The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 7. Vanity Fair
In Vanity Fair, the influence of Thackeray’s long apprenticeship to fiction is felt in the sureness of touch with which he describes the manners of a large and various group of dramatis personae and unites the diverse elements of the story. His ability to reproduce the life of a special period never flags: the scene never changes into dullness or inactivity; and long practice in the anatomy of social eccentricities and familiarity with special types of character are apparent even in the least important figures of his stage. The book was planned and written more carefully than his later novels: it has more unity and less tendency to digression, while following his usual plan of a chronicle extending over a considerable period of years. All the groups which compose its world—the Crawleys, the Sedleys, the Osbornes, lord Steyne and his led captains, even the O’Dowds—are united under the dazzling influence of Becky Sharp. She gives the book the cardinal interest which is wanting in all but one of its successors; and, even in Esmond, that interest belongs, not to a single character, but to the mutual relations of a group of persons. From the first chapter it is evident that, if the amiability of the tale is to be the monopoly of the fortunate and beloved Amelia, the despised and scornful Becky will supply its dramatic excitement. Their temperaments develop upon inevitable lines. Amelia, with less than the average amount of intellect and with virtues that are mainly negative, is the foil to Becky, who, with cleverness and courage as her only virtues, wins more sympathy than she deserves because these qualities are conspicuously lacking in Amelia. Her cleverness, it is true, defeats its own ends; but her disasters bring her courage and resource into play, while Amelia becomes irritable and capricious under misfortune. Becky plays her game without a confederate: her husband, so long as he trusts her, is merely her blind agent. She overdoes her part in her initial experiment with Jos. Sedley. At Queen’s Crawley, her diplomacy again overreaches itself, and she snatches at a clandestine marriage with a younger son, when, by waiting a little, she might have married the father. After her marriage, she engages out of pure mischief in a pointless liaison with Amerlia’s coxcomb of a husband. Her conquest of a reiuctant society, a feat of generalship achieved by the exercise of personal attractions and a ready wit, is rendered useless by her disastrous relations with lord Steyne. So brilliant has been her career up to this point that we could well be spared the history of her later wanderings and her final assault upon Jos. Sedley’s fortunes, with the dark suspicion which clouds its success. Her cause, all through, is her own selfish comfort, but the resourcefulness with which she champions it compels admiration. Those who are alive to the conventional limitations of Thackeray’s world beside the primitive unrestraint of the world of Balzac’s prodigal imagination contrast her, to her disadvantage, with her contemporary, Valèrie Marneffe. The answer to their objections is Becky’s confession that she could have been a good woman with five thousand a year. In spite of her hereditary drawbacks, which Steyne coarsely flung in her face in the hour of their joint discomfiture, her ideal is a discreet respectability, and her intrigues are the means to the attainment of an assured position. Madame Marneffe was entirely free from any such ideal: in her most prosperous days, there could have been no question of her unfitness for the saloons of Gaunt house; and the decorous twilight of Becky’s retirement at Cheltenham would have been impossible for the woman whose last aspiration was é faire le bon Dieu with the methods that had enchained her mortal lovers. Further, while Becky fights her own battle and Rawdon Crawley and the watch-dog Briggs are only pawns in her game, Valèrie is a deadly weapon employed by the diabolical intelligence of Lisbeth Fischer, to whose part in the story she is always secondary. To admit, however, that Becky admires and covets the blamelessness of the British matron is not to give her credit for a possible attainment of disinterested virtue. Sincerity is alien to her nature. The only genuine tears which she is recorded to have shed came from her disappointment that she had married Rawdon and missed a shorter cut to fortune; and her only charitable act, the disclosure to Amelia of George’s infidelity, was prompted more by her irritation at Amelia’s obtuseness than by any desire to give the patient Dobbin the reward of his long devotion.
Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero,” and neither the virtues nor the vices of its characters are of a heroic order. They are, for the most part, selfish people, bent upon following their pleasures, if they can afford them, or devoted to the task of keeping up appearances if they cannot. Money and rank mean everything to Mr. Osborne, with his pompous parade of dull cynicism, to the elder Sir Pitt, who, from a consciously cynical point of view, affects to disregard them, to his needy brother and sister-in-law at the rectory, to his genially malicious sister at Brighton and to his intolerable son, the would-be statesman and stupid tyrant of his household. With rank as its only asset, the house of Bareacres can ruin its creditors with impunity. Lord Steyne’s rank and wealth excuse his vices to a lenient world. Upon this point, the analyst of snobbery laid almost excessive emphasis. The spectacle of earthen pots competing in the same stream with stouter vessels is attractive to the critical onlooker, and the progress of so finely wrought a masterpiece as Becky, fatal to objects of less well tempered clay, must be arrested by a collision to which it can offer no resistance. Against lord Steyne’s invulnerable hardness and selfishness, aided by their external advantages, Becky cannot hope to compete successfully. It was her greatest mistake and misfortune that she could not keep out of his way. It has become customary to contrast Steyne unfavourably with Disraeli’s more urbane portrait of lord Monmouth in Coningsby, principally because the same nobleman suggested both pictures. Beyond this historical identity there is not much ground for the antithesis. Steyne plays a part in Vanity Fair which could not have been played by Disraeli’s accomplished patron of the arts and profound man of the world, the connoisseur, not the slave, of passion. It was necessary to make him something of a monster, to exaggerate his callous sensuality, to accentuate his repulsive features and his hoarse “brava.” At the same time, it cost Thackeray some trouble to reconcile the satyr whose vices meet with poetic justice in the famous scene with Becky and Rawdon, and the tyrant who bullies his wife and daughter with a vulgarity more suited to Mr. Osborne, with the nobleman of birth and breeding who played some part in the history of his time, and, even in the hour of his decay, sat at prince Polonia’s table, “a greater prince than any there.” The irony with which his death is recorded, with the full parade of his honours and titles, is stinging enough in the vehemence with which it pours scorn upon greatness without goodness; but it reminds us, also, that Steyne’s position, in the eyes of the world, could hardly have been achieved without some qualities to compensate for the insolent debauchery which has been offered hitherto for our exclusive contemplation.
While humour, at its best, is as keenly conscious of the pathos, as of the ludicrous aspect, of life, the humourist’s sense of the ludicrous, as we have seen in the case of The Great Hoggarty Diamond, is apt to check his unreserved appreciation of the pathetic. A betrayed and suffering Clarissa was beyond Thackeray: the Little Sister of Philip, his nearest approach to this type of character, has an appreciation of comedy which goes far to compensate her for her misfortunes. Where his virtuous personages are without a sense of comedy, they are without heroic qualities. They submit too readily to circumstances: they lay themselves down willingly to be passed over by the less scrupulous. It may be suspected that Thackeray originally intended to make Amelia as consistently lovable as her schoolfellows found her. But, as the character developed, it resisted all his efforts to conceal the growing distaste which he felt for its insipidity, and he took no pains to protect her against the inevitable contrast with Becky. As a family, the Sedleys, who live easily in the sunshine, offer no resistance to misfortune; and Amelia, widowed and reduced to a narrow existence, loses her charm. When Thackeray mentions her with affection, it is with the perfunctory appreciation which the conscientious person feels it right to pay to deserving characters with whom he is out of sympathy. No good intentions can conceal that she is stupid. With regard to her long-suffering admirer Dobbin, while Thackeray rated his constancy and self-effacement at their full value, he laid excessive stress upon his awkwardness and shyness. It is one thing to be reminded that the unpolished Dobbin is of more sterling worth than the graceful George Osborne, that he is a gentleman and Osborne is not; but the contrast is pressed home too hard. The very name Dobbin is against any exalted exhibition of heroism; and, while it is honest William’s fate to feel too deeply, his outward man is always getting in the way and affording material for the satire or impatience of less obtrusive and more superficially accomplished people. Again, lady Jane Crawley has too much of the silly simplicity of the animal alluded to in her maiden name. She rises to the occasion when her brother-in-law needs her help, but her conduct in that famous scene is strikingly at variance with her usual passivity, and the transformation which it works upon the brutalised Rawdon is almost as surprising as one of those passages in Beaumont and Fletcher or Massinger, where the pure heroine confounds the ruffian of the piece by an unexpected assertion of her persuasive influence. When she follows up this action by daring to defy Sir Pitt, she is less of a ministering angel and more of a woman; but, even then, her show of temper is hardly in keeping with the abnormal docility with which she bears the yoke of her marriage to a fool. Thackeray’s susceptibility to the inherent beauty of the common relationships and duties of daily life is declared in many passages of exquisite prose, which turn the laughter of one moment into the tears of the next; but, in dealing with characters which depend for their life upon their capacity for such sentiment, he was hampered by the uncomfortable consciousness that it is from similar material that the cheap effects of sentimental fiction are produced. And the sentimental reader, feeling this restraint and failing to see the open dislike of mere sickliness and lachrymosity which causes it, attributes it to a persistent tendency to underrate goodness, and dismisses Thackeray as a cynic laughing in his sleeve at qualities of which this type of critic can appreciate only the unreal shadow.