Vanity Fair is a Victorian novel about the lives of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley and their friends and families during and after the Napoleon Wars.
It was first published as a 19-volume monthly serial from 1847 to 1848, with the subtitle ‘Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society’. in Punch, a London-based weekly magazine of humour and satire. Most of the chapters in Vanity Fair were written as they went to print every month. It was then published as a single volume in 1848 with the subtitle ‘A Novel without a Hero’.
I got my copy secondhand from a charity shop and it was published by Macdonald in 1950. From the preface ‘Before the Curtain’, you get the sense that the book was an instant hit in 1847-8. It says ‘What more has the Manager of the Performance to say?’ – the author refers to the novel as a puppet show performance and himself as the manager of the show – ‘To acknowledge the kindness with which it has been received in all the principal towns of England through which the Show has passed, and where it has been most favourably noticed by the respected conductors of the public Press, and by the Nobility and Gentry.’
Emma by Jane Austen was published in 1816, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott were published in 1818, Victoria became queen in 1837. In the same two years as Vanity Fair first appeared in the world, there were also Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, and Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by the Bronte sisters. What a time to be alive! I wonder if people at the time could imagine they would still be read and studied two hundred years later. It’s like following three excellent TV series while having major film production coming out one after another.
The novel was written during the Victorian era for a Victorian audience, but the story was set a few decades earlier, between 1814 and 1832. Here’s the opening sentence of chapter one, volume one, ‘While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June…’. The author draws readers’ attention to this ‘time difference’ a lot. For example. In chapter six, where a footnote, along with a small illustration, from the author himself addresses the issue of ‘fashion’:
‘It was the author’s intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costumes, as they wore them at the commencement of the century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this – I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion.’ In all the other illustrations in the book, women wear voluminous dresses with tiny waists – Victorian fashion.
I love this detail! While we, in the 21st century, love the fashion in Jane Austen film adaptations, the author in the middle of the 19th century thinks the fashions from fifteen to thirty years ago ‘hideous’. To be fair, fashion changed drastically between those decades, way more than, say between 1990s and 2021.
The story starts with Chiswick Mall, where Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies is located. Chiswick Mall is a waterfront street on the north bank of the River Thames in the oldest part of Chiswick in West London. It has a row of large houses from the Georgian and Victorian eras overlooking the street on the north side, and their gardens on the other side of the street beside the river.
I’d never heard of it before. Apparently, there are some very old houses there, and many of them are older than they look, as they were given new facades in the 18th or 19th centuries. So which could be Miss Pinkerton’s academy? The largest, one of the finest grand houses on Chiswick Mall is the Grade I Walpole House. It was a boys’ school in the early 19th century and one of its pupils was called William Makepeace Thackeray. So I think we’re safe to conclude that we have found Miss Pinkerton’s academy. Down the street in Chiswick Square, there used to be a young ladies’ school, and there’s even a plaque on the wall saying that “into this garden Thackeray in Vanity Fair describes Becky Sharp as throwing the dictionary”. But the book clearly says it’s ‘on Chiswick Mall’ and the illustrations of the school gate and the street match the look of the street even now. I think it must be Walpole House.
They then went past Kensington turnpike and arrived at Russell Square. The journey is about 7 miles. Since the author told us that the carriage was driven ‘at the rate of four miles an hour’, we know that the two girls would have arrived Russell Square just under two hours journey.
That’s all for now. We’ll have a look at this fabulous dictionary that got flung out of the carriage next time. Happy reading!