Friday, April 1, 2011

Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray

Vanity Fair was published in twenty monthly parts from January 1847 to July 1848 by the editors of Punch Magazine and then subsequently bound for single-volume publication. A new edition was issued in 1853. The original subtitle for the piece was "Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society." Thackeray himself provided sketches for the installments.  The frontispiece also advertises Thackeray as author of "The Irish Sketch Book," "Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo," "Jeames's Diary," and the "Snob Papers" in Punch, underscoring his reputation as a an author of shorter serial pieces in the periodical press.

The novel begins with the departure of two young women from Miss Pinkerton's school for young ladies: Amelia Sedley, a well-off, popular, and charming young woman, and her friend, Rebecca Sharp, an Anglo-French orphan who is used to doing what was necessary to take care of herself. Becky has been mistreated by the snobby Miss Pinkerton, who has only taken her on because Becky can speak French to the other charges. Becky openly tells Miss Pinkerton that since they do not get along, she ought to help her find work elsewhere. Thus, Miss Pinkerton finds a governess position for her. Because Amelia has become friends with Becky at Miss Pinkerton's, she invites Becky to her family home in Russell Square for a week. The Sedley's of Russell Square are generous (Mr. Sedley made his fortune as a stock-broker), and Rebecca schemes to get Joseph Sedley, Amelia's stout older brother who was making a fortune in India and back for a time. Joseph Sedley indeed falls for Rebecca, but things end up going south when George Osborne arrives, a childhood friend of Sedley's and Amelia's suitor. The narrative strand is interrupted briefly with a sketch-history of one Dobbins, a classmate of Osborne's who was bullied at school, and who stood up for Osborne one day against a bully; hence they became close friends. Osborne has invited Dobbins to go along with the two couples to Vauxhall for a night of revelry. At Vauxhall, Joseph gets ridiculously drunk and inappropriate with Rebecca. Although everyone has expected it, Joseph doesn't end up proposing to Rebecca because he is too hung over the next day. It turns out that Osborne has been opposing the marriage, thinking Rebecca too far beneath Joseph's station. Amelia has sympathy for Rebecca as she departs, showering her with gifts and money, and getting her family to do the same for her.

At Queen's Crawley, Sir Pitt's country estate, Rebecca contemptuously finds Sir Pitt to be crass and no match for her intellectually despite his great wealth. Lady Crawley, Sir Pitt's (second) wife, is submissive to his whims and having lost her youthful beauty, is generally disregarded by Sir Pitt. Rebecca is to be governess to Lady Crawley and Sir Pitt's two young daughters, Rose and Violet. Soon, Rebecca also makes the acquaintance of Sir Pitt's sons from his first marriage: the elder Mr. Pitt, a self-righteous preacher, and the younger son, Rawdon, a spoiled, bold Captain who takes a liking to Miss Sharp. As time passes, Rebecca manages to ingratiate herself with pretty much everyone in the Crawley circle. Sir Pitt finds her a much more able and interesting companion than his wife, Mr. Pitt finds her apt at understanding some of his scholarly pursuits, the rich Miss Crawley (Sir Pitt's sister) finds her clever, and Mrs. Bute Crawley, wife to the Rector Crawley (another brother of Sir Pitt's) extends an invitation to Rebecca to visit. As a result, Rebecca becomes party to many of the factors causing family tensions, including how Miss Crawley's preference for Rawdon alienates the Rector, who feels more entitled to her money than the young, irresponsible Captain. All of this section is narrated through a mixture of letters (primarily from Rebecca to Amelia) and narrative.

This takes us to the fourth installment, which goes back to tell what has become of Amelia. As it turns out, not much has happened to her: she spends most of her time at home, pining away with love and sentiment for Osborne. Unfortunately for her, George spends most of his time with the boys of his Regiment, drinking and spending money. In his past, he has been used to being allowed to "sow his wild oats" and so Amelia's attachment feels constraining. Dobbin, feeling badly for Amelia, suggests to his friend that he pay more attention to Amelia. Meanwhile, George's father is having second thoughts about engaging his son to Amelia, as he fears Mr. Sedley's fortunes to be taking a turn for the worse.

The narrative switches back to Becky Sharp, who is attending to Miss Crawley. Miss Crawley has fallen "ill" from overindulging herself on food and drink. Miss Crawley's usual attendants, one Miss Briggs and one Mrs. Firkin, are jealous of Rebecca's ascendancy. While Miss Crawley keeps Rebecca, Sir Pitt's affairs have gone into disarray; he has been so dependent on her to do secretarial work. He demands that she return home, but Miss Crawley continues to keep her. Lady Crawley's sudden death brings Sir Pitt to Park Lane (Miss Crawley's residence) with a marriage proposal to Rebecca. Rebecca doesn't accept because she says she is already married. It gradually comes out that she has secretly married Rawdon. When Miss Crawley and Sir Pitt find out, she has already left to go live with him. The couple remains hopeful that Miss Crawley will come around to their marriage. The opportunistic Mrs. Bute Crawley takes advantage of Rawdon and Rebecca's fall from favor to take charge of caring for Miss Crawley's "illness." Mrs. Bute is extremely imperious, however, and it is clear that Miss Crawley, Miss Briggs, and Mrs. Firkin begin to resent her control. 

It turns out that Mr. Sedley has meanwhile met with financial ruin as a result speculations that depended on Napoleon's continual exile--instead, he has returned to power. The older Mr. Osborne tries to push George to marry one Miss Rhoda Swartz, a mulatto heiress who was also at Miss Pinkerton's school. Dobbin, however, looking out for Amelia's interests and afraid that she will die of a broken heart, manages to convince George to keep his engagement. George marries Amelia without his father's consent, and though Dobbin manages to win over his sisters, he fails to win over Mr. Osborne, resulting in George being disowned. George and Amelia spend some time in Brighton after they get married, where they meet up with Rebecca and Rawdon. Amelia inevitably feels some jealousy for Rebecca, and their friendship is perhaps just a tad less sweet. The men of Dobbins and George's regiment are soon set to depart for Belgium in order to fight Napoleon. Rawdon will also go, though he is not set to fight on the front lines. Rebecca and Amelia prepare to go with the men. Jos also goes to Brussels, in order to accompany the women. Amelia has a hard time at Brussels, because she is snubbed by the society there while Rebecca and George flirt heavily. George even leaves Rebecca a note in her corsage. Amelia accuses Rebecca of her flirtation, as is disconsolate as the men leave for battle. Rebecca does well for herself after the men leave; Rawdon has left behind his horses and other property so that she will be financially secure should he die. During the course of battle, the cowardly Jos offers Rebecca a large sum for her horses, in order that he might flee. Rawdon does not die, however, but George does, in the famous battle of Waterloo.

At the beginning of the tenth number, the narrative returns to those who remain behind in England. Sir Pitt, distraught over Becky's departure, has taken up with Miss Horrocks, the butler's daughter. His older son, however, has decided to court Lady Jane (formerly Rawdon's intended) and both Jane and he have been making steady progress in gaining Miss Crawley's favor. Mrs. Bute Crawley makes one last effort, sending her son James to visit Miss Crawley. At first, Miss Crawley receives the handsome boy with some favor, but when a mistake leads to Miss Crawley thinking he had been drinking extravagantly at a tavern and when he smokes a pipe in her house, he is thrown out. Lady Jane and the younger Pitt are soon married, and Miss Crawley becomes affectionate with Lady Jane. Upon her death, she leaves her wealth to the younger Pitt and his wife.

Meanwhile, Mr. Osborne refuses to help out Amelia and her son, Georgy. In Paris, Rebecca and Rawdon do pretty well for themselves, living on Rawdon's winnings from gambling. The narrator suggests that Rawdon's dealings may be shady, and pretty soon they can't live in Paris anymore and go to London. Rebecca skillfully settles Rawdon's London debts, and they rent a house on Curzon Street from Raggles, a former servant who has worked hard to move up the social ladder. Becky and Rawdon can't pay the rent, however, and Raggles ends up going to debtor's prison. As all of this is happening, the narrative reveals that Rebecca isn't very much interested in her own son and treats him neglectfully. She manages to ingratiate herself with Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane, and also wins the favor of one influential and wealthy Lord Steyne. Sir Pitt the elder also soon dies, and Pitt the younger inherits his estate at Queens Crawley; the Horrocks's are thrown out. Rebecca tactfully ingratiates herself with Lady Southdown, Lady Jane's mother, and also Pitt.

Back home with her ruined parents, Amelia Sedley still gets attention from men who help her out with little gifts to Georgy. She even gets a marriage proposal from a Reverend Binny, but she decides to remain faithful to George. Dobbin continues to send her money, having gone to India, though saying that the money is left to her from George. She soon hears news that Dobbin is to be married to a woman named Glorvina who is a relation of Major O'Dowd, the commander of the regiment that Dobbin and George Osborne fought in. At the Osborne house, Maria gets married, and her older sister Jane is confined to being a spinster and taking care of the elder Osborne for the rest of her life. Dobbins receives a letter from his sister letting him know a rumor that Amelia is about to marry the Reverend. At long last, Mr. Osborne changes his mind and offers an inheritance to little Georgy and Amelia an allowance. She at first refuses, but in the end is forced to accept when her parents come to even greater financial ruin and she is unable to support her son's schooling and upbringing as a "gentleman." The terms are that he must go and live at the Osbornes. It is a tearful farewell for Amelia, but for Georgy, he is excited to begin life.

Rebecca continues to evince little interest in her son, too busy with the tasks of social climbing. Rawdon, however, is quite affectionate with his son. Rebecca encourages Pitt in his career as an M.P., and he warms to her, preferring her to his wife. A meeting with the king marks the culmination of Rebecca's social climbing. Lord Steyne gives her money and invites her to dinner, where she is still snubbed, however, by some ladies of high backgrounds. Lord Steyne also gives money for little Rawdon to go to school. The Colonel Rawdon, meanwhile, gets into some trouble, going to jail for a debt. Becky doesn't really help him out and instead, his brother and Lady Jane help him out. When Rawdon returns home, he sees Becky with Lord Steyne and attacks him. He discovers that Becky has a stash of money and jewels. Both Steyne and Rawdon abandon Becky and plan a duel; the duel is called off thanks to the diplomacy of Wenham, Lord Steyne's man. Left alone, Becky asks Sir Pitt for help to reconcile her to her husband, but he fails. Rawdon goes to Coventry Island for a post, sending money back to Becky and little Rawdon.

When Dobbin and Jos come back to England from India, Dobbin tells Jos that he should stay and set up a home for Amelia and her father to move into. Mr. Sedley and Mr. Osborne both die; Osborne leaves half his money to Georgy and also some for Amelia. Amelia's position having been improved, she is able to reunite with her son. On a trip to Pumpernickel with Dobbin and Jos, Dobbin declares that Amelia has never appreciated his love. They run into the deserted Becky, who has been gambling and associating with unsavory characters. Amelia kind-heartedly takes Becky in. Dobbin, having heard of Becky's dealings on the Continent, warns Jos against Becky, who will likely try to get into his good graces again. After Dobbin departs again, Becky decides to give Amelia the letter that George Osborne had once slipped her--it asked Becky to run away with him. Disabused of her romantic notion of George, Amelia accepts Dobbin and he returns. Here the narrative stops, and moves to a kind of epilogue like section, in which Amelia and Dobbin live happily ever after, little Rawdon and Georgy become great friends in college and are both in love with Lady Jane's daughter, Becky pursues Jos in his travels and receives money from his life insurance after his mysterious death, Colonel Rawdon perishes of yellow fever in Coventry Island, his brother Pitt dies soon afterwards, and the estate of Queens Crawley goes to little Rawdon, who sends money to his mother but refuses to see her. Becky Sharp spends her life mostly around Bath and Cheltenham, giving liberally to Charity.

The novel closes: "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?--Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out."

The significance of Vanity Fair's original serial publication in monthly installments has been thoroughly explored in Edgar F. Harden's famous essay on "The Discipline and Significance of Form in Vanity Fair." Harden lays out in great detail the ways in which Thackeray sets up parallel structures in the his monthly numbers. The first two numbers offer a lesson in parallel structure useful for reading the rest of the novel--here are Harden's observations copied below:

  • No. 1 begins with the girls' education at Miss Pinkerton's; No. 2 begins with the boys' education at Dr. Swishtail's
  • No. 1 elaborates on Amelia's popularity versus Becky's unpopularity; No. 2 elaborates on Cuff the bully's popularity and Dobbin's unpopularity
  • No. 1 shows a battle between Miss Pinkerton and Becky; No. 2 shows a battle between Cuff and Dobbin 
  • In No.1 Becky receives a dictionary from Jemima (which she throws back); in No. 2 Dobbin receives a prize-book after becoming recognized at school for his work
  • Becky and Amelia ride to Russell square in No.1; Becky, Amelia, Jos, Dobbin, and George ride to Vauxhall in No. 2
  • No. 1 has a retrospective account of Becky's past; No. 2 has a retrospective account of favorable views of Becky and Jos's future together
  • In No. 1, Amelia and Becky tour the house at Russell Square and Becky vows to catch Jos; in No. 2 Jos and Becky tour Vauxhall and Jos fails to propose
  • In No. 1 Mr Sedley mocks Jos; In No. 2 George mocks Jos, drunk at Vauxhall
  • Becky is overcome by chili in No. 1; Jos is overcome by punch in No. 2
  • No. 1 has Becky waiting for Jos as he leaves Russell Square; No. 2 has her waiting for Jos who sends a note saying he's leaving London
  • No. 1 has Jos arriving in Russell Square; No. 2 has Becky arriving at Great Gaunt Street (Pitt's house)  
  • In No. 1 Mr. Sedley offers champagne at Russell Square; In No. 2, Sir Pitt offers beer upon Becky's arrival
  • Jos prepares for Vauxhall in No. 1 and plans to propose to Becky; Becky prepares for Queen's Crawley in No. 2 and dreams about Rawdon

The effects, of course, are varied depending on the parallels--in the above examples, contrasts in character might be drawn, for instance between Becky and Dobbin, who are both "underdogs" but Becky is a lot more opportunistic, or between Becky and Jos, in that Becky recovers much more quickly from the chili than Jos from the punch. Later in the novel, parallels might provide shocking contrasts, such as No. 8's ending with dawn and Amelia's embrace of George as he is about to leave, and No. 9's ending with "darkness" and George's corpse on the battlefield.

The elaborateness of Thackeray's organization is borne out in a more macro-view as well: Harden summarizes that there are nine blocks of material (sometimes the blocks are of 3 numbers, but mostly they are of 2), which might be further demarcated into two groups: four of the blocks and five of the blocks. The two groups are involved in a kind of "counterrhythm." The first group climaxes in the middle with successful marriages (Becky's and Amelia's) and concludes with George and Amelia's separation because of his death; the second group climaxes with Rawdon leaving Becky and ends with Amelia's marriage to Dobbin.  

What, ultimately, is the larger significance of these detailed and disciplined parallels? I feel that Harden's speculation (especially after his impressive explication of structure) that Thackeray needed a way to discipline his writing so that it would fit the requirements of the 32-page numbered part (something that his writing for periodicals hadn't required) seems a bit of a letdown. I think it's interesting that both Thackeray's original subtitle for Vanity Fair, "Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society" and the volume's subtitle, "A Novel Without a Hero," kind of registers a sense of plurality in unity which the elaborate structure also bears out. "Pen and Pencil Sketches" signals plurality unified under the larger category of "Society"; "Without a Hero" prevents the unifying effects of a central character while the genre designation,"novel" unifies. Parallels in the narrative structure unify, while two major plot lines (one following Becky, the other Amelia) threaten to unravel the narrative structure. Thus, it seems that Vanity Fair continually points to the tension between plurality/dissolution and singularity/unity. Thackeray's own comment about how he wished to "make a set of people living without God in the world" in July 1847 suggests that without God, there needed to be some other organizational principle. Unlike exemplars of high realism like Eliot's Middlemarch, no omniscient narrator steps in place of God to provide an organizational principle--Thackeray's first-person narrator, though fairly knowledgeable, hints that he is one of the members who partook in the "society" in which his characters circulated--he heard unfavorable stories about Becky at the same dinner tables where Dobbin hears about her. It is not, then, the narrator that provides unity in Vanity Fair, but the novelist, who, for all intents and purposes, has usurped God in creating the parallel structures in the numbered parts.

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