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.”