Is Lady Audley a villain or victim?

There are two ways in which a reader can view Lady Audley by the end of the story. They can view her as either a villain or sympathize for her as a victim. She did grow up in poverty in a crazy house. She thought that the way she could climb the social ladder was if she found the right man. She ends up being abandoning her husband and child then changed her name to Lucy Graham. She pushes George Talboys down a well. She torches the Castle Inn with intentions to kill Robert Audley and Luke Marks. She lies about many things throughout the story. She did have a bad upbringing, but is that enough to condone her bad actions throughout the novel?

Braddon tries to make the reader sympathize for Lady Audley at times, but then will highlight her wrongdoings making her a victim. “She was no longer innocent, and the pleasure we take in art and loveliness being an innocent pleasure had passed out of her reach…” (309) is one instance in where Braddon reveals some of Lady Audley’s motivations for her crimes, and wants the reader to sympathize for her. “When you say I killed George Talboys, you say the truth. When you say that I murdered him treacherously and foully, you lie. I killed him because I AM MAD!” (355) is a quote at the climax of the novel, even though she does not fully admit to the murder, she claims to be a victim of madness. Braddon highlighted all the wrongdoings through murders, lies, and all I said in the paragraph above.

I do have sympathy for Lady Audley by the end of the story, but at the same time nothing can make up for the actions she took. From abandoning her child to killing multiple people, nothing can really make me not believe she is a villain. I think she deserved all that happened to her by the end of the story. It was very hard to choose one side for, villain or victim, for Lady Audley, but I do believe I chose the right one.

Surprised or satisfied?

George Talboy’s and Lady Audley’s fates at the end of this novel clearly differ but both satisfy the reader who wants to be content in the end.

George’s fate was a reversal of the presentation of his character from the beginning to end of the novel. When we meet George, we like George. Everybody likes George. “This George Talboys was the life and soul of the vessel… but everybody liked him” (Vol. 1, Ch. 2). But as much as we like George, Braddon sets us up to believe that George’s story may not have the happiest ending. We met George on a ship that is London bound and read this conversation that leads the reader to believe George’s fate is the character who is royally let down. “My wish is that we may find no disappointment when we get there” and “the person I go to meet may be changed in his feelings toward me” are two comments the governess makes to George that ultimately define his experience when he returns home (Vol. 1, Ch. 2). George then disappears for the majority of the novel so as the reader we assume he received the destiny we expected. This fate is completely reversed when George shows up alive and ends with a hope for a brighter future.

On the other hand, LA’s fate was a continuation throughout the novel. LA’s character is like a tornado where we are exposed to only the small part that touches the ground at first, but as the novel progresses we get caught up in the chaos of the storm and are thrown out at the top of the mayhem. LA started off similar to George’s character in the sense that “every one loved, admired, and praised her,” but LA quickly and severely had a negative development (Vol. 1, Ch. 1). Through shady acts, and manipulation of other characters the reader quickly begins to doubt and judge LA more and more harshly. And ultimately Braddon lets LA reveal her story, “I must tell you the story of my life in order to tell you why I have become the miserable wretch” at a point in the novel that helps the reader proceed to the next step of anticipated misery for LA (Vol. 3, Ch. 3).

To sum it up, I think George’s fate was initially unexpected for the reader whereas LA’s fate was bound to happen. But I think both of their fates pleased the reader rooting for the happy ending so job well done, Braddon.

Man or wife?

The fates of the characters at the end of the novel, along with the fully revealed secrets, leave us with a solidified perspective of who these people were. It is particularly interesting to look at the final situations of Helen and George Talboys. Both made mistakes in their relationship and both received our sympathy, but despite the complex nature of their actions and motivations, their fates seemed to follow the trajectory of their characters’ presentations.

Though she did suffer many hardships during her life, Lady Audley seems to end up where she belonged. Even when Braddon managed to make us sympathize with her, we still understood that Lady Audley had pushed the boundaries too far. She attempted to kill her first husband and set fire to a public house full of people, knowing exactly what she was doing, no matter what she claimed about her sanity. As Dr. Mosgrove said, “The lady is not mad; but she has the hereditary taint in her blood. She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence…She is dangerous!” (Vol III, Ch V). Regardless of Lady Audley’s mental state, it seemed only right that she suffer consequences for her choices and be prevented from doing any further harm. Robert could have placed in her in a much less friendly institution, yet he made sure she would be taken care of. This reflects some of the inner conflict we feel toward Lady Audley’s character; she appears to be a villain, though we do understand where she derived her motivations. Our sympathy is satisfied by her decent treatment, and although she claims that “the law could providence no worse sentence than this”, we feel that it is a sentence she deserves and one that other people, as Mr. Talboys says himself, would have considered perhaps a bit too kind. Lady Audley claimed on more than one occasion that she wished to end her own life, and in a sense, she may have felt some relief from her demise shortly after being placed in confinement. In the end, the lives she attempted to take go on without her and the one she tried to steal for herself is cut short.

George Talboy’s surprise return and happy settlement with his child, friend, and sister show us that he was not just a victim, but also a good man. He certainly made some mistakes – he should have never deserted his wife in the way that he did – but he never had ill intentions. We realized his excessive optimism upon meeting him on the ship when he confessed, “I swear to you, Miss Morley, that, till you spoke to me to-night, I never felt one shadow of fear…” (Vol I Ch II). George brushes off any praise from the governess, exclaiming “Brave!…Wasn’t I working for my darling?”, showing us that he was devoted wholly to his wife throughout his harrowing adventure (Vol I Ch II). His distress over the death of his wife and willingness to give up his Australian fortune place him in contrast with Lady Audley and her selfishness. Even after she sends him to his believed death in the well, he leaves a letter expressing forgiveness. This ending solidifies the view that he was right in this relationship. He could have died in the well and she could have gotten away with her deception, but instead, he is left with the potential for future happiness, surrounded by those he loves.

The narrator leaves us with the reassurance that the story “leaves the good people all happy and at peace” (Vol III Ch X). George can go on pursuing both and though she was not left good or happy, perhaps even Helen Talboys found some peace.

Lady Audley: Villain or Victim?

By the end of Lady Audley’s Secret, we, the reader, are torn between whether we should feel sorry for Lady Audley or if we should view her as the villain of her own life. Braddon tries to play with our emotions into making us sympathize with Lady Audley by making her seem like a helpless victim. This becomes very apparent when Robert has taken Lady Audley to the mad house, where she will live the rest of her life, and Monsieur Val claims that he lets “the inmates dine together when it is wished” (395). This line is important because it allows readers that are unfamiliar with these mad houses to understand that the conditions were nowhere near ideal and most of the time the patients were treated like prisoners.

But contrasting to this want to feel sympathy for Lady Audley, Braddon again plays with the reader’s emotions and at times also wants us to see Lady Audley in the light of all her wrongdoings. The psychologist that Robert calls on to evaluate Lady Audley says that she is not mad (383) and that she is in fact dangerous after hearing all that Robert had to tell him about Lady Audley’s past (385). Although Robert was the one responsible for leaving Lady Audley in a mad house, with possibly less than humane conditions, he believes that “she will be very kindly treated” (415). Robert honestly believes in his heart that he has done the best he can for Lady Audley by sending her away.

By the end of the story, I still viewed Lady Audley as a villain. There may have been moments when I felt sorry for her (being thrown out by Sir Michael and put into a mad house), but I always came back to the conclusion that she got herself in this situation. She left her first husband and child, remarried and never told Sir Michael about her previous life, tried to kill multiple people, and was selfish and manipulative throughout the entirety of the novel. I believe that she got everything she deserved in the end and honestly thought it was generous of Robert to make sure she was taken care of properly (or so he believed) and not just kick her out and leave her to fend for herself.

Escaping Vanity Fair

Thackeray’s novel begins “Before the Curtain” with a depiction of Vanity Fair as an actual street fair, and ends “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (809). Vanity Fair, as a distinct place, is mentioned some 70 times throughout the novel, which is troubling. Becky is unapologetically vain, subject to vanity of multiple kinds. She possesses “The quality of being personally vain; high opinion of oneself; self-conceit and desire for admiration” and pursues “that which is vain, futile, or worthless; that which is of no value or profit,” engaging in “unprofitable conduct or employment of time” (OED “Vanity” 3a, 1a, 1b). It seems appropriate that she end the novel “having stalls at Fancy Fairs” and appears last in one of these stalls (808). However, other characters are less vain and seem equally unable to escape Vanity Fair. After all, Amelia and Dobbin’s final scene is at the Fancy Fair with Becky, albeit as spectators rather than vendors. Thackeray’s characters represent different types of vanity, and several repent of or abandon their vanity, but can any of them get out? If the novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity, can those dangers be escaped?

Amelia and Dobbin immediately trouble the idea that everyone in the novel is part of Vanity Fair. Both are humble, and both seem, initially, to employ their time profitably. Amelia seeks a marriage to George and gets it. Dobbin seeks to help George marry Amelia and the marriage happens. The audience, if we disapprove of George, may already consider the marriage “worthless” or “of no value or profit,” but the endeavors of Amelia and Dobbin don’t become clearly ‘vain’ until after George’s death. Dobbin has worked, vainly, to convince George’s father to care for Amelia and baby George, and his inability to change the man’s mind comes home to roost – as does Amelia, who moves in with her impoverished parents, more casualties of vanity and particularly of Mr. Sedley’s ‘unprofitable conduct.’ Dobbin loves Amelia, but that love is perpetually in vain, as he cannot live up to her love for a largely-imaginary George. Amelia loves her dead husband, who does not deserve it, and her son, who she cannot provide for and must give up to Mr. Osborne.

The vanity of their endeavors is most clear as they give them up. As Amelia sends George to live with his grandfather, Thackeray’s narrator comments “By heavens it is pitiful, the bootless love of women for children in Vanity Fair” (583). As Dobbin gives up on his love for Amelia, he tells her that if he cannot read her correctly, he has “loved you and watched you for fifteen years in vain” before determining that “you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too” (787). After Amelia has given up her attachment to her late husband and Dobbin has stopped idolizing Amelia and acknowledged her flaws and his folly, they marry happily, and we might imagine that they have escaped Vanity Fair by making a marriage without the specific types of vanity apparent in the earlier marriages. The very end troubles this escape, placing them at a fair. Emmy observes “with a sigh” that her husband loves their daughter better than he loves her, even though “he ever 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” (809). As the narrator asks “Vanitas Vanitatu! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or having it, is satisfied?” Emmy and Dobbin seem to be back in Vanity Fair, unable to love each other as fully as we might have hoped after their long history of vain love (809).

So, does anyone escape? Rawdon seems to initially. He gives up first his vanity – his self-importance – and then his vain pursuits of gambling and drinking. He gives over financial control to his wife and focuses on raising his son Rawdon, a pursuit not entirely in vain because the younger Rawdon seems to end the novel well, inheriting all of the family estates that have been fought over. However, Rawdon is also separated permanently from his son by his position overseas, and he dies at the end. If he has escaped Vanity Fair, it is not a happy escape. Similarly, Joseph’s self-importance is replaced by a fear of Becky that humbles him, but he too is unable to escape, squandering his fortune in the same kinds of vain pursuits and speculation that brought both Becky and his father low earlier in the novel. He dies, too, as do the Sedley parents.

Ultimately, escaping from Vanity Fair is like escaping from life; it’s only accomplished by death.  Puppets go in boxes, people go in coffins, and the Fair goes on uninterrupted.

No Man is an Island Entire: Vanity Fair, Community, and Melancholy

For pages and pages, disaster after disaster hits our characters, as they marry the wrong people (or don’t marry at all), fight with relatives, and race into bankruptcies. In the end, however, (spoiler!) Amelia and Dobbin end up together and have a lovely little family, seemingly safe from money problems. Yet the novel starts with a theme of melancholy and ends with a sad refrain, asking “which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?” (809). This—along with the many misfortunes and rapid ending—raises the question: how sad is Vanity Fair?

As I read, I kept waiting for the reversal that would fix things and redeem the characters (and the hours spent reading), but when that reversal comes, it feels rushed and incomplete, and I almost would rather it not happen: Amelia and Dobbin seem like they should, at this point, stay apart. (Or at least change more before coming back together.) I don’t want to overgeneralize my experience, but it seems troubling that any readers would cheer against the match that so much of the novel has been building to.

Part of the answer seems to lie in the development of solitude and community in the novel. From the start, Vanity Fair presents a vision of life that is solitary at its core, despite the many characters filling its pages, for each of the main characters lives apart from the rush and movement of the world in some fashion. This is set up from the very beginning, where “as Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and, looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place” (5, emphasis added). He sits; the fair bustles, and that contrast creates a type of sadness and emphasizes his solitary nature.

Similarly, Thackeray presents us with multiple communities and bonds that should be true and beautiful and provide community, yet don’t. Even though Amelia and Becky are very different mothers, their bond with their children ultimately does not provide much fulfillment or community: both give up their children (though for very different reasons), and Amelia’s George does not mourn her absence, and Becky’s son rejects her after being rejected himself. The bond between a mother and a child should be close, but Thackeray shows it as one-sided and painful. In a similar way, the husband and wife pairs are shown as failing at community; Becky looks down on her husband who loves her, and they never truly understand each other; George fails Amelia, and Amelia does not know him truly till the end. Female friends are notoriously treacherous (Amelia and Becky as the prime example, but Thackeray often expounds on women’s hatred of each other), and male friends fail each other (see George and Dobbin, who deceive each other). Other prominent examples of loneliness appear on pages 29, 196, 211, 245, 292, 533, 535, 607, 625, 669, and 751. Can anyone love truly and be loved truly in return?

That background sets up the ending of the novel and the “happy” marriage. Amelia’s and Dobbin’s community seems incomplete and very imperfect: in the end, they go to a fair with their children, but are not grouped together as a couple (though they are before they are married—see page 729, where “this couple were very decently contented”), and Dobbin is more connected to his daughter than Amelia. Amelia notices this, thinking that he is “fonder [of Janey] than he is of me,” even though “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” (809). This expresses that type of alienation that is very much part of this novel.

At this point, we’ve learned the deeply flawed nature of these human, Vanity-Fair relationships, so it’s not surprising, though it may be saddening, that Amelia is not content in this relationship and that Dobbin may or may not be. They seem independent, individual, and alone, even within this familial community. In contrast, Donne writes that “no man is an island entire of itself” and asserts that “any man’s death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind.” Vanity Fair’s characters seem to fight against this and pretend that they are not, in fact, involved. Does this stem from the rise of the modern, atomic individual? Individualism is developing more and more in the nineteenth century, and in this way, Becky and the self-centered characters could be participating in that development.

What I am not sure about is how Thackeray desires us to read this: does he wish to negate the possibility of a charitable, life-giving community? Or can one read Vanity Fair as portraying the despair of alienation as support for a charitable community and an attempt to teach us how to create one? Could we combat vanity with true community? Or is that too redemptive of a reading? The narrator is slippery, and I’m left unsure. A friend said that reading Vanity Fair made him feel dirty and despairing. I am still trying to decide what I think of it in general, but I do think that Vanity Fair is ultimately sad—how can it be otherwise, when it portrays each character as an island entire, left isolated and disconnected from others, even though yearning for community?

“There was Nobody in the Church”: Corporate Worship in Vanity Fair

The titular quote comes from the scene where George and Amelia are getting married. Historically, in the church, the marriage liturgy is a sacrament that involves a communal affirmation; at a point in the Anglican liturgy, the congregation is asked to agree that they will support the marriage that they are witnessing and reinforce the couple’s promise to remain faithful to each other. Yet in Vanity Fair, the community is not present at the marriages. Thackeray writes, “there was nobody in the church” except Amelia’s close family, Dobbin, and the parson. And nobody in the community, save perhaps for Dobbin, acts to keep George and Amelia’s marriage together; rather, the community (in the shape of Becky and Rowden) seems bent on tearing their already tenuous union apart.

The problems of Vanity Fair, the novel seems to argue, occur at least partly because there is “nobody in the church.” Churches appear often, but they are hardly ever taken seriously. Thackeray is most often poking fun at the hypocrisy of the clergy, who themselves are not authentically “in the church.” He mocks the affected piety of Mr Bute, who reads a pointed sermon written by his wife and has no idea what it means. The church is a place that allows Rebecca to make eyes at various men during the sermon, and she jokingly presents the profession of clergymen as a last resort to resolve Rowden’s outstanding debts. Church doesn’t seem to be worth attending; nor is it a site of holy reverence. Instead of visiting the church, Mr. Osborne goes into his study to read the news; Sir Pitt sleeps in; and old Mrs. Crowley just doesn’t find it amusing. And Mrs. Sheepshanks, the Dissenter– who vocally claims to be the holiest of the bunch– switches parsons almost every week, just as she goes from quack doctor to quack doctor. All of these people, even those who claim holiness, are equally interested in the values of Vanity Fair; they are servants of Mammon rather than servants of God.

The one exception to the theme of “nobody in the church” occurs during the battle of Waterloo. Suddenly, when their husbands’, lovers’, and brothers’ lives are threatened, the women of the town respond with an outpouring of sudden piety: “Women rushed to the churches, and crowded the chapels, and knelt and prayed on the flags and steps.” For a moment, we catch a glimpse of the church universal, united through time by liturgical practice. Even though Amelia is too sick to pray in the church, Mrs. O’Dowd comes and reads her sermons, even though she doesn’t understand the “long and abstruse… Latin words.” As she reads the sermons, she has “Amelia and the wounded ensign for a congregation. The same service was read on that day in twenty thousand churches at the same hour; and millions of British men and women, on their knees, implored protection of the Father of all.” In this moment, it seems the practices of the church are uniting a nation in petition to God. The church universal is bigger than the corrupt and hypocritical parsons; and  an Irish woman reading sermons to a sick widow and wounded soldier can recreate a congregation.

Yet even in this seemingly transcendent moment, the narrator withdraws from this vision and calls into question the possibility of union with others. Those who are reading the sermons in Britain and praying for the soldiers “did not hear the noise which disturbed our little congregation at Brussels”; their prayers are less fervent and less affected by the immediate presence of war.

Indeed, the farther one gets from the war itself, the less personal it becomes. Mrs. Crowley reads the newspaper casualty list and battle accounts for entertainment, while Amelia reads to discover George’s fate. Even the church is not enough to unite a people in empathy or piety; experiences are personal and traumatic only to those directly affected by them.

If Vanity Fair’s society as a whole cannot experience unity through the practices of the church, then what about Christianity itself? Though Thackeray critiques the church, he withholds his criticism from Christianity as a whole. It seems his problem is not with the tenets of faith, but the people who pretend to practice them in order to gain personal profit. The only exception to this rule– the point where his satire perhaps touches on the faith itself– occurs during Amelia’s ineffective prayers: “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.”

What is the point of Amelia’s prayers? They don’t avail much. George’s death, juxtaposed so closely with Amelia’s act of prayer, highlights the painful irony and the ineffectiveness of her pious practice. Is this a critique of prayer as a whole? Or is Thackeray perhaps doing something else?

I wonder, however, if the reader’s reaction here is not relief that God does not answer Amelia’s prayer and save George’s life. We, if not Amelia, can see how harmful and despicable George is; we see him fawning over Becky and breaking the marriage covenant. Death comes for George justly; he receives the consequences of his sins even as he thinks he will live forever. And we eventually learn to be grateful that George is dead, so that he didn’t run off with Becky and further break Amelia’s heart. Amelia can end up with Dobbin, and the novel can end happily for her despite her unanswered prayer.

Perhaps this passage of unanswered prayer exists to highlight the overall providence of the novel. Even at the point where Amelia’s prayers are left unanswered, the author-god seems to be working everything out for her good. She must suffer to get there, but she ends up at a place that’s worth getting to.

If there is “nobody at the church” in Vanity Fair, does the novel itself act as a kind of church for the churchless? It seems that Vanity Fair is teaching us how to read not only the novel, but also our own lives, just as a sermon often uses a story or parable to illustrate truth. Do we enter to learn from the folly of others, and exit with the motivation to avoid such folly in our own lives? If Amelia’s prayers are unanswered because she doesn’t know what’s best for herself, Thackeray’s novel may perform a kind of theodicy, answering the problem of evil with a notion of ultimate providence. Perhaps this is the perspective from which the novel means us to read the “little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history.”

Can we see the “spot” beneath the ink? Vanity Fair as Palimpsest

The readers are often referred to as “brother wearers of motley” – fools listening to another fool’s story (185). Yet, as we have seen in Shakespeare and other weavers of tales, the fool is often the font of knowledge and the voice of reason, and while the narrator perceives of his story through the lens of satire, many of his observations hold weight. He mentions that his aim is to show a side of the Fair that is rarely seen, the private realm. The narrator aims “to walk with you [the reader, the fellow fool] through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there” (185). In his desire to examine “the shops,” could there be a multiplicity implied? And can we see the images of past stories through the lines of the fool’s tale?

Vanity Fair is many things – satire, realist, comedy, romance – but what about palimpsest?

The written word depicted in letters and journals becomes an important marker of how time changes perception in the novel. In the first two hundred pages of the novel, the narrator remarks on the changeling nature of letters over the years: “Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while!” (187) One meaning warps into another meaning as more information behind the text becomes unveiled.

One of the narrator’s more sincere comments brought out the idea of the novel as palimpsest: “The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else” (187). This is very clearly the definition of a palimpsest. Indeed, throughout the narrator’s tale, the reader is reminded that this is one of many stories in the Fair; there are more stalls that have their own stories, and this is the background of one of many stalls – such as the one we find Rebecca at the end of the novel (730). What is to say that the other layers of the Fair have not also been written and vanished so that this tale could be told. Instead of writing “on it to somebody else” it has been written on about somebody else.

This multiplicity comes out as the narrator compares the actions of his tale to those not present. This can be something as simple as referring to a “neighbor Jones” or a “neighbor Smith,” which obviously are standby names for anyone – inferring that these events have a universality (372). Yet there are more specific analogies to past characters, such as Lady Macbeth, that suggest that this story has been stacked upon other stories not mentioned: “Lady Macbeth would not quit Becky’s chamber until her cup of night-drink was emptied” (431). While this is not the only example of personification, this section exemplifies an interesting quality in the novel, the moments when characters become others. Even if only for a moment, Lady Southdown becomes Lady Macbeth. It begins with a simile: “looking more like Lady Macbeth than ever” (431). However, Lady Macbeth embodies Lady Southdown for a brief sentence as she “would not quit Becky’s chamber.”

These moments when the writing under the present text shows itself to the reader, begs the question: is this glimpse of the undertext an intentional ploy by the storyteller, or has the old story reared up to make itself known? In other words, was this analogy carefully selected from amongst other options, or was it inevitable? The repetition of the Fair, in all its versions, is unstoppable, and each character represents someone who has come before, whose story has all but evaporated from the page.

(I had to end this dramatically, yet I understand that Lady Macbeth’s story hasn’t disappeared, I mean it’s a play that has been written down, but you get where I’m going.)

Rack Punch, Napoleon, and the True Rewards of Virtue

Rack punch is the worst.

The bowl of rack punch Jos consumes in Vanity Fair’s sixth chapter is, according to the narrator, “the cause of all this history” (64). Jos’s fateful bowl of alcoholic goodness prevents him from proposing to Becky, which allows Becky to marry Rawdon, which knocks her down from the pinnacle of the social mountain and alienates her from Amelia.

Or does it?

In the same chapter, the narrator also mentions that a “dear, tender mother” would have “managed the business in ten minutes” by extracting the “interesting avowal from the bashful lips of the young man” (61). Rack punch or no, Becky’s mother would have secured Jos’s proposal for Becky and radically changed course of Vanity Fair’s history.

But not so fast!

In Chapter 16 the narrator notes that if Rawdon Crawley had been with Becky at Miss Crawley’s house instead of at his club and joined his wife in begging the “old spinster’s” forgiveness, the couple would have been “forgiven in a twinkling” (178). Such a reconciliation would have no doubt given Becky her five thousand a year and prevented much of the harm the couple caused.

Again, in Chapter 24 we’re informed that if Dobbin had married Miss Osborne, George’s sister would have “declared herself as her brother’s friend and a reconciliation might have been effected between George and his angry father” (271). Mr. Osborne’s support would have no doubt saved Amelia much trouble and heartbreak after her husband’s death, perhaps even preventing her damaging mental breakdown.

Finally, four chapters later, the narrator explains that because Napoleon’s movements resulted in Mr. Sedley’s bankruptcy, the Corsican is the real author of the Vanity Fair’s history. For without Napoleon, the narrator asks, “What would have become of our story and all our friends?” (316).

What, indeed.

Despite the narrator’s initial confidence in the significance of the rack punch, readers begin to sense by the novel’s midpoint that the real “cause” of Vanity Fair’s history is far from simple. The multitude of potential causes the text offers undercuts both the rack punch hypothesis and the narrator’s credibility as a competent judge of his own history. No one really knows which event caused what outcome or how the characters could have avoided all their troubles.

So, the question becomes, why? Why does Thackeray offer so many potential causes for the history of Vanity Fair? What work does this move perform within the novel and what does the author look to satirize outside it?

Sentimental novels like Pamela might have offered one potential target for Thackeray’s ridicule. These novels posit a clear cause/effect relationship: righteous living results in positive outcomes. As Pamela’s subtitle optimistically asserts, virtue is rewarded. Pamela draws a simple, straightforward line between the protagonist’s actions, the novel’s events, and Pamela’s future happiness.

As it does with so many other tropes, Vanity Fair cuts and twists this line between cause and effect, virtue and reward. Jos’s rack punch, Mrs. Sharp’s death, and Napoleon all get thrown together in a confused tangle without any clear way to determine how one character’s actions causes another character’s demise. The novel as a whole suggests the tenuous link between virtue and reward, and Amelia and Becky illustrate this principle most clearly. Amelia, who acts virtuously throughout much of the novel, is rewarded with heartbreak, sickness, and what appears to be a dissatisfying marriage. Becky, on the other hand, gets to live among a “very strong party of excellent people” in apparent happiness and prosperity (808). Amelia is not perfectly virtuous and Becky is not perfectly rewarded, but the old cause-and-effect Pamela posits seems to no longer work properly.

Perhaps none of this uncertainty should come as a surprise in a novel entitled Vanity Fair. The novel ends with “Vanitatus, Vanitatum,” after all. But I wonder if the breakdown the novel illustrates between cause and effect indicates a sense of uncertainty in nineteenth century society at large. Times, they were a’changin’, and Thackeray wasn’t the only person to wonder whether older, more stable models of the world and of morality were still viable. One novel cannot speak for an entire culture, but Thackeray’s success suggests that his critique of sentimental certainty resonated with readers. If “the world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face,” Thackeray seems to have shared with his readers a countenance of bemused confusion as he struggled to make sense of the world’s random sequence of cause and effect (17).

Readerly Vanitas

After reaching, at long last, the final page of the many pages of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, many readers might find the novel’s resolution (or lack thereof) to be a bit unfulfilling. After all, it seems reasonable to think that with more than eight hundred pages to work with Thackeray should have been able to tie things up pretty tidily. We might expect to be devastated by a crushingly tragic outcome or to be sated by a graciously comic reward of virtues (such as we can find them). And we do see a bit of both. But, on the whole, the ending feels rushed, following from some climactic (more anti-climactic) crisis and resolution for Amelia and none at all for Becky with whom we have spent a majority of our time.

We seem to have a pretty satisfactory wrapping up of things with the marriage of Dobbin and Amelia, and in several ways their union does curtail the tragic direction which the novel seemed to be heading for a while, by putting young George on the right track (or at least edging him off the wrong one) and by rescuing Amelia and Dobbin from their stupidity and “spooney”-ness respectively. But Rebecca remains in a decidedly ambiguous position socially, a somewhat obscure one financially, and a pretty dismal one morally (having profited from if not orchestrated the great Waterloo Sedley’s demise). Nothing has been resolved for Rebecca, and Thackeray undercuts even our resolution concerning Amelia and Dobbin, by hinting at the imperfections of their marital state on the final page! The very last thought we hear from Emmy, or from any of the novel’s characters, is her reflection on Dobbin’s fondness for their daughter: “Fonder than he is of me” (809). Clearly, Thackeray does not intend to let marriage stand as a shining signifier of the long-sought happy ending.

In short, the novel does not seem to end so much as it does simply stop. As such, we might pause to consider whether this sense of some incompleteness, even arbitrariness, is a failure in Thackeray’s masterpiece or an essential part of his novel’s structure.

It might be particularly useful to ponder this question in light of D.A. Miller’s “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller considers the difficulty which every novelist faces in ending her novel which arises from the non-narratable happy ending. Miller argues that because the movement of a novel arises necessarily from conflict, trouble, or problems of some kind the happy ending cannot be narrated in the same way as the preceding plot. In fact, the novelist must be careful not to attend to her happy ending too closely or its imperfections will inevitably be disclosed, since any presentation of life requires the implicit recognition that life is a process of change and the reality of change reminds us that happiness can go as quickly as it came. Thus, a novelist can only really resolve her story by a sort of sleight of hand, defining the happiness against the conflict which came before while distracting the reader from the many perfectly apparent ways in which the happy ending could be, or already is, problematized.

However, Miller’s “problem of closure” is not a problem for Thackeray at all. If we consider the stated context of the novel along with Thackeray’s narrator’s final words it becomes apparent that the lack of resolution in his novel is no accident but rather an essential part of the novel’s plan. After describing Becky’s rather paltry and unstable success and problematizing Amelia’s marriage by noting her jealousy of her own daughter, Thackeray concludes his novel by reminding us once again that what we have been observing all along is merely the foolish play of Vanity Fair:

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. (809).

Here, Thackeray recognizes with Miller the impossibility of really resolving a novel. There is no ending which can really bring full satisfaction. Or, at least, there is no such ending in Vanity Fair and thus, correspondingly, in Vanity Fair. The very meaning of “vanity” includes the inability to provide ultimate satisfaction or meaning. Thackeray has shown his characters in quest of satisfaction for eight hundred pages, and, while his ending is by no means tragic, it could not be called comic either. Amelia and Becky are still in pursuit of their happy ending, and the readers are shown that that pursuit will likely continue forever uncompleted.

Thackeray not only explicitly denies his readers a happy ending to his story but actually denies them a happy ending in their own lives as well! The narrator’s rhetorical questions clearly imply that it is not only Becky and Amelia who cannot achieve finally satisfying desires but also each of us reading this novel or watching this “play.” We, as readers, might all along have been waiting for, perhaps expecting, satisfaction of our readerly expectations, and Thackeray achieves his ends by purposely flouting those hopes. We have been led to identify, sometimes uncomfortably, with the characters throughout the novel, and now we identify with them in their experience of that nagging feeling that something is still missing.

And if a frustrated reader were to splutter out that, after all that time and effort spent, he felt as if he’d gotten nowhere, we can imagine that Thackeray might well smirk and satirically query, “Do you mean, perhaps, it was all in vain?”

Is power not a means, but an end?

 

How does one define power?  Dictionary.com defines the word as “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.”  While looking at the conflict between Lady Audley and Robert Audley, there is a constant power struggle as they both grapple to push their agendas forward.  Robert’s power is strongly motivational. He is on a quest to discover the whereabouts of George Talboys and this sense of responsibility to provide justice drives him throughout the novel.  Since he is investigating the disappearance of his friend, Robert has this disciplined and focused motivational power that he effectively wields through his ability to inquire and scrutinize every detail that he comes across, ultimately leading to him accusing Lady Audley of the misfortune.  This sense of power can be seen in Volume 1 Chapter 1 when Robert exclaims “Whatever the mystery may be, it grows darker and thicker at every step; but I try in vain to draw back or to stop short upon the road, for a stronger hand than my own is pointing the way to my lost friend’s unknown grave.”  He is essentially describing the force that is compelling him to complete his mission, and this source of motivational power is driven by justice and morality.  Another example of Robert’s motivational power to seek justice is shown in Volume 2 Chapter 4 in the line,”Heaven help those who stand between me and the secret,” Robert thought, “for they will be sacrificed to the memory of George Talboys.” This emphatic exclamation again reinforces the notion that Robert’s power of discovering the truth will allow him to overcome any obstacle in his path.

Lady Audley also yields a considerable amount of power in this piece. Her exquisite beauty and charming nature allow her to escape potentially troubling situations.  Lady Audley’s main source of strength throughout the novel is her ability to deceive.  She successfully does so to Sir Michael Audley and the rest of the Audley court as well as those she interacted with in her previous marriage.  This skillful deception is a grandiose source of power and she couples that with her beauty and charm to rise through the social classes and explore her sinfulness; primarily driven by the will to “survive and thrive”.  We see an example of Lady Audley wielding this power when Robert finally confronts her about the involvement in the disappearance of George Talboys. When she is first hit with the news “Her thoughts wandered away into a weary maze of confusion. Suddenly she drew herself up with a proud, defiant gesture, and her eyes glittered with a light that was not entirely reflected from the fire.”  This exemplifies the constant power struggle that has ensued throughout the literary work and illustrates a brief but important tipping of the scales in Robert’s favor.  When Lady Audley regains herself, she makes the accusation: “You are mad, Mr. Robert Audley,” she said, “you are mad, and your fancies are a madman’s fancies. I know what madness is. I know its signs and tokens, and I say that you are mad.”  While she is able to fend off this claim by threatening the sanity of Robert, we now see that Robert is truly the one with more power. Robert is getting closer to the truth and Lady Audley is beginning to realize that her lies are coming to fruition.  Ultimately, this sense of power can be seen as an end, as there is a fixed amount.  If one were to imagine this power as a scale, for every ounce that Robert gains along the way, Lady Audley must concede the same amount.

Who will prevail, Deception or Truth?

Lady Audley and Robert represent opposing forces that drive this story forward. The build up to the climax of the story is centered around the struggle between these two characters to gain an advantage over the other. Lady Audley’s power comes from her desperately trying to keep her identity a secret, while Robert’s power comes from his friendship with George and his determination to find the truth.

Lady Audley’s deception is made possible by her quick thinking and calculated strategy. She has great power in the fact that she is beautiful and charming and is capable of easily manipulating others as she needs. She has also managed to place herself in a very powerful position as the lady of Audley Court which gives her false stories more merit. While she has inherent power her power also relies on the assumptions and stereotypes she is able to play with. Because she seems beautiful and charming, people assume that she must be a good person, and it reflects the changing role of women in Braddon’s society. However, even when she is at her most powerful, Lady Audley cannot totally execute her deception. small clues keep falling through the cracks such as the way Alicia’s dog growls at her implying that her true nature cannot totally be hidden and the dog recognizes her character.

Robert on the other hand actually feels that women have too much power, and are capable of tricking and manipulating men. He recognizes the power women can wield and sees through Lady Audley’s secret. As he becomes more and more convinced that Lady Audley murdered his friend George and is now deceiving everyone about her true nature, Robert wonders whether all women are inherently deceitful and untrustworthy. He says “I hate women,” … “They’re bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors. Look at this business of poor George’s! It’s all woman’s work from one end to the other.” His speech about women, while negative, assigns them a great deal of power and agency and Robert does not think that women are frail, helpless, or unintelligent. Robert has been trained as a lawyer, but at the beginning of the novel he is not very motivated and lives a lazy lifestyle. Robert becomes so obsessed with the mystery of George’s disappearance, that his efforts to solve the case make him more focused, disciplined, and motivated.

It for these reasons that I think Robert now has the upper hand and holds the most power at this point.  Robert’s search to find his friend combined with his knowledge and new found determination seeks to unravel Lady Audley;s power of deception. I believe this determination stems from Robert’s friendship with George. It is precisely this relationship that causes him to mistrust Lady Audley gives him a powerful motive to find the truth over Lady’s Audley’s own motives for her deception. It is also interesting that while Lady Audley is the primary agent of deception in the novel, it turns out that she herself is being deceived the whole time. Luke allows her to believe that she has killed George; because he tricks her, he gains a great deal of power over her. In this way, I view Lady Audley as similar to a cornered beast. There is great power in her having her back against the wall and her being forced to do whatever is necessary to keep her secrets. However, she is still trapped and Robert is slowly closing her farther and farther into that corner until eventually, something has to give.

Apathy or Sympathy?

Through Braddon’s tactic of heartrending pathos, the possibility of gaining sympathy for Lady Audley is presented to readers. As secrets begin to unravel, Braddon places Lady Audley in a vulnerable state as she reveals her past. This vulnerability leads readers to feel sympathetic for Lady Audley, as she exposes hardship and the chance that she may not be completely responsible for her monstrous actions.

Lady Audley’s impoverished upbringing suggests how social standings and conditions affect mental well-being. Lady Audley explains that she grew up knowing “at a very early age… what it was to be poor” with a father that had “an inability to pay” money (357-358). The destitution that Lucy had to endure as a child gives readers an opportunity to understand why Lady Audley is the way she is. The shame that Lady Audley felt for her poverty-stricken upbringing led her to rely on her beauty, as her “ultimate fate in life depended on her marriage” (359). This dependence exposes the roots of why Lady Audley is so reliant on her appearance and manipulation tactics to gain power over others. This realization provokes readers to truly feel for LA, as her monstrous acts are justified with the possibility that she is simply trying to protect herself since she has never truly been able to rely on anyone but herself.

In addition, the ambiguity about whether or not Lady Audley is genuinely mad leads to the question of whether or not she is truly responsible for her behavior. Lady Audley explains that she grew up with a mother in a madhouse and was required to remain silent about the information. LA further explains that keeping such a secret is what “made [her] selfish and heartless,” and for the first time, admits that her flawless public façade is anything but genuine (359). She explains that her mother’s disease is hereditary and it’s the only thing she expects to inherit from her. The simple disclosure of such possibility completely shifts tone, as the reader automatically questions to what extent LA should be held responsible for her actions if she truly struggles with insanity. The questioning encourages readers to reclaim their judgment towards Lady Audley, potentially shifting their ideas from apathy to sympathy.

Which will conquer: The power of position, or the power of pursuit?

By this point in the novel, it is clear that Lady Audley and Robert Audley are at odds with each other and are engaging in a power struggle revolving around revealing and keeping hidden Lady’s Audley’s secret as well as the whereabouts of George Talboy. While both Lady Audley and Robert each hold an amount of power in their respective ways, it is Robert who can clearly be seen as the the more powerful character, as his power is derived in his passion and relentless pursuit to reveal the truth.

Throughout the novel, Robert has increasingly proven himself to be a bold character and  loyal friend allowing the reader to see that Robert’s power is derived from pure motives and is exerted through his pursuance of answers and evidence to support his theory that George is dead and that Lady Audley is in fact Helen Talboy–George’s “late” wife. Along his journey, Robert picks up substantial evidence such as the address labels from the box from Mrs. Vincent, the golden lock of hair, letters from Helen that match the handwriting of Lady Audley, as well as the matching description of Helen Talboy in the letters he receives from Clara. Through this, we can also see that Robert posesses power in the evidence he has against Lady Audley. The strength of this power is revealed when he confronts Lady Audley in saying “I tell you that the evidence against you wants only one link to be strong enough for your condemnation, and that link should be added” (Vol. 2, Ch. 11, pg. 287).

After rambling off the story and the evidences he has carefully pasted together, Lady Audley’s response is only to say that “You are mad, Mr. Audley!… You are made and my husband shall protect me from your insolence” (Vol. 2, Ch. 11, pg. 287). It is here that we as the reader are able to sense the desperation in Lady Audley’s voice. We are able to see that the only power Lady Audley holds is in her position as wife to Sir Michael Audley. Her power is one fueled by her selfish desires to maintain the life she has schemed up for herself by manipulating those around her. Her only hope is to invoke her charm upon her husband to protect her and believe her innocence, and her only defense is to threaten Robert that “such fancies have sometimes conducted people, as apparently sane as yourself, to the life-long imprisonment of a private lunatic asylum” (Vol. 2, Ch. 11, pg. 289).

However, Robert once again shows the strength and superiority of his power in his unwillingness to back down when he exclaims that “it is to be a duel to the death then my lady!” (Vol. 2, Ch. 11, pg. 290). After their departure, we see that Robert may for the first time, have the upper hand against Lady Audley. It seems as though she is now torn between fear and confidence, her emotional and “rapid throbbing of her heart” (Vol. 2, Ch. 12, pg. 305) reveals the sincere threat she feels because of Roberts accusations. However, she is unwilling to surrender her lifestyle and position as it may be the only power she has left since she has been unable to manipulate Robert into backing down and giving up. Ironically so, while Lady Audley’s secrets were intended to protect her, they are the very think that are increasing throwing Lady Audley into this state of madness, making her unable to feel safe or be at ease.

You wont give up will you Lady Audley?

By the end of Lady Audley’s Secret, the power struggle and dynamics played throughout the course of the novel between Robert and Lady Audley has come to a close. I believe that her power and ability to wield her power by being a non-stereotypical woman of action is accentuated by the lack of forethought of Robert in addition to her “never surrender, never give up” mentality. Lady Audley not only has the ambition and power to bend people to her own will, but also has the audacity to inflict harm upon others. As she is calculated in her power and carries out evil actions, Robert has positive motives but is simply “Sir Michael’s handsome, lazy, care-for-nothing nephew” (Act 1). For Robert, unmasking Lady Audley will reinforce his existing idea of how women should act and exposing her past will end her agreeable relationship with Sir Michael. Lady Audley’s power is in the fact that she is unmovable and so determined in her plans and ideas. For example, this is seen at the conclusion when Robert believes he must fulfill the typical Victorian male duty and demands the subordination of Lady Audley by exposing her. But, since Lady Audley does not represent the ideal woman–controlled and passive–Robert’s power is ineffective. He then pursues a variety of circumstantial evidence. Ironically, in Robert’s investigation of fraud against Lady Audley, he ignores his own fraudulent actions, which only make Lady Audley more powerful. He pretends to be a barrister even though everyone, including Lady Audley, knows he is too lazy to work. As her juror and in his own attempt to assert his power, Robert leaves only one option for Lady Audley: she must leave Audley Court forever. Lady Audley’s response reveals the terror attached to any thoughts of returning to her previous life of poverty: “What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard, cruel wretched life—the life of poverty, and humiliation, and vexation…” (Act 3, pg 328). At this point, Lady Audley’s greatest fear is quickly becoming a reality but just when it seems she has been defeated, she demonstrates her wittiness and resilience. As the claims of madness swirl around her, the narrator intervenes to point out Lady Audley is not insane but she “would be mad if she chose to exit the house by one of the main doors” (Act 3, pg 352). Instead, her final display of power comes in her exit of the house which some would interpret to be her defeat. She stealthily chooses one of the less used doors, suggesting she is indeed not insane; rather her thoughts even in the moment of perceived defeat, are deliberate and calculated once again. She cleverly thwarts Robert’s attempts to destroy her. Ultimately, Lady Audley defies gender roles and lashes out at the males who attempt to dominate and destroy her.