254. (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Thackeray’s Vanity Fair doubles that charge: the novel is braced by a simultaneous awareness of Regency and Victorian foibles, of Regency and Victorian hypocrisy, and Regency and Victorian euphemism (I shorten early-mid Victorian to “Victorian” throughout; I refer to the Regency and also the rein of George IV as “Regency”). In that double-ness lies its singularity: a sense for the history of satirical judgment itself, a sense of the shifts in what can and cannot be tolerated, and of how condemnation for the tolerable can and cannot proceed, if it is itself not to be found guilty of participating in other vices of its age. All satire worth the name must open itself to the possibility of being found, by later ages, symptomatic of the worst excesses and blindness of the age it would satire; the satirist hand is as good a literary case of the dyer’s hand as can be found. In Vanity Fair, however, Thackeray mounts a defense, representing the Regency on the one hand and the Victorian on the other as two extreme climates in which satire can flourish, just as both are climates in which “Vanity Fair” (the place, the life) thrives: the callous sensual selfishness of the Regency is denounced by the sentiment of the Victorian era; the self-blinding self-indulgence of Victorian feeling (i.e. “Sympathy”) is held up to devastating scrutiny by the Regency’s acerbically honest acceptance of self-interest. Running ironically in the other direction, the Regency’s toleration for vice (as the novel presents it) softens its bite against Victorian hypocrisy, whereas the Victorian’s craving for pathos finds tragic intimations in the fall of Regency figures. The Impermanence of the Satirist’s Code is acknowledged and then put to work, a device as well as subject of the novel.

I am curious as to how much of the Regency-Victorian doubleness is reflected in the novel’s language, much of which must be, whether novel at the time or set in new directions on an old axis, slang: are the novel’s slang-y turns of phrase Regency or Victorian? Unfortunately, the John Sutherland/Oscar Mandel Annotations to Vanity Fair are not as helpful as I would have liked; they favor concrete and proper nouns over verbs and verb phrases, and among the nouns, do not provide much information as to their relative cultural and social status between the Regency and Victorian eras.

The level of language, and individual words and phrases, seems the right place to pursue the question, in part because Thackeray himself makes so much of it in the novel: not only is he keenly attuned to the speech-patterns of characters relative to accent, diction, and class, but he can range knowingly from the semi-fictitious classicism of the aristocracy to the prolonged and upwards-scampering adoration of Johnson’s Dictionary, from the language of the military club to the language of the drawing room. Another reason for thinking that much could be gained from a study of words is Thackeray’s acknowledged inventiveness—which must at the least be an ear for what was recently and most voguishly invented. The Oxford Dictionaries blog tells us that Thackeray is the 46th most quoted author, providing earliest listings for many words. (https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/07/18/thackeray/). We hear most about “snob” but there are surely others, and whether or not they have caught on is less to the point than whether he was capable of shifting his slang from Regency to Victorian. The OED might be some help, but only some because it would not record who used the words: what sort of person, what sort of occasion. The first appearance of a word in a work by Thackeray is of less interest here than his distinctly placing a word where we would or would not expect to find it.

For instance, in Chapter 39, we are told that Old Sir Pitt “quarrelled with his agents and screwed his tenants by letter.” That sense of “screwed” had been in use since the mid-17th century and was not a novelty when Thackeray wrote. At the same time, his use of it is sufficiently distinctive that the OED cites it under heading 18 b (“b. To oppress or exploit (a person, esp. a tenant) by exacting rent, taxes, or other payments. Also with out of: to deprive (a person) of something by extortion or other unfair means”). This is the sense of the word we are accustomed to hearing today when someone exclaims that they’ve been “screwed.”

But to read Thackeray’s phrase against the others is to hear in it an overtone that others lack:

a1643   W. Cartwright Ordinary (1651) v. iii. 79   You’re wont to skrew your wretched Tenants up To th’ utmost farthing.

1658   R. Allestree Pract. Christian Graces; or, Whole Duty of Man xi. §9. 234   Landlords, who..rack and skrew them beyond the worth of the thing.

1720   Swift Proposal Use Irish Manuf. 14   Our Country Landlords, who by unmeasurable Screwing and Racking their Tenants all over the Kingdom, have already reduced the miserable People to a worse Condition than the Peasants in France.

1792   E. Burke Corr. (1844) IV. 80   The system of laws which..had screwed the Roman Catholics out of their landed property.

1838   Lett. fr. Madras (1843) 225   They are so screwed by taxes,..that they never have a farthing in hand.

1847   Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) xxxix. 356   He quarrelled with his agents, and screwed his tenants by letter.

1905   Parl. Deb. 4th Ser. 147 1308/2   We had been able to screw the people of India to the uttermost farthing for military charges.

1979   D. J. Rindels Let. 2 Dec. in Occup. Health Hazards Older Workers New Mexico: Hearing before U.S. Senate Special Comm. Aging (96th Congr. 1st Sess.) (1980) App. 2. 88   I feel like I was screwed out of what my husband gave his life for.

2013   Northern Light (Anchorage, Alaska) (Nexis) 10 July (Features section) 1   The mythical landlord who will screw tenants out of slightly less money than the next guy.

Thackeray’s phrase is strange because of the “by letter.” It seems to me that “screw by letter” must have the suggestion of harass, as well as extort; that it does not imply that Old Pitt is receiving extra rent any more than “quarrel” implies that he is winning arguments. It may very well be the case that there is some joke here, that Thackeray is playing at Old Pitt’s expense, since “screwing by letter” implies that he is too lazy to enforce the rents in person; it may also be that “by letter” has a meaning that I’ve lost, such as “by the letter of contracts that he sends out.” But it seems truer to say that Thackeray here is combining what the OED gives as 18b with what they offer as 15b: “ b. To force or extort (money, etc.) out of or from a person or thing. Also more generally: to get (something) out of a person by putting him or her under pressure.” This meaning was common also at the time; the dictionary cites Nicholas Nickleby.

The argument is not that Thackeray is being innovative; quite the opposite. The flippant ease of the phrasing suggests instead that Thackeray parrots, that “screw by letter” is a shortened version of “turned the screw on them by letter” and that this short form, containing 15b and 18b, was at hand for Thackeray, a particle in the air he breathed. He dispenses with it because it is fitting to Old Pitt’s world; this is the sort of thing that landlords do. Or is it the sort of thing that landlords in Regency England especially did? I am wondering whether the phrase might not have delivered to the Victorian ear an echo of the past. I have no answer, but only want to raise the point that Thackeray is turning a phrase distinct from the OED headings, even though it is classed under one.

Another instance, in Chapter 54, where Col. Macmurdo remembers the officers discussing Becky Sharp over dinner at the mess: “”Think of his only finding her out now,” the Captain thought to himself, and remembered a hundred particular conversations at the mess-table, in which Mrs. Crawley’s reputation had been torn to shreds.”

“Reputation had been torn to shreds” is now a flat cliché. But would the extension from the physical to the abstract (her reputation) have been novel in the 1840s, or before? Again, the OED:

  1. in, into shreds: in or into small fragments. to tear to shreds(also, shred by shred): to rend into small pieces; figurative to destroy, annihilate.

c1400   Melayne 1093   Hawberkes sone in schredis were schorne.

1762   W. Falconer Shipwreck ii. 18   ‘Brail up the mizen quick!’ the Master cries: ‘Mann the clue-garnetts, let the main-sheet fly!’ In thousand shiv’ring shreds it rends on high!

1813   Scott Rokeby vi. 300   ‘Give Oswald’s letter’—Bertram read, And tore it fiercely, shred by shred.

1819   Keats Why did I laugh To-night? 12   Yet would I..the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds.

1837   T. Carlyle French Revol. I. vi. iii. 320   A Townhall torn to shreds.

1855   R. Browning Fra Lippo Lippi in Men & Women I. 38   Into shreds it went, Curtain and counterpane and coverlet.

1878   W. E. H. Lecky Hist. Eng. 18th Cent. I. i. 25   Lewis tore to shreds the treaty he had signed.

1903   ‘S. G. Tallentyre’ Life Voltaire II. xxxix. 217   It tore Vernet’s reputation to shreds.

From a cursory search of Google Books between 1810 and 1860, the phrase “tear to shreds” is affixed to “sophistry,” “remnants of the monarchy,” “teachings,” “God’s whole creation,” and “webs.”  “Torn to shreds” turns up entirely clothing objects.

What does such a brief search entail? That Thackeray was here being daring, or that Becky’s clothes are intimately intimated, or that there was something current but not so ubiquitous as to be cliché—slang in other words? I do not know but once again, the use of the phrase does not fit easily with those around it, either Victorian or Regency.

The final class of words that would have to be considered by a real scholar are those surrounding euphemism. With euphemism, I think Thackeray’s understanding of what an audience would have found in a word is as significant as its official senses: the Regency might have heard euphemism where the Victorians heard none. Take “parley.” We are told, in Chapter 14, of Becky: “She left the room before Rawdon went away that day; but they met by chance below, as he was going away after taking leave, and had a parley together.” We know that they will marry, but it is difficult not to think also that Becky and Rawdon may have done more than marry before they married, and that the breeze of “had a parley together,” the brevity of the act on the eve of his departure, may have suggested, to some, that they quickly copulated. As the Monty Python sketch shows, anything can be accompanied by a wink and a nudge; but as it also shows, not anything can persuasively be thus accompanied. The dictionary is not especially helpful in letting us know what words can and cannot be nudged and winked.

The shift of attitudes towards satire between Regency and Victorian England is thoroughly-discussed in Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter (which takes as its focus the eighteenth century). Among Gatrell’s witnesses to the change is Thackeray himself, whose 1854 review essay, appearing in the Quarterly Review, on Pictures of Life and Character by John Leech. Leech was a friend of Thackeray’s from youth, attending Charterhouse (a.k.a. “Slaughterhouse”) school with him; he was then an illustrator alongside Thackeray, when the latter wrote for Punch in the 1840s, and though Leech stayed on after Thackeray’s departure, he does not seem to have borne the illustrator any grudge at retaining an allegiance that he had lost.

When Victorian students are introduced to George Eliot, they are often given, alongside Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, her review essay on The Natural History of German Life. That essay, we are told, sets us on the path to understanding her intentions as a novelist (Eliot’s intentions and ambitions are discussed at greater length than those of most Victorian novelists). For a reader being introduced to Thackeray and Vanity Fair, the review essay of Leech’s Pictures of Life and Character. In it, Thackeray surveys the scene of satirical illustration and asks what has changed since his childhood, which itself had seen changes since the great days of the 18th century, though still in possession of collected illustrations and attitudes from that earlier century. The ribald, the violent, the sexual, and the grotesque have, Thackeray wistfully notices, diminished since those days, to be replaced by something kinder, more wholesome and familial, which he associates with the absence of caning in schools and which he finds in the illustrations of Leech, wholly suitable as they are for the peeping eyes of the young (as the naughtier of the satirical prints of the Regency and the 18th century masters were not). A transformation has occurred, Thackeray writes, exemplified in the transformation of Cruikshank, whose earliest works were produced under that earlier regime of light libertinism.

The earlier era Thackeray characterizes in a dazzling phrasing:

We swiftly turn over those prohibited pages. How many of them there were in the wild, coarse, reckless, ribald, generous book of old English humor. How savage the satire was—how fierce the assault—what garbage hurled at opponents—what language of Billingsgate flung! Fancy a party in a country house now looking over Woodward’s facetiae or some of the Gillray comicalities, or the slatternly Saturnalia of Rowlandson! Whilst we live we must laugh, and have folks to make us laugh. We cannot afford to lose Satyr with his pipes and dances and gambols. We have washed, combed, clothed, and taught the rogue good manners; or rather, let us say, he has learned them himself; for he is of nature soft and kindly, and he has put aside his mad pranks and tipsy habits; and, frolicsome always, has become gentle and harmless, smitten into shame by the pure presence of our women and the sweet confiding smiles of our children.

 It may be that that in this Thackeray is siding decidedly with the Regency, mourning what has been lost and mocking gently the effects of the “pure presence” and “sweet confiding smiles.” But those phrases, sickly sweet with canned Victorian ideology of the household, are not entirely bristles against which Thackeray’s comic sensibility runs—the essay turns to an appreciation of, with some hesitation, the later work of George Cruikshank, and then, with more wholehearted aplomb, that of John Leech, whose work falls squarely out of the Regency spirit of Satyr. Thackeray is not sarcastic when he proclaims that Leech’s book is “an enduring plum-cake from which you may eat and which you may slice and deliver to your friends.” There is, I think, genuine force of admiration in Thackeray’s later account of Leech’s eye for detail, and his understanding of the subject matter he draws.

Reading this far into the review, I paused, for Thackeray elevates Leech at the expense of Gillray, whose work he has praised, and whose work has endured. Is Thackeray in the least bit disingenuous when he complains that Gillray fails to satirize the Prince of Wales on account of his not realizing that the Prince of Wales would not eat with a two-pronged fork:

The man of genius who drew that picture saw little of the society which he satirised and amused. Gillray watched public characters as they walked by the shop in St. James’ Street, or passed through the lobby of the House of Commons. His studio was a garret, or little better; his place of amusement, a tavern-parlour where his club held its nightly sittings over their pipes and sanded floor…A social painter must be of the world which he depicts and native to the manners which he displays. Now, anyone who looks over Mr. Leech’s portfolio must see that the social pictures which he gives us are authentic…

 Could Thackeray stand behind these words with his full experience? “Must” the social painter be of the world which he depicts. Perhaps Thackeray believes that to be the case, in which case, however, there is no satirizing the upper reaches of the aristocracy…On the other hand, if we are to read the passage as entirely ironic, as a sarcasm launched upon his friend, then the joke is so private as to remain invisible, present only by inference from what Thackeray has written…the passage seems a muddle…seems proof at the least that Thackeray’s appreciation for satire could not but be dyed by the age from which he satirized.

The muddle is the point; it is a muddle that Thackeray was perhaps uniquely able to feel and to make something of, most fully in the satire of Vanity Fair: it is a muddle that arises through the suspension of Thackeray’s mind between the past and the present, between a sense of regret and a sense of Victorian triumphalism, between a sadness at the fact of change and an easy acceptance of it. The review is, most of all, a symptom of the understanding that the fact of changing attitudes towards satire is not in itself worth satirizing—that there is no person to blame for the fact of change, even if one can mock those whose celebration or denunciation of change is false or malign.

When Thackeray looks fondly back on the savagery and hurling of garbage, and writes of “the wild, coarse, reckless, ribald, generous book of old English humor,” the word that ought to catch the attention is the last in the adjectival volley: “generous.” In that word, Thackeray must mean something both Victorian and recognizable to his readers, whose understanding he besought, and also something at home in the Regency, now lost to the Victorians, by whose standards the old satire would be thought indecent and improper, hardly proper to the public side of the gentleman’s code of conduct.  The word “generous” does not probably mean anything radically different; but it is like a particular window in a long-standing edifice, looking out now on one landscape and now on another. It changes because of what it takes in. Thackeray’s satire does the same, taking in both views at once, and so neither entirely at all; it becomes something greater than either.


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