Home > History, Literature, Reviews > Always Thus in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Encyclopedic But Moral Satire

Always Thus in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Encyclopedic But Moral Satire

I’m an avowed slavish admirer of Leo Tolstoy and his sprawling masterpiece of the Napoleonic Era, War and Peace. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a minor masterpiece in its own manner, examines roughly the same period but in a wildly divergent way. Tolstoy imparts the gravity of warfare, in particular the socially-draining totality of Russia’s scorched earth resistance against Napoleon and his Grand Armée, but also the epiphanous truth of peacetime life, the little hopes and kindness, microcosmic slights and tragedies, that make up what passes for human life in the early 19th Century, or in any time. But for Thackeray, it’s all a lark, an elaborate masque of assumed poses, consumed by petty jealousies and cruel disguised mockery and overt shunning. The virtuous and true are taken advantage of by the manipulative and unscrupulous, and the only decent defence against the essential predatory urges of the social animal is to satirize it mercilessly. Even the great battle of the age, Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, is a mere offstage fling, another fashionable party from which, unfortunately, many attendees never came back again.

Thackeray skewers superficiality and social butterfly-ism with a silver blade in Vanity Fair, but does so with a very English sense of sniffy, incipient moral superiority. The novel was first published serially in 1847-48, before the reign of Queen Victoria had calcified into the prudish social straightjacket that the era bearing her name is synonymous with, when some remnant of Regency libertinism endured. Most of the novel does indeed take place before the death of George IV and the passage of the Reform Bill, in the waning twilight days of the magnificently fashionable post-Georgian aristocratic gentlemen and ladies of fashion. Its title references John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a telling tip of the hat to a religous moral tract of a bygone Early Modern age; the fair in the town of Vanity represented the human attachment to earthly pleasures and the material world.

But for Thackeray, Vanity Fair is no allegory but a sort of mass asylum of popular upper-class consent. For all of the plot’s turns and reversals of fortune (literal and figurative), it is the pursuit, maintenance, and display of wealth, power, and privilege that motivates his characters. Faced with the absence or denial of these advantages, the appearance of them will suffice. The contentious focal point of this theme is always already Becky Sharp. Putatively Vanity Fair‘s heroine, Becky comes from ordinary, even low, stock (her father was a Bohemian painter, her mother a French stage performer; the horror!) but is well-educated and marries the rogueish military son of a faded noble family and employs her wit, tireless manipulative skill, and uncanny actor’s abilities to parlay her minimal opportunities (and finances) into a berth in fashionable London society. She captivates the men, outshines the women, intrigues with lords, and even meets the ruling monarch before it all comes crashing down into disgrace, ostracization, and Continental exile.

Contrasted to Becky’s cunning finagling is the kind-hearted suffering of Amelia Sedley, who marries her childhood sweetheart George Osbourne only to see him leave her behind for loose society living and an undeserved hero’s end on the field of Waterloo. With her family’s income wiped out by her father’s unwise investment schemes and her late husband’s forbidding father disinheriting her and her beloved son, she lives a life of near-poverty in a small suburban house, suffering her slights in naive devotion to the frivolous, departed George as well as the honest attentions of William Dobbin, George’s best friend who is hopelessly in love with her.

Things do turn out better for Amelia than they do for Becky, although both the sincere sweetness of the latter and the determined scheming of the latter come in for filleting from Thackeray’s narrator. Indeed, Vanity Fair most resembles Tolstoy in its author’s refusal to see his characters, however archetypal they may be, as one-dimensional. Unlike the Dickensian caricatures of Thackeray’s more famous contemporary, those that populate the novel are shown in good light and in harsher light, too. Thackeray can note laudable qualities (Becky’s role in reconciling Amelia and Dobbin, her gambling dullard husband Rawdon Crawley’s tender affection for their son) even while viciously satirizing their less praiseworthy features (Amelia’s brother Joseph is painted as an obese, vain poseur, and even the knightly Dobbin can be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud). Even a clownish figure of low-living like the elder Baronet Sir Pitt Crawley, a coarse penny-pincher whose fondness for the proletarian classes and for drink is viewed askance by the Vanity Fair snobs, is shown to be capable of fond regard and is allowed to be humbled and pitied before the end.

As satisfying as these generally rounded characterizations and sharp instances of satire are (there’s a wonderfully nasty knitting metaphor for Becky pretending to love her son to win society points when in fact she can’t stand him), Thackeray falls short of Tolstoy specifically but even a bit short of better English novelists by virtue of his proper judgemental Englishness. Tolstoy showed all facets not to judge his characters, but to make them seem more fully human; Thackeray sees it as a way to broaden his satirical reach. As mentioned, the nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress is revealing. Thackeray reserves some of his barbs for humourlessly religious milksops like Pitt Crawley the Younger and Lady Southdown (although he clearly thinks fake piety of the sort that Becky often resorts to is much worse), but he willingly upholds the fundamental Protestant moral code on which even the most free and fashionable English society is based.

All satires must necessarily have a firmly rooted basis in some ideological foundation alternate to the presumed social delusions which they have been designed to upend, naturally. And although Thackeray is at pains to give Becky the benefit of the doubt and does not have her repudiated or apologize for her actions, the whiff of moral judgement hangs about every sentence concerning her for the novel’s second half. Many more words could be exhausted on the subject of Becky Sharp’s personality and her choices in relation to the social mores of her time and place. Hers is a clever, resourceful strain of feminism that neither Thackeray’s other characters nor the author himself quite recognizes, and she is fairly pilloried for holding to it. For all of its encyclopedic satirical character and delightful bursts of wit, this arms-crossed moral undercurrent of snobbish disapproval (even if it did likely reflect and flatter the attitudes of its bourgeois readership) blocks Vanity Fair‘s path to first-rate Victorian-novel greatness.

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Categories: History, Literature, Reviews

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