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Thomas Patrick Dow, Loyola University Chicago
William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair recounts, amidst myriad social battles, one of history's great military battles--the Battle of Waterloo--yet unlike traditional historical narratives, Thackeray embeds his account of the actual historical event within the larger framework of his fictional world. Further distancing his story from conventional models, he also utilizes his fictional characters' responses to the battle, rather than a catalogue of places, names and dates, to illustrate the war. Because the historical battle is intricately woven into the lives of Thackeray's characters, the Battle of Waterloo represents the author's attitude toward history and its representation: individuals share a complex relationship with global historical events; and fiction provides the elaborate setting needed to illustrate this relationship.
Most critical discussions of the significance of the Battle of Waterloo in Vanity Fair treat it in one of three ways: war imagery unifies the narrative; the historical war serves as a metaphor for the novel's social battles; Waterloo serves as the artistic center of the novel. Representing those critics who conclude that war imagery unifies Thackeray's narrative is H.M. Daleski, who believes that Thackeray's use of war imagery "... binds together the manifold activities that are depicted in the narrative ... [and] links the personal and historical conflicts which are the distinct and apparently disjunctive components of the narrative; ..." (147-8). Representing those critics who argue for the metaphorical value of Waterloo is Robert E. Lougy, who views the historical battles themselves as secondary to the interaction on the social battlefields that propel the characters through Thackeray's fictional fair. For Lougy, the war imagery not only links the narrative, but also permeates its every facet, as the characters struggle for power, position and survival. The third view--that Waterloo serves as the artistic center of the novel--is represented by John Loofbourow, who believes that the value of Waterloo is not in its account of history, but rather in its position as that point in the novel where Amelia and Becky's parallel plots intersect: Amelia's idealized romance with George declines after his death on the battlefield, and her "romantic" tangent continues to decline until rising again in her later relationship with Dobbin; Becky's social position escalates after her experiences in Belgium and France, and her "romantic" tangent continues to rise until declining as the result of the scandal with Lord Steyne (Loofbourow 83-4).
I tend to agree with Daleski that "Life in Vanity Fair is more of a battle than a market" (140), and with Lougy's reading of the metaphorical value of Thackeray's military representations, but to me, Thackeray goes beyond either of these fictional devices. I also agree with Loofbourow's assessment of the importance of Waterloo as the site where Amelia and Becky's parallel plots intersect, but he seems to dismiss the value of Thackeray's method of representing the historical event. In my mind, the significance of Waterloo in Vanity Fair is concretely linked to Thackeray's belief in the power of fiction to successfully recount history and the complex relationship between individuals and historical events. This enables Thackeray to present a fictional history that emphasizes the subjective motivations of his characters in their encounters with historical events. Through an examination of Victorian conceptions of history, Thackeray's idea of historiography, and the Battle of Waterloo in Vanity Fair, I will demonstrate the significance of the historical battle in the novel.
Although not unified in their attitudes toward history, many Victorians emphasized the important role that the study of the past could play in improving the present. In The Sense of the Past in Victorian Literature, Raymond Chapman argues that the Victorians held widely conflicting views of history and its value, and although Chapman's examples reveal disparate perspectives concerning the past and its relationship to contemporary Victorian society, he asserts that Victorians agreed on two aspects of that past: they valued history and esteemed accurate historical information. Although these points of agreement may not appear significant, the Victorian standards of accuracy reveal an unconventional taste. Discussing their unique perspective toward the gathering and representation of historical insights, Chapman states, "... one feature of the early nineteenth century [attitude toward history] was a growing recognition that the past had been the present for people as real as any then living, and that it was possible to come closer to them than ruins and dates of battles" (11). In other words, in contrast to previous and future generations who value relics and statistics, Victorian audiences desired accounts of once living people actively experiencing what later generations view as history.
This value that Victorian audiences placed on the individual side of history was reflected in other fictional works of the time. For example, George Eliot, one of Thackeray's contemporaries, believed in fictionally representing historical events through her characters' personal experiences. In "The Historic Imagination in George Eliot," Ian Milner states, "History was the seed-bed of George Eliot's creative imagination: as the objective process and register of human actions and events, and as the subjective 'remembrance of things past'" (97). In other words, Eliot subjectively grounded her fictional histories in the objective data of past people and events; the objective evidence exists in her fiction, but only as a fraction of the overall context in which her characters live, affect, and are affected by history. Like her contemporary audience, Eliot valued accurate historical representations, but statistics and objective reports were not sufficient; she, along with her Victorian readers, favored the type of accuracy gleaned from the personal tales of historical experiences, and her fictional narratives provided the context in which "[t]he individual psyche respond[ed] by introspection, motivation and action to the pressures of history ..." (Milner 99). It is within these historical and literary contexts that William Thackeray and Vanity Fair developed. Like his contemporary audience, Thackeray valued the study of individuals living in their historical contexts; and like George Eliot, Thackeray felt that traditional historical accounts filled with facts and dates offered incomplete and unsatisfactory accounts of the true intricacies of history: the complex interplay that exists between unwritten private individuals and documented public events. Also like Eliot, Thackeray believed in the ability of the novel to fully represent the complexities of history.
In keeping with his desire to accurately represent both the public and private facets of history, Thackeray argues for the ability of fiction to provide both a more realistic account of historical events and the same degree of instruction as traditional histories. In 1840, Thackeray states,
I have often thought that, in respect of sham and real histories, a similar fact may be noticed; the sham story appearing a great deal more agreeable, lifelike, and natural than the true one: and all who, from laziness as well as principle, are inclined to follow the easy and comfortable study of novels, may console themselves with the notion that they are studying matters quite as important as history, and that their favourite duodecimos are as instructive as the biggest quartos in the world. ("French" 83)
Although in this passage he argues that the instructive value of fiction equals that of non-fiction, in his later lectures on "The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century," Thackeray clearly weights this comparison in favor of fiction. In his third lecture, he states,
Say, for example, that I want to understand the character of the Duke of Marlborough. I read Swift's history of the times in which he took a part; the shrewdest of observers and initiated, one would think, into the politics of the age -- he hints to me that Marlborough was a coward, and even of doubtful military capacity: he speaks of Walpole as a contemptible boor, and scarcely mentions, except to flout it, the great intrigue of the Queen's latter days, which was to have ended in bringing back the Pretender. Again, I read Marlborough's Life by a copious archdeacon, who has the command of immense papers, of sonorous language, of what is called the best information; and I get little or no insight into this secret motive which, I believe, influenced the whole of Marlborough's career, .... ("Humourists" 179-80, emphasis mine)
Later in the same lecture, Thackeray continues to illustrate his argument in stating,
I take up a volume of Doctor Smollett, or a volume of the Spectator, and say the fiction carries a greater amount of truth in solution than the volume which purports to be all true. Out of the fictitious book I get the expression of the life of the time; of the manners, of the movement, the dress, the pleasures, the laughter, the ridicules of society -- the old times live again, and I travel in the old country of England. Can the heaviest historian do more for me? ("Humourists" 180)
From the tone of these passages, clearly Thackeray's question is rhetorical: for insightful historical accounts, he chooses fiction, or "sham" histories. As my account of his "sham" history of the Battle of Waterloo will illustrate, Thackeray is clearly interested in his characters' "secret motives" and the relationship of these personal motives to public events.
Thackeray's writings offer additional examples to illustrate his preference for "sham" histories. While describing Constantinople in "A Journey From Cornhill To Cairo," and contemplating an effective written depiction of a famous religious shrine, he writes,
... suppose I say the Mosque of St. Sophia is four hundred and seventy-three feet in height, measuring from the middle nail of the gilt crescent surmounting the dome to the ring in the centre stone; the circle of the dome is one hundred and twenty-three feet in diameter, the windows ninety-seven in number -- and all this may be true, for anything I know to the contrary: yet who is to get an idea of St. Sophia from dates, proper names, and calculations with a measuring line? (224)
Here, aside from outlining the difficulties of adequately describing the complexities of Constantinople with words, Thackeray hints at his attitude toward traditional historical documents. Just as the compilation of measurements and dates of construction is inadequate as the basis upon which to form a mental picture of the architecture of Constantinople, Thackeray believes that the account of proper names, geographical locations and significant dates is insufficient in the rendering of history. Further addressing this issue of historical representation, in "On Some French Fashionable Novels: With a Plea for Romances in General," Thackeray argues, "What is more, one could, perhaps, meet the stoutest historian on his own ground, and argue with him; showing that sham histories were much truer than real histories; which are, in fact, mere contemptible catalogues of names and places, that can have no moral effect upon the reader" (84, emphasis mine). In Vanity Fair, Thackeray presents a "sham" history of the Battle of Waterloo in order to illustrate the complex relationship between historical events and the individuals who experience them; these individuals, in Thackeray's mind, both affect and are affected by global events. His depiction of the private and public aspects of history utilizes his characters' individual experiences to provide a realistic account of the historical event and its effects. Discussing Thackeray's observations concerning this relationship between history and fiction, Jane Millgate, in "History versus Fiction: Thackeray's Response to Macaulay," states, "Thackeray's remarks on fiction and history, his 'response' to Macaulay, remain as a constant reminder of that cross-fertilization of the two genres ..." (58). Thackeray represents the Battle of Waterloo in this hybrid genre: the "sham" history.
Since it is a "sham" history, unlike a traditional historical account of war, Vanity Fair does not begin the discussion of the Battle of Waterloo with the positions of the armies or the number of casualties at the close of the first day of fighting. Thackeray chooses to begin his account when and where realistically the first impact of the war is felt: at the moment when the orders are dispatched and the soldiers and their families learn of the impending march. The harbinger of this news, Major Dobbin, greets George Osborne by stating, "... I've brought the great news of all: and that is ---- ... We're ordered to Belgium. All the army goes -- Guards and all. ... we embark from Chatham next week" (266). Dobbin has brought great news in the sense that it is important to all, but surely not welcome by all. The narrator quickly remarks on the effect of the news; he states, "This news of war could not but come with a shock upon our lovers, and caused all these gentlemen to look very serious" (266). Their "serious" responses to the war foreshadow the state of affairs at the end of the war; before the battle actually begins, however, these responses are overshadowed by motives and actions which are far from noble.
More details of the military operations, although only those essential to the narrative, surface in Dobbin's discussion with Mr. Osborne; these details are used unsuccessfully by Major Dobbin to soften the elder Osborne's feelings toward his son. Dobbin states, "I've brought you some very grave news. I have been at the Horse Guards this morning, and there's no doubt that our regiment will be ordered abroad, and on its way to Belgium before the week is over. And you know, sir, that we shan't be home again before a tussle which may be fatal to many of us" (274). Attempting to advance his argument further, Dobbin continues, "The French are very strong, sir, .... The Russians and Austrians will be a long time before they can bring their troops down. We shall have the first of the fight, sir; and depend on it Boney will take care that it shall be a hard one" (274). As Dobbin presses his case with Mr. Osborne, the narrator establishes the danger of the battle, the location and the participants; he accomplishes this solely within the confines of the narrative, and demonstrates how such information is used by albeit fictional soldiers and their families to serve a variety of purposes.
Although the reader of traditional war narratives may expect this announcement and its subsequent expansion to be immediately followed by tales of heroism on the battlefield and on the home front, Vanity Fair, in keeping with its exposition of the vanity behind human endeavors, proceeds rather with an accounting of each characters' initial response to the news of the war, and through their responses reveals their motivating principles. Through this exposition, societal and personal agendas are linked in a way that allows the reader to experience the varied effects of a large-scale social event through a complex web of personal motives. Discussing Thackeray's linking of societal and personal agendas, Reed states, "If Thackeray regularly returns to the national sins of vanity and pride, he is predominantly concerned with the personal, more foolish forms they take in individuals" (321). In this instance, vanity and pride motivate many of the characters' responses to the war: war is initially seen as a catalyst for future opportunity by George, Amelia, Mr. Osborne, Becky, Rawdon, and Jos. Sedley.
For example, Mr. Osborne's original response to Dobbin's news provides the first insight into Thackeray's representation of war as a means of economic and social advancement. Mr. Osborne states, "Let him and Miss S. make it up, and make out the marriage afterwards, when he comes back a Colonel; for he shall be a Colonel, by G----- he shall, if money can do it" (275). As soon as he learns of George's secret marriage to Amelia, however, Mr. Osborne disinherits his son. Without his father's financial support, George Osborne fears that the impending campaign will expose his current lack of funds. Always the dutiful comrade, Dobbin attempts to reassure him with the prospect of enjoying the personal spoils of war. Dobbin states, "But try and remember that you are only a dethroned prince now, George, my boy; and be quiet whilst the tempest lasts. It won't be for long . Let your name be mentioned in the Gazette, and I'll engage the old father relents towards you" (290). Like George and Mr. Osborne, Becky views the march to Belgium not in light of the possibility of losing her husband, Rawdon, but rather as an opportunity to display her status as the wife of a member of a general's entourage. Becky declares to Rawdon, "You wretch! don't you know that I intend to go with you, .... Besides, you're different. You go as General Tufto's aide-de-camp. We don't belong to the line" (291). The narrator then adds that Mrs. Crawley "throw[s] up her head with an air that so enchanted her husband that he stooped down and kissed it" (291). As the narrative continues and the war draws closer, the characters continue to scheme: Becky and Rawdon attempt to elicit sympathy, and along with it a future inheritance, from Miss Crawley (303); George acquiesces to Dobbin's encouragement and believes that glory on the battlefield will return him to his rightful place as his father's heir (312). As these examples illustrate, the initial responses to the news of war are predominantly selfish, greedy and opportunistic.
Thackeray's "sham" history continues with an account of the strikingly non-military events in Brussels. These non-military preparations for battle resemble a transplanted English social scene, in which the main characters continue their lifelong battles for position and power. For example, the narrator describes Brussels as, conveniently for the touring English army, the home of all of the booths of Vanity Fair: gambling, dancing, feasting, theatre, carnival (329). As if they were still on their honeymoon, George tours the city with Amelia, including visits to museums and the opera. Emphasizing the escalating illusion, as the eve of Waterloo approaches, the narrator states, "The sight of the very great company of lords and ladies and fashionable persons who thronged the town, and appeared in every public place, filled George's truly British soul with intense delight" (329). The climax of the pre-battle events occurs on the evening of June 15, 1815: the Duchess of Richmond's ball. Regarding this historical event, the narrator states,
All Brussels had been in a state of excitement about it, and I have heard from ladies who were in that town at the period, that the talk and interest of persons of their own sex regarding the ball was much greater even than in respect of the enemy in their front. The struggles, intrigues, and prayers to get tickets were such as only English ladies will employ, in order to gain admission to the society of the great of their own nation. (341)
It is at this famous ball that George plans a liaison with Becky; this affair is only thwarted by the news of the army's immediate departure. By interrupting the action, Thackeray impedes George's infidelity and relates additional information about the historical battle. Convincing him to cease his drinking and depart from the ball, Dobbin tells George, "The enemy has passed the Sambre, ... and our left is already engaged. Come away. We are to march in three hours" (345). These examples further illustrate the social battlefields that accompany the English social armies to Brussels, and serve as a bridge between the early reactions to the war and the final pre-battle reflections.
As the preparations draw to a close and the actual battle looms closer, even greater insights into the characters' personal motivations surface. As they take their leave of their wives, George and Rawdon display intense levels of introspection. After hearing that his regiment is to march in three hours, the narrator states,
Away went George, his nerves quivering with excitement at the news so long looked for, so sudden when it came. What were love and intrigue now? He thought about a thousand things but these in his rapid walk to his quarters -- his past life and future chances -- the fate which might be before him -- the wife, the child perhaps, from whom unseen he might be about to part. Oh, how he wished that night's work undone! and that with a clear conscience at least he might say farewell to the tender and guileless being by whose love he had set such little store! (345)
As he examines his conscience, George regrets that night's encounter with Becky and his inability to leave Amelia with a clear heart. Even more grave, however, is Rawdon's mindset as he prepares to depart from Becky.
Indeed Captain Rawdon himself was much more affected at the leave-taking than the resolute little woman to whom he bade farewell. ... And so, making his last dispositions, Captain Crawley, who had seldom thought about anything but himself until the last few months of his life, when Love had obtained the mastery over the dragoon, went through the various items of his little catalogue of effects, striving to see how they might be turned into money for his wife's benefit, in case any accident should befall him. (Vanity Fair 348, 350-1)
In sharp contrast with his wife, Becky, Rawdon departs for battle with noble thoughts on his mind and his affairs relatively in order. After Rawdon concludes his personal accounting and departs for battle, the narrator states, "Every calculation made of these valuables, Mrs. Rebecca found, not without a pungent feeling of triumph and self-satisfaction, that should circumstances occur, she might reckon on six or seven hundred pounds at the very least, to begin the world with; ..." (352-3). Unlike Amelia's heartfelt farewell to George, as the army marches, the narrator states of Becky, "No man in the British army which has marched away, not the great Duke himself, could be more cool or collected in the presence of doubts and difficulties, than the indomitable little aide-de-camp's wife" (353, emphasis mine). Becky's example still chills the reader; however, even those characters who appear to move further along the continuum toward becoming positive role models, since their introspective moments stem from feelings of fear and guilt, fall short of heroic ideals.
Following the soldiers' departures, Thackeray's account of the actual battle is prefaced with a disclaimer in which he prepares his audience for the type of military account which follows. He states, "We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly. We should only be in the way of the manoeuvres that the gallant fellows are performing overhead" (346). It is from this perspective, that of those awaiting news and the return of the soldiers in Brussels, that the experience of the battle is told: a quite revealing account, as it intimately examines the domestic hierarchy in the absence of conventional patriarchal figures and the social and economic systems that continue to function in spite of the nearby battle.
Though brief, accounts of the action on the battlefield at Waterloo reach the crowd in Brussels. A wounded soldier, upon his arrival in the fearful waiting city,
told in his simple fashion the events of the day, and the actions of our friends of the gallant --th. They had suffered severely. They had lost very many officers and men. The Major's horse had been shot under him as the regiment charged, and they all thought that O'Dowd was gone, and that Dobbin had got his majority, until on their return from the charge to their old ground, the Major was discovered seated on Pyramus's carcass, refreshing himself from a case-bottle. (Vanity Fair 380)
The ensign's stories also include brief accounts of heroism, as he tells the crowd, "It was Captain Osborne that cut down the French lancer who had speared the Ensign. ... And it was Captain Dobbin who at the end of the day, though wounded himself, took up the lad in his arms and carried him to the surgeon, and thence to the cart which was to bring him back to Brussels" (381). Even these brief accounts of military heroism, as relayed by the wounded young soldier, are overshadowed by the overriding sense of anti-heroism that colors many of the characters' vain personal agendas surrounding the war both on the battlefield and at the home front.
William Thackeray chooses to relate a complex fictional account of the historical Battle of Waterloo rather than provide a traditional statistical account of the historic battle that ended the Napoleonic Wars. In embedding a "sham" history within the framework of his narrative, he offers individual experiences of this highly public event at every stage of the operation, including their underpinnings: the initial announcement, the preparations and transportation to the host country, the actual battle, and the aftermath. Thackeray's method of historical representation parallels a contemporary literary tradition and a popular Victorian propensity for studying the personal stories that color and contextualize significant past events. The Battle of Waterloo situates Vanity Fair in a particular time and place in history, but as a result of Thackeray's method of presentation, paradoxically, the battle also empowers the narrative to transcend its historical setting: it is "both historically specific and timeless" (Clarke 83).
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Milner, Ian. "The Historic Imagination in George Eliot." Art and Society in the Victorian Novel: Essays on Dickens and his Contemporaries. Ed. Colin Gibson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989. 97-110.
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---. "On Some French Fashionable Novels: With a Plea for Romances in General." In The Paris Sketch Book. Vol. 16 of The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray. 24 Vols. Eds.
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---. "The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century." Vol. 23 of The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray. 24 Vols. Eds. J. P. Atkinson and W. J. Webb. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1879.
---. Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. 1847-48. Ed. J.I.M. Stewart. London and New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.