VANITY FAIR

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Author: William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2001 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository

Introduction

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta where his father worked for the British East India Company. He was sent back to England for education after his father died in 1815. On his journey back, he stopped at St. Helena where he was told of its connection to Napoleon Bonaparte. In England, he went to public schools as befitting someone of his social class but he hated his experience. He went to Cambridge but left in 1830 without obtaining a degree after which he traveled in the continent (including Germany). Thackeray received a modest inheritance from his father’s estate when he became 21 years old but lost most of it in gambling, drinking and women, two unsuccessful newspaper ventures, and an Indian bank that failed. Forced to look for work, especially after he got married in 1836, he settled on journalism and wrote for various publications including Punch. He also started writing novels. He achieved fame with Vanity Fair, first serialised in Punch from January 1847 to July 1848. The novel was widely praised by critics even as it was being serialised and Thackeray was hailed as second only to his contemporary Charles Dickens (1812–70) in the pantheon of Victorian authors. Charlotte Brontë dedicated Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray.

Vanity Fair was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).

What is the story about?

The story traces the ups and downs of two young ladies. Amelia Sedley was well–born but grew up to be naive and soft–hearted. Rebecca (Becky) Sharp is Amelia’s antithesis, an orphan but vivacious and resourceful. She knew “I have nothing to look for but what my own labour can bring me” (p 79).

Themes

The subtitle of the book is A Novel without a Hero. Indeed, there are no heroes in the sense that all the main characters had some foibles. Thackeray used these to satirise the society he was writing about. This society he called Vanity Fair, “a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions” (p 71).

Unlike Charles Dickens who set most of his works in contemporary Victorian period, Thackeray set Vanity Fair in the period from the 1810s to the 1830s. This was a period known as the Regency (or Georgian) Era. In 1811, George III was declared by Parliament as unfit to rule (as dramatised in the 1994 movie The Madness of King George). His son, George, the Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent until he ascended the throne as George IV when his father died in 1820. He ruled as monarch until his death in 1830 when his brother William IV became King. He would rule for only 7 years and was succeeded by Queen Victoria. The Regency Era is sometimes used to refer not only to the period of the formal Regency but to the period from the time George IV became Regent (1811) to the ascension of Victoria (1837). The Regency Era is generally characterised by extravagance and excess on the part of the upper classes compared to the conservatism of the Victorian Era.

Culturally, the Regency Era was marked by rigid social stratification. The upper class consisted of the royal family, aristocrats and the gentry including the landed gentry (land owners who lived entirely off the rent from their lands). Below them were those worked for a living in trades or professions, callings which were generally considered demeaning by the upper class. Those from even lower down the social ladder (eg household servants) had practically no hope of improving their station in life.

The Regency Era is characterised by another form of stratification, namely between the sexes. Women have a lower status than men in almost all respects. In middle and upper class families, daughters are seen as tools to accumulate wealth through advantageous marriages. For women outside these classes, such marriages provided financial security for themselves. Hence someone like Rebecca Sharp would from young “formed visions of the future for herself … in all her castles in the air, a husband was the principal inhabitant. Of what else have young ladies to think but husbands” (p 79).

The Regency Era witnessed the rapid development of commerce. On 3 March 1801, some brokers and jobbers who had operated as a club in London called The Stock Exchange reopened under a formal membership subscription basis. The first regulated exchange came into existence and the modern Stock Exchange was born. The historian Kenneth Morgan (Brunel University) wrote: “The long 18th century, from the Glorious Revolution until Waterloo, was the period in which Britain rose to a dominant position among European trading empires” (BBC). This was the era British ships began to sail to all corners of the known world for commerce and trading posts, paving the way for the industrialisation and Empire to come. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Overseas commerce during the Regency Era was dominated by one company, East India Company, established on 31 Dec 1600. In time, it secured a monopoly on all trade between Britain and the East and became the de facto ruler of India and all her riches.

One of the major geo–political events of the Regency Era was the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). On 6 April 1814, horribly outnumbered by his enemies and faced with a mutiny by his own troops, Emperor Napoleon abdicated and was exiled by the allied forces to the island of Elba. He escaped on 26 February 1815 and succeeded in amassing an army by the time he reached Paris on 20 March 1815. The anti–Napoleon coalition rallied once more and defeated Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). Napoleon surrendered and was again exiled, this time to the island of St Helena where he died on 5 May 1821.

The modern reader will note a peculiar aspect of the British Army that fought Napoleon, viz that it was possible to buy a position in the army. The background is this: Until 1870, the usual way for an officer of the cavalry or infantry to obtain his commission was by purchase. A new candidate had to produce evidence of having had “the education of a gentleman”, to obtain the approval of his regimental colonel, and to produce a substantial sum which was both proof of his standing in society and a bond for good behaviour. When a promotion vacancy occurred, the senior officer of the immediate lower rank in the same regiment had the first claim to be promoted, subject to being able to produce the as appropriate sum laid down by Parliament for the rank in question. Promotion to colonel and above was by seniority without purchase. Staff appointments, which carried promotion, were by selection, not purchase, but an officer reverted to his regimental (normally purchased) rank on expiry of tenure. When an officer left the Army, the price of his last commission was refunded, thus realising a large capital sum for investment elsewhere. The system was subject to abuse, as very rich men could pay their juniors not to take up their right to promotion, but had the advantage of allowing wealthy officers to obtain command of a regiment in their twenties, while at the peak of their fitness and energy. By contrast, in the Ordnance corps, where promotion was by seniority, it was common to find officers in their forties still serving as subalterns. The greatest weakness of the purchase system was its reliance on officers learning their duties by experience after appointment, rather than by training prior to it: The History of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (2009).

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Carole Jones and Owen Knowles, University of Hull.

Vanity Fair in the public domain. This Wordsworth Classics edition costs S$3.54.

Finally …

Today, while a number of Charles Dickens’ works are still widely read, Thackeray is remembered only for Vanity Fair. The novel is intimidating because of its length. But Thackeray’s writing style is relatively straightforward. The story is never dull, the number of characters is manageable and there is always something happening. This is a novel crying out for a sequel.

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