Monday 18 July 2011

Quite lonely and almost happy

I need to say first off that although I am only a little more than halfway through William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, I am certain that it is one of the finest novels I have ever read. The writing is superb, the observations of society and social interaction matched in wit, incisiveness, and subtle compassion only, in my opinion, by George Eliot's observations of the individual. I am certain I will re-read it many times if I manage to live to a ripe old age.

I both lament and celebrate the fact that I am just now coming to Thackeray's brilliance; I lament it for obvious reasons and celebrate it because there is much to look forward to. For while he was not so prolific as Anthony Trollope, Thackeray was not idle either; indeed, the problem will be in finding his less known works in print. Having being commanded by a fellow book-obsessed “tweep” to find, stat, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, I was disappointed to discover that not only is it not available in my public library, but it's also not available online in Canada at all! I can, of course, get an affordable copy sent from the UK but I maintain a perverse desire to buy locally and in person. I will keep an eagle eye out for it in my local bookshops until I either find it or give in out of desperation and buy it on teh interwebs. Of course, if one of my gentle readers has an extra copy, I'd be willing to pay postage to have you send it to me....

But about Vanity Fair! Thackeray famously subtitled this great book “A Novel Without a Hero”; and rather than introducing us to a protagonist to start, he instead begins revealing a world in which there is much gaiety, but little real happiness. This is a melancholy place in spite of the flash and chintz that blinds the eye and merry, tinkling sounds that draw the ear. Vanity Fair lacks a hero, as well as either morals or a moral:
As the 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. There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the faces of the actors and buffoons when they come off from their business; and Tom Fool washing the paint off his cheeks before he sits down to dinner with his wife and the little Jack Puddings behind the canvas. The curtain will be up presently, and he will be turning over head and heels, and crying, "How are you?"

A man with a reflective turn of mind, walking through an exhibition of this sort, will not be oppressed, I take it, by his own or other people's hilarity. An episode of humour or kindness touches and amuses him here and there—a pretty child looking at a gingerbread stall; a pretty girl blushing whilst her lover talks to her and chooses her fairing; poor Tom Fool, yonder behind the waggon, mumbling his bone with the honest family which lives by his tumbling; but the general impression is one more melancholy than mirthful. When you come home you sit down in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind, and apply yourself to your books or your business.

I have no other moral than this to tag to the present story of "Vanity Fair." (Before the Curtain)
The novel proper initially bears out the entire lack of heroism claim in the preface. Until page 40 or so, we're introduced only to the cunning and selfish (although entirely compelling) Becky Sharp; the sweet but weak, naive, and self-absorbed Amelia Sedley; the ladies and girls adorned with an amazing variety of character defects at Miss Pinkerton's academy for girls; and the mostly obnoxious little twerps and jerks at Dr. Swishtail's famous school for boys. Yet, at Swishtail's there is also an unexpected and unusual young fellow named William Dobbin. Young Dobbin is awkward, unhandsome, no great scholar, and socially a failure; he is a grocer's son at a school housing little hellions generally more privileged than he is; he is distinguished only for not fitting in and failing to prove that his exclusion and abuse are inappropriate.

Indeed, William is a sad, solitary, and thoughtful kind of boy, exactly the kind of boy that does not belong in the sad, loud, energetic glory of Vanity Fair. The constant target of Mr Cuff (school bully and acknowledged king of the boys), Dobbin tries not to cause trouble and to find a measure of contentment in a way that would most surely be recognized by poor Tom Pinch, that is, he keeps to himself and reads a great deal. William is "quite lonely and almost happy":
Well, William Dobbin had for once forgotten the world, and was away with Sindbad the Sailor in the Valley of Diamonds, or with Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peribanou in that delightful cavern where the Prince found her, and whither we should all like to make a tour; when shrill cries, as of a little fellow weeping, woke up his pleasant reverie; and looking up, he saw Cuff before him, belabouring a little boy.
Down came the stump with a great heavy thump on the child's hand. A moan followed. Dobbin looked up. The Fairy Peribanou had fled into the inmost cavern with Prince Ahmed: the Roc had whisked away Sindbad the Sailor out of the Valley of Diamonds out of sight, far into the clouds: and there was everyday life before honest William; and a big boy beating a little one without cause.

"Hold out your other hand, sir," roars Cuff to his little schoolfellow, whose face was distorted with pain. Dobbin quivered, and gathered himself up in his narrow old clothes.

"Take that, you little devil!" cried Mr. Cuff, and down came the wicket again on the child's hand.—Don't be horrified, ladies, every boy at a public school has done it. Your children will so do and be done by, in all probability. Down came the wicket again; and Dobbin started up.

I can't tell what his motive was. Torture in a public school is as much licensed as the knout in Russia. It would be ungentlemanlike (in a manner) to resist it. Perhaps Dobbin's foolish soul revolted against that exercise of tyranny; or perhaps he had a hankering feeling of revenge in his mind, and longed to measure himself against that splendid bully and tyrant, who had all the glory, pride, pomp, circumstance, banners flying, drums beating, guards saluting, in the place. Whatever may have been his incentive, however, up he sprang, and screamed out, "Hold off, Cuff; don't bully that child any more; or I'll—"

"Or you'll what?" Cuff asked in amazement at this interruption. "Hold out your hand, you little beast."

"I'll give you the worst thrashing you ever had in your life," Dobbin said, in reply to the first part of Cuff's sentence; and little Osborne, gasping and in tears, looked up with wonder and incredulity at seeing this amazing champion put up suddenly to defend him: while Cuff's astonishment was scarcely less. (pp. 40-41)
Not only does William give Cuff the worst thrashing of his life, but his social status at Swishtail's also changes radically as a result. His defense of young George Osborne results in improved academic performance, a lifelong friendship with George Osborne, and the real and prolonged respect of everyone at school because Cuff himself is beaten into respecting him! Dobbin becomes, in short, the schoolyard hero that every bullied young boy could either wish for or hope to become.

Dobbin remains a quiet, thoughtful, generous, and devoted defender of the underdog well into adulthood. Years later, his friendship with George Osborne flourishes, even though the latter isn't half the man he could and should be, and is given to a selfishness that takes good old souls like William entirely for granted. The primary object of William's quiet and permanent devotion and care changes later in life when he finds his heart enslaved by Amelia Sedley—destined, of course, because that's the kind of luck William has, to marry George.

In William Dobbin, Thackeray gives himself the lie about Vanity Fair boasting no hero, for this character represents the highest level of heroism imaginable in a place where everyone is basically out only for themselves. He distinguishes himself on the battlefield when Napoleon is routed, and not only for carrying wounded off the field even though he is wounded himself. He steadfastly does his duty by those around him, regardless of circumstances.

More importantly in the context of this novel, I think, is William's domestic heroism. He knows his love for Amelia is hopeless, but this in no way diminishes his adoration and commitment to her care, which begins in earnest when her husband dies on the battlefield. Her family being in straightened financial circumstances, and George's family having disowned him for marrying Amelia, Dobbin quietly takes care of George's burial expenses, brings Amelia and her newborn back to England, and behaves as her greatest friend with no hope of a return of any sort:
Our friend Dobbin…brought her back to England and to her mother's house; when Mrs. O'Dowd, receiving a peremptory summons from her Colonel, had been forced to quit her patient. To see Dobbin holding the infant, and to hear Amelia's laugh of triumph as she watched him, would have done any man good who had a sense of humour. William was the godfather of the child, and exerted his ingenuity in the purchase of cups, spoons, pap-boats, and corals for this little Christian.

How his mother nursed him, and dressed him, and lived upon him; how she drove away all nurses, and would scarce allow any hand but her own to touch him; how she considered that the greatest favour she could confer upon his godfather, Major Dobbin, was to allow the Major occasionally to dandle him, need not be told here. This child was her being. Her existence was a maternal caress. She enveloped the feeble and unconscious creature with love and worship. It was her life which the baby drank in from her bosom. Of nights, and when alone, she had stealthy and intense raptures of motherly love, such as God's marvellous care has awarded to the female instinct—joys how far higher and lower than reason—blind beautiful devotions which only women's hearts know. It was William Dobbin's task to muse upon these movements of Amelia's, and to watch her heart; and if his love made him divine almost all the feelings which agitated it, alas! he could see with a fatal perspicuity that there was no place there for him. And so, gently, he bore his fate, knowing it, and content to bear it. (pp. 358-60).

Major Sugarplums performs his duty to the letter

Only when accused by Amelia's father of harbouring roguish intentions of some sort does Dobbin reveal that the young widow's well-being has been entirely dependent upon him:
Dobbin at this lost all patience, and if his accuser had not been so old and so broken, a quarrel might have ensued between them at the Slaughters' Coffee-house, in a box of which place of entertainment the gentlemen had their colloquy. "Come upstairs, sir," lisped out the Major. "I insist on your coming up the stairs, and I will show which is the injured party, poor George or I"; and, dragging the old gentleman up to his bedroom, he produced from his desk Osborne's accounts, and a bundle of IOU's which the latter had given, who, to do him justice, was always ready to give an IOU. "He paid his bills in England," Dobbin added, "but he had not a hundred pounds in the world when he fell. I and one or two of his brother officers made up the little sum, which was all that we could spare, and you dare tell us that we are trying to cheat the widow and the orphan." Sedley was very contrite and humbled, though the fact is that William Dobbin had told a great falsehood to the old gentleman; having himself given every shilling of the money, having buried his friend, and paid all the fees and charges incident upon the calamity and removal of poor Amelia.

About these expenses old Osborne had never given himself any trouble to think, nor any other relative of Amelia, nor Amelia herself, indeed. She trusted to Major Dobbin as an accountant, took his somewhat confused calculations for granted, and never once suspected how much she was in his debt. (pp. 393-94)
The fact is, he does all of this out of pure, unselfish love; of course, William would marry Amelia if he could but he neither hopes for it nor expects it; he also never tries to disabuse the sweet but blind, and in her blindness rather selfish, Amelia of the true state of either her husband's financial status before his death or how entirely reliant she is on William afterwards.

William is a complete anomaly in the cast of characters peopling Vanity Fair, for he is the only one engaged in active goodness on a significant scale. There are some, like Amelia and Lady Jane, who are not malicious, mean-spirited, or consciously selfish; but Amelia's passivity and self-absorption, at least, sometimes cause pain as the result of her obliviousness and inaction. (An exception who still nonetheless doesn't truly compare to William is Mrs. O'Dowd who "in adversity...was the best of comforters [and] in good fortune the most troublesome of friends" (p. 341).)

William's domestic heroism boasts all the loneliness of a knight's quest without any of the external glory; it also represents and worships the Victorian idol of home and hearth but without allowing him to partake of any of their joys. It seems as though he is destined to remain quite lonely and at best almost happy forever; but perhaps Thackeray will relent and allow his Amelia puppet to see her own foolishness and the ultimate happiness upon his poor, constant William puppet in the second half of the novel.

A timely tweet
Just a few minutes ago, I saw a tweet about Thackeray—it turns out that today is his 200th birthday! Check out the Oxford DNB for more info here.


Bellezza said...

Your first sentence alone makes me want to go out and buy it now! In fact, I'll immediately shop on my Nook as soon as I submit this comment because I so value your opinion. Plus, we want to wish Thackeray a happy birthday by reading one of his masterpieces, do we not?

Meytal Radzinski said...

Though I certainly didn't love Vanity Fair when I read it a few years ago (I should note that I didn't dislike it either...), you make compelling points about the nature of Dobbin. I always found myself thinking more about the girls (and how tiresome they could get, particularly Amelia and her utter passiveness...) and much less about the other, possibly far more interesting, characters. I shall have to pay better attention when I get around to rereading it!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Bellezza - actually, let's see if Colleen agrees with this - be sure to get a copy with Thackeray's illustrations.

Colleen, it will be interesting to see how Dobbin wears on you.

Heidenkind said...

Wow, that is really high praise!

Interpolations said...

Wow, done. I just purchased it.

Bookphilia said...

Yes, yes, yes: Everyone, if you can, get the copy (the Norton Critical Edition) that has Thackeray's illustrations! Or, look them up online, if possible.