Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Vanity Fair. Place on the way to the Celestial City that John Bunyan created in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), which represents the destructive temptations of the world. For Thackeray, “Vanity Fair” is likewise the place where lusts and pleasures are bought and sold, but for him the moral dimension of the threat of damnation is minimized. His Vanity Fair is mildly amusing and satirical; his characters are like puppets, jockeying for social position and money. His novel has no hero or heroine, but only his panoramic view of various versions of Vanity Fair, all filled with snobbery and acquisitiveness.
Miss Pinkerton’s Minerva House Academy
Miss Pinkerton’s Minerva House Academy. Girls’ school in which the wealthy Amelia Sedley and her orphaned friend, Rebecca Sharp, are trained. The importance of position and money is immediately obvious in the academy, for Amelia is polished with husband-acquiring skills, while the orphan Rebecca must earn her keep by teaching French, and she must also soon become a governess in the household of the wealthy Lord Pitt Crawley. The social contrast between the two students is also made obvious in parallel scenes at Dr. Swishtail’s School, whose male students include the wealthy and snobbish George Osborne and the modest grocer’s son, William Dobbin.
*Vauxhall. Pleasure gardens in London that represent...
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Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo
The Napoleonic Wars began in the late 1790s, with Napoleon Bonaparte leading the revolutionary government in France. For the next several years, the British suffered military defeats at sea, several attempted invasions by the French, as well as the economic inflation and disruption that often accompany war. The British formed a series of alliances to fight the French, and the Fourth Coalition, comprising Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, succeeded in routing Napoleon and exiling him in 1814. In 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile on the island of Elba and retook the French throne. It is this event that brings the major characters of Vanity Fair to Brussels and leads to the famous Battle of Waterloo.
At the news of Napoleon's return, the Fourth Coalition nations quickly committed a force of 150,000 soldiers to gather in Belgium and invade France on July 1, 1815. The British general, Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, was the chief commander of the coalition force. Napoleon responded by planning a secretive, preemptive strike against the assembling troops. He reached the Belgian border on June 14, with nearly 125,000 troops, and crossed it...
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It was during the Victorian period (1837-1901) that the novel became the dominant literary form. Vanity Fair is considered one of the classic novels of the era. It was common for novels to be published serially, in magazines or in stand-alone sections. Vanity Fair was first published serially, and the early parts were published before the later ones were written. This at least partly explains the novel's many irregularities. A character may be called by different names in different sections (Mrs. Bute Crawley may be Barbara or Martha; Glorvina may be Glorvina Mahoney, the sister of Mrs. O'Dowd, or Glorvina O'Dowd, the sister of the general). One name may also be shared by multiple minor characters, and both the narrative and the passage of time may jump and start in unexpected directions. In one particularly confusing instance, Thackeray relates the details of Joseph's visit to his family and then has Amelia receive a letter from Joseph informing her that his visit will be delayed. To put it simply, Thackeray made it up as he went along, without undue concern for consistency. The novel's generous length and enormous cast of characters are also characteristic of the time.
Thackeray and Charles Dickens were the leading lights in Victorian fiction, constantly compared and always uncomfortable around each other. Dickens was born a year after...
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Compare and Contrast
Early to Mid-Nineteenth Century: People are routinely sent to prison when they are unable to pay their debts. Debtors' prisons are crowded, even during the relatively prosperous Victorian Age, and conditions are deplorable. Those who do not have family members or other benefactors to pay their debts sometimes spend years in prison. Charles Dickens and other authors write movingly of the plight of debtors, and reformers seek to abolish the prisons.
Today: Debtors' prisons have been replaced by bankruptcy laws, which allow debtors to have most debts forgiven and to make a fresh financial start. Even during the economic boom of the 1990s, millions of individuals and small businesses declare bankruptcy.
Early to Mid-Nineteenth Century: Although the former American colonies have won their independence, the British Empire still spans the globe. India explored and exploited by the British East India Company, is now completely under British rule and is the "jewel in the crown." Britain also has colonies in Africa, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Today: What was once the British Empire is now the British Commonwealth, a collection of former colonies, most of which are independent nations, with formal ties to Britain. Among the Commonwealth nations are India, Canada,...
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Topics for Further Study
Do some research on Thackeray's life. Write an essay exploring some ways in which the author's life experiences are reflected in the characters and the story of Vanity Fair.
Compare and contrast Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Consider each woman's background, personality, values, strengths and weaknesses, and fate. What, if any, similarities do they share? What elements do you find that point to why they each turned out as they did?
Imagine that you are Miss Matilda Crawley. Write your last will and testament, telling to whom you are leaving your fortune and why.
Research the Battle of Waterloo. Give some possible reasons for Thackeray's having included it as a setting in the novel. Why is this battle a fitting background for these characters and their story?
How is the society in which you live similar to the one depicted in Vanity Fair, and how is it different? Present your answer in any form you choose, such as an essay, short story, or poem.
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Unabridged audio versions of Vanity Fair have been published by Audiobook Contractors (1987), Books on Tape, Inc. (1989), and Blackstone Audio Books (1999, in two parts, with Frederick Davidson as the reader). Abridged versions have been published by Highbridge Co. (1997, with Timothy West as the reader), Naxos Audio Books (1997, with Jane Lapotaire as the reader), and HarperCollins (1999, with Miriam Margolyes as the reader).
Films were made of Vanity Fair in 1911, 1915 1922 1923, 1932. The 1932 movie was directed by Chester M. Franklin, written by F. Hugh Herbert, and starred Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp. A new film is in production with Janette Day as the producer and scriptwriters Matthew Faulk and Mark Street.
Vanity Fair was made into a television miniseries in 1971, 1987, and 1998. The 1971 version, directed by David Giles III and written by Rex Tucker, is available on videotape. The 1987 version was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and Michael Owen Morris and written by Alexander Baron. The 1998 version was directed by Marc Munden and written by Andrew Davies, and starred Natasha Little as Becky Sharp. It also is available on videotape.
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What Do I Read Next?
W. M. Thackeray Library, edited by Richard Pearson and published in 1996, presents an array of Thackeray's writing, including short fiction and nonfiction, plus a full-length biography by Lewis Melville.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, was published in 1847, the same year in which the first installments of Vanity Fair appeared. Brontë's novel has some similarities to Thackeray's in that the main character is an orphaned English governess who becomes romantically involved with her employer.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, also was published in 1847. Like Vanity Fair, it is considered one of the classics of Victorian literature. The novel is a story of romance and revenge.
Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens was first published serially in 1857. Another Victorian classic, Dickens's book tells the story of Amy Dorrit, born in the debtors' prison where her father lives. Major themes are social class, financial reversals, and romance.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brontë, Charlotte, Preface to Jane Eyre, Clarendon Press, 1969.
Colby, Robert A., "Historical Introduction," in Vanity Fair, Garland, 1989, pp. 632-37.
Cuddon, J. A., The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 827-32.
Forster, John, Examiner, No. 2112, July 22, 1848, pp. 468-70.
Karlson, Marilyn Naufftus, "William Makepeace Thackeray," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 55: Victorian Prose Writers Before 1867, edited by William B. Thesing, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 303-14.
Lewes, George Henry, Athenaeum, No. 1085, August 12, 1848, pp. 794-97.
Peck, Harry Thurston, Studies in Several Literatures, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1909, pp. 149-61.
Ray, Gordon N., ed., The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, 1945-1946, p. 309.
Review of Vanity Fair, in London Review, Vol. XVI, No. XXXII, July 1861, pp. 291-94.
Mitchell, Sally, Daily Life in Victorian England, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.
This comprehensive look at both city and country life in Victorian England covers social classes, morals, economics and finance, laws, and more. It includes illustrations and excerpts from primary source...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Makepeace Thackeray. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Contemporary critical anthology brings together essays on Thackeray’s main novels. Excellent starting place for discussion of Thackeray’s major works.
Harden, Edgar F. The Emergence of Thackeray’s Serial Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. Discussion of the serial structure of five novels, including Vanity Fair, with focus upon the manuscripts and process of composition as the novels evolved. Explains how the fact that the novel was written in serial installments shaped its form.
Ray, Gordon N. “Thackeray: ‘The Newcomes.’ ” In The Age of Wisdom (1847-1864). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958. The authoritative biography of Thackeray, authorized by the Thackeray family. The two volume set contains an in-depth study of Thackeray as well as an excellent study of the novel.
Sundell, M. G., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Vanity Fair.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Comprehensive collection of six essays on such topics as characters, form, theme, and content. Eight short viewpoints give concise focus to various elements of the novel.
Tillotson, Kathleen. “Vanity Fair.” In Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander...
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