Page references for ‘Dombey’ are to the Penguin Classics edition, ed. Peter Fairclough and intr. Raymond Williams. Sorry this is not the edition most of you have, but I’ve supplied chapter references. The ‘Vanity Fair’ page and chapter numbers are from the World’s Classics edition, ed. John Sutherland (Oxford, 1983), which includes Thackeray’s own often useful and entertaining illustrations. (Several are included below and they are easily available online.) Some references to other material are less precise than I’d like – although there is plenty of good stuff online, the lockdown has prevented me from checking some things at the University Library, especially the full text of both authors’ letters.
Thackeray tells his mother, on 7 January 1848, that Vanity Fair has made him ‘a sort of great man in my way – all but at the top of the tree: indeed there if the truth were known and having a great fight up there with Dickens’. His novel and Dombey and Son were being serialised concurrently by the same publisher, Bradbury and Evans – Dombey, in green covers, between October 1846 and April 1848 and Vanity Fair, in yellow covers, between January 1847 and July 1848. Dickens was already immensely successful and the green covers massively outsold the yellow. The press run was usually at least 32,000, going up to 33,000 after the death of Paul (number 5) and again after Edith’s flight (number 17) and reaching 35,000 for the final double number. In the meantime sales of Vanity Fair rarely went above 5000 and Bradbury and Evans lost money on it. (The figures are from Robert L. Patten’s 1970 article in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900.) It did, however, sell much better when it was reissued as a bound volume – Patten points out that this suggests ‘a more affluent audience’ and perhaps one which only discovered the novel, possibly from reviews, late in the serial
run. Obviously Dickens remained better known and made more money and probably, as Patten says, Thackeray’s belief that Dickens was jealous of the success of Vanity Fair was unfounded. On the other hand, even some readers usually well disposed to Dickens’s work put Thackeray’s novel ‘at the top of the tree’. Jane Carlyle said that it ‘beats Dickens out of the world’, William Charles Macready that it is ‘second to none of the present day, which is an admission I make almost grudgingly for Dickens’s sake, but the truth is the truth’.
The careers of the two novelists overlapped and sometimes intersected. They were born in 1811 and 1812. They first met in 1836 when Thackeray, who originally set out to become a painter, applied to illustrate Pickwick Papers; the job went instead to Hablôt K. Browne (‘Phiz’). Thackeray, later describing this as ‘Mr Pickwick’s lucky escape’, took his rejection as confirmation that he should make writing his primary career. Like Dickens, he made a name for himself in journalism, most successfully in his comic squibs and sketches. They both loved Paris; Thackeray wrote a Paris Sketch- Book and describes a ridiculous French stage version of Nicholas Nickleby much the way Dickens might have described a Crummles company production. Catherine, a Story (1839-40), about an eighteenth-century murderer, parodies the ‘Newgate Novels’ of Bulwer-Lytton and Harrison Ainsworth – and to some extent Oliver Twist. The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), like Pickwick and Nickleby, has strong picaresque elements. Dickens toured with his readings and Thackeray, less excitingly but ably enough, with his lectures. (He liked America more than Dickens did; habitually more of a racist, he enjoyed his reception in the southern states and concluded – of course he was far from the only Victorian to think so – that the slaves were generally rather happy with their lot; few today can read comfortably about Miss Swartz or ‘Black Sambo’ in Vanity Fair.) Both men had marital problems. Thackeray rather neglected his wife, Isabella, going off on continental jaunts without her. But when she developed serious mental problems following the birth of their third child in 1840 he did everything he could – partly fuelled by guilt, no doubt – to help her. She couldn’t be left alone because she often tried to kill herself. She couldn’t be left with their small daughters. In the end, in 1845, Thackeray decided that she must be looked after away from the family. (For discussion of Dickens’s unfounded suggestion of his wife Catherine’s mental incapacity see Christine Corton’s paper ‘Edith Dombey: Degrees of Separation’, pp. 21-4.) True to his marriage vows – and see Christine’s paper again for how difficult divorce could be – he seems to have met no Ellen Ternan. He had female friends and a passionate, allegedly platonic, love for the married Jane Brookfield.
Physically the two writers were very different. Thackeray was a big man, tall, heavy, short- sighted, broken-nosed ever since a fight at Charterhouse. No doubt he moved more ponderously than the lively Dickens and it’s difficult to imagine him acting, though in fact he was involved in theatricals at school, at Cambridge and later. One of the main reasons for the undoubted tension between them was, of course, class. Thackeray’s family were involved in the church, the army and India. More particularly, Dickens the energetic self-made man and industrious earner may have resented both Thackeray’s inherited wealth and the fact that, through a mixture of gambling and financial misfortune, he had contrived to lose most of it. Thackeray thought of himself as a gentleman and could strike some who met him as cold, casual or flippant. Charlotte Brontë, having lauded, in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, the ‘Greek fire of his sarcasm’ and his role as ‘the first social regenerator of the day’’, was very disappointed when she met him. He lacked Dickens’s charisma and the bad impression he sometimes made was as much, probably, because he lacked self-confidence as because he felt himself superior. To his friends, who included Alfred Tennyson and later Anthony Trollope, he seemed warm and generous. The journalist and novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who was acquainted with both novelists, felt that ‘Thackeray, who saw the faults and frailties of human nature so clearly, was the gentlest-hearted, most generous, most loving of men. Dickens, whose whole mind went to almost morbid tenderness and sympathy, was infinitely less plastic, less self-giving, less personally sympathetic’ (My Literary Life ).
Arguably, as the first part of Linton’s remark suggests, Thackeray’s view of society in Vanity Fair is wholly cynical. It proclaims Vanitas Vanitatum (end of the last chapter), its subtitle is ‘a Novel without a Hero’, and in a letter of September 1848 he says that his object ‘is to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people … I want to leave every body dissatisfied and unhappy at the end of the story’. His aim can, however, be seen as moral rather than cynical. Trollope (Thackeray ) insists that he instructs as well as amuses, that ‘the physic is always curative and never poisonous’. Like Dickens, Thackeray condemns hypocrisy, self- deception, the abuse of power. But some people have always preferred Dickens’s more optimistic approach, what John Forster calls his ‘large cordiality’ and Chesterton his habit of ‘always looking forward to tomorrow’ while ‘Thackeray is always looking back to yesterday’. Some have always preferred Dickens’s extravagance – Squeers, Spontaneous Combustion – to Thackeray’s often more realistic manner. But if we have no Cambridge Thackeray Fellowship, no Makepeace not war tee- shirts, it’s mainly because while Dickens produced a substantial body of major novels between the mid-1830s and his death in 1870, Vanity Fair stands almost alone. There are some good things in Thackeray’s later novels but mostly they lack the inventiveness, satirical verve and sheer readability of his masterpiece. Above all they lack Becky Sharp.
What happens in Vanity Fair
For anyone who hasn’t read the novel recently, here is an attempt to summarise the plot. Rebecca Sharp goes to stay with the wealthy Amelia Sedley after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s school. Rebecca, having failed to entice Amelia’s brother, Jos, into marriage, becomes governess to the daughters of Sir Pitt Crawley, a boorish Hampshire baronet. She delights him and manages his affairs so well that eventually he proposes to her; as she tells him, however, she is already married. The revelation that her husband is Captain Rawdon Crawley, Sir Pitt’s younger son, costs her and Rawdon the legacy they were hoping to wheedle out of Sir Pitt’s sister, Miss Crawley. Meanwhile Amelia’s father has gone bankrupt; Mr Osborne, the successful businessman who was once Mr Sedley’s protégé, orders his son, Lieutenant (later Captain) George Osborne, to break with Amelia, whom he has been intended to marry since childhood. George, though he is far from the noble character Amelia believes, is persuaded by his friend Captain – later Major and Colonel – William Dobbin that he must in honour defy his father and go ahead with the marriage. (Dobbin is himself hopelessly in love with Amelia.) George neglects Amelia, flirts with Becky, and loses money playing billiards against Rawdon. And then most of the main characters go to Belgium, where George and Rawdon are among those who will fight at Waterloo. George makes an assignation with Becky but is called away when the French army advances, leaving Amelia to weep and pray for him while Becky makes practical plans for survival (if Rawdon dies) and fleeces Jos and others trying to flee when they think the battle has been lost. It has not; but, in a single, horrifying sentence at the end of chapter 32 – number 9 of the serialisation – we hear that ‘Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart’.
Amelia enters a state of profound grief and depression, alleviated only by the birth of her son, young George or Georgy. Living with her financially distressed parents, she is eventually persuaded, against all her instincts, to accept old Mr Osborne’s proposal that the boy should go and live with him – his rich grandfather. (Osborne thinks he cannot forgive his son, even in death, for defying him, but his deeper emotions become clear when he first hears how like George young Georgy is.) Elsewhere Becky and Rawdon – very much organised by Becky – are demonstrating, as the title of chapter 36 puts it, ‘How to Live Well on Nothing a Year’. They achieve glittering social success while managing not to pay servants and creditors. Becky flatters and tries to manipulate Rawdon’s brother, the younger Sir Pitt, and engages in apparently more serious relations with Lord Steyne. What brings this stage of her career to an end is Rawdon’s arrest for debt. When Becky fails to come and bail him out – she is too busy entertaining Steyne – his sister-in-law, Lady Jane, comes instead with the result that he returns home unexpectedly, strikes Steyne down, forces Becky to return a £1000 cheque about which he knew nothing, and leaves her. Rawdon wants to fight a duel but is packed off as Governor of Coventry Island, leaving behind the son whom he loves, Becky can’t stand, and Lady Jane looks after. (Rawdon later dies of fever.) The action moves forward to a trip to Germany (Pumpernickel, a comical version of the Weimar visited by Thackeray in 1830-1) by Amelia, Georgy – now a teenager and reunited with her – Dobbin and Jos. Georgy is fascinated by a masked gambler who turns out, of course, to be Becky, who has been living on the continent, involved in various dubious practices, for some time. Becky wins her way back into Amelia’s affections and reasserts her hold over Jos. A rift between Amelia and Dobbin is caused mainly by her refusal to countenance his love – she is eternally loyal to George’s memory – and his growing sense that she is ungrateful for his unstinting support and even that his love for her has been misplaced. But the situation is resolved when Becky tells Amelia what George was actually like – she shows her the note he sent her just before Waterloo – and at last she marries Dobbin. Jos remains in Belgium where, it is implied rather than stated, Becky is responsible for his death; she gets an insurance pay-out. At the end of the novel the other characters catch a last glimpse of Becky in yet another incarnation, as a demure and pious lady serving at a charity fair (see the picture on the last page below).
The narrator and others
One distinctive feature of Vanity Fair is the narrator. In the prefatory ‘Before the Curtain’ the ‘Manager of the Performance’ talks about his manipulation of his characters as puppets: the public, he tells us, especially liked the flexible Becky Puppet, ‘lively on the wire’; they thought less of the Amelia Doll but the artist carefully carved and dressed her; the Dobbin Figure ‘though apparently clumsy, dances in a very amusing and natural manner’. ‘Before the Curtain’ was added only when the novel was published in book-form, but it fits with the way, from the beginning, the narrator often intervenes to discuss the genre he is or isn’t writing in or the probable reaction of the public. For instance chapter 1 features a bunch of schoolgirls and their affection for Amelia:
All which details, I have no doubt, JONES, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather flushed with his joint of mutton and half pint of wine), taking out his pencil and scoring under the words “foolish, twaddling,” &c., and adding to them his own remark of “QUITE TRUE.” Well, he is a lofty man of genius, and admires the great and heroic in life and novels; and so had better take warning and go elsewhere.
Perhaps this intervention seems rather heavy-handed; Thackeray will manage such material more subtly as the novel progresses and he gains confidence.
The narrator enjoys digressing and telling us he’s been digressing, in a manner partly derived from Byron’s in Don Juan. To give a flavour: one such passage ends with ‘and the general’s wig has nothing to do with our story’ (chapter 28, p. 343); ‘Many a glass of wine have we all of us drunk, I have very little doubt, hob-and-nobbing with the hospitable giver, and wondering how the deuce he paid for it’ (chapter 36, p. 453). More importantly, he comes in to undercut his own characters or to point up the implications of their conduct. Nobody’s motives are unmixed in Vanity Fair, nobody is a saint – or a devil for that matter, with the possible exception of Lord Steyne (as in ‘Stain’; the recent dramatisation perhaps pronounced him ‘Steen’ because the point seemed too obvious). Amelia is ‘guileless and artless, loving and pure’ (chapter 56). She is vulnerable, easily taken in by George and Becky. She cries a lot. She might have been the heroine of a more sentimental novel; she’s more like some Dickens heroines than Becky. But her devotion to George’s memory is shown as blinkered, she often treats Dobbin insensitively, and she falls out with her parents over Georgy’s upbringing. (Her mother, perfectly kind and reasonable in prosperity, herself becomes querulous and embittered after the Sedleys lose most of their money.) And the narrator won’t let her off: some readers will find her ‘insipid’ (p. 130) and in chapter 59 she has her usual ‘recourse to the waterworks’ (p. 753). She is ‘made by nature for a victim’ (p. 758). When Becky at last, with unusual candour, calls her ‘you silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature’ (p. 866), we can see her point – because we haven’t been allowed to idealise Amelia and because Becky, too, is complicated enough to be inconsistent as she, a practised liar and intriguer and manipulator, now stands up for honest Dobbin and forces Amelia to see what George was really like. The truth Becky forces on her, with her characteristic energy and exactness, is horrid:
‘Couldn’t forget HIM!” cried out Becky, “that selfish humbug, that low-bred cockney dandy, that padded booby, who had neither wit, nor manners, nor heart, and was no more to be compared to your friend with the bamboo cane [Dobbin] than you are to Queen Elizabeth. Why, the man was weary of you, and would have jilted you, but that Dobbin forced him to keep his word. He owned it to me. He never cared for you. He used to sneer about you to me, time after time, and made love to me [not in the modern sense] the week after he married you.’
But the revelation isn’t malicious. It responds to the reader’s frustration on Dobbin’s behalf, it tells the hard truth about George (even if he had some better moments), delivers Amelia from bondage to his memory, and allows Becky to surprise us again, to step outside her own possible stereotype as a worthless schemer. We are all, the narrator often points out, very human, and here he goes on at once to wonder whether Amelia cried from grief at the loss of ‘the idol of her life’, indignation ‘that her love had been so despised’, or gladness that ‘the barrier was removed’ between her and loving Dobbin (pp. 866-9).
As for Dobbin, he changes from something of a clumsy figure of fun in the early chapters to a noble, self-sacrificing figure, almost a hero. (‘”Ah!”’ thinks Becky in chapter 66, ‘”if I could have had such a husband as that—a man with a heart and brains too! I would not have minded his large feet”.’) Thackeray in July 1847 said all the other characters were ‘odious’, also making an exception for Miss Briggs, put-upon underling first of Miss Crawley and then of Becky. (He hadn’t yet fully developed the estimable but human Lady Jane). Thackeray sees him as a true gentleman (p. 792), though his father is a grocer (eventually a prosperous one). He has a touch of Jo Gargery. But even Dobbin is not perfect. He is ‘a spoony’ in his Newfoundland-dog-like devotion to Amelia (p. 844). And after all that devotion their marriage, too, isn’t quite perfect (pp. 877-8; see below).
More now on Rebecca Sharp. Becky flatters and deceives, purloins, betrays, lies, is a disloyal wife and a terrible mother. But she is much stronger and more adaptable than Amelia, and ‘If this is a novel without a hero, at least let us lay claim to a heroine. No man in the British army which has marched away, not the great Duke [Wellington] himself, could be more cool or collected in the presence of doubts and difficulties, than the indomitable little aide-de-camp’s wife’ (p. 369). The ‘little’ may be all too familiar, but at least she’s indomitable with it. In early life, and again later, poverty forces her to be resourceful. Thackeray or his narrator does tell us that’s not a good enough excuse for criminality; some of her victims, on the other hand, deserve to be deceived, like Volpone’s dupes. Nothing daunts her. I particularly like the much later scene in which news reaches Becky and Rawdon of old Sir Pitt’s death. He takes her the letter with her morning chocolate and is bemused when she took up the black-edged missive, and having read it, she jumped up from the chair, crying “Hurray!” and waving the note round her head.
‘Hurray?’ said Rawdon, wondering at the little figure capering about in a streaming flannel dressing-gown, with tawny locks dishevelled. ‘He’s not left us anything, Becky. I had my share when I came of age.’
‘You’ll never be of age, you silly old man,’ Becky replied. ‘Run out now to Madam Brunoy’s, for I must have some mourning: and get a crape on your hat, and a black waistcoat – I don’t think you’ve got one; order it to be brought home to-morrow, so that we may be able to start on Thursday.’
‘You don’t mean to go?’ Rawdon interposed.
‘Of course I mean to go. I mean that Lady Jane shall present me at Court next year. I mean that your brother shall give you a seat in Parliament, you stupid old creature. I mean that Lord Steyne shall have your vote and his, my dear, old silly man; and that you shall be an Irish Secretary, or a West Indian Governor: or a Treasurer, or a Consul, or some such thing’ (chapter 40, pp. 517-18).
Rawdon is slow – ‘Hurray?’ – Becky racing and fizzing with plans, never boring for the reader. She is ‘better than any play he ever saw, by Jove’, said Rawdon earlier, and ‘he believed in his wife as much as the French soldiers believed in Napoleon’ (p. 435) – a note of admiration mixed with the hint that his belief, like the French soldiers’, will turn out to be misplaced. As far as her enemy Dobbin is concerned, she ‘writhes and twists about like a snake’ (p. 352). Sometimes even she is taken in by her own performance, believing, as she goes to court in Steyne’s family carriage, that she is indeed a ‘fine lady’ and forgetting ‘that there was no money in the chest at home – duns round the gate, tradesmen to coax and wheedle’ (p. 600). The narrator informs us, deadpan, as she begins to overreach herself, that it was not her habit ‘to tell falsehoods, except when necessity compelled, but in these great emergencies it was her practice to lie very freely’ (p. 664). I think you can almost compare Becky with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (more aptly than ‘Cleopatra’ Skewton at least!) in her infinite variety and the conflicting things characters have to say about her – ‘she writhes and twists about’ like the Serpent of Old Nile. Thackeray provides an entertaining range of drawings of her, not as Cleopatra but, in the last hundred or so pages alone, as Circe, Napoleon, Mistress Quickly or Doll Tearsheet with a fat Falstaff/Jos, a masked gamblernchanting Georgy, and Clytemnestra (pp. 797, 812, 830, 843, 875).
Thackeray’s view of society is certainly uncomplimentary, whether you see it as cynical, realistic, satirical or partly in line with the religious and moralising tradition of seeing the vanity ofearthly things. (The title alludes to Vanity Fair in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.) The very end of the novel mixes these elements. Having encountered Becky at the charity fair, Dobbin sweeps up his daughter Janey, of whom he is fonder than of anything in the world—fonder even than of his History of the Punjaub.
‘Fonder than he is of me,’ Emmy [Amelia] thinks with a sigh. But he never said a word to Amelia that was not kind and gentle, or thought of a want of hers that he did not try to gratify.
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? – come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
Perhaps the last remarks are cynical but the conclusion as a whole seems to be more balanced, realistic. The long-awaited marriage is not perfect, but ‘Which of us has his desire?’ It could be much worse. (As John Carey says, ‘Mrs Dobbin does not flee to France with a pistol … like Mrs. Dombey’ – in fact she just picks up a knife, but I see his point.) The complexity of family relationships, there through much of the novel, is given its due; does loving a daughter so well mean loving a wife less? Amelia’s own obsessive devotion to the two Georges long prevented her loving, or acknowledging her love for, Dobbin. There is also perhaps a sense of the unfinished, the provisional, as Amelia in effect breaks into the narrator’s reflections with ‘Fonder than he is of me’. Even as we are about to leave her and put away the puppets, she shows herself, and Dobbin, as endearingly human, perhaps now almost as interesting as Becky.
Some comparisons with Dombey and Son
These two huge, rich works share a concern with love and marriage, women, the unsuccessful private life of successful businessmen, how people cope with poverty, the way children are treated, Regency society and survivors from it, loyalty and the lack of it, deception and self-deception.
The parallel between characters most often drawn – first by C.R. Bristed in a review of 1848 – is between Mr Dombey and Mr Osborne. The first may have influenced the second. Both have a seemingly iron belief in themselves and the importance of their (male) family line. In their fixation on their sons, and then in their suppressed grief at losing them, they marginalise or hit out at daughters
– Dombey at Florence, Osborne at his unmarried daughter and particularly his daughter-in-law Amelia. Osborne ‘firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way – and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?’ (p. 444). Both men do, after hundreds of pages, relent, if for rather different reasons. Dickens makes an interesting point about such people in his 1867 preface to the novel: ‘A sense of his injustice is within [Dombey], all along. The more he represses it, the more unjust he necessarily is’. But Dombey is more chilling than the easily angered, bullying Osborne.
Fruitful comparisons could be drawn also between Mrs Skewton and Miss Crawley and perhaps Miss Tox and Miss Briggs. Carker manages and deceives Dombey as Becky does so many people; he is good at making himself indispensable, good at all games – see chapters 26 and 27 – smiling to his victims’ faces and snarling or sneering behind their backs. There are characters with familiar tics and catch-phrases: Mrs Blimber wishes she had known Cicero, Miss Pinkerton lives on the fact that she once met Dr Johnson; Captain Cuttle has his many nautical turns of phrase and Jos Sedley his Indian references from curry to tiger-hunting. (Cuttle’s ship-talk, like his glazed hat, seems to give him strength, channelling deep emotions he cannot always express directly; Jos is much weaker, his Indian references are more self-important and help him hide from a deeper feeling of inadequacy.) Toots has his Game Chicken while young James Crawley is impressed by the Tutbury Pet and the Rottingdean Fibber (chapter 34).
Vanity Fair, unlike Dombey and Son, has a historical setting in the Regency period (1811-20) and on into the Regent’s reign as George IV (1820-30) and just after. Lord Steyne, inspired in part by the debauched 3rd Marquis of Hertford, stands for the decadent court of the time and Becky is presented, through him, to George IV himself. She buys a portrait ‘in which the best of monarchs is represented in a frock-coat with a fur collar, and breeches and silk stockings, simpering on a sofa from under his curly brown wig’ (chapter 48, p. 604). In Thackeray’s even more contemptuous account of ‘the best of monarchs’ in The Four Georges (1860-1), the King consists of stockings, stays, padding, wig, endless under-waistcoats, and beneath them ‘nothing’. Mrs Skewton is dismantled at the end of each day rather as Thackeray dismantles the King, and she and Joey B. are clearly survivors from those days, as specifically is the vain old beau Mr Turveydrop in Bleak House. Bagstock name-drops the Duke of York six times. His alleged approval by the Duke, who was one of George IV’s brothers, does not encourage contemporary readers’ faith in old Joey: when York was Commander-in-Chief his lover, the married Marianne Clark, took bribes from army officers seeking advancement. (See further Felicia Gordon’s s paper ‘In Praise of Miss Tox’, p. 11.) The Duke is also referred to in Vanity Fair: there is ‘a little modest back door’ to Steyne’s grand London home, Gaunt House, and through it, the narrator has been told, ‘Marianne Clark has entered … with the Duke of ’ (chapter 47, p. 589; see also chapter 54, p. 686).
Dombey has no appreciation of Fanny and haughty expectations of Edith. Near the end of chapter 27 Edith reminds her mother of the marriage-market in which she has been ‘hawked and vended’ for ten years. The mismatch of the Chicks is a milder sort of unhappiness. Apart from the union of Walter and Florence, the happy marriages occur mainly in partly comic sub-plots: the Toodles, or the happily chalk and cheese Toots and Susan. In Vanity Fair too marriages are rarely made in heaven.
Old Sir Pitt regards his wives as dispensable and young Sir Pitt fails for a long time to appreciate his selfless and increasingly forceful wife Jane. I’ve already mentioned George’s shameful attitude to Amelia, her misplaced devotion to his memory, and Dobbin’s eventual marriage to her amid some hints of disappointment. Becky angles to marry Jos and later completely takes control of him, would have old Sir Pitt if she could, and grows apart from and betrays Rawdon. As Jerome Meckier concludes, ‘Money, not romantic love, which is an illusion, governs the world: such is the bitter lesson of Vanity Fair and the precept Mr. Dombey and his ilk live by’ (Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction , p. 246).
Women: seeing ‘both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s’
Women in Dombey are more interestingly developed, on the whole, than in Dickens’s previous novels. Felicia’s paper has restored Miss Tox as an interesting and sympathetic figure. Susan Nipper has some spirit; she might box your ears if you tried to give a paper about her and she would certainly mutter about ‘them Dickensians’. The more complex Edith looks forward in her apparent lack of feeling, the result of her upbringing, to Estella and in her marvellously maintained haughty manner to Lady Dedlock. Other female characters are simpler. Harriet is unfailingly kind, Alice unfailingly intense. (She is, of course one of those fallen women who must die; Dickens had originally planned for Edith to commit adultery and die too.) Florence at least leaves home when her unjustly beloved father actually hits her, but many aspects of her may still make modern readers cringe.
Having left home she engages, while living with Captain Cuttle, in ‘quiet housewifery’, clearing, arranging and sweeping so well that the Captain looked at her ‘as if she were some Fairy, daintily performing these offices for him’ (chapter 49, p. 775). I wonder if Thackeray would have thought this surprising for a girl who has always lived with maids, cooks, housekeepers. Becky cooks well, not in order to be a good little woman but in order to impress, flatter and manipulate those she feeds.
Thackeray would, at the time he wrote Vanity Fair at least, have given Florence some faults, been prepared to make fun of her or suspect her motives. As Trollope observes, he ‘sees his characters, both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s’. He even manages, in Jane, to develop a good, reasonable woman who is still human – she’s jealous of Becky, who out-dresses her, outshines her in society, and captivates her gullible husband. She loves her children and understands Rawdon loving his child (chapter 52, p. 659); we see her develop from a cipher, obeying her domineering mother and then her husband, to a woman capable of some independent- mindedness. Because of that development she is more than a sentimental goody when she comes to bail Rawdon out (chapter 53, pp. 673-4), announcing herself ‘in a timid voice which she strove to render cheerful’ and eliciting his hesitant ‘”you – you don’t know how I’m changed since I’ve known you, and – and little Rawdy. I – I’d like to change somehow. You see I want – I want – to be -.” He did not finish the sentence, but she could interpret it’ (p. 674). Then she fully asserts her independence and takes a moral stand against Becky, refusing to have her in the house where she is again flattering and deceiving Pitt. She trembles, she flutters ‘at her own audacity’, but she manages to make clear that, though she has always been ‘a true and faithful wife to you, Sir Pitt’, ‘righteous obedience has its limits’ (p. 697). Both Pitt and Becky are left ‘not a little astonished’. (It’s a great pity that Gwyneth Hughes’s otherwise excellent dramatisation of 2018, in fusing young Sir Pitt with his uncle, Rev Bute Crawley, omits Lady Jane and replaces her with Bute’s conniving wife.)
Thackeray’s narrator believes that men are just as vain as women are conventionally said to be (chapter 3, p. 29) and that female carers suffer ‘Ceaseless slavery’, unpaid, unpitied and unknown, and often ‘have to bear in quiet, and appear abroad with cheerful faces as if they felt nothing’ (chapter 56, p. 720 and chapter 57, p. 725). More humorously, Rawdon declares ‘By Jove, Beck, you’re fit to be Commander-in-Chief, or Archbishop of Canterbury’ (p. 190). She would surely have been a better supremo than the Duke of York, and no doubt a successful, if hypocritical, Primate. On the way up she is willing to adopt, when necessary, a more traditionally female role.
Here, impressing on the younger Sir Pitt what a good sort she is (and tickling his vanity), she carries coal for his fire from her own room.
Education and environment
Dickens describes Dr Blimber’s ‘great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work’ and ‘All the boys blew before their time’ (chapter 11, p. 206). More passionately, he indicts the Charitable Grinders, where Biler is ’huffed and cuffed, and flogged and badged [marked out? badgered?], and taught, as parrots are, by a brute jobbed into his place of schoolmaster with as much fitness for it as a hound’ (chapter 20).
Thackeray has the absurd Miss Pinkerton with her veneer of dignity and learning and her determination to avail herself of Becky’s services on the cheap because she is poor and, after her father’s death, alone. Considerations of class and money also dominate Dobbin’s schooldays (chapter 5), when he is mocked and excluded because his father is a grocer. George Osborne is at first embarrassed that it is Dobbin who rescues him from the bully Cuff and even after Dobbin wins his fight with the bully and becomes popular, Cuff seem to re-establish his ascendancy simply by apologising. At this stage in his career Thackeray was capable of siding with the class under-dog. But there are also knowing references, later, to Slaughter-House School (chapter 48), his joking name for Charterhouse – also called Whitefriars in chapter 52 – and to Eton. He came increasingly to see himself as a public-school man and proud of it; already in Vanity Fair the tone in which he tells us that Rawdon’s ‘chief recollections of polite learning were connected with the floggings which he received at Eton’ (p. 658) is markedly more casual than Dickens’s account of the way Biler is treated.
Edith tells her mother she was never a child (chapter 27) and Alice Marwood says she was taught wrong (chapter 34). ‘Emotional and economic deprivation, as experienced by Florence, Edith,
Alice and Miss Tox, are shown to be the inevitable result of a denaturing social and economic system’ (Felicia, p. 11). Thackeray, if perhaps less aware of this larger picture, also knows the importance of environment. Riches damage Mr Osborne and the loss of them damages Mr Sedley. Becky says ‘I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. I could dawdle about in the nursery, and count the apricots on the wall’ (chapter 41, p. 532). The narrator, putting on his moralising hat for a moment, observes that she might have come ‘as near happiness’ if she had been honest, humble, done her duty and ‘marched straightforward on her way’ (p. 533). But – the hat comes off again – ‘if ever Becky had these thoughts, she was accustomed to walk round them, and not look in … We grieve at being found out, and at the idea of shame or punishment; but the mere sense of wrong makes very few people unhappy in Vanity Fair’ (p. 534).
Crude and grotesque?
It’s easy to portray Dickens’s art as cruder than Thackeray’s – as Thackeray and his supporters later liked to. Micawber in David Copperfield ‘is delightful and makes me laugh,’ he said in May 1851, ‘but it is no more a real man than my friend Punch is’. There is much in Dombey that is surreal, brightly painted, even grotesque: ‘Good Mrs Brown’, Toots, Bagstock’s obsession with being ‘on the most familiar terms with his own name’ (chapter 7). Dickens makes great use of repetition, whether for stylistic, thematic, comic or mnemonic effect: ‘Let him remember it in that room’, ‘let him remember it’ in chapter 18 and at least four times in chapter 59; Susan on ‘them Blimbers’; the ‘devilish sly’ Joey B uses ‘devilish’ nine times and Cousin Feenix a spectacular sixteen. There is much drama or melodrama, including the. confrontations between Dombey and Edith and Carker’s flight and death. (‘”Strumpet, it’s false!”’ cries Carker as ‘the bell rang loudly in the hall …’ in chapter 54; see John Tyler’s May notes for Claire Tomalin on Edith as ‘a leading lady in a mélodrame.’)
But the contrast is not really so simple. Thackeray’s technique involves less repetition but he does have such running gags as the seven reappearances of The Washerwoman of Finchley Common, an Evangelical tract by Lady Jane’s sister. Some of his characters are more Dickensian than others: old Sir Pitt and Lord Steyne are fairly grotesque, for instance; Peggy and Glorvina O’Dowd are comic caricatures and Dobbin sounds like one when we first meet him. Thackeray too can be dramatic, most obviously when Rawdon comes upon Becky with Steyne, knocks him down, tears ‘the diamond ornament from her breast’ and flings it at him, scarring him for life. (Thackeray himself was particularly pleased with Becky, in the midst of it all, admiring ‘her husband, strong, brave, and victorious’. He told a friend that ‘I slapped my fist on the table, and said, “That is a touch of genius!”.’) Both novels include, beside the drama, long and subtle passages of character analysis, if with a difference in emphasis sometimes because Thackeray leaves things more open, injecting the odd ‘I think’.
Parodying ‘this great man’?
Thackeray had some complimentary things to say about Dickens. His work evinces charm, ‘a wonderful sweetness and freshness’ (letter of May 1851), he makes multitudes of children happy. Thackeray’s own children love Nicholas Nickleby and wish he would write like Dickens. A Christmas Carol is ‘a national benefit’ and to individuals ‘a personal kindness’ (Fraser’s Magazine, February 1844). He thinks Dickens’s later Christmas Book The Battle of Life good only in parts, ‘But I love Pickwick and Crummles too well to abuse this great man’ (letter of January 1847). And ‘Putting No. 5 of “Dombey and Son” in his pocket, he hastened down to’ the publishers’ and ‘dashed it on to the table with startling vehemence, and exclaimed, “There’s no writing against such power as this – one has no chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul’s death: it is unsurpassed – it is stupendous!”’ (George Hodder, Memories of My Time , p. 377). No doubt he was moved, like so many readers. He had lost, and deeply grieved for, a child himself. All the same, the rivalry is clearly present: ‘There’s no writing against’ it, ‘one has no chance’. But he did, according to Michael Flynn, write ‘against’ the great lyrical account of Paul’s death. He did the opposite: killing George, six months later, not in a grand scene but in a sentence. Flynn also considers Dobbin as a more realistic response to Walter Gay and, perhaps less probably, Becky’s unconvincing ‘I am innocent’ (chapter 53, p. 675) as mocking the absurdity of Dickens having Edith not commit adultery. (Flynn’s essay is in Double Vision: Literary Palimpsests of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Darby Lewes, 2008).
In January 1847 Thackeray had told Albany Fonblanque that Dickens would be included in his series of parodies of contemporary novelists in Punch. Punch’s Prize Novelists featured such works as Codlingsby, aimed at Disraeli’s Coningsby, and George de Barnewell by Sir E.L.B.L.B.B.L.L.B.B.B.L.L.L. (Edward Bulwer Lytton, whose name went through some confusing changes and extensions). Flynn is no doubt right that the main reason Dickens wasn’t put in was that Bradbury and Evans, the publishers of Punch, Dombey and Son and Vanity Fair, simply couldn’t afford to offend him, their new – he had left Chapman and Hall in 1844 – and very substantial asset. Neither really could Thackeray until after the success of Vanity Fair. (In chapter 6 there he again parodies Bulwer Lytton amongst others but not Dickens. Elsewhere in the novel he refers familiarly to Tony Weller in the context of nostalgia for the old coaching days [chapter 7, p. 86] but in the second edition removes from chapter 66 an affectionate-sounding mention of ‘the immortal casement of Mr. Pickwick’ in Goswell Street [see John Sutherland’s edition, p. 947].)
‘The dignity of literature’
Thackeray wrote to Dickens praising Dombey in January 1848. (The letter is lost.) Dickens thanked him for his generosity and – seemingly taking the joke in good part – complained at being left out of Punch’s Prize Novelists. But he took the opportunity to say that ‘I think it is a great pity to take advantage of the means our calling gives us … of at all depreciating or vulgarizing each other’. (Indeed Brian Cheadle in the Dickens Quarterly in 2017 suggests that Thackeray sent the ‘conciliatory praise’ because he had already heard of Dickens’s disapproval of the parodies which, he told Tom Taylor, do ‘no honour to literature or to literary men’ [Pilgrim Letters 5.82].)
Dickens in many letters between 1846 and 1849 expressed his ‘lofty sense of the writer’s profession’ (Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, p. 266). He felt that Thackeray, wit, parodist, self- referential narrator, was letting the side down. (He even sends himself up, writing as ‘Our Fat Correspondent’ and drawing a caricature of himself for Vanity Fair chapter 9.)
In January 1850 Thackeray and Dickens’s champion John Forster disputed over ‘the dignity of literature’ in The Examiner and the Morning Post. Thackeray’s unfair portrayal of literary men in Pendennis (1848-50), says Forster, shows his disposition ‘to pay court to the non-literary class by disparaging his fellow-labourers’. Even in his obituary of Thackeray for the Cornhill Magazine in February 1864 Dickens, after due praise given, finds it necessary to admit ‘We had our differences of opinion. I thought that he too much feigned a want of earnestness, and that he made a pretence of under-valuing his art, which was not good for the art that he held in trust’. Such ‘pretence’ could be seen as part of Thackeray’s sense of class superiority, particularly in the years after the success of Vanity Fair had propelled him into the very aristocratic circles he had satirised there. (For his ‘swing to the right’, and the occasional exceptions to it, see John Carey’s Prodigal Genius.) But he did, on his side, definitely believe that Dickens’ style and characterisation were vivid, even inspired, but exaggerated. ‘I may quarrel with Mr. Dickens’s art a thousand and a thousand times, I delight and wonder at his genius’ (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for June 1853). More outspoken in private,
Thackeray thought Dickens had learnt from him to simplify his style and forego ‘the use of fine words’ in Copperfield and that more generally ‘I don’t think [his art] represents Nature duly’ (letters of May 1849 and May 1851). Why was Dickens ill-disposed to him? Because, declared Thackeray, he had ‘found him out’!
Afterwards: the Garrick Club Affair
The rivals went on bringing out novels at the same time – Pendennis in 1848-9 and Copperfield in 1849-50, for example, or The Newcomes in 1853-5 and Hard Times in 1854 – and each had their adherents. For a decade they maintained apparently sociable contact. But in summer 1858 relations between them collapsed. Edmund Yates, a young protégé of Dickens, published in Town Talk ‘a somewhat derogatory account’ (Slater, p. 458) of Thackeray, based on material gathered at the Garrick Club, to which they both belonged. Thackeray took deep offence and, after a heated exchange of letters between him, Yates, Dickens and the Garrick, the club committee decided to expel Yates if he did not unreservedly apologise. As a result, Dickens broke off contact with Thackeray. Rosemary Ashton has an excellent section on the affair in One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (2017). (She suggests that the ‘general loss of any sense of proportion among them’ may have been exacerbated by the unusual heat of mid-June 1858.) Ashton and others highlight that Dickens’s motivation was partly anger that Thackeray, asked by him to help quash rumours, was himself gossiping about his relationship with Ellen Ternan to his friends at the Garrick and Punch. (Thackeray told his mother that he had simply tried to improve matters by correcting someone who thought Dickens was having an affair with his sister-in-law; he told him, helpfully, that it was not her but an actress.) Dickens’s statement about his marriage in Household Words appeared on the same day as the Town Talk piece and he was in no state to remain calm and reasonable. Thackeray chose to ignore that Yates had obtained journalistic copy in exactly the same way as he had in his own younger days. He felt confirmed in his belief in Dickens’s ‘pent up animosity and long cherished hatred’.
And so for twelve years the great men tried to ignore each other when their paths crossed. According to Dickens and to another witness, Sir Theodore Martin, there was a final reconciliation at another club, the Athenaeum, days before Thackeray’s sudden death in December 1863. Dickens says that he made the first move, Martin that Dickens walked past but Thackeray called after him, they shook hands, and Thackeray told Martin that he had said ‘It is time this foolish estrangement should cease, and that we should be to each other as we used to be’ (Notes and Queries, July 1911). Let’s hope that’s really what happened. In the letter to his mother quoted at the beginning of this paper, Thackeray says that ‘Dickens doesn’t like me; he knows that my books are a protest against his – that if one set are true, the other must be false’. But we don’t have to agree that one approach invalidates the other. Comparisons are odorous.