“Nothing without a woman or a girl”

I personally don’t like to disagree with the godfather of soul, but Thackeray’s Vanity Fair seems to challenge one of his more famous maxims. (Or, at the very least, subvert it.) Vanity fair is most certainly not a man’s world: the men in it do little more than play games–whether with billiards, cards, or swords. They hold money, but are ruled by their wives (or, at the very least, their mistresses or desired mistresses) in its management.

Yet, despite that, the vast majority of the men are relatively happy. They play their games, have friends, and enjoy life. There are exceptions, to be sure (the Sir Pitts, Dobbin, and the Marquis), who will dealt with shortly, but for now it’s enough to note that the majority of the men spend their time pleasurably in pursuit of sport.They sit in their clubs and barracks telling the same stories and jokes for fifteen or thirty years, red-faced and “laugh[ing] quite easily” (355). When women gather, on the other hand, there are no laughs. At best, there are polite overtures of friendship which hide their territorial combats. At worst, they openly “cut” each other in public.  “Those who know a really good woman are aware that she is not in a hurry to forgive, and that the humiliation of an enemy is a triumph to her soul” (327).

This seemed odd to me, at first. In Victorian England, we are constantly reminded, women were expected to remain at home as the angel of the house. They were responsible for the moral fiber of the Empire and manage their affairs in order to support their menfolk’s efforts at politics or business. This is manifestly not the case in the Vanity Fair, and we have to wonder why?

I don’t believe that answer is merely Becky Sharp, but rather that Vanity Fair is simply not a  man’s world. Men can serve in politics–if as blessed as the Sir Pitts of the Marquis–or with distinction in the army, if blessed with a war. As a last resort, they have the colonies. But, in a time of peace, England has little need for its men. The nation of shopkeepers is a domestic nation, and women naturally reign supreme. The social sphere is theirs to rule; men have no place in Vanity Fair. Consider young George Osborne: he “grew up delicate, sensitive, imperious, woman-bred…He ruled all the rest of the little world around him” (320). Perhaps then the reason this novel has no hero is that all the men have gone.

This reading, of course, casts a fairly negative light on Thackeray’s understanding of gender. Are women incapable, in his mind, of creating non-competitive, mutually beneficial relationships?  Are men such as Col. Rawdon, ex-soldiers reduced to uselessness at peace time, to blame for the state of Vanity Fair? At times, Thackeray’s narrator seems to say, “No.” “What a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them if they do” (25). At others, of course, the narrator defends women, particularly Becky, arguing that they simply have to do what they do to survive and thrive in their society.

Because the narrator is so notoriously difficult to pin down, it is difficult to say definitively what is being satirized. I suspect such an effort is a Rorschach test, but would like to suggest that the most important question in reading is whether you agree with Locke or Hobbes. A Lockean scholar could read Vanity Fair as critical of a wicked society that has forced its men and women to pursue vanities, a Hobbit could argue that Vanity Fair is critical of wicked men and women that have created a shallow society. In both cases the result is negative, but where Thackeray places sin is significantly different and allows varying levels of sympathy for his characters.

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