Vanity Fair asks that we accept the affection that the novelist-narrator feels for the creatures of the Fair, animated as they are by his hand, as more than exemplars and object lessons. Thackeray’s novel is an argument that shallowness and hypocrisy do not preclude deep feeling and suffering; anyone can be a victim and it is not, on its own, a guarantee of moral status, and might even command the sympathetic powers of a novelist, who is himself capable of hypocrisy.
The sympathetic powers of Thackeray are at one with the training his eye and mind received in Vanity Fair: he knows where to look and how to look. What’s more, he knows how to speak and to speak around. Euphemism, not announced, lurks within the words, as characters speak and as Thackeray narrates. The set of curved brackets known as parentheses is the crucial punctuation device for Thackeray because it glances, askew or beneath, at something that might be missed, at something that might not be said outright, or that cannot be said directly.
Thackeray is sentimental when he forgets that Dobbins and Amelia are of the Fair themselves, when he lets his sympathy for their kindness blind him to their blindness, their complicity, their own Vanity; he is sentimental when he makes them alien to their, and his, world, rather than merely unusual specimens of it.
The novel contains several icons of tragedy—an illustration of Abraham and Isaac is the frontispiece to the Osborne family Bible; a sculpture of Iphigenia sits on the clock in the Osborne living room—but the icons are not representative of the underlying tragedy of the novel so much as the society’s attitude towards tragedy: it is ornamental, distant, even when it ought to bear down on them. Thackeray faces the possibility of tragedy but insists, in an ironic extension of the attitudes of the society he depicts, that his is a purely comic and satirical novel. He does not acknowledge how devastating its vision is, and that is because his narration preserves the established perspective of Vanity Fair, which would satirize without fully reckoning the damage done, and which cannot sustain its attention on loss and suffering long enough for the tragic to be felt. But that narrative perspective is itself ironic; by presenting itself as of the Fair, and by knowing the Fair’s limits and failings by its means, the narration presents its own failings, allows us to see around them, and sometimes sees around them itself.
The question for the novel is a question for any society: to what extent is self-critique possible from within a world, an ideology, a code of values. Dobbins and Amelia, at their best, dramatize the extent to which Vanity Fair can know and criticize itself; the narrator likewise. The trade-off of the narrator’s inside perspective of the fair, the knowing turns of phrase and casually careful navigation of its baubles and foibles, is that it cannot, from such a vantage, provide a fully devastating critique. But the novel recognizes that trade-off, asks that we accept it because to know the Fair we need, to some extent, to know it as it knows itself—even if that means evading its tragic potential by its own evasions of thought and feeling.
As evasive as anything is what it means, in the novel, to be a “gentleman”—but as vexed as it is right to assume the word to be for any Victorian author and reader, Vanity Fair does not succumb to worrying that the word means little, or much; it is not gentlemanly to do so, not gentlemanly to fret over the evasiveness of the Fair’s measures of value, and Thackeray’s narrator is a gentleman of the Fair.
As a whole, the novel is evasive, as its anti-heroine, Becky Sharp, is evasive; as the wonderfully animated scenes of dialogue are evasive; as pleasure is evasive and moral reckoning and self-reflecting are evasive; as desire and fortune are evasive; there is often something left out, and the formal innovation is often a consequence of Thackeray’s cutting so suddenly and seamlessly from one scene to another, in the middle of a chapter, from a glancing sarcasm to a straight description, from a classical diction to a Regency slang. One period, not a sentence but a compound of phrases and clauses sometimes without full stop, will fill an entire paragraph, but does so by skipping and spinning through thought, feeling, judgment, description, action and speech, of the characters and then of the narrator, and then of the reader. The function is not speed of attention, but turns of the head, not to celebrate or admire or blame or pity too much; and then, suddenly, something has accrued, and the characters have solidity and depth, the world of the novel is full.
What happens when the attention settles, when the very Victorian moral attention of the Victorian Thackeray is allowed to rest in the Regency he purports to recall:
There was a picture of the family over the mantelpiece, removed thither from the front room after Mrs. Osborne’s death—George was on a pony, the elder sister holding him up a bunch of flowers; the younger led by her mother’s hand; all with red cheeks and large red mouths, simpering on each other in the approved family-portrait manner. The mother lay underground now, long since forgotten—the sisters and brother had a hundred different interests of their own, and, familiar still, were utterly estranged from each other. Some few score of years afterwards, when all the parties represented are grown old, what bitter satire there is in those flaunting childish family-portraits, with their farce of sentiment and smiling lies, and innocence so self-conscious and self-satisfied. Osborne’s own state portrait, with that of his great silver inkstand and arm-chair, had taken the place of honour in the dining-room, vacated by the family-piece.
To this study old Osborne retired then, greatly to the relief of the small party whom he left. When the servants had withdrawn, they began to talk for a while volubly but very low; then they went upstairs quietly, Mr. Bullock accompanying them stealthily on his creaking shoes. He had no heart to sit alone drinking wine, and so close to the terrible old gentleman in the study hard at hand.
An hour at least after dark, the butler, not having received any summons, ventured to tap at his door and take him in wax candles and tea. The master of the house sate in his chair, pretending to read the paper, and when the servant, placing the lights and refreshment on the table by him, retired, Mr. Osborne got up and locked the door after him. This time there was no mistaking the matter; all the household knew that some great catastrophe was going to happen which was likely direly to affect Master George.
In the large shining mahogany escritoire Mr. Osborne had a drawer especially devoted to his son’s affairs and papers. Here he kept all the documents relating to him ever since he had been a boy: here were his prize copy-books and drawing-books, all bearing George’s hand, and that of the master: here were his first letters in large round-hand sending his love to papa and mamma, and conveying his petitions for a cake. His dear godpapa Sedley was more than once mentioned in them. Curses quivered on old Osborne’s livid lips, and horrid hatred and disappointment writhed in his heart, as looking through some of these papers he came on that name. They were all marked and docketed, and tied with red tape. It was—”From Georgy, requesting 5s., April 23, 18—; answered, April 25″—or “Georgy about a pony, October 13″—and so forth. In another packet were “Dr. S.’s accounts”—”G.’s tailor’s bills and outfits, drafts on me by G. Osborne, jun.,” &c.—his letters from the West Indies—his agent’s letters, and the newspapers containing his commissions: here was a whip he had when a boy, and in a paper a locket containing his hair, which his mother used to wear.
Turning one over after another, and musing over these memorials, the unhappy man passed many hours. His dearest vanities, ambitious hopes, had all been here. What pride he had in his boy! He was the handsomest child ever seen. Everybody said he was like a nobleman’s son. A royal princess had remarked him, and kissed him, and asked his name in Kew Gardens. What City man could show such another? Could a prince have been better cared for? Anything that money could buy had been his son’s. He used to go down on speech-days with four horses and new liveries, and scatter new shillings among the boys at the school where George was: when he went with George to the depot of his regiment, before the boy embarked for Canada, he gave the officers such a dinner as the Duke of York might have sat down to. Had he ever refused a bill when George drew one? There they were—paid without a word. Many a general in the army couldn’t ride the horses he had! He had the child before his eyes, on a hundred different days when he remembered George after dinner, when he used to come in as bold as a lord and drink off his glass by his father’s side, at the head of the table—on the pony at Brighton, when he cleared the hedge and kept up with the huntsman—on the day when he was presented to the Prince Regent at the levee, when all Saint James’s couldn’t produce a finer young fellow. And this, this was the end of all!—to marry a bankrupt and fly in the face of duty and fortune! What humiliation and fury: what pangs of sickening rage, balked ambition and love; what wounds of outraged vanity, tenderness even, had this old worldling now to suffer under!
Having examined these papers, and pondered over this one and the other, in that bitterest of all helpless woe, with which miserable men think of happy past times—George’s father took the whole of the documents out of the drawer in which he had kept them so long, and locked them into a writing-box, which he tied, and sealed with his seal. Then he opened the book-case, and took down the great red Bible we have spoken of a pompous book, seldom looked at, and shining all over with gold. There was a frontispiece to the volume, representing Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Here, according to custom, Osborne had recorded on the fly-leaf, and in his large clerk-like hand, the dates of his marriage and his wife’s death, and the births and Christian names of his children. Jane came first, then George Sedley Osborne, then Maria Frances, and the days of the christening of each. Taking a pen, he carefully obliterated George’s names from the page; and when the leaf was quite dry, restored the volume to the place from which he had moved it. Then he took a document out of another drawer, where his own private papers were kept; and having read it, crumpled it up and lighted it at one of the candles, and saw it burn entirely away in the grate. It was his will; which being burned, he sate down and wrote off a letter, and rang for his servant, whom he charged to deliver it in the morning. It was morning already: as he went up to bed, the whole house was alight with the sunshine; and the birds were singing among the fresh green leaves in Russell Square.
Here all the speed circles tightly and does not evade; we glimpse another novel entirely from the one we have read, but do not enter that novel; the spell of Vanity Fair remains cast over the narrator, holding him clear of ponderousness, but not so strong that it prevents him from seeing the “bitter satire” that inheres in the Fair itself, of which he is a part and which he needs but to present on its own terms, in its own terms, to condemn—and which he can nonetheless quicken towards, nostalgic, affectionate, even when sickened by its little knowing itself. Thackeray grows queasy, not indignant, perhaps owing to his suspicion that he is compounded of the same failings.