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.

Panning for Gold: Why Should We Listen to Miss Bates?

Miss Bates is famously verbose, a quality Emma dislikes and occasionally ridicules.  Miss Bates’s speech is limited more often by her need to take a breath than by effective interruptions or concerns about her listeners.  Her ramblings are often confusing and fragmented, as Emma mimics after Mrs. Weston suggests to her that Mr. Knightley might love Jane Fairfax: “’So very kind and obliging!—But he always had been such a very kind neighbour!’ And then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat. ‘Not that it was such a very old petticoat either‘” (217).  Much of what she says is empty and little is clearly stated.  So why is she allowed so much space to ramble in the novel itself?  Character-space is limited, particularly in a novel this short, so Miss Bates’s allotted space must be significant.

Austen does not represent all characters’ speeches at length, even when they are important.  For example, Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal to Emma is rendered in description, rather than dialogue:

“she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible” (149).

Letters that might otherwise be interposed into the text are often presented, instead, though Miss Bates’s description of what is in them, and her speech even pushes Emma herself out of the way on occasion.  For example, when Miss Bates comes to Ford’s to invite Emma and Harriet to visit alongside Frank Churchill and Mrs. Weston, a 497-word paragraph of Miss Bates’s idiosyncratic storytelling is followed by:

“Emma would be ‘very happy to wait on Mrs. Bates, &c.,’ and they did at last move out of the shop, with no farther delay from Miss Bates than, ‘How do you do, Mrs. Ford? I beg your pardon. I did not see you before. I hear you have a charming collection of new ribbons from town. Jane came back delighted yesterday. Thank ye, the gloves do very well—only a little too large about the wrist; but Jane is taking them in’” (225).

Emma’s words are reduced to an “&c,” while Miss Bates continues on apace.  Miss Bates is certainly not always present in the novel, but when she is present, she has an unusual ability to take over the narrative space.

One reason for the inclusion of Miss Bates’s rambling is that it often stands in place of longer narration, allowing for a perspective besides Emma’s.  Though the perspectives of other characters are elided when Miss Bates explains their letters rather than reading them, obscuring other perspectives, her rambling at the ball allows us to construct the scene through her perspective, allowing us to see more clearly: “Here is your tippet.  Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet . . . My dear Jane, indeed you must.  Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! – How well you put it on! – so gratified!” (291).  As she talks to Frank, we know where he is and what he’s doing – putting on Jane’s tippet, offering both Jane and Miss Bates his arm to go through the passage to dinner, and helping the ladies get seated – but we experience it not through Emma’s perspective, but through Miss Bates’s.  The absence of Emma’s perspective allows us to read Frank’s actions without Emma’s assumptions obscuring them.  Miss Bates’s fragmentary narrative does not render his actions clearly, but it allows the audience a different perspective.

Miss Bates’s rambling also hides information about the town’s activities that Emma does not pick up on, allowing the audience a fuller understanding of things.  As she announces Mr. Elton’s upcoming marriage, she says:

“Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever—Mrs. Cole once whispered to me—but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man—but’—In short, I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. I do not pretend to it. What is before me, I see. At the same time, nobody could wonder if Mr. Elton should have aspired—Miss Woodhouse lets me chatter on, so good-humouredly. She knows I would not offend for the world” (181).

It is clear that the townspeople have been engaged in some matchmaking gossip of their own, discussing Mr. Elton’s “aspirations” and never quite saying what those were “whispered” to be.  Emma cannot read what Miss Bates says because she is not listening, but the audience can put together clues about what has been going on in town and realize that Emma is not as clever or unique as she pretends.  Emma makes several assumptions about what “everybody” must think, but Miss Bates allows us to see other options, leading us to question Emma’s assertions.

Bellamy’s Gun: Weaponized Emotions in Burney’s Camilla

Alphonso Bellamy, born Nicholas Gwigg, is what my roommate’s high school students would call “extra.” From the false name to the directness of his evil plots against Eugenia to the overblown speeches he makes toward her, almost every aspect of his character is extremely extra. All of these excesses make him more caricature than character, the ‘fortune-seeker’ who serves as a foil to more realized characters who pursue a wealthy marriage more subtly.

If Bellamy is meant to show us something about the other characters by his excesses, it’s important to consider his most extreme – and ultimately fatal – excess. Bellamy’s threats of suicide exceed Sir Sedley’s melodramatic flailings or Sir Hugh and Camilla’s fits. So, what are these threats of suicide revealing about everyone else’s behaviors?

Bellamy’s threats seem, at first glance, much like Sedley’s repeated insistence that Camilla is hurting him by not returning his favors. In one of his letters, Sedley asks, “Tomorrow, then, . . . you will not, I trust, kill me again tomorrow?” (553). ‘Killing’ is clearly a metaphor; she can’t kill him ‘again’ if she hasn’t already killed him once, and he can’t be writing if he is actually dead. He follows with an exhortation that she “tell me, then, to what century of that period your ingenious cruelty condemns me to this expiring state, ere a vivifying smile recalls me back to life?” (553). This is a little bit extra, but it’s also clearly metaphorical and, given the character, possibly tongue-in-cheek.  The two men are similar (perhaps not to Sedley’s credit) but are not the same.

Camilla interprets the letter as an indication that “Sir Sedley thought her only coquettishly trifling,” and assumes he is responding to her according to socially-accepted conventions (553). She’s embarrassed, but not afraid. Bellamy’s serious threats, in contrast to Sedley’s facetious ones, make Eugenia “overcome with horror” and convince her to agree to marry him on the spot (806). This could be read as an indication that Camilla ‘reads’ people better than Eugenia does, because the former realizes that there’s no literal threat to Sedley’s life while Eugenia does not realize that Bellamy is not likely to actually kill himself.

However, this similarity could also be read as an indication of Bellamy’s bad intentions, in contrast to Sedley’s mostly good ones. Bellamy does not technically commit suicide, but he does prove his seriousness by using a real, loaded gun the second time he threatens Eugenia. He could frighten her with an empty gun, but he goes beyond empty rhetoric to a loaded gun. Where Sedley hopes to persuade Camilla to go along with him, Bellamy steps over the bounds of persuasion and into coersion.

If the point of the suicide threats is to show the way emotions can be used not only as pathos appeals, but also as methods of direct control, we might ask who else’s emotions are weaponized in the text. Many characters try to elicit pity in the others, but a few wield more extensive emotional power. Sir Hugh’s emotions define life at Cleves, and while his family members don’t seem to mind, they are also frequently afraid to upset him or argue with him because he may go into a fit and die. Sir Hugh does not seem to be making himself ill on purpose, or intentionally wielding the threat of getting ill in order to get he wants, but his constant illnesses do give him more power over his family members.  In particular, the girls are often compelled to feel or feign happiness in order to appease him.

Similarly, Camilla’s letters home from the inn capitalize rhetorically on her upcoming death, and ultimately her deathbed letter to Edgar convinces him of her love. Like her uncle, Camilla is suffering from actual physical illness and genuinely believes herself to be dying. Certainly, the instruction that her letter to Edgar be delivered only after her death precludes it from being read as an intentional coercion tactic. That does not mean her emotions aren’t being weaponized – though it might mean that, like Bellamy, these weaponized emotions are as much, or more, of a threat to her than they are to everyone else, as her body threatens to give out. In a novel driven by attempts to control one’s own emotions while reading others’, weaponized emotions are both powerful and dangerous, even toward the person wielding those emotions.

“What are the rules I am to observe from this awful lecture?”

The back cover of the Penguin edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela notes that Mr. B “serves this unusual love story as both its villain and its hero.” In practice, this combination is messy, and it is often unclear whether he ought to be read as villain or hero, even after the wedding.

Late in the text, and after their marriage, Mr. B lectures Pamela about the behavior he expects from his wife, in a strange passage made stranger by the list that follows it. Pamela is a great writer, but she is not a great writer of long, enumerated lists like this one. This raises the question of how we should read this structurally unique passage. Pamela boils Mr. B’s lecture down to a series of maxims, some of which she accepts and some of which she pushes back against, then concludes that his rules are all, when taken together, “very tolerable; since a generous man, and a man of sense, cannot be too much obliged” (470). But is Mr. B a generous man of sense? Is he the hero? Or does his lecture reveal him, instead, to be the villain in disguise?

Mr. B stresses the importance of control, describing the way rich people are raised not to accept being controlled and concludes that “as I knew I could not bear contradiction, surely I was in the right to decline entering into that state [marriage] with a woman who, by her education, was so likely to give it” (466). It is for this reason that he “ha[s] not gone among this class of people for a wife” (466). Has Mr. B, then, married Pamela not in spite of her lower class status, but because of it? On these grounds, ought we not to expect him to continue to control her, as he did before they were married? Pamela does not raise these concerns, leaving this part out of her summary. She is concerned by his repeated insistence on her compliance, asking several times who gets to judge whether the husband’s requests are “reasonable and just,” but does not question his honesty (469). The reader might wonder, instead, if Mr. B plans to use the power of his higher social class against Pamela in the future, even as he insists that Pamela be treated as a lady.

If we don’t read this speech as an indication that Mr. B plans to directly control Pamela, we might read it as an example of his emotionally manipulative nature. Early in his speech, he threatens to stop loving her if she does not comply with his wishes: “when you are so good as to bend like the slender reed, to the hurricane, rather than, like the sturdy oak, to resist it, you will always stand firm in my kind opinion; while a contrary conduct would uproot you, with all your excellencies, from my soul” (462). In the context of Lady Davers’s uncertainty about whether his anger was real or just “art,” this threat reads as direct emotional manipulation. He may not be threatening material harm, but he is threatening not to love her anymore, a classic emotional abuse tactic that brings her into compliance, but indicates possible trouble in the future, when he either stops loving her or prevents her from speaking against him by manipulating her emotions.

Although both of these readings suggest that Mr. B is still an abuser, and a villain, this passage could also be read as an indication that they will have a successful marriage. Pamela commits to follow his rules, even though it is “not the easiest task in the world,” and suggests that knowing his expectations is better than not knowing them (470). A generous reading of his character might suggest that he genuinely does intend to only ask “reasonable and just” things of her and that he is equally committed to the success of their marriage and to encouraging Pamela’s happiness. We might read this passage as equipping Pamela to make him happy and emphasizing his own determination to make her happy in return by being reasonable and just. In this case, he is still the hero.

Each of these readings has implications for how seriously we ought to take these maxims as advice. The title page of the 1801 edition says the book is “Published in order to cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes,” and the preface says the work includes “practical examples, worthy to be followed in the most critical and affecting cases, by the virgin, the bride, and the wife” (30-31). But their source matters; if Mr. B is a villain, we might follow Pamela’s example in questioning his advice, and if he is a hero, we might follow her example in accepting it.

Sophia’s Character and Her (Mrs) Honour

Sophia Western, we may be assured, is completely perfect. She is beautiful, generous, dutiful, and kind, even to people of lower social ranks. High and low alike commend her for her kindness and gentleness. So why, then, does she get angry at Honour, rather than maintaining her usual patience and kindness?

When Honour tells Sophia about Molly Seagrim’s pregnancy with Tom’s child, Sophia addresses her “with a more peevish voice than she had ever spoken to her in before,” accuses her of being jealous of Molly, and sends her away angrily (170-1). Though she later apologizes for this specific instance, there are other times when Honour seems to exceed Sophia’s patience.

Sophia’s irritation with Honour does not last long, and upon realizing that she is actually upset about Tom’s behavior, not Honour’s, this revelation “for the time expelled her distemper,” so that by the time Honour returns, “she [is] become perfectly easy” (171). Fielding reveals the source of her irritation as really part of the larger story. In other instances of irritation, as when after being betrothed to Blifil she criticizes Honour “with a very grave countenance” and criticizes her for taking liberties which she has not encouraged, she is similarly caught up in her own problems (253). Is this lack of patience, then, an illustration of how love has already changed Sophia? Does it foreshadow the ways in which the problems of her love life will drive her to actions generally opposed to her character, like defying her father?

Alternately, we might observe that Honour is often irritating to the reader, running on without end and frequently introducing a dependent clause which never arrives at its corresponding independent clause, so distracted is she by all the other things which tumble out of her mouth in the interim. When Sophia “check[s] the torrent, as there seemed no end of its flowing,” ought readers to feel themselves saved, by her, from further irritation (178)? Ought we read her as, after all, only human, and given to the natural human irritation we already feel toward Honour’s droning on?

Yet still, we might wonder if these incidents with Honour reveal something of Sophia’s character that Fielding, so in love with her, refuses to acknowledge. Honour seems genuinely afraid to cross or upset Sophia, and though the latter does speak up for Honour when her father catches them in London, Honour is quickly persuaded to work for Lady Bellaston, even against Sophia’s interest (703). Though we could read this as an indication of Honour’s weaknesses, first in irritating Sophia and then in willingly working for a lady not very virtuous, we might also wonder if Sophia has some part in causing the comparative unkindness between them. Is she really so unlike her father and aunt as to never tend toward being demanding or authoritative with those close to her? Is she then, in actuality, not only really human, but really a Western?

Sophia’s fits of pique against Honour are generally brief and often not particularly intense, in the context of a novel with as many fist fights as this one has. Even so, they may reveal something of her character. What that might be I shall leave, as does Fielding, to the reader.