughter Anne recognized as a successful writer. Thackeray died at his London home on Christmas Eve in 1863.
As Vanity Fair opens, Amelia Sedley, a conventional girl from a well-to-do family, and Becky Sharp, Sedley's orphaned, penniless, and already corrupt friend, are leaving Miss Pinkerton's school where they have met and become friends. They go to the Sedley home where Becky will be a guest until she goes on to the governess position that Miss Pinkerton has arranged for her.
Becky meets Amelia's older brother, Joseph, called Jos, who is on leave from his government post in India. Although Jos is fat, lazy, conceited, and shy with women, he is also financially well off, and Becky schemes to marry him. Through flattery and false modesty, Becky succeeds in making all the Sedleys believe that she truly is enamored of Jos, and Jos is inclined to propose to her. George Osborne, Amelia's fiancé, intervenes, persuading Jos that he has embarrassed himself in Becky's presence. George does not want a governess for a sister-in-law. Defeated, Becky leaves for the Crawley estate where she is to be governess.
The mean-spirited and stingy Sir Pitt Crawley is the patriarch of Queen's Crawley where Becky takes up her post as governess to his two young daughters, Rosalind and Violet. Sir Pitt also has two much older sons by his first wife. The elder, also named Pitt, is pious and proper to an extreme. The younger, Rawdon, is a dandy and a gambler. The two despise each other.
The irreverent and debt-ridden Reverend Bute Crawley, Sir Pitt's brother, and his nosy, overbearing wife come on the scene. Sir Pitt and Bute also hate each other. The family members are united only in their desire to see their wealthy, old Aunt Matilda dead, and they all connive to inherit her fortune.
George is disrespectful of Amelia in the presence of his army comrades, for which his longtime friend William Dobbin berates him. Physically awkward but highly virtuous, Dobbin has loved Amelia since youth but considers himself unworthy of her. George's father, who has long encouraged George to marry Amelia, now suspects that her family has lost its money and wants George to break the engagement. The self-serving George is willing to do so.
Becky has charmed Aunt Matilda and, at the old lady's request, has moved to her home to nurse her. Rawdon is smitten with Becky and spends as much time with her as he can.
Sir Pitt's wife, Lady Crawley, dies, and immediately Sir Pitt asks Becky to marry him. Here, Becky cries the only genuine tears of her life because she must reject the wealthy Sir Pitt, having secretly married Rawdon. Sir Pitt and old Aunt Matilda are both enraged at this news.
Becky and Rawdon go on a honeymoon, and Mrs. Bute Crawley descends on Aunt Matilda, hoping to turn her against Rawdon and secure her fortune for herself and her husband. Then the Sedleys' possessions are sold at an estate sale; the family's financial ruin, due to Mr. Sedley's unwise business speculation, is complete and public. In the meantime, against the wishes of both their fathers, George and Amelia marry. Next, everyone meets in Brighton where Dobbin announces that the men have been ordered to go to Belgium where the First Duke of Wellington, the British general who is commanding a multinational army, plans to launch an attack on Napoleon's army.
The peace-loving, selfless Dobbin tries to get George's father to accept George's marriage to Amelia, but Mr. Osborne instead disinherits George. George blames Dobbin because it was Dobbin who encouraged him to marry Amelia.
Mrs. Bute Crawley is forced to leave Aunt Matilda when the reverend is injured and needs her at home. Becky and Rawdon then try to move in on the old woman, ostensibly to take over her care, but she is wise to their designs on her money.
Everyone goes to Belgium. The men, except Jos, are in military service; Jos and the women accompany them. George and Becky flirt shamelessly, and Amelia is too blind to understand why she is heartsick. George finally passes Becky a mysterious note and then, remorseful, tries to make up with Amelia.
General and Mrs. O'Dowd, the regiment commander and his wife, prepare for the battle. Mrs. O'Dowd, accustomed to sending her husband into battle, mothers the younger women and pursues her goal of finding a husband for the general's sister. Rawdon is distressed at leaving Becky; George is relieved at leaving Amelia.
The battle begins; the women can hear the cannons booming in the distance. Amelia is worried sick for George while Becky fantasizes about her prospects to better herself if Rawdon is killed. In fact, it is George who dies in the Battle of Waterloo.
Back in England, Sir Pitt has taken up with Miss Horrocks, his butler's daughter, scandalizing the family. Young Pitt courts Lady Jane Sheepshanks, and the sweet, kind Lady Jane in turn wins the affection of Aunt Matilda.
Both Becky and Amelia give birth to sons. Dobbin tries to comfort Amelia as she grieves for George.
Becky and Rawdon manage to live well on very little money. Becky is an expert at avoiding paying her bills. Rawdon makes a little money gambling. They lease a house from Mr. Raggles, a former servant of the Crawleys but cannot pay the rent. In turn, Raggles is unable to pay his bills and is sent to debtors' prison.
Aunt Matilda dies, young Sir Pitt inherits her wealth, and Becky and Rawdon try to ingratiate themselves with the heir. Becky ignores her son, little Rawdon, but his father loves him. Dobbin gives Amelia much-needed money, saying it was left to her by George. Jos returns to India.
Sir Pitt becomes ill, lingers for a time, and then dies. Young Sir Pitt takes over Queen's Crawley and sends for Becky and Rawdon in a gesture of family unity.
Dobbin is in India with his regiment when he hears a false rumor that Amelia is going to get married. He requests leave to go to England.
Becky and Rawdon go to Queen's Crawley for Christmas where Becky fawns over everyone who has status or money, especially the young Sir Pitt.
The Sedley family is sinking further into poverty. The Osbornes—George's father and sisters—want George's son Georgy to come live with them and offer Amelia money if she will give him up. After some delay, Amelia agrees to this so that Georgy is not reared in poverty.
Lord Steyne, with whom Becky has a vaguely explained and profitable relationship, arranges for Becky to be presented at court—the successful culmination of all her social climbing. She appears draped in expensive jewels; unbeknownst to Rawdon, these are gifts from Lord Steyne. This begins a period of social triumph for Becky.
Lord Steyne sends little Rawdon away to school, which pleases Becky, who cannot be bothered with him. Rawdon, long ignored by his wife, is jailed for failing to pay a debt. Becky is slow to answer his message asking her to have him released so he contacts Sir Pitt and Lady Jane. Lady Jane arrives without delay to free him. At home, Raw-don finds Becky entertaining Lord Steyne. He attacks Lord Steyne—he hurls a diamond pin at his forehead, leaving Lord Steyne scarred—and goes through Becky's belongings and finds her stash of money and jewelry. Both Rawdon and Lord Steyne abandon Becky, and they plan to duel.
Becky pleads with Sir Pitt to help her reconcile with Rawdon, and he agrees to try. Lord Steyne's man, Wenham, uses diplomacy to prevent the duel. Rawdon takes a post on Coventry Island, a remote place from which he sends money for Becky and his son. Sir Pitt and Lady Jane look after little Rawdon.
Dobbin and Jos return to England from India; Dobbin's return has been delayed by a serious illness. Dobbin goes to see Amelia and is relieved to find that she has not married. Finally, he divulges that he has long loved her, but she continues to think only of George. Dobbin spends time with little Georgy and improves the boy's character while Jos belatedly helps his family financially.
Old Mr. Osborne dies, leaving half his money to Georgy and also leaving some money for Amelia. Jos, Amelia, Georgy, and Dobbin go to Europe. Becky, who has been wandering around Europe since losing Rawdon and Lord Steyne, meets up with them and renews her pursuit of Jos. After warning Jos that Becky is dangerous, Dobbin leaves to rejoin his regiment.
Becky reveals to Amelia the contents of the mysterious note that George gave her on the eve of his death at Waterloo: George urged Becky to run away with him. Amelia finally has some understanding of George's true character. She sends for Dobbin, he returns, and they marry immediately.
Becky continues to ensnare Jos and talks him into taking out a life insurance policy with her as beneficiary. Within months, he dies of poisoning. Becky's role in his death is left unclear. Rawdon then dies on Coventry Island of yellow fever. Sir Pitt dies, and little Rawdon inherits Queen's Crawley. Amelia and Dobbin are happy together and have a daughter.
Becky lives comfortably in Europe on the money from Jos's insurance policy and on an allowance sent to her by her son (who nevertheless refuses to see her). She becomes a churchgoer and gives generously to charity.
The Sedleys' housekeeper, Mrs. Blenkinsop is loyal enough to stay with the family when they lose their money. She is also Amelia's trusted confidant.
Briggs is at first a maid for Miss Matilda Crawley and later a companion to Becky Sharp. She is good-hearted and naïve enough to loan money to Becky, which Becky, predictably, does not repay. Lord Steyne ends up providing for Miss Briggs.
Frederick, a lawyer, is Maria Osborne's suitor and eventual husband. When Maria's brother George is disinherited, Frederick does not hide his pleasure that Maria is now likely to receive a larger share of the family's money.
The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Clapp, the Sedleys' landlords after they lose their money, Mary becomes Amelia's friend.
Mr. Clapp is the Sedleys' longtime clerk, who takes the family in when they lose their fortune.
The Sedleys' landlady, Mrs. Clapp, nags Amelia about the rent when the family has fallen on hard times, but she changes her attitude when Amelia comes into money.
The brother of Sir Pitt Crawley, Bute is a reverend who is ill-suited to his position. He likes to eat, drink, and gamble (and therefore is in debt) and is happy to let his wife run their household and write his sermons. Like all the Crawleys, he hopes to inherit a substantial amount of money from old Aunt Matilda Crawley.
Mrs. Bute Crawley
The reverend's wife is overbearing, snooty, manipulative, and determined to win Aunt Matilda's fortune. She dislikes Becky Sharp, whom she recognizes as a smart and ambitious competitor. In the end, Mrs. Crawley fails to secure Aunt Matilda's money.
The son of Bute and Mrs. Crawley, James nearly charms Aunt Matilda into leaving him her money. When she discovers that he is a heavy drinker and catches him smoking in her house, he falls from grace and loses his chance at the inheritance.
Miss Matilda Crawley
Miss Crawley, Sir Pitt Crawley's half-sister, is old, unmarried, eccentric, and rich. The entire Crawley clan connives to get their hands on her fortune, and she is well aware of this. She is at first inclined to favor Rawdon, but he loses out when he marries Becky; Miss Crawley disapproves of the union because of Becky's low social standing. Although she dislikes Pitt (mostly for his extreme piety), in the end, Pitt's wife, Lady Jane, wins the old lady's affection through genuine kindness, and Pitt and Lady Jane end up with most of Miss Crawley's fortune.
Pitt is the older son of Sir Pitt Crawley. He is overly pious, proper to a fault, and stingy. It is mostly due to his marriage to the sweet and kind Lady Jane that Pitt ends up with his aunt's fortune. His seat in Parliament is also inherited, and not won by any personal merit. However, Pitt does have some redeeming qualities. He welcomes Rawdon and Becky into the family, and when they split up, Pitt offers his brother kindness and takes care of their son (also named Rawdon).
Sir Pitt Crawley
Sir Pitt is a wealthy nobleman who is nevertheless uneducated, unrefined, unkempt, uncouth, and a penny pincher in the extreme. He has two sons, Pitt and Rawdon, by his deceased first wife, and two young daughters, Rosalind and Violet, by his second wife, Rose. Becky comes to his country estate, Queen's Crawley, to be governess to his girls. When Rose dies, Sir Pitt proposes to Becky (he likes her spunk), who must refuse him because she has secretly married Rawdon. Sir Pitt then turns his affections to his butler's daughter, Miss Horrocks, which horrifies his family. He dies and leaves his fortune, along with his noble title of baronet, to his elder son, Pitt.
Rawdon is the younger son of Sir Pitt Craw-ley and, eventually, the husband of Becky Sharp. When he is kicked out of Cambridge University, his aunt, Miss Matilda Crawley, who favors him until he marries Becky, buys him a commission in the Life Guards Green. Although somewhat dull-witted himself, Rawdon is a gambler who takes advantage of less clever men whenever he can and helps support himself and Becky in this way. He truly loves Becky and puts up with her increasing neglect and disregard for him. It is too much for him, however, when he is imprisoned for debt, and it is Lady Jane, not Becky, who comes to free him. Rawdon goes home to find Becky with Lord Steyne and finally leaves her. He takes a position on a faraway tropical island, Coventry Island, from which he sends money for Becky and their son. Eventually, he dies of yellow fever on the island.
Rawdy is the son of Becky and Rawdon. Although his father loves him, Becky shows no love or affection for him and sends him away to school under the auspices of Lord Steyne. Pitt and Lady Jane take care of him after his parents part ways, and Rawdy inherits Queen's Crawley when Pitt dies. Although he will not see her, he provides for Becky in spite of her ill treatment of him.
Miss Rosalind Crawley
Rosalind is the daughter of Sir Pitt by his second wife and Becky's charge when Becky comes to Queen's Crawley.
Miss Violet Crawley
Violet is the daughter of Sir Pitt by his second wife and Becky's charge when Becky comes to Queen's Crawley.
Dobbin is the only truly noble character in Vanity Fair. He has few outward virtues—he is awkward and unattractive—and has little money; but he is selfless, loyal, kind, truthful, and generous. He spends his life providing support and service to undeserving and ungrateful friends, among whom the closest are George Osborne and Amelia Sedley. Although Dobbin loves Amelia, he feels that he is not a good enough match for her and so goes out of his way to ensure that George marries her. His dogged devotion to Amelia is finally rewarded when Amelia marries him long after George has died. In the end, however, Dobbin realizes that Amelia was never worthy of him or of the kind of love he has shown her.
Horrocks is Sir Pitt's butler.
The Sedley's groom, John drives Becky to Sir Pitt's home after her visit with the Sedleys. John is rude to Becky, chiefly because Amelia has given her some clothes that John hoped to have for his girlfriend.
- Unabridged audio versions of Vanity Fair have been published by Audiobook Contractors (1987), Books on Tape, Inc. (1989), and Black-stone Audio Books (1999, in two parts, with Frederick Davidson as the reader). Abridged versions have been published by Highbridge Co. (1997, with Timothy West as the reader), Naxos Audio Books (1997, with Jane Lapotaire as the reader), and HarperCollins (1999, with Miriam Margolyes as the reader).
- Films were made of Vanity Fair in 1911, 1915, 1922, 1923, 1932. The 1932 movie was directed by Chester M. Franklin, written by F. Hugh Herbert, and starred Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp. A new film is in production with Janette Day as the producer and scriptwriters Matthew Faulk and Mark Street.
- Vanity Fair was made into a television minis-eries in 1971, 1987, and 1998. The 1971 version, directed by David Giles III and written by Rex Tucker, is available on videotape. The 1987 version was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and Michael Owen Morris and written by Alexander Baron. The 1998 version was directed by Marc Munden and written by Andrew Davies, and starred Natasha Little as Becky Sharp. It also is available on videotape.
Peggy O'Dowd's flirtatious sister, Glorvina pursues William Dobbin, who is too fixated on Amelia to show any interest.
Colonel Michael O'Dowd
The Colonel is George Osborne and William Dobbin's commanding officer, a brave, experienced soldier who becomes a major general. He has an amiable relationship with his wife.
The Colonel's wife is Irish, talkative, and genuinely kind. Her primary goal is to make a match for her sister, Glorvina.
George has longstanding relationships with the Sedley family and with Dobbin. He is a goodlooking, self-centered, prideful, free-spending, gambler. He has a certain amount of wealth but not nobility, and he courts the favor of all aristocrats who cross his path. It is George who ruins Becky's hopes of marrying Joseph Sedley by convincing Joseph that it would be inappropriate for him to marry a governess. George does this not out of concern for Joseph but because he is engaged to marry Joseph's sister, Amelia, and does not want a governess in the family.
While Amelia loves George, George is incapable of loving anyone as much as he loves himself. He nearly backs out of marrying Amelia (his father is against the union and in fact disinherits George over it), but Dobbin persuades him to go through with it. Then, just before going off to the Battle of Waterloo, George flirts with Becky and passes her a mysterious note. George is killed in the battle, and Amelia grieves deeply. She doesn't find out until many years later that George's note to Becky suggested that the two of them run away together.
Georgy is the son of George and Amelia. His father dies before he is born. Although he is spoiled by his mother and seems destined to grow up to be even more selfish and vain than his father, Dobbin influences him for the better. His grandfather leaves Georgy half the family fortune, in spite of having disinherited his father, George, over George's marriage to Amelia.
One of George's sisters, Jane is a lonely, unmarried woman whose life is considerably uplifted when young Georgy comes to live at the Osborne family home.
Old John Osborne
Father of George, John is a mean, calculating, unforgiving man. He has encouraged George to love and marry Amelia throughout his son's youth, but when the Sedley family loses its fortune, John orders George to give Amelia up. When George refuses, John disowns and disinherits him and refuses to have anything to do with Amelia. After George's death, the old man remains hard toward Amelia but wants to rear his grandson, to which Amelia finally agrees. In part because of Dobbin's efforts, John mellows somewhat in his old age. He comes to love Georgy and not only leaves a substantial amount of money to his grandson, but also provides for Amelia.
One of John Osborne's three daughters, Maria is rather like her father. She welcomes her brother's disinheritance because it means more of the family fortune for her, and she marries a lawyer who is equally cold and calculating. When her father leaves Georgy and Amelia money, Maria plots to have one of her daughters marry Georgy so that she can control more of the family money.
Miss Barbara Pinkerton
Miss Pinkerton owns the academy where Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp meet and become friends. Miss Pinkerton dotes on Amelia because her family has money and hates Becky as much for her poverty as for her churlish attitude.
Raggles works as a gardener for the Crawleys and saves his money until he is able to buy a greengrocer shop and house of his own. Becky and Rawdon come to be his tenants but do not pay their rent. They cheat him until finally they have ruined him, and Raggles ends up in debtors' prison.
Amelia is the daughter of John Sedley, a businessman who is successful and moneyed as the novel opens. She is sweet, kind, malleable, naïve, and shallow.
Amelia's love for George Osborne is blind love. On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, as George flirts with Becky, Amelia is deeply distraught at George's imminent departure for the battle. George is handsome, and Amelia doesn't see beneath the surface to the ugliness underneath, any more than she sees the nobility beneath Dobbin's unattractive appearance. Even after George's death, she remains as unaware of his lack of integrity and devotion as she is of William Dobbin's love for her.
Amelia is a loving mother to Georgy, the son born to her after George's death. She finally marries Dobbin but only after Becky awakens her to his virtue.
Father of Amelia and Joseph, John Sedley is, when the novel begins, a well-to-do merchant and a friend of John Osborne. Sedley is amenable to Becky's plot to marry Joseph, as he fears that the alternative will be an Indian woman; Joseph is on leave from his government post in India. Sedley takes unwise business risks in an effort to increase his wealth but instead loses everything. The family is forced to rent a lowly cottage owned by one of their former servants. Sedley then spends his time concocting schemes to regain his wealth, but he dies penniless.
Mrs. John Sedley
John Sedley's wife is sweet-tempered and loyal like her daughter, Amelia, but her good nature gradually is ground down by the family's ongoing poverty. Amelia takes care of her during her last illness.
Joseph is Amelia's older brother. He loves nothing more than food, drink, and sleep. His father tells his mother, "if you and I and his sister were to die tomorrow, he would say, 'Good Gad!' and eat his dinner just as well as usual." He is fat and cowardly, yet conceited and a dandy. At Waterloo, he goes no nearer the battlefield than the women do and still shakes with fear, and yet he later tells such tales of his courage that he is given the nickname "Waterloo Sedley." He believes that Becky is genuinely attracted to him, when her only real interest is in his money, and plans to propose to her until George dissuades him. When his father goes bankrupt, Joseph sends only a little money and is tardy even with that.
Joseph meets Becky in Europe after her husband has left her, and she charms him just as she had years earlier. Joseph and Becky travel together, but Joseph confides to Dobbin that he is frightened of Becky. Joseph soon dies of poisoning, and it is left unclear whether Becky has murdered him for his only remaining asset, an insurance policy whose proceeds are split between Becky and Amelia.
Becky Sharp is the central character in Vanity Fair and Amelia Sedley's opposite. She is the orphaned daughter of destitute parents, and she learns early on to look after her own interests in all situations. Becky values money and social status above all and is thoroughly corrupt in her pursuit of them. Her most well-known (though often doubted) observation is that for five thousand pounds a year, she could be a good woman. Selfish, unscrupulous, manipulative, and ambitious, she is capable of appearing sweet, mild, and even timid when it furthers her aims to do so. She can blush and cry at will but cries genuinely only once: when she is forced to turn down the wealthy Sir Pitt's marriage proposal because she has already secretly married his son.
Becky is helped in her relentless social climbing both by her wits, which are as keenly honed as her surname implies, and by her physical attributes, which are listed thus: "Green eyes, fair skin, pretty figure, famous frontal development." Nearly all the male characters in the novel are taken in by her, always to their detriment.
As the novel opens, Becky attends Miss Pinkerton's academy where she earns her keep by teaching French (learned from her mother). She becomes Amelia's friend and goes to her home for a long visit when the two leave the academy. There she tries to lure Amelia's brother Joseph into marrying her but is foiled by George Osborne. She then goes to work as a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley and marries his son Rawdon, a marriage that gives her status but not wealth. In a series of attempts to secure money, she sacrifices her marriage and ignores her child. Her vaguely defined relationship with Lord Steyne provides both money and position until Rawdon walks in on them and both men abandon her.
In the end, Becky has attained a measure of middle-class respectability—the place in Vanity Fair that she has so long and so ardently sought. Her status is made possible partly by money inherited from Joseph Sedley, whom she meets again after many years and whose death by poisoning she may have caused.
Becky's corruption does not render her incapable of recognizing or appreciating virtue in others, even though virtue is rare in Vanity Fair. She is able to see the noble character of William Dobbin and, in an unexpected act of caring, helps Amelia to see it too, so that Amelia will marry Dobbin.
Lord Steyne is a wealthy aristocrat and lord of the Powder Closet at Buckingham Palace. He is unattractive in every conceivable way and considerably older than Becky, but she enters into a vague arrangement with him that earns her money, jewelry, and status until her husband walks in on Becky and him and throws a brooch at Lord Steyne, scarring him for life.
The Marchioness of Steyne
Lord Steyne's wife is a good woman, reduced to silence and superstitious religiosity by her husband's degeneracy. She comes to Becky's defense after Rawdon wounds Lord Steyne and both men desert her.
Wenham is Lord Steyne's servant. He prevents Lord Steyne from dueling with Rawdon over Becky and turns Sir Pitt against Becky.
There is one clear, overarching theme in Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, and Thackeray telegraphs it in his title and subtitle. In the pages of Vanity Fair, all is vanity and all are vain. Some are more vain—more obsessed with self and with the ephemeral treasures of social position and money—than others, but none, in the author's estimation, can be called heroic.
The title is borrowed from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in which Vanity Fair is a town that exists for the purpose of diverting men and women from the road to heaven. The town's residents are all mean and ignorant, and they all make their living by enticing passersby to spend what they have on worldly vanities—items that offer brief sensual pleasure but have no lasting value. Thackeray transports Vanity Fair to London in the early 1800s and peoples his version with characters, primarily from the middle and upper classes, who live only to obtain higher social status and more money, and who are happy to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and betray in the pursuit of these goals. It is worth noting, as well, that Thackeray's Vanity Fair, like Bunyan's, is explicitly a godless place; both authors believe that the unrestrained vanity they portray is possible only among people who have no concept of a God who sets, upholds, and enforces moral standards. In an often-quoted letter to a personal correspondent, written in July 1847, before Vanity Fair was finished, Thackeray wrote, "What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world … greedy, pompous, mean, perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue."
Topics For Further Study
- Do some research on Thackeray's life. Write an essay exploring some ways in which the author's life experiences are reflected in the characters and the story of Vanity Fair.
- Compare and contrast Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Consider each woman's background, personality, values, strengths and weaknesses, and fate. What, if any, similarities do they share? What elements do you find that point to why they each turned out as they did?
- Imagine that you are Miss Matilda Crawley. Write your last will and testament, telling to whom you are leaving your fortune and why.
- Research the Battle of Waterloo. Give some possible reasons for Thackeray's having included it as a setting in the novel. Why is this battle a fitting background for these characters and their story?
- How is the society in which you live similar to the one depicted in Vanity Fair, and how is it different? Present your answer in any form you choose, such as an essay, short story, or poem.
Thackeray succeeded so well in doing this that the novel has been faulted, more often than for anything else, for the unrelenting baseness of its characters. The vainest of all is Becky Sharp. Becky is proud of the physical attractiveness and clever wit that allow her to charm men. Her ultimate effect on them is similar to a spider's effect on a fly, which finds itself trapped and consumed. As her first husband, Rawdon Crawley, goes off to the Bat-tle of Waterloo, Becky muses that she will be free to marry a wealthier man if Rawdon is killed. When he is not killed, Becky makes the best of it, using his aristocratic pedigree to win entrance to the social circles she seeks and to help her avoid paying her bills. Meanwhile, she uses other men, especially Lord Steyne, to get what she cannot get from her husband (money), carrying on public relationships that humiliate him, and ignoring him and their son. After Rawdon has finally left her for a faraway island, where he dies of a tropical disease, Joseph Sedley has the bad luck to encounter Becky a second time, and the drama of the spider and the fly again unfolds. Becky seduces Joseph and soon talks him into taking out a life insurance policy with her as beneficiary. Within months, Joseph is dead of poison; whether by Becky's hand or not is left to the reader to decide. There is scant evidence in the novel that murder would be beyond her.
Most of those around Becky are not better than she is, they are simply less clever and less desperate. Joseph is lazy, gluttonous, dull, and uncaring. When his father goes bankrupt and his whole family is on the verge of starvation, he doesn't get around to sending relief until it is nearly too late. George Osborne, Amelia's husband, is unable to love anyone but himself. George's father is mean, calculating, and unforgiving. Old Sir Pitt is a vulgar skinflint. Reverend Bute Crawley is not at all reverent and lets his overbearing gossip of a wife write his sermons. The list goes on and on.
Among the main characters, only Amelia Sedley and William Dobbin approach virtue. Amelia's fault is not so much that she is vain as that she is too blind and too shallow to recognize either vanity or virtue even at point-blank range. She idolizes George, the self-absorbed cad; she fails to see that Dobbin is a better man by far, even after years of his selfless attention to her. And Amelia is not completely above vanity. She is self-centered enough to accept Dobbin's devotion and his generous gifts without thinking of his feelings and without even expressing much gratitude.
Dobbin alone possesses real integrity and moral maturity, but even he is tinged with vanity. He is selfless, loyal, generous, and kind, ever content to give more than he takes. Dobbin's failure, similar to Amelia's, is his lack of discrimination about the characters of those around him. As a result, he gives people much more and much better than they deserve; in other words, he spends his life casting pearls before swine. And Dobbin's vanity lies in his dogged devotion to Amelia, who is, like the wares hawked at Bunyan's Vanity Fair, glittery but not golden. She is not a heroine, worthy of a hero; she is just a generally decent, conventional, sweet-tempered woman. Though he does finally realize that Amelia has not been worthy of the adoration he has heaped on her, as a character, Dobbin is weakened by the fact that it takes him half a lifetime to develop a realistic view of Amelia.
It was during the Victorian period (1837–1901) that the novel became the dominant literary form. Vanity Fair is considered one of the classic novels of the era. It was common for novels to be published serially, in magazines or in stand-alone sections. Vanity Fair was first published serially, and the early parts were published before the later ones were written. This at least partly explains the novel's many irregularities. A character may be called by different names in different sections (Mrs. Bute Crawley may be Barbara or Martha; Glorvina may be Glorvina Mahoney, the sister of Mrs. O'Dowd, or Glorvina O'Dowd, the sister of the general). One name may also be shared by multiple minor characters, and both the narrative and the passage of time may jump and start in unexpected directions. In one particularly confusing instance, Thackeray relates the details of Joseph's visit to his family and then has Amelia receive a letter from Joseph informing her that his visit will be delayed. To put it simply, Thackeray made it up as he went along, without undue concern for consistency. The novel's generous length and enormous cast of characters are also characteristic of the time.
Thackeray and Charles Dickens were the leading lights in Victorian fiction, constantly compared and always uncomfortable around each other. Dickens was born a year after Thackeray but was well established by the time Thackeray began to attract notice. Thackeray's focus was on the middle and upper classes, while Dickens's was on the poor. Thackeray's works, including Vanity Fair, are considered less sentimental and more subtle than Dickens's.
Vanity Fair is not only long, it is meandering. Thackeray knows where he is taking his readers, but he is in no hurry to get them to their destina-tion. Any slight forward movement of the plot may cause the author to stop, reflect, pontificate, digress. There are many long essays on everything from how to live with no visible means to how women treat one another. Other topics include how people comport themselves at estate sales, what the relationships between servants and employers are like, and what types of wedding and funeral ceremonies are practiced. Thackeray addresses readers directly, sometimes telling them what they can expect in the coming pages, sometimes telling them what to think of a character, and sometimes sharing his own musings and desires (one of which is for a rich, old aunt like Miss Matilda Crawley).
Many characters, including minor ones, also are given space to express their perspectives on other characters, story events, settings, and life in general. The story is told primarily from the point of view of a single narrator, but this narrator is often interrupted by story characters and by the author himself.
Thackeray's wanderings cover more than just philosophical terrain. Readers follow various characters all over England and to Brussels, Paris, Rome, the comically named, fictional German principality of Pumpernickel, and India, as well as to the British royal court and to an infamous debtors' prison.
Above all else, Vanity Fair is a satire. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory cites Thackeray among the principal satirists of the nineteenth century and Vanity Fair as a key work. It defines satire by defining its author:
The satirist is … a kind of self-appointed guardian of standards, ideals, and truth; of moral as well as aesthetic values. He is a man (women satirists are very rare) who takes it upon himself to correct, censure, and ridicule the follies and vices of society and thus to bring contempt and derision upon aberrations from a desirable and civilized norm. Thus satire is a kind of protest, a sublimation and refinement of anger and indignation.
As much as Vanity Fair meanders in terms of content, it remains steadfastly on point when it comes to tone; it is satirical from start to finish, and all characters, even the few virtuous ones, take their share of darts. The sharpest arrows, though, are aimed at the worst of the lot. When the ignorant, vulgar tightwad Sir Pitt proposes to Becky, he makes a tall tale of a speech that makes him out as a generous gentleman whose only fault might be his advanced age. He tells Becky:
"I'm an old man, but a good'n. I'm good for twenty years. I'll make you happy, zee if I don't. You shall do what you like; spend what you like; and 'av it all your own way. I'll make you a zettlement. I'll do everything reglar. Look year!" And the old man fell down on his knees and leered at her like a satyr.
The humor is compounded when Becky responds with equal corruption. Although she is distraught only because she is already married to Sir Pitt's much less wealthy son, she does a good job of acting as if she believes Sir Pitt to be the prize of manhood and explaining that that is why she is in tears at having to turn him down.
Virtually every character in the book, starting with Becky Sharp, is satirized every time his or her connotation-laden name is mentioned. But the most obvious and outrageous names are saved for minor characters: the auctioneer is Mr. Hammerdown; the surgeon, Dr. Lance; the hanging judge, Sir Thomas Coffin; the gambler, Deuceace, to give a very few examples. Also on Becky's rain-drenched trip to Queen's Crawley, she passes the towns of Leakington, Mudbury, and Squashmore.
Thackeray's satire often takes the form of irony (figurative speech in which what is meant is the opposite of what is said). People who hate each other address each other as "my love." The degenerate Lord Steyne calls his house a "temple of virtue" and describes his long-suffering and pious wife as being as gay as Lady MacBeth. Of the warbeleaguered Belgians, the author writes, "For a long period of history they have let other people fight there."
It would take a lifetime study of world literature and history to comprehend every allusion in Vanity Fair. References to Greek and Roman classics and the Bible are not unexpected. But Thackeray adds dozens of references much more obscure to modern Western readers. To name just a few: Ahriman, a Zoroastrian evil spirit; the Arabian nights; and a French opera performed in London at the time Thackeray was writing. His several allusions appear as represented in the following passage:
'Come, come,' said James, putting his hand to his nose and winking at his cousin with a pair of vinous eyes, 'no jokes, old boy; no trying it on on me. You want to trot me out, but it's no go. In vino veritas, old boy. Mars, Bacchus, Apollo virorum, hay? I wish my aunt would send down some of this to the governor; it's a precious good tap.'
James is quoting (not accurately) the Latin Grammar he studied at school; the main gist is "truth in wine." "Machiavel" is Thackeray's short form of Machiavelli and the author's nickname for Sir Pitt.
Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo
The Napoleonic Wars began in the late 1790s, with Napoleon Bonaparte leading the revolutionary government in France. For the next several years, the British suffered military defeats at sea, several attempted invasions by the French, as well as the economic inflation and disruption that often accompany war. The British formed a series of alliances to fight the French, and the Fourth Coalition, comprising Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, succeeded in routing Napoleon and exiling him in 1814. In 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile on the island of Elba and retook the French throne. It is this event that brings the major characters of Vanity Fair to Brussels and leads to the famous Battle of Waterloo.
At the news of Napoleon's return, the Fourth Coalition nations quickly committed a force of 150,000 soldiers to gather in Belgium and invade France on July 1, 1815. The British general, Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, was the chief commander of the coalition force. Napoleon responded by planning a secretive, preemptive strike against the assembling troops. He reached the Belgian border on June 14, with nearly 125,000 troops, and crossed it on June 15.
With the advantage of surprise, Napoleon succeeded in splitting the two sections of the coalition force and thus held the strategic upper hand. Four days of fierce fighting and desperate strategizing on both sides followed, culminating at Waterloo on June 18. On that day alone, 40,000 French soldiers and 22,000 coalition soldiers were killed; Waterloo was one of the bloodiest battles of modern times. Here is Thackeray's description:
All day long, whilst the women were praying ten miles away, the lines of the dauntless English infantry were receiving and repelling the furious charges of French horsemen. Guns which were heard at Brussels were ploughing up their ranks, and comrades falling, and the resolute survivors closing in. Towards evening, the attack slackened in its fury. They … were preparing for a final onset. It came at last: the columns of the Imperial Guard marched up the hill of Saint Jean…. It seemed almost to crest the eminence, when it began to wave and falter. Then it stopped, still facing the shot. Then at last the English troops rushed from the post from which no enemy had been able to dislodge them, and the Guard turned and fled.
No more firing was heard at Brussels—the pursuit rolled miles away. The darkness came down on the field and city, and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.
In the end, strategic errors by Napoleon and his generals and savage, fearless fighting by the coalition troops led to Napoleon's utter and final defeat. He was forced to give up the French throne a second time and was exiled to Saint Helena. King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne.
Vanity Fair is not the only work of literature to feature the Battle of Waterloo. British poet Lord Byron gives it an important place in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, as does Thomas Hardy in The Dynasts. Among French writers, Victor Hugo includes the battle in Les Misérables.
The Victorian Age began in 1837 when eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne, and ended with her death in 1901. Victoria and her husband, Albert, set the tone of English life and culture for most of a century. It was a time of social and moral conservatism; the family values of the time were similar to those touted in late twentieth-century America. Pragmatism was valued above romance, duty above pleasure.
The early Victorian period was a time of social reforms. Laws were passed governing working conditions of women and children (they could not work in underground mines, for example), and attempts were made to improve conditions in prisons and insane asylums. Efforts to broaden access to education (England had no public schools at the time) stalled because of controversy over the Church of England's role in expanded education. Writers such as Thackeray and Charles Dickens took up the cause of reform, using their writing to point out the need for prison reforms and educational programs and to expose the evils of industrialization and the class system.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, England was experiencing unprecedented political, industrial, and economic power, fueled by the Industrial Revolution and by the wealth from the colonies. All forms of transportation boomed; railroad ridership increased sevenfold, and the ship-building industry grew. Living standards of the working class and middle class were buoyed, and trade unions were formed to promote the interests of skilled workers.
In the late 1850s, after unrest in India, the British government abolished the East India Company and took over direct rule of the subcontinent. Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1876, and the empire continued to expand, especially in Asia and Africa.
Vanity Fair was published in several installments beginning on January 1, 1847, and reviews soon began appearing in London's magazines. Most writers who reviewed the early segments were not enthusiastic, nor was the public. The primary complaints of both critics and readers were that the novel was progressing slowly and without much action and that all the characters were unlikable.
Reception turned positive, however, after the first four installments. Once the whole of Vanity Fair had been published, it sold well (one 1848 reviewer wrote, "Everybody, it is to be supposed, has read the volume by this time.") and earned many glowing reviews. George Henry Lewes wrote in The Athenaeum,
For some years Mr. Thackeray has been a marked man in letters—but known rather as an amusing sketcher than as a serious artist. Light playful contributions to periodical literature and two amusing books of travel were insufficient to make a reputation; but a reputation he must now be held to have established by his Vanity Fair. It is his greatest effort and his greatest success.
In Quarterly Review, Elizabeth Rigby wrote,
We were perfectly aware that Mr. Thackeray had of old assumed the jester's habit, in order the more unrestrainedly to indulge the privilege of speaking the truth … but still we were little prepared for the keen observation, the deep wisdom, and the consummate art which he has interwoven in the slight texture and whimsical pattern of Vanity Fair.
Compare & Contrast
- Early to Mid-Nineteenth Century: People are routinely sent to prison when they are unable to pay their debts. Debtors' prisons are crowded, even during the relatively prosperous Victorian Age, and conditions are deplorable. Those who do not have family members or other benefactors to pay their debts sometimes spend years in prison. Charles Dickens and other authors write movingly of the plight of debtors, and reformers seek to abolish the prisons.
Today: Debtors' prisons have been replaced by bankruptcy laws, which allow debtors to have most debts forgiven and to make a fresh financial start. Even during the economic boom of the 1990s, millions of individuals and small businesses declare bankruptcy.
- Early to Mid-Nineteenth Century: Although the former American colonies have won their independence, the British Empire still spans the globe. India, explored and exploited by the British East India Company, is now completely under British rule and is the "jewel in the crown." Britain also has colonies in Africa, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Today: What was once the British Empire is now the British Commonwealth, a collection of former colonies, most of which are independent nations, with formal ties to Britain. Among the Commonwealth nations are India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Charlotte Brontë was such an admirer of Vanity Fair that, on its merits, she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray, writing in her preface:
I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized … I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent.
Even an anonymous reviewer for The London Review, who felt that the meanness of the characters defeated the novel, acknowledged, "Vanity Fair is a remarkable book, brilliant, entertaining," before adding, "but if we plunge beneath the sparkling surface, it is a dreary book. It gives the real, and utterly omits the ideal."
John Forster wrote prophetically in The Examiner,
Vanity Fair must be admitted to be one of the most original works of real genius that has of late been given to the world…. The very novelty of tone in the book impeded its first success; but it will be daily more justly appreciated; and will take a lasting place in our literature.
In his 1909 book Studies in Several Literatures, Harry Thurston Peck assessed the novel after sixty years. "Vanity Fair is one of the greatest books in English literature," he wrote, "but it belongs to purely English literature, and not to the great masterpieces which the whole world owns and to which it gives unforced admiration."
History has, to an extent, proven Forster and Peck correct. Vanity Fair is still read and admired but not as widely as the best work of Thackeray's contemporary Dickens. It is, however, Thackeray's most lasting work, the one that modern readers most enjoy. Robert A. Colby, in his introduction to a 1989 edition of Vanity Fair, wrote,
We, it seems, are attracted to the very qualities that disturbed Thackeray's contemporaries—impersonality, cynicism, tough-mindedness. Indeed, its coruscating wit, ingenuity, and vivacious style continue to make Vanity Fair the most immediately attractive of Thackeray's novels to the general reader.
Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in literature. She holds degrees in linguistics and journalism. In this essay, she examines the fates of the main characters in Thackeray's novel and considers what lessons he intended readers to take from them.
Thackeray made clear, both in his role as the narrator of Vanity Fair and in his private correspon-dence about the book, that he meant it to be not just entertaining but instructive. Like all satire, Vanity Fair has a mission and a moral. The first published installment had, on its cover, an illustration of a congregation listening to a preacher; both speaker and listeners were shown with donkey ears. Inside the book, Thackeray explains the illustration thus: "that Becky is allowed to live, and to live well, is perfectly consistent with Thackeray's view of life and morality…. Losing is vanity, and winning is vanity."
My kind reader will please to remember that these histories … have "Vanity Fair" for a title and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretensions. And while the moralist who is holding forth on the cover (an accurate portrait of your humble servant) professes to wear neither gown nor bands, but only the very same long-eared livery in which his congregation is arrayed: yet, look you, one is bound to speak the truth as far as one knows it.
Thackeray, then, portrays himself as a preacher. Like his audience and all human beings, he is imperfect, but he has truths to tell that others can benefit by hearing. There is a moral to the story.
The natural place to look for any story's moral is at its end: How do things turn out; and, espe-cially, how are the various characters rewarded and punished for their deeds? This essay looks at the fates of Vanity Fair's major characters for evidence as to what truths, what morals Thackeray wanted readers to take from his tale.
The first to meet his fate is George, who is shot at the Battle of Waterloo. Structurally, George's death gives Thackeray an emphatic ending to the first part of his story. From a moral standpoint, the lesson of George's short life and violent death is surely about hubris, an ancient Greek word meaning "arrogance," or "excessive pride." Hubris was the downfall of many a classical hero. And while George is certainly no hero, he is thoroughly self-centered and arrogant. He prides himself on his good looks and fancies himself the paragon of manhood. He receives Amelia's adoration not as a precious gift but as if she would be insane to feel otherwise. George is incapable of considering anyone but George, so it is easy to imagine that, as the French bullet sped toward his heart, George was distracted by thoughts of how he looked standing over the battlefield or of how he would speak in light-hearted tones about his bravery in years to come. Arrogance is cut down. George dies young, mourned only by the empty-headed Amelia.
Many years and many episodes pass before Rawdon Crawley meets his fate. It is yellow fever that kills him, but Becky Sharp who destroys him. Thackeray makes clear through allusions to the story of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon what readers are to make of Rawdon's life and death. In Greek mythology, Clytemnestra kills her husband, Agamemnon, when her lover lacks the courage to carry out the deed.
Like nearly every man in the novel, Rawdon is charmed by Becky and entirely smitten with her. He marries her without noticing that she cares not for him, but for his aristocratic pedigree. He then spends years being manipulated, humiliated, impoverished, and ignored by his wife. At last, he discovers both Becky's relationship with the degenerate, wealthy Lord Steyne (which he must have at least suspected before, and can't ignore any longer after walking in on them) and the hoard of money she has kept hidden from him. Rawdon stands up for himself, leaving Becky and planning to duel with Lord Steyne. Yet, there is no victory for him. Becky and Steyne ship his beloved son off to boarding school, and Rawdon is left alone, unloved, and destitute. He exiles himself to a remote island where he has been offered a government post arranged by Steyne. It is on this island that Raw-don dies. The moral is clear: A man who allows himself to be captivated by a bad woman has a miserable life and a pitiful end.
Amelia and Dobbin's fates are settled next—by marriage rather than by death. Not deeply immoral like the others, they are nonetheless morally stunted. Sweet but thick Amelia has spent her life mourning George, whom she continues to see as worthy in spite of bountiful evidence to the contrary. Noble but plodding Dobbin has spent his life idolizing Amelia in spite of her steadfast lack of concern for him. Even when Dobbin finally declares his devotion, Amelia prefers her warped memories of George to Dobbin's genuine, living affection.
Oddly, Thackeray uses Becky to bring these two characters together. Only when Becky reveals to Amelia that George asked her to run away with him just before he died does Amelia finally give up her fantasies about George and marry Dobbin. And so, Amelia and Dobbin, the two characters who come closest to being "good," get their rewards. Amelia gets, finally, a man who is worthy of her love. Dobbin gets what he has wanted all along.
But in Vanity Fair, no reward is untainted and no victory is complete or final. By the time Dobbin has Amelia, he has finally realized that she is not worthy of the kind of love he has showered her with. She is not a goddess; she is merely a pleasant, conventional, shallow woman who happens to be a very poor judge of character. Thackeray's description of Dobbin's victory ends with a sting:
The vessel is in port. He has got the prize he has been trying for all his life. The bird has come in at last. There it is with its head on his shoulder, billing and cooing close up to his heart, with soft outstretched fluttering wings…. Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!
The shadow over Dobbin's victory is that having finally gotten what he wanted, he realizes that it is not what he thought it was. The shadow over Amelia's, of course, is that she knows that Dobbin knows. And yet, their coming together is a real reward; they do love each other, even if they are two imperfect human beings who love imperfectly. They have a daughter and are happy.
The moral of Amelia's story might be that providence will find a way to deliver wisdom and salvation to the good-hearted but dumb, even if that way is unexpected. The moral of Dobbin's story may be that perseverance wins the day; or that the meek shall inherit, if not the whole Earth, then a peaceful corner of it in which to retire. It is also worth noting that Dobbin is the one man who is never conned or charmed by Becky and the only one who comes to a happy end.
Joseph's story is a recapitulation of Rawdon's. Having escaped Becky's web in youth with George's unwitting help, he has the bad fortune to encounter her again years later. This time, Joseph ignores Dobbin's warning about the predatory Becky and soon loses his money and his life. Thackeray—the author, the narrator, the preacher—doesn't want this moral missed: A man who falls for a bad woman can come to no good.
And that leaves Becky. She has behaved the worst. How will she end?
She ends living in Europe, financially comfortable and respected. Her son owns the estate at which she arrived as a girl to be a lowly governess. This is not exactly hellfire and brimstone; one wonders what the preacher was thinking. Why does he let Becky off so easy?
One of his reasons is oddly modern: He blames her parents for her badness. "She was of a wild, roving nature, inherited from her father and mother, who were both Bohemians," Thackeray writes.
But that is a minor point. That Becky is allowed to live and to live well is perfectly consistent with Thackeray's view of life and morality. Death is not necessarily a punishment, and life is not necessarily a reward, because it is all vanity—all empty. Losing is vanity, and winning is vanity. At the very end of the book, Thackeray asks, "Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?"
There's the rub. Even those who get what they want in Vanity Fair are not satisfied and therefore cannot be said to have conquered anything. At the end of Vanity Fair, Becky is in comfortable circumstances. That does not mean that she will be comfortable, satisfied, fulfilled, or happy. Becky famously says that if she had five hundred pounds a year, she could be an honest woman. Most readers have doubted her, as did Thackeray himself in a private letter. When the author leaves Becky, she is well provided for, but she is still depraved Becky, and she still lives in depraved Vanity Fair. Given what is known about them both, readers who want a just outcome needn't worry that Becky has been too richly rewarded. Thackeray assures:
If quacks prosper as often as they go to the wall—if zanies succeed and knaves arrive at fortune, and, vice versa, sharing ill luck and prosperity for all the world like the ablest and most honest among us—I say, brother, the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account.
Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on Vanity Fair, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay, Peck explores "the relentless nature of Thackeray's onslaught on the middle class" in Vanity Fair.
This revolting reflex of society is literally true enough. But it does not shew us the whole truth. Are there not women, even in Vanity Fair, capable of nobler things than are here set down for them? (Robert Bell. Fraser's Magazine, 1848)
Everywhere we turn in the early reviews of Vanity Fair we encounter this kind of criticism; the reviewers are enthusiastic but appreciation of the brilliance of Thackeray's performance is always qualified by reservations about his view of human nature. Modern critics have, of course, moved beyond the moral quibbling evident in the early reviews. Essentially, criticism of the novel now follows one of three courses: there is appreciation of the complexity of its moral and social vision, or praise for Thackeray's handling of the narrative voice, or, and perhaps most persuasively, a sense of the disturbing darkness of his vision.
Barbara Hardy, identifying Thackeray as a radical social critic, takes the first approach, seeing the novelist as a wise and concerned social commentator. All of Gordon Ray's work on Thackeray, including his biography, was informed by just such a sense of the author's purpose and achievement. The second approach, focusing on the narrative voice, is more concerned with Thackeray's ability to tease and disturb the reader by means of a voice that is so full of twists and turns that it allows us no comfort or security. A. E. Dyson's essay, 'An Irony Against Heroes', sets the standard here, but the same principle underlies structuralist and de-constructive readings of Thackeray; the most so-phisticated example is J. Hillis Miller's brilliant essay on Henry Esmond. It is a way of looking at Thackeray in which irony is always a central consideration. The third approach to Vanity Fair, seen at its best in an essay by Robert E. Lougy, focuses on the darkness of the novel, the frequent references to death, the sense that we live precarious existences in a world where death is ever-present. This idea also makes itself felt in feminist and psychoanalytic readings: for example, we might consider how Amelia, visiting her mother, looks at 'the little white bed, which had been hers a few days before' and contrasts it with 'the great funereal damask pavilion in the vast and dingy bedroom, which was awaiting her at the grand hotel in Cavendish Square'. The approach of Lougy, and those working along similar lines, differs from the social approach of critics such as Barbara Hardy in that the emphasis is on disturbing currents beneath society rather than on a critique of manners and morals in society.
What links all three approaches, however, is that, directly or indirectly, they declare themselves as moving beyond the moralistic fault-finding that features in the early reviews. It is at this point one hesitates: were the early readers wrong? Were their moral reservations really so simplistic? Or could it be that, whatever deeper patterns exist in Vanity Fair, its épater les bourgeois characteristics might be what really matter? Hindsight has benefits, but it could be that we have lost a sense of what was central to Vanity Fair's first readers, a sense of why the novel is so disturbing. Moreover, in distancing ourselves from this sense of shock, we might also have lost an awareness of the social and political relevance of the novel. Vanity Fair is obviously a multi-layered work, but I want to suggest that discussions of, say, Thackeray's irony surrender a sense of the impact the novel made in its time, an impact that was dominated by the issue of class.
There is no novel that thrusts us more quickly into a whole set of assumptions about class than Vanity Fair. By the end of the first scene we understand most of the niceties and pretensions of social gradation. The world of the school is a middle-class world, where characters are rebuked if their speech is not 'genteel' enough, where a girl must cultivate those 'accomplishments which become her birth and station', where 'industry and obedience' are prized virtues, but where money is, in the end, everything. Below, we see a world of servants, of tradesmen, and even the mixed-race Miss Swartz, who is only admitted to the school because she pays double. Above is another world, glimpsed through the 'high and mighty Miss Saltire (Lord Dexter's granddaughter)'. It is sometimes assumed that Vanity Fair is entirely about middle-class life. It is not: there are clear divisions between the aristocracy, the gentry, the middle class and all those who fall below. But the world of the aristocracy, even of the gentry, is outside and beyond this school where even Miss Saltire is 'rather shabby'; generally, there is something shabby about the school's whole environment of middle-class respectability.
To say that class is central in Vanity Fair is to say nothing new. What is less commonly noted, though, is fine relentless nature of Thackeray's onslaught on the middle class. Some critics, indeed, suggest just the opposite; Robert Colby, for example, argues that the narrator positions himself 'as a solid member of the middle class'. What I wish to suggest, however, is that Thackeray, who is indulgent to the aristocracy and gentry, regards the middle class as an almost alien race. Everyone is now familiar with the idea of an 'other' in Victorian thought, whether it be woman, the Irish, people of colour, or the working class, but, in the case of Thackeray, even the middle class is perceived as a strange and threatening 'other'. We begin to see this with the middle-class merchant, Osborne. Described as a 'savage determined man', with a face that is usually 'livid with rage', there seems something animal-like about him, and indeed his fortune has been made importing animal skins from Russia. He is seen in an angry scene with his son:
Whenever the lad assumed his haughty manner, it always created either great awe or great irritation in the parent. Old Osborne stood in secret terror of his son as a better gentleman than himself …
In confrontation, the father is reduced to spluttering incoherence; everything falls apart as he feels he is facing a gentleman. It is a penetrating representation of the drive, but also the limitations, of a middle-class businessman, yet, at the same time, Thackeray's patronising view of someone whom he considers less than civilised.
Initially something rather different seems to be conveyed in the presentation of Mr. Sedley, who, although a businessman, is 'kind to everybody with whom he dealt', but the novel offers some alarming hints about his cruelty. He is described as 'a coarse man, from the Stock Exchange, where they love all sorts of practical jokes', who has bred his daughter to marry George Osborne, and who has 'a feeling very much akin to contempt for his son. He said he was vain, selfish, lazy and effeminate'. Jos might well be all these things, but the strain in the relationship comes at precisely those points where the child fails to conform to the father's expectations, where the right kind of manly energy (or, in the case of daughter, the right degree of submissiveness) is not exhibited. Osborne and Sedley represent two faces of tyranny, the tyranny of the strong and the tyranny of the weak, for Sedley, especially when ruined, dominates his family just as much as Osborne. Like all middle-class men, they want their sons to be gentlemen, but are then torn between deference and contempt.
Contempt is, in fact, a central notion in the novel. When the bankrupt Sedley presents a servant with a half-guinea, the man pockets it 'with a mixture of wonder and contempt'. When, rather more noisily, George Osborne apes the manner of a man of standing, demanding an immediate interview with his father's solicitor,
He did not see the sneer of contempt which passed all round the room, from the first clerk to the articled gents … as he sat there lapping his boot with his cane, and thinking what a parcel of miserable poor devils these were.
Such contempt, of one class for another, pervades the novel, including the fact that Thackeray looks down on the middle class with almost unrelieved disdain; for Thackeray, middle-class existence, entirely based around money, lacks culture, character, any kind of substance. Osborne, for example, sings the praises of life
at our humble mansion in Russell Square. My daughters are plain, disinterested girls, but their hearts are in the right place … I'm a plain, simple, humble British merchant—an honest one, as my respected friends Hulker and Bullock will vouch …
It is a vain speech, but the only merit claimed is respectability. It would seem that Thackeray can only perceive middle-class life in these terms; his characteristic note is arrogant disdain, a belief that those below him on the social scale have no individuality, no intellectual life, no complexity.
But aren't all Thackeray's judgements just as jaundiced? Isn't he equally quick to condemn the aristocracy and the gentry, indeed everybody at every level of society? The fact is that he isn't, a point which starts to become evident if we consider something basic about our response to Vanity Fair, our impression of how Thackeray fills up the pages. Becky, obviously, makes the greatest impact. She wastes very little time on the middle class. She is grateful for a refuge in Amelia's house, having already decided that she aspires higher than the Reverend Mr. Crisp. Her first target is Jos Sedley, who, as an employee of the East India Company, has taken a sideways step out from, and yet up in, British society. She then raises her sights to the gentry, in the person of Rawdon Crawley (although she misses out on the landed gentry, represented by Rawdon's father, Sir Pitt). Finally, with Lord Steyne, she aspires to the aristocracy. What we are most likely to remember from the novel are Becky's forays into the higher levels of society, but this can distort a true picture of what happens page by page; in the first third of the novel, before the characters move to Brussels, there is just one sequence where Becky works for Sir Pitt and one sequence in the home of Miss Crawley. Most of the time, episodes are set in the middle-class homes of the Sedleys and the Osbornes. The same is true of the last third of the novel.
But what we remember are the eccentrics, rather than the dull round of middle-class life. Sir Pitt makes an impression because he is larger than life; we are less likely to take notice of his wife, Rose. An ironmonger's daughter, with 'no sort of character, nor talents, nor opinions, nor occupations, nor amusements', Rose is invisible in the same kind of way that Mrs. Sedley is invisible. She has entered into a business transaction, selling her heart 'to become Sir Pitt Crawley's wife. Mothers and daughters are making the same bargain every day in Vanity Fair'. The hint of sympathy here needs to be set against the underlying assumption that the middle-class wife has no character, no individuality. By contrast, the gentry—the entire Crawley family—may be eccentrics, but another way of putting it is that they are conceived of as individuals with character traits that are all their own. Consequently, Sir Pitt might be disreputable but eschews middle-class respectability. Similarly, the women of the family, Miss Crawley and Mrs. Bute Crawley, have their ridiculous side but also exhibit strength and resourcefulness that is absent in the middle-class women.
It is this derision of middle-class characters that, more than anything else, created disquiet in the early reviews. The point could be demonstrated across the board, but is most clearly seen in the response of John Forster. His review is sophisticated and enthusiastic: he relishes Thackeray's 'witty malice' and his 'accomplished and subtle' mind, and delights in Becky and Steyne, seeing that it is with 'characters where great natural talents and energy are combined with unredeemed depravity that the author puts forth his full powers'. He then, however, voices his reservation:
Nor is it so much with respect to these exceptional characters that we feel inclined to complain of the taunting, cynical, sarcastic tone that too much pervades the work, as with respect to a preponderance of unredeemed selfishness in the more common-place as well as the leading characters, such as the Bullocks, Mrs. Clapp, the Miss Dobbinses even, and Amelia's mother. We can relish the shrewd egoism of Miss Crawley; can admire, while we tremble at, the terrible intentness of Mrs. Bute Crawley … but we feel that the atmosphere of the work is overloaded with these exhalations of human folly and wickedness.
The sequence of names is revealing: the Bullocks, the middle-class family of the future, are grabbed from insignificance to lead Forster's list. He then picks out other marginal middle-class characters, before altering his tone for the gentry figures. More than anything else, Forster seems to resent criticism of characters who might resemble himself. Most novelists at the time presented their audience with an ultimately flattering reflection of itself; Thackeray does not, and, consequently, irritates and unsettles his critics.
Timing is of importance here; Vanity Fair appeared in 1848, when a sense of being middle class was still in a process of formation. Indeed, novels were serving a vital role in creating a sense of middle-class identity and self-worth. Defining middle-classness through fiction had, of course, been going on since the eighteenth century, but Vanity Fair appears at a significant juncture in a process of social change. Albeit reluctantly, Thackeray acknowledges a move away from a certain social formation, and searches for a new social dispensation to succeed that based upon property, rank and status. It is a brilliant move to set the novel at the time of Waterloo, for this enables Thackeray both to comment on the developing democratic order of his own day and to show the coming into existence of this new social order. Behind the giddiness of Regency life, there is a sense of social change, of society re-drawing itself along new lines.
The point is most interestingly conveyed through the character of the young Pitt Crawley, who reorganises his life along what are, essentially, middle-class lines in order to revive the fortunes of a gentry family that has been in decline. He assumes the orderliness, the earnestness, and also the social ambition, of a middle-class man. As is so often the case in the novel, therefore, Thackeray is astute in his sense of a new order taking shape in society. But the fact that has to be returned to is that Thackeray's judgements are simultaneously suspect, because he cannot see any real depth of value in the middle-class mind. Rather than finding a new moral energy in middle-class experience, Thackeray castigates it as mediocre and selfish. Even in his picture of Dobbin, as we will see, there is an inability to avoid condescension, an inability to take the character seriously. Middle-class characters, and middle-class values, remain for Thackeray alien and vaguely threatening.
What Do I Read Next?
- W. M. Thackeray Library, edited by Richard Pearson and published in 1996, presents an array of Thackeray's writing, including short fiction and nonfiction, plus a full-length biography by Lewis Melville.
- Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, was published in 1847, the same year in which the first installments of Vanity Fair appeared. Brontë's novel has some similarities to Thackeray's in that the main character is an orphaned English governess who becomes romantically involved with her employer.
- Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, also was published in 1847. Like Vanity Fair, it is considered one of the classics of Victorian literature. The novel is a story of romance and revenge.
- Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens, was first published serially in 1857. Another Victorian classic, Dickens's book tells the story of Amy Dorrit, born in the debtors' prison where her father lives. Major themes are social class, financial reversals, and romance.
- Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy, was published serially in 1874 and also is ranked as a Victorian classic. It is the story of a female farmer and her three suitors. Virginia Woolf commented that this book "must hold its place among the great English novels." It has the distinction of being Hardy's only novel to offer readers a happy ending.
- Red, Red Rose, by Marjorie Farrell, was published in 1999. It tells the story of Val Aston, the illegitimate son of an English earl who becomes an officer in the English army during the Napoleonic wars. Aston is noble in character if not by birth, yet his social standing is an obstacle to his marrying the woman he loves.
Vanity Fair therefore, to a quite extraordinary extent, insults its readers, who for the most part are likely to resemble those 'vulgar intellects' that have always dominated Amelia's life. Middle-class life is seen as dreadful. The Osborne daughters are typical: 'all their habits were pompous and orderly, and all their amusements intolerably dull and decorous'. Maria is engaged, 'but hers was a most respectable attachment'. Jos's much-repeated slight stories provide a kind of parody of the limited number of things that happen in the lives of these characters. Life is so dull that even the most trivial deviation from correctness becomes an anecdote:
"Do you remember when you wrote to him to come on Twelfth Night, Emmy, and spelt twelfth without the f?"
"That was years ago," said Amelia.
"It seems like yesterday, don't it John?" said Mrs. Sedley.
The impression is of pathetically empty lives and nervous deference to correctness. The topic that is always returned to in this world is money, as in a surprisingly eloquent speech from George Osborne:
"Ours is a ready-money society. We live among bankers and city bigwigs, and be hanged to them, and every man, as he talks to you, is jingling his guineas in his pocket … Curse the whole pack of money-grubbing vulgarians!
Perhaps George's eloquence stems from the fact that the sentiments are really Thackeray's own.
Yet as much as Thackeray mocks such lives, he also offers a disquieting sense of claustrophobic containment. We have already seen the reference to Amelia's marriage-bed; the Sedleys' bed is 'a sort of tent, hung round with chintz of a rich and fantastic India pattern, and double with calico of a tender-rose colour; in the interior of which species of marquee was a feather-bed, on which were two pillows, on which were two round faces…'. The characters are surrounded by material goods, yet also enclosed and trapped by them. In a similar way, they are trapped in their homes, trapped in their families, trapped in their class. When characters, such as George Osborne, attempt to move beyond their circle they simply reveal their crassness. At the same time, there is always a sense of fragility, that middle-class wealth can disappear as quickly as it has appeared, leaving the characters in smaller homes, locked into an even narrower round.
Thackeray provides his most cutting commentary on such existences through his use of two outsiders, Jos Sedley and Mrs. O'Dowd (we could include Becky here, but Becky is a quite exceptional case whereas Jos and Mrs. O'Dowd are representative figures on the margins of British society). With Jos, a lack of social confidence, slavish devotion to material goods, excessive consumption, pomposity and deference are carried to a ridiculous extreme. But behind it all is a sense of an empty life, for 'he was as lonely here as in his jungle as Boggley Wallah'. Jos represents a gross, distorted reflection of middleclass aspirants. Mrs. O'Dowd is used in a similar way, but with the added complication there often is with Thackeray's Irish characters. Initially, with her boasting about her family and connections, we are likely to regard her as just a vulgar Irishwoman, but she really provides an ironic echo of the grovelling and social deference that is so central in the lives of Osborne and his children. In the end, Mrs. O'Dowd is actually superior to the middle-class characters, for she is grand and theatrical, energetic and resourceful, rather than mean and mediocre.
Thackeray's patrician disdain is most obvious in his presentation of middle-class wives who, although a different note is struck at the end of the novel, are seen as insignificant ciphers. There is sympathy for them, as victims of their husbands, but they are primarily seen as empty women who could not play any active role in the middle-class accumulation of wealth. Mrs. Sedley, in particular, is an invisible character, with an 'easy and uninquisitive' nature, whose thoughts cannot extend beyond the home. Thackeray's heroines, especially Becky, are always formidable women, but in the case of his middle-class wives he imagines concubines for domestic tyrants. There is something chilling in Amelia's deference to George:
crying over George's head, and kissing it humbly, as if he were her supreme chief and master, and as if she were quite a guilty and unworthy person needing every favour and grace from him.
This prostration and sweet unrepining obedience exquisitely touched and flattered George Osborne. He saw a slave before him in that simple yielding faithful creature, and his soul within him thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power.
It is an astute passage, especially in its understanding of the victim's sense of her own guilt, but the picture is only achieved by imagining the woman as a nonentity, who tolerates exploitation and abuse. That would be acceptable if all Thackeray's women were like this, but one of Thackeray's distinguishing traits as a novelist is his strong women; in the context of this novel, even leaving aside Becky, we can see the energy of the gentry wife, Mrs. Bute Crawley, who takes action, even if she misjudges her tactics, while her husband fritters away his time. Similarly, Lady Jane, Mr. Pitt Crawley's wife, who seems innocent, even naive, can show the qualities of her class in standing up to and resisting Becky, and resisting her husband: 'you must choose, sir, between her and me'.
What is always apparent, then, is Thackeray's patronising contempt for the middle class. Dobbin is mocked at school because his father is a grocer, but it is Thackeray, throughout the novel, who can never resist telling us that a character's father was a grocer; for example, Miss Grits, who marries the Reverend Binney, bringing with her five thousand pounds. It is as if he can never believe that the children of grocers might be as interesting as the children of the aristocracy or gentry. James Crawley, who ruins his chance of inheriting Miss Crawley's fortune through smoking in her house, is simply laughed at; the middle-class children are always sneered at. Thackeray's contempt invariably becomes most apparent at just those points where he attempts to be most sympathetic. For example, after the dazzle of 'How to Live Well on Nothing a Year'. Thackeray moves to 'A Family in a Small Way', where he offers compassionate reflections on the vagaries of fortune, but then the carping begins: 'Had Mrs. Sedley been a woman of energy, she would have exerted it after her husband's ruin'. She is, however, a small-minded woman, who cannot rise above 'colloquies with the greengrocer about the penn'orth of turnips which Mr. Sedley loved'. Sedley, on the same page, is seen 'pompously' presenting his grandson as the child of Captain Osborne. We are left not with a sense of life's vagaries, but with an impression of the vulgarity and shortcomings of this couple.
Thackeray in Vanity Fair, as is true throughout his career, is the awkward outsider in the Victorian novel. Others, for example, Dickens, at this time in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, were presenting the middle-class audience with a critical yet, in the end, flattering image of itself. Thackeray does not oblige. Vanity Fair is obviously a funny novel, but the source of the amusement is usually someone acting inappropriately for a person of their class. Only Becky has the panache to carry it off, to humiliate others rather than herself. The stance in the novel raises the familiar yet teasing question of Thackeray's politics. The view that is generally held is that Thackeray was a liberal, even a radical, who by the late 1850s had moved steadily to the right. But what seems nearer the truth is that, fairly consistently throughout his career, he displays a familiar form of populism, resenting all those who possess money and power. There is, throughout Vanity Fair, the idea of an escape to a rural arcadia, such as the muddy yet happy life Becky's child enjoys in the French countryside when he is placed out at nurse. Informing Thackeray's populism is this longing for a traditional order; it is an impractical politics, lacking constructive ideas, motivated mainly by resentment, by a readiness to condemn those who seem to represent change, who undermine his sense of a more innocent order.
What complicates the picture, however, and complicates Vanity Fair, is his awareness that a fundamental change is taking place. He might have felt unhappy about it, but he could not ignore the fact that the initiative, not only economically but also politically and socially, was moving towards the middle class. There is a reluctant realisation that the middle-class position offers the only hope for the future. This is prepared for by a sense that permeates the novel of aristocratic decline; in addition, there is also a late and unexpected indication of a collapse of gentry power. The future of the aristocracy is conveyed in such details as the impoverished Bareacres family, the appearance of the brass plates of businesses in Gaunt Square, and the strain of madness in the Steyne family: the 'dark mark of fate and doom was on the threshold'. The position of the gentry seems less extreme: young Pitt has, after all, restored the family's fortunes, but then, less than ten pages from the end of the novel, Pitt loses his place in Parliament as a result of the 1832 Reform Act.
It does seem that the future lies with the middle class, and appropriately, the last third of the novel concentrates on Dobbin and Amelia. It is conventional to admire Thackeray's presentation of Amelia, the way in which he has made his sentimental heroine a selfish heroine, but it can be argued that she is simply another of Thackeray's small-minded middle-class women, presented with all his characteristic contempt. He has to bring Amelia to the centre of the novel, but proves incapable of taking a middle-class heroine seriously. Exactly the same problem is evident in the portrayal of Dobbin:
We all know a hundred whose coats are very well made, and a score who have excellent manners, and one or two happy things who are what they call, in the inner circles, and have shot into the very centre and bull's eye of the fashion; but of gentlemen how many? Let us take a little scrap of paper and each make out his list.
My friend the major I write, without any doubt in mine. He had very long legs, a yellow face, and a slight lisp, which at first was rather ridiculous. But his thoughts were just, his brains were fairly good, his life was honest and pure, and his heart warm and humble.
A patrician voice encounters one of nature's gentlemen: the tone is extraordinarily condescending. The fact is that Thackeray cannot begin to comprehend a character such as Dobbin; he can only be commended on the basis of the way in which he combines upper-class gentlemanliness with a humble sense of his place. The problem with Amelia and Dobbin is that Thackeray requires them to carry the burden of a social and moral role, but is unable to give them the substance required. They remain members of an alien species, seen from a superior perspective, and evaluated in terms of how they compare to, and at times prove better than, their social superiors.
Thackeray's overt effort to point to the future through Amelia and Dobbin is, therefore, rather bungled. Yet the novel, none the less, offers a strong sense of a move towards a new order in society. By the end of Vanity Fair, most readers feel they have moved from Waterloo to a post-Reform Act world. This is more than a matter of chronology; a complex case about democratisation, about a shift towards middle-class values, is articulated in the second half of the novel. This sense of a change is not conveyed through subtle characterisation but through a mass of seemingly trivial details. This is entirely appropriate: Vanity Fair is, from the outset, a novel crammed full of precise details about the material and social world. In the second half of the novel we are offered an abundance of fresh images that combine to convey a sense of change. It starts when the characters return from the continent: at this point a different kind of detail begins to appear. There is less about what people spend their money on, and rather more about the ordinary, yet distinctively new, characteristics of middle-class life.
To begin with an example which should clarify what I am talking about, we hear a lot in the novel about the dull and pompous round of middle-class entertaining. As early as the aborted trip to Vauxhall, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Sedley have been to dine with Alderman Balls. But we have to wait a long time before we are offered a full guestlist for a middle-class dinner. Eventually, however, we encounter
a party of dismal friends of Osborne's rank and age. Old Dr Gulp and his lady from Bloomsbury Square: old Mr Frowser the attorney, from Bedford Row, a very great man, and from his business, hand-in-glove with the 'nobs at the West End', old Colonel Liver-more, of the Bombay Army, and Mrs Livermore from Upper Bedford Place: old Serjeant Toffy and Mrs Toffy; and sometimes old Sir Thomas Coffin and Lady Coffin, from Bedford Square.
Thackeray conveys the tedium of the occasion. He also reminds us that social aspiration is always a factor, for it is obviously felt to be a coup when a judge can be induced to attend. But, as much as the passage might be designed to operate at the expense of Osborne, other impressions are conveyed as well. The linking of the characters with streets in the Bloomsbury area of London acknowledges the coming into existence of a new middle-class locality, yet also points forward to other middle-class characters, such as the Bullocks, who make the move into more fashionable areas. Osborne's guests seem to be a generation of middle-class characters who have achieved status and respectability, but who, unlike the Bullocks, stop at this point. Yet they are far from insignificant people. All belong to a professional class, a class that would grow and grow in Victorian England. They are middle class but interested in more than money; they have opted for professions that reflect duty and social obligation. Thackeray sneers at such dull people, but at the same time there is a reluctant acknowledgement of a new, solid middle class. The precariousness of Sedley's existence seems a thing of the past; these are middle-class characters who have established secure roots in the social order.
There are other details in the novel that point to the rise of a new professional middle class. At the opening of Vanity Fair, the army is the only profession open to young middle-class men who are intent on bettering themselves. But as peace takes over from war, there is a growing sense of a professional class; indeed, young George is taught by a man who prepares his pupils for 'the Universities, the senate, and the learned professions'. We begin to encounter characters such as Wenham, 'the wit and lawyer', who acts on behalf of Steyne. Rawdon has, in the past, fought duels, but now the professional man Wenham negotiates a settlement. It is a shift towards a society where, as in the words of the newspaper report of Rawdon's job, 'We need not only men of acknowledged bravery, but men of administrative talents to superintend the affairs of our colonies'. We might begin to feel that Becky has been overtaken by events, that her kind of spectacular rise is no longer possible in a society where success is most likely for the diligent.
Middle-class confidence, too, is increasing. Even Jos develops 'a more candid and courageous self-assertion of his worth'. This is not entirely surprising, for he is presented at court; the narrator makes a disparaging comment, that Jos had 'worked himself up to believe that he was implicated in the maintenance of the public welfare', yet there is a sense in which this is true, for Jos, as a fairly senior colonial civil servant, is 'implicated'. The developing role of the civil service and the increasing importance of the empire in Victorian England was complemented by a growth in financial services. Banks could still collapse, indeed there was a banking crisis in 1847 and another ten years later, but in the latter stages of Vanity Fair we seem to have moved beyond the gambling of the Waterloo era, whether at the card table or on the stock exchange, towards secure banks, such as Hulker, Bullock and Co. and Stumpy and Rowdy's, with substantial reserves. It is middle-class bankers, such as Fred Bullock, who now seem in the vanguard of society. But financial services extend beyond banks; in the giddy world of Vanity Fair, it represents quite a shift towards sobriety when the narrator moves to talking about the fact that no Insurance Office will take on Rawdon Crawley as a client, because of the climate on Coventry Island. Everywhere the impression is of a more controlled society. The idea is even conveyed in a description of Pitt's study:
with the orderly Blue Books and letters, the neatly docketed bills and symmetrical pamphlets; the locked account-books, desks and dispatch boxes, the Bible, the Quarterly Review, and the Court Guide, which all stood as if on parade awaiting inspection of their chief.
The military imagery that is so common in the novel is called upon again, but is now at the service of a middle-class vision of order.
Nowhere is this sense of a new social formation better conveyed than in the different light in which middle-class women are seen in the latter stages of the novel. Thackeray's contempt never disappears, indeed it becomes more barbed as he is forced to concede that Maria Bullock and her circle are no longer the wilting middle-class women that have appeared in the novel up to this point:
Emmy found herself in the centre of a very genteel circle indeed; the members of which could not conceive that anybody belonging to it was not very lucky. There was scarce one of the ladies that hadn't a relation a peer, though the husband might be a drysalter in the City. Some of the ladies were very blue and well informed; reading Mrs Somerville, and frequenting the Royal Institution; others were severe and Evangelical, and held by Exeter Hall.
The tone is sarcastic, rather pathetically so, but behind the sarcasm we can see three remarkable points: these are self-confident middle-class women, taking a pride in their own rank and status; part of this pride can be attributed to their success in moving towards the centre of society, making the leap from trade to aristocratic connections; yet at the same time these are intelligent women, with a range of intellectual interests. These are women with minds and a justified sense of their own importance. No wonder Thackeray's tone is so unbalanced; he does everything he can to mount a case against Maria Bullock, dismissing her 'twopenny gentility' and mocking her 'scheming and managing' to attract accounts to her husband's bank, but she is likely to strike us as an active woman playing a role in the family business. The middle class remain people that Thackeray looks down on, but now that they are asserting themselves he sinks below contempt and is reduced to sniping abuse.
Yet it is this unbalanced animosity that gives the novel so much of its strength, for Thackeray's perverse and hostile stand represents a unique perspective on the redrawing of the lines in society. He sneers, and, as the novel goes on, sneers more and more, but at the same time reluctantly concedes the presence and importance of the middle class. There is, however, one final twist: he might resist the impulse, but by the end of the novel Thackeray himself has begun to acquire something of a middle-class outlook. We see it in his revised attitude to Becky. Dobbin states the case against Becky, trying to persuade Amelia that she is dangerous. He then makes the same case to Jos: 'Be a man, Jos: break off this disreputable connection. Come home to your family'. Manliness, distancing oneself from anybody disreputable, and the family, are Dobbin's key points. Jos protests that Becky is innocent, and, indeed, it would be hard to say what she has done wrong, but she stands as a vivid illustration of transgression, the kind of social deviant that was required if the middle class was to be convinced of the soundness of its moral codes. What is more curious is that Thackeray now seems to share this view of Becky. The point is underlined in his final selection of a detail to illustrate her villainy: she is involved in an insurance fraud, making a claim on Jos's life. It is a strange reversal of Thackeray's earlier celebration of Becky's vitality when he starts judging her from the perspective of an insurance company.
Thackeray makes one final protest against middle-class values: his late hint that Dobbin finds his marriage a disappointment is a gesture against the period's increasing reverence for the family. But it seems only a token gesture against the drift in the novel towards the family, towards private life. Yet, perhaps this is not entirely the case. Thackeray had to finish his novel. He also had to cater for, and to some extent satisfy, his audience. The steps towards a middle-class compromise might be simply steps he could not avoid in concluding Vanity Fair. His venom towards Maria Bullock seems closer to his true self. And the subsequent novels also suggest that he could never come to terms with the middle-class world, that he never had any time for, or understanding of, middle-class people. They remain an inferior breed, admirable in so far as they emulate the manners of their social superiors, but always condemned for attempting to do so.
Source: John Peck, "Middle-Class Life in Vanity Fair," in English: The Journal of the English Association, Vol. 43, No. 175, Spring 1994, pp. 1-16.
Bronté, Charlotte, Preface to Jane Eyre, Clarendon Press, 1969.
Colby, Robert A., "Historical Introduction," in Vanity Fair, Garland, 1989, pp. 632-37.
Cuddon, J. A., The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 827-32.
Forster, John, Examiner, No. 2112, July 22, 1848, pp. 468-70.
Karlson, Marilyn Naufftus, "William Makepeace Thackeray," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 55: Victorian Prose Writers Before 1867, edited by William B. Thesing, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 303-14.
Lewes, George Henry, Athenaeum, No. 1085, August 12, 1848, pp. 794-97.
Peck, Harry Thurston, Studies in Several Literatures, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1909, pp. 149-61.
Ray, Gordon N., ed., The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, 1945–1946, p. 309.
Review of Vanity Fair, in London Review, Vol. XVI, No. XXXII, July 1861, pp. 291-94.
Rigby, Elizabeth, Review of Vanity Fair, in Quarterly Review, December 1848, pp. 155-62.
"William Makepeace Thackeray: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero," in Characters in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Gale Research, 1993, pp. 490-96.
Mitchell, Sally, Daily Life in Victorian England, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.
This comprehensive look at both city and country life in Victorian England covers social classes, morals, economics and finance, laws, and more. It includes illustrations and excerpts from primary source documents.
Pascoe, David, ed., Selected Journalism 1850–1870, Penguin USA, 1998.
This generous collection of the journalistic writings of Charles Dickens offers minute and gritty details of life in London in the mid-nineteenth century.
Peters, Catherine, Thackeray: A Writer's Life, Sutton Publishing, 2000.
This recent biography examines Thackeray's life and how his writing was influenced by his experiences and the world around him.
Thackeray, William Makepeace, Thackerayana, Haskell House, 1970.
This is an engaging, self-illustrated collection of anecdotes and observations, many of them humorous, about everything from Thackeray's childhood to his favorite literary characters.