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).

Sentimentalism and Secret Engagements

Secret engagements are a bad business in Austen’s universe. Emma calls Frank and Jane’s engagement “a very abominable sort of proceeding,” and despite her compassionate feelings for Jane at the novel’s end, believes Miss Fairfax allowed her affection to “overpower her judgment” (III.1, III.12). Mr. Knightley agrees, calling Jane’s consenting to the engagement her “one fault” (III.15). For their part, Frank and Jane admit in several instances that their actions are cause for guilt and repentance.

How should modern readers understand the condemnation so forcefully placed upon Frank and Jane’s secret agreement? Why do Austen’s characters — Mr. Knightley in particular — believe the couple to have acted improperly? Mrs. Churchill’s discovery of the relationship would have no doubt ended all communication between the lovers, and, while their actions are deceptive to a certain degree, they could have been painted in a more positively romantic light than Austen chooses to use.

Frank’s actions are perhaps more understandably reprehensible. In his flirtations with Emma, he needlessly exposed her to censure from the community and heartbreak for herself. As Emma states, he came among them with “professions of openness and simplicity” and led them to believe they were all on “an equal footing of truth and honour” (III.10). Emma’s feelings, of course, are colored by her embarrassment: Frank’s honesty would have saved her from unkind conjectures about Jane and Mr. Dixon. But Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley share Emma’s belief in Frank’s impropriety, and Frank himself admits he acted poorly in hiding his engagement and flirting with Emma.

But what of Jane? She feels the weight of her part in the scheme, as evidenced by her sickness, but her actions are less clearly worthy of blame. She never flirts with other men or acts, like Frank, with a deceptively “open temper” that serves to hide “trick and littleness” (II.7, III.10). And yet, Jane feels guilty. She tells Mrs. Weston that she “never can be blameless”: “I have been acting contrary to all my sense of right; …and the kindness I am now receiving, is what my conscience tells me ought not to be” (III.12). Jane’s decision to enter into a secret engagement is private and personal. But both she and her community seem to believe that she owes them a window into her most intimate secrets. How can we account for this?

I’m sure this question could be answered from a historical perspective to shed light on proper nineteenth century courtship practices. This would be an important and interesting analysis, but I wonder if the novel’s portrayal of Jane’s actions also reveals its indebtedness to eighteenth century sentimental fiction. Understanding Jane’s feeling of guilt, I think, may shed light on the larger role of sentimentality in Austen’s world.

Emma criticizes Jane throughout the novel for being too “reserved.” The narrator, channeling Emma, even says that Jane was “disgustingly… suspiciously reserved” (II.2). Readers understand (and Emma later admits) that the heroine’s dislike of Miss Fairfax stems primarily from jealousy. But Emma’s observation about Jane isn’t wrong. Mr. Knightley, in one of his most obvious signs of affection for Emma, says that “Jane Fairfax has feeling… but [her temper] wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be—And I love an open temper” (III.15). In this passage Mr. Knightley, arguably (arguably!) the moral compass of the novel, echoes Emma’s desire for open and honest sensibility.

It is not enough to have feeling, according to Knightley. To be a good sentimental character, Jane must show that feeling as well. It is a social behavior, and Jane’s community has a right to know her emotions. Emma observes late in the novel that the more sensibility Jane “betrays” of the horrors of living with the Bates, “the more I shall like you” (III.6). Jane’s decision to keep her engagement a secret thus precludes her from displaying true sensibility. Her decision may be personal, but if she wants to interact properly with her community, it cannot be private. Jane’s lack of sensibility is her true crime, and, I think, one of the reasons the novel condemns her actions.

Understanding Emma as indebted to sentimental fiction sheds light on other characters as well. The narrator’s emphasis on both Emma and Knightley’s sensibility, for example, sets them apart as morally exemplary (despite their other flaws). Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse also fall into this category. While they both possess tiresome habits, they are entirely open and honest about their feelings. The novel thus presents them in a positive light and the other characters conceive of them as such.

With all this being said, there appears in Emma, alongside a valorization of sensibility, a desire to keep emotion in check. Despite her open temper, Emma constantly tries (and usually, unlike Camilla, succeeds) to hide her true feelings. When Mr. Knightley tells Emma of Harriet’s engagement, Emma cannot look at him for fear she will betray the true extent of her happiness. She frequently has to hide her feelings from Harriet and keep her dislike of Mrs. Elton in check. Fully explaining this tension would require a much longer analysis, but Austen seems to be advocating for a controlled show of sensibility. While public emotional responses are appropriate in certain settings, sometimes feelings need to be concealed. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of this tension or the precise balance between sentiment and restraint that Emma works to encourage.

Is this real life?

In the chapter immediately prior to Edgar’s first proposal, Camilla, fearing for Edgar’s life at the paws of a vicious bull dog, catches her beau’s arm and asks if he’s hurt. Transported, Edgar can “hardly trust his senses, hardly believe he existed” (539). It’s unclear whether his confusion stems from his “revulsion” to Camilla’s forwardness or his subsequent hope in her “tenderness,” but, in any case, he continues in a “perturbation of hope, fear, and joy” until he (FINALLY) pops the question (540).

Camilla is, in many ways, a novel about control. The text explores which outside influences might control its characters (will Camilla submit to Mr. Tyrold or Mrs. Albery?), but it’s even more interested in whether its characters can control themselves. Camilla’s inability to control her heart and her actions is, ostensibly, the novel’s primary conflict. The final page declares that she nearly fell sacrifice to “Imprudence,” and her long string of debts testify to her obliviousness and lack of self-control (913).

Given these concerns, it’s strange that Edgar—the epitome, indeed, the paragon of restraint—can only declare his love for Camilla after losing control of himself and his very sense of existence.

But this isn’t the only time Burney brings her characters together via a loss of control.

At several points during Camilla’s guilt-induced vision, the narrator observes that she can neither control her heart nor her hand as both give voice to her willingness to die (874-875). Her inability to control her own passing induces her to ask for a parson, which, in turn, brings Edgar back into her life. After learning that Edgar remains at the hotel, her thoughts echo Edgar’s sentiment from the bull dog incident: “She doubted all around her, doubted what she heard, doubted even her existence” (879). Shortly thereafter, Edgar once again proposes marriage.

The circumstances surrounding each incident are different, of course. Camilla’s loss of control does not lead her into felicity in the same manner as Edgar’s. But it’s significant, I think, that both proposals are in close proximity to one of the two main characters doubting their existence. In a novel about the dangerous of obliviousness, why do Edgar and Camilla come together only after they feel themselves slip into oblivion?

The answer to this question might shed light on the social critique Burney attempts in the novel. While Camilla rightly feels the weight of her imprudence, the text also suggests that self-awareness has its own set of drawbacks. Camilla’s “naturalness” is what initially draws Edgar to her side, but she nearly loses him when she acts disingenuously with Sir Sedley. Edgar, in turn, must first forget himself and his own anxieties before he can ask for Camilla’s hand.

In this way, perhaps, Burney could be pushing back against social norms that value reason and self-control as the guiding virtues to which all young people should aspire. Edgar and Camilla come together (at least in part) in what can only be described as moments of temporary insanity. These situations are not optimal, of course, but in a world controlled by a strict code of social etiquette, maybe love needs a little crazy to end in happiness.

(This is the video the title references, if you need a laugh: “David After Dentist”)

We’re Married. Now What?

In “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel,” D.A. Miller observes that marriage in Austen’s Emma “virtually must end the novel.” To continue the story after Emma and Mr. Knightley tie the knot would be to suggest that conflict and “lack” still exist in the relationship. Marriage, according to Miller, answers the novel’s “specified narrative question”: will Emma get married?* Once the novel answers this question, the narrative must cease.

The same, perhaps, could be said of Tom Jones. Tom and Sophia’s mutual pursuit drives much of the novel, so when both parties secure their quarry (as Mr. Western might say), the novel ends with their marriage.

Pamela does not end when Mr. B and his ever-virtuous maidservant get hitched. If Miller is correct, then, one might wonder what “specified narrative question” Richardson was looking to answer. Pamela’s marriage both assures and rewards her virtue—why does the novel continue for an additional 125 pages?

This question gets at the heart of Richardson’s purpose in writing Pamela. If his subtitle is to be believed, one of his aims (or “narrative questions”) was to show how his heroine’s virtue is rewarded. That reward certainly includes her marriage, but the author’s decision to continue the narrative suggests that marriage does not constitute the sum of her reward.

Pamela’s own anxiety betrays the possible insufficiency of her marriage. The afternoon following her nuptials, she says her heart is “so sad” and her apprehensions “so great,” and even Mr. B notes her “downcast countenance” and “over-anxious solicitude” (377, 379). The next day she remains uneasy, saying that Mr. B had to “strengthen” her heart with a discussion of her parents (380).

Marriage, it seems, isn’t quite the reward for which Pamela had hoped, and a closer look at the final few days of her narrative might clarify some of the tensions we find therein (more on that in a minute). Furthermore, if we take Richardson’s novel as both fiction and conduct book, understanding the extent of Pamela’s reward might also give us a window into what Richardson’s society thought should (or could) rightly follow a virtue like Pamela’s.

There are two potentially confusing moments within the text of the novel that I believe may point towards Pamela’s true reward. Four days after Pamela and Mr. B marry, Sir Simon notes that Pamela has “now… become one of us” (399). I found this statement, coming from a member of the upper classes, to be nearly unbelievable, but Sir Simon is far from alone in his quick acceptance of Mr. B’s housemaid. Virtually every aristocrat except Lady Davers is gracious to Pamela and welcomes her as Mr. B’s wife. And once Lady Davers comes around, the novel ends shortly thereafter. Perhaps, then, Pamela’s quick ascension into the upper classes is her ultimate reward, which reinforces the “progressive” nature Michael McKeon assigns to Richardson’s work.

Second, as I mentioned, Pamela’s apprehension following her marriage is strange, especially if readers are expecting the novel to end as many marriage plots do. But that apprehension disappears without warning on “Sunday, the Fourth Day of my Happiness,” when Pamela says she is “quite easy, chearful, and free in my spirits” (392). This sudden change comes the morning after a chariot ride in which Mr. B promises financial security to both Pamela and her parents. The novel ends, furthermore, three pages after Mr. B assures Pamela of her financial security even upon his death, which Pamela calls a greater “regard” than she could have “wished, hoped for, or even thought of” (509). If marriage cannot answer Richardson’s “narrative question,” maybe financial stability can. It is, at any rate, the point at which the “narratable” moves into the “nonnarratable” and Richardson’s novel achieves closure.

Still, the question remains—how do we read Richardson’s decision to continue his novel past his protagonists’ marriage? Was he trying to give Pamela her true reward, or did he have another aim in mind? What was he looking to communicate to his readers and especially to the young women to whom the novel was directed?

*Emma asks other narrative questions, of course, but Miller’s analysis suggests that this is the most significant one.

“To Say the Truth”: Who Does This Narrator Think He Is?

A rigorously scientific application of the CTRL-F function on Project Gutenburg’s Tom Jones reveals 65 instances of the phrase “to say the truth.” Other variants of the phrase, including “to acknowledge the truth,” “to speak the truth,” and “to confess the truth” can be found as well. Not all instances of “to say the truth” appear in the narrator’s voice, but most do.

Given the clear dissonance between the narrator’s opinion of his characters and what the characters actually do, I can’t help but suspect that the narrator might be protesting too much (methinks). One can only claim to speak the truth so many times before one’s readers begin to get suspicious.

But what could the narrator’s verbal tic accomplish besides emphasizing that he is, quite frankly, full of it? Could Fielding be commenting on the (in)ability of a novel to reflect reality? Is he giving his readers another satisfying moment of disingenuousness? Or am I falling into the same self-righteous trap that Fielding warns us against, believing myself to have seen through the façade when the real truth is right in front of my face?

Not that the narrator himself gives us any real hints. In Book I he admits that he is “not possessed of any touchstone which can distinguish the true from the false” (Ch. 10). Then in Book III he backtracks by claiming to have a special “inspiration” from which he can “open and discover” the true character of people like Thwackum and Square (Ch. 5). He calls Mrs. Western “good-humored” and “knowledgeable” (Book VI, Ch. 2), but time and again shows her to be neither.

So which is it, Mr. Narrator? Are you an all-knowing guide with a direct line to your characters’ thoughts and feelings? Or are you, like us, trying to unravel the actions of your protagonists as you go along? How are we to read the layers between your characters, you, and the true author of Tom Jones?

For someone so concerned with “the truth,” Fielding’s narrator certainly makes his readers work hard to grasp it. I suppose this work is part of the novel’s charm, but it is nonetheless frustrating to work through a story so fraught with narrative pitfalls.

The narrator is no doubt unreliable, but there are moments (especially in the introductory chapters) when he seems to be in earnest. He consistently carries certain themes – the “mixed” nature of good-natured people, for example – throughout the novel. Should I call these ideas into question because at other moments he seems to be purposefully leading me astray? Who is this narrator, and can I trust him to, as he says, “get thee down without breaking thy neck”? (Book I, Ch. 4).