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NA0120 - THACKERAY, W.M.: Vanity Fair (Unabridged)

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
Vanity Fair


In its clear-eyed detachment, Vanity Fair seems to belong more to Henry Fielding’s eighteenth century, than to the era of Dickens. Yet William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863) had more in common with his great contemporary than the differences in their work might suggest. Born within a year of each other—Thackeray in Calcutta, Dickens in Portsmouth—they both had cause to feel rejected by their mothers. Thackeray’s father—a rich ‘collector’—died before he was six: the widow promptly sent her boy to England to be educated and she soon remarried. Dickens’s mother saw no injustice in sending her talented boy to work in a factory when her husband was jailed for bankruptcy.

After Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge, Thackeray studied art in Paris, where he gambled away his inheritance. He then toyed with law, but was driven to journalism to support his family. Under a series of pseudonyms he wrote verse, burlesques and parodies for a variety of periodicals.

He married at 25, but after four years his adored wife became incurably insane; she spent the rest of her life in a mental home, leaving him with three little daughters to maintain. After his unhappy married life, Dickens separated from the wife he had found dull company. Both he and Thackeray had mistresses, both lectured in America, and both died suddenly, leaving unfinished novels.

But here the similarities end: whereas Dickens was a true Victorian, Thackeray felt he had been born too late. All his novels, apart from Vanity Fair, are set in his beloved eighteenth century and are underpinned by uncannily accurate historical realism.

Vanity Fair—the first novel he published under his own name—appeared in monthly installments in 1847–8. It is set in the Regency period, during and after the battle of Waterloo. As a child, when his ship called at St Helena en route for England, Thackeray had seen Napoleon walking in the gardens of Longwood: this memory surfaces in the novel.

Thackeray claimed he simply woke up one day with the title Vanity Fair in his head. In the preface—The Curtain Rises—he invites his audience to ‘step in for half an hour and look at the performances’. He ends his novel with the words ‘Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out’. He may have been detached from mankind but never his marionettes. There is little sentimentality in his approach; any inconsistencies and awkward time shifts must be partly due to his having written the novel in serial form.

If the central character in Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is a Fieldingesque anti-hero, Becky Sharp is no less an anti-heroine. Full of guile and treachery, outwitting her opponents as she climbs the social ladder, she clearly fascinated her creator as much as she delights and amuses the reader. This Circe breaks necks in her ruthless ascent, but she captivates in the process.

Thackeray’s Book of Snobs was a hilarious exposé of the hypocrisy of early Victorian society: a similar satirical view permeates Vanity Fair. Amelia Sedley is introduced as ‘a dear little creature’ but the author’s attitude to her is deeply ambivalent: he first praises her tenderness and devotion, then adds that ‘Vanity fair is yawning over it’. Incapable of appreciating the altruistic love of Captain Dobbin, she finally becomes ‘our little simpleton’.

Before his death, Thackeray instructed his executors not to publish any biography. Most of his novels—he wrote six—are little read, and details about his life remain scanty. But in recent decades his reputation has begun to rise, thanks in part to Stanley Kubrick’s superb film of Barry Lyndon. In life, Thackeray never achieved either the fame or the fortune of Dickens. Perhaps, in these disillusioned times, his hour has finally come.

Notes by Betty Tadman

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