LeFavour, "Acting 'Natural': Vanity Fair and the Unmasking of Anglo-American Sentiment"
Sullen Fires Across the
Essays in Transatlantic Romanticism
Acting "Natural": Vanity Fair
the Unmasking of Anglo-American Sentiment
Cree LeFavour, New York University
A popular hit in the United States, W.M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is useful for underlining how one of the staples of the sentimental novel—the training of the mind and "heart" that Thackeray so mercilessly mocks as artificial—is itself implicated in so many mid-nineteenth century Americans’ expression of anxiety over female novel-reading. In this context, Becky Sharp’s "naturalness" and her explicit rejection of books and female self-improvement at once invite a reconsideration of the naiveté and simplicity critics have often assumed in their discussions of American domestic fiction, while at the same time drawing attention to the contentious debates over the moral status of novels themselves and the kind of cultural work they did.
I have chosen Vanity Fair as an example of a popular British reprint during this period because Thackeray’s cynical manipulation of the sentimental genre invites analysis of the period’s dominant historiography that posits a literary landscape dominated by American sentimental fiction. Vanity Fair’s strong presence in the American market invites the dissolution of the monochromatic sentimentality that critics still too often expect of American women’s novels at mid-century, while Thackeray’s novel’s popularity in the U.S. provides an opportunity to examine what critics, and presumably readers, valued about novels and why. In other words, I use Becky Sharp to approach the problem of how British reprints alter the popular American literary market precisely because she is such an overtly anti-sentimental character. Becky raises the question of the place of feminine individualism in literature, or, as Gillian Brown writes, "the alignment of the individualistic self and its representations with anti-sentimentalism" (Brown 136). The traditional identification in American literary history of popular literature with a tame, feminized domesticity, and of individualism and the integrity of self with more "literary," masculine works of fiction, is nicely spliced by a figure such as Becky. Because she is so self-interested, a reading of her in the American context invites an analysis of the relation between her authenticity or "naturalness" as represented by Thackeray and her status as a popular, if reviled, female figure in a wider spectrum of reading. In turn, the value of Thackeray’s narrative being perceived as "true to life" or "realistic" by antebellum American critics is placed in opposition to the troubled representation of authenticity in American sentimental culture.
Put very simply, it is the struggles with natural passion and raw impulses, and the training of the mind and "heart," that is at the center of much of this period’s "sentimental" writing, just as the same struggle with passions—in which the battle is lost—predominates the widely read sensation and subversive fiction that David Reynolds has identified in Beneath the American Renaissance. Vanity Fair’s explicit rejection of female self-improvement in this context invites a reconsideration of the naiveté and simplicity critics have often assumed in their discussions of American domestic fiction. Indeed, sustaining the construct of an enclosed body of "domestic" or "sentimental" fiction that comprised the whole of American women’s reading has long since been shown to be untenable. And yet, the idea that popular female reading was quite explicitly defined in terms of British reprints throughout the 1850s remains untested.
Reprinted in the United States by Harper & Brothers in 1848, the first volume of Vanity Fair was issued on July 29, with volume two on August 19 of the same year. For this first American edition, illustrated by the author, one hundred pounds was probably paid for proofs. Later that year, Harper issued a one-volume edition, which sold for $1 in paper and $1.25 in cloth (Dzwonkoski 195). In the absence of a copyright agreement with England, under the period’s "courtesy of the trade" agreements, Harper’s payment should have secured their sole right to publish Vanity Fair in the American market. As was frequently the case, this "courtesy" was not entirely respected. In fact, even in the relatively civilized publishing atmosphere of the late 1840s, it did not take long for other editions of Vanity Fair to appear, each priced at $1. The first is advertised from the Cincinnati firm H.B. Pearson in 1854, and the other is from the New York publisher, Bunnel and Price, available no later than 1854 (Tidball 7; Vose 124). In addition, the German firm Tauchnitz did not adhere to what it regarded as an American practical agreement, even though Tauchnitz did publish its books in the United States. The three-volume Tauchnitz edition of Vanity Fair was advertised in the book industry trade paper of the day, The Publisher’s Circular and Weekly Gazette in 1857 at 40 cents a volume, along with the works of Dickens and Brontë (Publisher’s Circular 27).
Harper’s right to exclusive publication of Vanity Fair was not maintained, and yet Harper’s market share of the reprint business was high and, despite the presence of two or more small competitors, it is apparent that Harper itself did a brisk business in printing and reprinting Vanity Fair throughout the 1850s, including multiple printings dated 1848, 1857, and 1860 (Union Catalog 512-3). This does not mean that Harper only issued the novel in these years. Rather, it means Harper issued the novel with a new title page in these years, reusing the initial printing’s 1848 title-page plate in subsequent printings for reissue through 1857. It is impossible to say, therefore, how many times Harper published Vanity Fair during these years. Vanity Fair was issued again and again by Harper over the course of the 1850s but because the general dating practices of the period are inconsistent, finding a complete count of either various publishers’ editions or Harper copies of Vanity Fair is not possible.
In the absence of absolute numbers, reconstructing Vanity Fair’s rank in the marketplace argues for a brief analysis of that marketplace during this period as well as an assessment of the novel’s critical and cultural impact in print. The novel’s sales in the United States arose in no small part out of American readers’ long dependence on British fiction, which in turn was in part a result of market conditions.
Thackeray, whose fame as a novelist was made on both sides of the Atlantic by Vanity Fair, did not simply achieve fleeting recognition but became an important cultural referent in a nation preoccupied with propriety, sincerity, and the moral dangers exemplified by Bunyan’s and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. High rates of literacy in the United States compared to England helped to create a healthy publishing industry that was largely dependent on reprinting British books. As I have argued, this fact forms the foundation of debates over the passage of an international copyright law, with laborers’ concerns, and concerns about sustaining the industry from top to bottom, providing the most consistent and compelling reasons for opposing passage of what might seem (and certainly seemed to Dickens) to be a just and fair law. But Thackeray and Dickens both benefited enormously from the reprinting of their books in the United States: they were paid for advance sheets, rights to serial reproduction, and later their American tours were money-making ventures.
As might be expected of such a widely read work, Vanity Fair was frequently referenced and reviewed, but it was given decidedly mixed notices from critics. Not only was the novel noted in short and long reviews when first published, it was discussed again and again as critics surveyed Thackeray’s work as a whole during his lecture tours and compared it with his subsequent novels, including Pendennis, The Virginians, and The Newcomes (Flamm 56-9). These often contradictory reviews document the novel’s visibility and presence in the American market, which I will discuss at greater length below, and they provide an opening into the values and priorities of the era’s reviewers. While these values are certainly not identical to readers’ values, some correspondence can be claimed where dominant themes can be recognized and shown to be widely shared. I want to underline two points: first, the emphasis on and appreciation of "realism" and second, the predominant interest in the morality or immorality of Becky Sharp and her perceived effect on readers.
These two points may seem disparate, but they are in fact linked by the still somewhat tenuous positioning of novels in the culture. Because morality is frequently characterized by critics and commentators as an intrinsic quality of a text that cannot be separated from that text’s social effects, these effects are perceived as ineffective in the absence of "realism." What I mean by this is what must be called "literary" standards cannot be separated from moral judgment. Given the still-contingent status of novels as a legitimate form of culture, their perceived role in shaping female morality and decorum, the positive social effects of novel reading were linked to certain standards of verisimilitude and were not seen to occur at all in overwrought, implausible, or absurd narratives. Realism, then, was cause for praise, as a reviewer notes in an article titled "Novels of the Season" in The North American Review (October 1848):
Of all the novels on our list, Vanity Fair is the only one in which the author is content to represent actual life. His page swarms with personages whom we recognize at once as genuine. It is also noticeable, that Thackeray alone preserves himself from the illusions of misanthropy or sentimentality, and though dealing with a host of selfish and malicious characters, his book leaves no impression that the world is past praying for. (North Amercan Review 369)
In this formulation, morality and authenticity are central to the literary—both insofar as the entwined registers of its "use" for readers are concerned as well as insofar as its more general "value" for the culture is concerned. Vanity Fair is understood to be more morally and socially useful than the other novel under review because it accurately represents characters and situations from life, presumably making it possible for readers to glean useful lessons from the text. As The North American Review’s critic notes, the realism is accomplished without "misanthropy" or "sentimentality"—each a form of "illusion" that distorts reality.
The acceptance of Becky Sharp as a literary character, and the widespread admiration of her in the American press, is based in large part on reviewers’ perceptions of her as a true or accurate type; as George Curtis writes in a lengthy discussion of Vanity Fair in his 1853 The Potiphar Papers, "'to hold a mirror up to Nature,’ is still the most potent method of shaming sin and strengthening virtue" (Curtis 12). Becky is not only appreciated for being true to a real type of scheming female, but more importantly, her whole persona is based on a certain kind of raw authenticity that is esteemed for its truth value. As the writer of Harper’s "Easy Chair" writes: "The 'ideal,' in the sense usually intended by the word, is as foolish and unnatural in literature as it is in art. The sharp-sighted and pure-minded artists have long ago seen that the utmost reach of art is the most rigorous obedience to nature."
Linking this laudable "obedience to nature" to Becky, he proceeds to defend Thackeray against "many of the gentle sex who have hitherto refused allegiance to him on the ground that all his women were either fools or knaves." As he writes of Becky, underlining her sins and bad character as evidence of Thackeray’s affection for truly virtuous women: "no man could draw Becky Sharp so dexterously who did not most exquisitely conceive and reverence the opposite of that character" (Harper’s 840). Referring to Thackeray’s novel as "the best we have ever seen from his pen," the reviewer for The Knickerbocker (September 1848) writes a bit more equivocally in a six page review:
One of the best drawn characters is that of REBECCA, the scheming governess; sly, cunning, clever, unprincipled, and a thorough 'woman of the world,’ in the worst acceptation of the term. Her career forms an admirable lesson, but we cannot even indicate it. (Knickerbocker 249)
Here, The Knickerbocker’s critic playfully teases the reader with the problem of the "admirable lesson" Becky indicates, while the Democratic Review, in October 1848, gamely embraces her and her wickedness, while noting that the story is told "with the most marvelous richness of lively detail, elegant phrases and humorous situation. . . Clever, keen, pliant little 'Becky.’ What though she is heartless, selfish, designing, intriguing; we love her because she is talented, energetic,—and successful" (Democratic Review 379, 378). In a dissenting view, the critic for The Christian Examiner intoned that "no modern writer had done more to strip the very name of woman all associations of moral beauty" than Thackeray in Vanity Fair (Baym 105).
For the most part reviewers responded not with outrage or revulsion to Vanity Fair, but with appreciation of the spirit and even of the cynical but successful knavery of Thackeray’s character. The emphasis was frequently on Becky’s success and her wily manipulation of the characters and situations in which she finds herself. Nor did the novel surprise or offend these critics’ sensibilities (with the one exception) as might be expected in an era, the literary history of which is often characterized as wholly dominated by gentle and sentimental American domestic fiction. The writer for North American Review (1848) applauds Thackeray’s willingness and ability to represent the breadth of humanity, good and bad, while referring to Becky as "the finest character in the whole novel. . . an original personage, worthy to be called the author’s own, and as true to life as hypocrisy, ability, and cunning can make her. . . the very impersonation of talent, tact, and worldliness, and one who works her way with a graceful and effective impudence unparalleled among managing women" ("Novels" 369). That Becky Sharp did not offend, and was widely admired for her wicked success, must be seen in the context of a more accurate representation of the literary marketplace; one flooded not only with the sensation fiction Reynolds has so carefully documented but also with reprints of British novels that were seen as far more damaging to readers’ morals than was Thackeray’s ultimately moral purpose in Vanity Fair. The writer for The North American Review, in fact, singles out Vanity Fair as an admirable work (not only socially or morally, but in literary terms as well) from among eight other British reprints reviewed in the same article, including the Brontës’ Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Lady Georgiana Fullerton’s Grantley Manor, Edward Lytton Bulwer’s Harold, the Last of the Saxton Kings, and Hawkstone. While these novels are by no means outrageous in the vein of Eugene Sue or the early Bulwer, some of them stretched the boundaries of propriety, as well as reality, in ways that were objectionable to some reviewers, with Wuthering Heights being the greatest offender in this group ("Novels" 354-69).
Thackeray’s representation of Becky and her treachery is quite tame in comparison with either the sensation fiction that purported to reform readers with the demonstrated misdeeds of characters caught up in nefarious vices. Vanity Fair, while containing a representation of a morally repugnant character who engages in some fairly explicit sexual misdeeds, did not stand out—or rather, the representation of Becky stood out as an example of well-developed character in a novel with an ultimately moral purpose. Thackeray’s satire was generally recognized for what it was. As Frederick Cozzens writes in his book of social and literary criticism, Prismatics, in 1853: "Mr. Thackeray is one of the most genial and amiable of men. But however brilliant his wit, it has no warm, sunny side. He succeeds in creating very detestable people in his novels, for whom one does not feel the least sympathy. The satire, however, is perfect" (232). Taking this understanding of Thackeray’s purpose, and parsing the definition of satire is Curtis, the author of The Potiphar Papers, who writes:
It is called a satire, but after much diligent reading, we cannot discover the satire. A state of society not at all superior to that of Vanity Fair is not unknown to our experience; and, unless scalding tears of sorrow, and the bitter regret of a manly mind over the miserable spectacle of artificiality, wasted powers, misdirected energies, and lost opportunities, be satirical; we do not find satire in that sad story. (11)
Like this critic, many understood Vanity Fair and its representation of the foibles of "society" as truth. While the greater truth of these depictions only strengthens the satire, rather than eliding it with sadness, the point remains that the novel’s moral purpose, recognized by many and exemplified by Charlotte Brontë as she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray and his role as "the first social regenerator of the day"— a role recognized by many Americans as well (36).
Vanity Fair’s reviews appeared in publications that are best identified as part of the general press and not as exclusively "lady’s" journals. These publications also reviewed the American women’s domestic fiction of the period, including The Wide, Wide, World, The Lamplighter, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Vanity Fair did not, in other words, enter the American market in isolation—it was judged side by side with American women’s domestic fiction, and in a market flooded with sensation novels. Nor was it ignored or overlooked in the predominantly feminine presses, including The Southern Literary Messenger, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the Literary World, all of which also commonly reviewed and ran advertisements for American domestic fiction alongside those for British reprints.
While many of these reviews lack critical analysis—they are composed in large part according to conventions of the genre, of long excerpts from the novel under review—they situate these novels in a particular market; when Vanity Fair was reviewed or noted by The Knickerbocker, The Democratic Review or Godey’s Lady’s Book and other popular American originals were reviewed there as well (as they were), we can place them in the same, or at least in a very similar, literary culture, made up of texts, publishers, books, and readers. While I do not intend to reconstruct a general body of readers, or their reception of Vanity Fair beyond the select and certainly non-representative response of a few, predominantly northeastern reviewers, I do want to emphasize the significance of the fact that British reprints, including Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre, existed alongside American domestic fiction and were very much a part of the same, fluid literary market. This means they were read by the same class of readers that other critics including Nina Baym, Lora Romero, Jane Tompkins, and Anne Douglas (to name a few of the first to do so) have established as the primary consumers of American sentimental fiction—white, middle- and upper-class females, as well as by the men that made up the presumed market for sensational fiction. That is, these novels were reviewed and discussed in the same magazines and newspapers, they were published and sold alongside one another, and while British reprints were often less expensive than American originals, the advertisements for them, their binding, and the quality and quantity of illustration were comparable. Some critics have argued that the sensation literature of the 1850s, the precursor to the dime novel of the 1860s, was in fact the true popular literature of the day and that the above sentimental literature was genteel female reading, but I want to argue that the boundary between these genres and forms had not yet solidified by the 1850s. As the review history indicates, British fiction, as far as the press was concerned, was comparable to so-called "sensation" and "sentimental" fiction—none of which existed in its own market.
By establishing Vanity Fair’s full participation in the literary market and culture of the period I do not mean to imply that it was welcomed by all segments of that culture, nor that there was one unified literary culture at the time. The point I want to make is that the borders between "genteel" women’s fiction, British reprints that fit into this category, those that didn’t, and American originals not fit for "ladies," were constantly shifting. These borders help to identify how British reprints have for so long been overlooked in American literary history, and in particular in the history of women’s fiction during this period. For it has been primarily through the study of women’s nationally identified literary production that critics have approached the popular fiction of this period. In doing so, most critics have demarcated a fairly rigid boundary around the texts that women who were writing or living in the United States produced, thereby creating a category of fiction based on a specific kind of gendered, geographically specific production. This category is useful in many ways, but its limitations are revealed when this somewhat arbitrary category of producers and their goods become the object of the study of a group of nationally identified (presumed) gendered consumers. The once useful border around American gendered producers then becomes too circumscribed, as by its very definition it cannot accommodate fiction written by non-American women, even if this fiction is equally, if not more, important for the study of popular consumption.
From this perspective of consumers in a busy and chaotic transatlantic print market, I want to use Vanity Fair to focus on the shifting debates over morality, realism and literary value and on the kinds of changes these values underwent over the course of the 1850s. In addition, I’ll undertake a brief analysis of what was considered appropriate for antebellum American women to read and why, and begin to talk about the predominantly British novels around which debates over female reading circulated. How were these novels aligned and/or misaligned with American domestic/sentimental fiction—in other words, how do these novels change the way we view the literary history of the period?
The following passage underscores my point that it is impossible, or at least irresponsible, to comprehend female literary consumption in antebellum America without including British reprints in the discussion. Appearing in Godey’s in 1847, just prior to the peak of consumption and production of American domestic fiction, the "Editor’s Table" took up the question of "Courses for Reading for Ladies," with but three references to American authors. The remainder of the column is taken up by advice to women on the virtues and dangers of British novels:
Read all of Walter Scott’s if you choose; and [G.P.R.] James is as safe a friend as any novel-loving young lady can find—none of his novels need the tabu. . . . all the novels by Mr. [Robert Plumer] Ward, and all by Charles Dickens can be marked free. We wish we could say so of all written by [Lytton] Bulwer and [Benjamin] D’Israli. In the perusal of these, a young lady should consult her judicious friends. It is not wise to give public prohibitions and yet there are cases when the advice of a wise and delicate-minded friend is of great advantage to a young lady in her reading. (213)
Five short years later, in marked contrast to its enthusiastic endorsement of fashionable historical romances above, Godey’s complained of literature that is "chiefly framed for amusement." Turning from the seeming innocence of romance to fiction demonstrating a higher social and intellectual utility, as well as a greater correspondence to reality, in 1853 both Godey’s and The North American Review exhorted their readers to more serious purpose in their reading. As the writer for Godey’s put it, "let the fervor of intellectual pursuits be encouraged; but it should be after knowledge, not excitement." Referring to the staples of polite American female reading, including Scott, Radcliffe, Burney, and Edgeworth, an essayist for The North American Review writes that "novels were not then supposed to express the spirit of the age. Their aim was to please the reader. . . The romance proper dealt only with an ideal" (105). He goes on to demand that readers strive toward a more elevated purpose in their reading, using Austen and Bulwer as examples of frivolous goods, emphasizing their lack of social and moral usefulness:
We laugh at the foibles or frown at meanness; perhaps resolve to beware of the one and the other. So far, well enough. But what is our feeling of the social world thus exhibited? Is our love of kind increased? Are the Christian desire and duty of remedying the ills we see quickened by these pictures of prevalent heartlessness and folly? (108)
These critics, in attempting to outline appropriate reading for women in an age steeped in Christian evangelical reform and an explosion of print that often did not suit the period’s moralistic impulses, are addressing the period’s popular fiction and in doing so are almost exclusively discussing British reprints. In this context Vanity Fair was seen as a useful form of social satire with an ultimately moral purpose in keeping with emergent American values emphasizing simplicity, honesty, and the absence of pretense.
The perceived moral purpose of novels was central to shaping the emerging hierarchies defining various fictional genres. And yet, as Reynolds argues, "the gap between doctrinal social texts and entertaining imaginative texts" narrowed during this period, with the result that fluidity between genres was markedly increased as the social purpose infiltrating many novels became harder to distinguish from sermons or religious tracts. Thus, what Reynolds refers to as "sacrosanct themes" became a crucial element in fiction, while at the same time, those themes were invoked in a newly stylized version that called on "the mimetic, earthly world of literary realism" (16). Thus the emergent ideals of a more literary style combined, in the American context, with the demand for a more sophisticated morality underwritten by a "more serious purpose." That is, expectations for both the purpose or function of fiction as well as the style and devices used to accomplish that aim changed, becoming at once more "literary" and more didactic.
Vanity Fair was widely understood in the Anglo-American press to be both a moral and literary accomplishment, with reviewers referring to Thackeray’s "entire freedom from mannerism and affectation both in style and sentiment. . . His effects are uniformly the effects of sound wholesome, legitimate art; and we hardly need add that we are never harrowed up with the physical horrors of the Eugene Sue school in his writings, or that there are no melodramatic villains to be found in them" ("Thackeray’s Writings" 272). This admiration of the "art" of Thackeray’s work and what might be termed its genteel simplicity was repeated in many of the reviews. Often compared to Dickens and his level of "pathos," appraisals of both authors were continually caught up in addressing the morality of the authors’ stories, their views on human nature, and the ultimate effect of these tendencies on the reader—that is, the "lesson" their texts offer. The judgment of the moral value of a text was taken quite seriously, with a complex understanding of readers as serious consumers of narrative not taken in by, or more importantly, not affected by, artificiality either in prose, plot or character. As a reviewer writes in October 1856 in The North American Review:
Because the moral of a book is not written out in a few pithy words on the last page, it does not follow that the book has no moral. No faithful transcript of human life and human passion can be clearly and powerfully exhibited, without, of necessity, containing a deep and searching moral, all the more forcible to the thinking man because it is subtle and beneath the surface. Is not Thackeray’s Vanity Fair a sermon of the most stringent application? Its author holds a mirror to our hearts, which reveals to each of us many a spring of action that we blush for, many a littleness and weakness, with much of worldliness and vanity, which we have never before been forced fairly to acknowledge, even to ourselves. We lay down the book, confessing, in spite of ourselves, that it is a faithful likeness of a large part of our human nature and this confession is followed by a pang that is not always useless. . . . Much self-knowledge may be attained, much healthful humility promoted, by having, as it were, the picture of our own hearts set forth before our astonished eyes, touched by the hand of a skillful and fearless master. ("Chapter" 349)
Vanity Fair is admired not only for the moral lesson it offers, but also for the subtlety with which that lesson is imparted, and for the forcefulness of it, the result of the "faithful likeness" or the realism with which the "skillful and fearless master" sets the lessons forth. This suggests that the emerging divide between old and new was not parsed so much in terms of sentimentality and realism; rather, the divide is expressed on the one hand as a division between texts that followed dated narrative formulas and those that were able to move into a more sophisticated and character-driven expression of the novel’s purpose; on the other hand, it is a divide between pure "amusement" and the purposeful, yet sophisticated, moral didacticism of the 1850s. As the same reviewer writes in The North American Review:
The modern novel differs from the old-fashioned one in so many points, that hardly any similarity remains, save that which is implied and necessitated by the realm to which they appertain, and the allegiance which both owe to the imaginative faculty of their creators. They differ, not only in choice and arrangement of materials and agencies, but their motive powers are totally unlike. The successful novel of the present day is strictly a work of art, amenable to all the laws of art. . . Artistic beauty of style must accompany the creation, development, and completion of the plot. Harmonious and dignified expression must follow powerful conception in the romance that would win and retain a strong hold upon the public taste. ("Chapter" 348)
Comparing these works to the "days when Richardson, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Miss Burney wrote romances which set the literary coteries of England in a blaze," the writer notes the "conventional ingredients" these novelists relied upon for their fiction but which have been supplanted by "the element of conversation. . . to allow the characters to unfold their individuality through the medium of their own expression." This aesthetic of the literary (identified as a less conventional telling of a story and by the absence of stock incidents, "startling events," "accidents and surprises," and "secrets and discoveries") is an essential element in "good" fiction, and yet fiction of all kinds is still positioned very much as an instrument of moral and intellectual improvement. He goes on to argue that, "The high requirements which criticism has lately made, have placed the novel on an elevated grade, not only as a composition, but as an assistant in mental and moral culture" ("Chapter" 342).
A lengthy essay on Vanity Fair in The American Whig Review (October 1848) addresses realism and morality in a way that brings us, perhaps surprisingly, to the connection between women, books, morality and maternity, a set of terms crucial to both domesticity and sentimentality, and one around which my argument will frequently circulate. The reviewer, having discussed Balzac’s characters, writes that "this mention of Balzac brings to mind a more serious charge. . . more than once heard" against Thackeray: "namely, that his sketches contain too many disagreeable characters." The reviewer then acknowledges: "a queer charge this to come from a reading generation which swallows copious illustrated editions of Les Mystères and Le Juif, and is lenient to the loathsome vulgarities of Wuthering Heights and Wildfell Hall [sic]." The critic then goes on to defend Thackeray’s use of such "scamps, profligates, and hypocrites;" these characters, the reviewer claims, are introduced "to show them up and put us on our guard against them. . . we hate them, and he hates them too. And if he ever does bestow attractive traits on his rogues, it is to expose the worthlessness and emptiness of some things which are to the world attractive—to show that the good things of Vanity Fair are not good per se, but may be coincident with much depravity" (American Whig Review 422-3). In other words, the complexity of Thackeray’s text works to subtly and more effectively convey the novel’s moral content. The assumption is that readers, particularly female readers, will identify with the text. This is the mode of reading I have identified with Dickens and which is linked to domesticity and its ideological shaping of gender insofar as women were assumed to have greater capacity for empathy and thus tended to be more influenced by their reading. The very qualities that made women maternal by nature also made them, by nature, more vulnerable and deeply invested consumers of fiction.
As Kate Flint argues, in the Victorian era "maternity was no longer regarded, in relation to women’s reading, simply as a function which ensured close social guiding of one’s offspring." Rather, she argues, it was "the ability to venture with sympathetic identification into the lives of others" that guaranteed "women’s susceptibility to identifactory modes of reading" (31). This, of course, was constructed as a "natural" result of the female physiological makeup, including the reproductive capacity and the female brain. In turn, the deep identification with the text necessary to its "influence" is dependent upon a certain degree of realism to be effective. Thus one of the most influential books of the decade, The Wide, Wide World, was admired for its realism, a fact that may surprise many readers of the novel insofar as realism is generally posed in opposition to sentimentality. Warner’s novel was viewed by many critics as both artful (with well-developed characters, scenes and plot) and at the same time true to its moral and religious purpose, neither of which were seen to be in conflict. The novel’s status as the sentimental novel par excellence in the literary history of the period is a categorical position imposed on the novel later and not one that the novel occupied during the 1850s.
To position Warner’s and Thackeray’s novels in a literary market together, and to see them as sharing readers, we need not recast these texts nor create unbridgeable divides between them; rather, we must grant the readers of the period a measure of sophistication in terms of their literary tastes. We must also give credit to these readers’ ability to attain some distance and perspective on the tears and sentiment they consumed, based again on their consumption of a satirical novel like Vanity Fair. Beyond the superabundance of tears, there is very little in common between Thackeray’s Amelia Sedley and Warner’s Ellen Montgomery, much less between his Becky and her Ellen; the books, however, have a serious didactic purpose (although not the same purpose) and each carries out its mission with prose that is attentive to the representation of the "real" in the interests of social and moral improvement. And while Thackeray’s parody engages the perfect heroines of old, including those idols of perfection so popularized in England and America by Scott and Cooper, Warner’s certainly owes a great deal to their sisters, the searching paragons of moral and social perfection exemplified in the novels of Burney and Edgeworth.
The overwhelming popularity of Vanity Fair, The Wide, Wide World, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and The Lamplighter all provide opportunities to perceive the way the taste for popular literature moved toward a mode of purposeful reform (an exhortation applied to both writers and readers) in the 1850s, while at the same time becoming more sophisticated and less formulaic in style, plot, and character. To pursue this point further, Becky Sharp and her relation to domesticity and self-improvement provides some insight into the values underlying the shift that the reviewers above identify. I will situate Vanity Fair, with its ambiguous "heroine," as a text that throws into relief many of the cultural and social imperatives exemplified by female protagonists as represented by Warner in The Wide, Wide World and by Maria Cummins in her 1854 novel The Lamplighter—two novels that, aside from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Brontë’s Jane Eyre, were the most popular novels of the decade.
Vanity Fair is a moral book because it is a successful satire; indeed, it could scarcely be read any other way given how often the novel’s narrator tips his hand and laughs at the pretensions and conventions of the "sentimental" and "ever so stupid" novels he parodies. As the reviewer for The United States Democratic Review writes in October 1848: "Vanity Fair is the world, and through its booths and busy places of pleasure and sorrow, the author leads the reader with Sentiment on one arm and Satire on the other." As this comment suggests, the American press had no trouble joining Thackeray’s reverie, since the kinds of novels he mocks had long been staples of American reading and are included in a long list of British fiction read in the United States. Included in these perennial Anglo-American favorites are in fact many of the novels that polite society and genteel lady’s magazines had long recommended women and girls read, including Edgeworth’s Belinda, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, Jane Austen’s novels, and the works of Susan Ferrier. American domestic fiction, of course, also owes a great deal to these novels insofar as they established the "sentimental" genre as the female coming-of-age tale, a legacy that shaped both writers’ and readers’ expectations of the novel as a form meant, at least in part, for amusement. While the American works distinguish themselves in many ways in their treatment of race and class, they share a preoccupation with the British model in their treatment of emotion and intellect (or sense and sensibility) that is expressed through the representation of the female protagonists as sensitive, highly passionate and in need of training in the arts of self-control and reason. This is, of course, the novel’s British inheritance dating back at least to Richardson’s Pamela, the history of which is discussed fully by Nancy Armstrong and Kate Flint in their respective histories of the novel and of reading in Britain.
Thackeray is not immune to the legacy of this formula, and yet he cunningly situates his text in such a way that it fits neatly into, while retaining some distance from, its narrative demands. From Amelia’s sweetness, tears, and generosity (however mocked) to Becky’s status as a penniless orphan, from the narrative structure that ultimately leads to its logical end (the marriage of Amelia and Major Dobbin, and Becky’s second marriage) to the novel’s perverse preoccupation with Becky’s natural instincts, Thackeray retains many of the shared conventions of the sentimental novel while at the same time explicitly undermining them through the narrative voice. Most notably, Becky is not improved, nor does she wish to be. She openly engages in behavior that would make her repugnant according to any measure of idealized femininity of the period, which valued purity, benevolence and emotional self-control above all. Thackeray does not shy away from making a mockery of these traits in Becky, just as he does not hesitate to represent Amelia as a bald caricature of the insipid sentimental heroine. As an 1848 reviewer in The Living Age writes, one of Thackeray’s women "is without a heart, the other is without a head" (413). Another critic, writing the same year for The Democratic Review, sees this tension between sentiment and satire in "these two women of opposite disposition" as the "woof and web of the story; all the rest is only nap, but nap of a most excellent quality" (378).
Because Thackeray deploys the staples of sentimentality so self-consciously, Vanity Fair is useful in reframing American domestic fiction and its complex situation in a mixed and chaotic print culture. In turn, the text provides insight into the preoccupation with purposeful and not merely frivolous novel reading by revealing how knowledge and sentimentality are entwined in the popular fiction of the period. By placing Vanity Fair in the body of American domestic fiction, we disrupt the isolation many critics have depended on in viewing American fiction as a self-enclosed universe, one that was either reflective of, or posed in opposition to, the real lives, work, and thoughts of American female readers. As Jane Tompkins famously argues, "the tears and prayers of sentimental heroines" were compelling to readers "not because they didn’t know what good fiction was, nor because their notions about human life were naive and superficial, but because the 'order of things’ to which both readers and fictions belonged was itself structured by such narratives." While Tompkins is certainly correct in postulating a mid-century culture permeated by the reform movement and religious piety, I think it is a mistake to view the fiction itself or its readers as existing in such a vacuum. The popularity of Vanity Fair undermines the kind of naiveté Tompkins’s claim depends on; it suggests that the need to understand the readers of domestic fiction as sophisticated consumers of a diverse array of narrative styles with varying didactic purposes.
As Reynolds and others have demonstrated, the reform impulse was expressed not only as sentimentality, but also as sensation. Vanity Fair bridges these two seemingly opposed modes of expression, or genres. By exploiting the period’s sentimental novels in a way that suggests a far more complex "order of things" than Tompkins would have, Vanity Fair may be seen as at once sentimental and sensational. And while The Wide, Wide World certainly fits the conventional notion of reform writing insofar as it shows the path to goodness through examples of the heroine’s internal mastery of self and soul, not all so-called sentimental writing did so. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the writing of E.D.E.N. Southworth and Charles Dickens, to name just three examples, frequently fall into the sentimental and the subversive genres, showing the consequences of various vices in graphic and sensational language, while at the same time enacting maudlin scenes replete with tears. This implicates the reader in scenes of sympathy in a particularly intimate manner. Tompkins states that she does not view these readers as being "naive"—that the "order of things" was structured by "real" and fictional narratives that reinforced a sentimental world-view. I want to argue that by reading into the period’s domestic fiction the satirical narrative Vanity Fair offers, the solidity of this order and the narratives that comprised it are both compromised and revealed to be working in unison with an assumption central to readers of Vanity Fair: cynicism. American popular novels (many of them "sentimental") must be viewed through a far more knowing, self-conscious lens than has been assumed as the cynicism of Vanity Fair’s narrator exposes some of the more vulnerable lines beneath the seemingly enclosed body of American domestic fiction. Becky’s character inverts many of the most essential qualities of the female protagonist, while reinforcing the centrality of class and market relations as determining factors in the protagonist’s destiny. A deeply invested mode of reading is elicited by these texts, but the depth and emotion involved in this mode does not make it unknowing or innocent.
I want to focus now on Becky’s temper and her mis/management of it as something that forcefully distinguishes Vanity Fair from its British and American competitors including David Copperfield, The Wide, Wide World, The Lamplighter, Jane Eyre, and other British and American popular novels. These are all novels preoccupied with learning and, most centrally, with learning to control the passions through the use of books—or through the practices of writing, and reading. Becky’s rejection of this model of self-improvement helps to reframe the narrative boundaries defining Anglo-American popular novels of the period. Through her refusal to tame either her passionate nature or her own self-interest Becky remains, throughout the novel, un-domesticated. As Amy Kaplan notes, we should think of "domesticity not as a static condition but as the process of domestication, which entails conquering and taming the wild, the natural, and the alien." Vanity Fair suggests that domestication fails Becky, that she is irrevocably "wild, natural, and alien"—"this rebel, this monster, this serpent, this firebrand" is never tame (52). Unlike David Copperfield, she cannot put aside the self-interest born of her early poverty. Vanity Fair not only takes place outside of the domestic in the sense that the novel does not locate its emotional center in or around a particular house, but its main character explicitly rejects the self-improvement necessary to domestication, a resistance that places Becky, as a white woman in genteel society, in a somewhat ambiguous relation to her gender.
Becky’s resistance to domestication begins in the novel’s opening scene, when we see how very mistaken "honest," "good natured" Jemima is when she slips a copy of the revered Johnson’s Dictionary to Becky upon her departure from Miss Pinkerton’s School, certain that Miss Becky "will be miserable if she don’t get one" (41). Not only does Becky not value the book, she is repelled by it, and in fine comic fashion, "just as the coach drove off, Miss Sharp put her face out of the window, and actually flung the book back into the garden" (45). It is not only her rejection of a book, but of this book in particular, which in 1830s and 1840s England was a proud testament to the power of words and to the knowledge necessary to their proper use. Becky doesn’t want that knowledge, and she violently rejects the civilizing strictures—pomp, pity, and education—it represents. As Becky states bluntly to Amelia, "Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural"—and natural is precisely what Becky is and remains throughout the text (47). In sticking her face out the window, she exposes herself, barefaced as it were, not only to expose her act and its result, but to place her naked face there alongside the book as it flies through the air in a sort of open declaration of her brazen and unfeminine character. What is crucial about this scene is not that Becky would so rudely fling the book (she does much worse), nor that she is unrepentant about it. Becky’s behavior is outrageous because the credo she announces never changes—she is content to be natural. She has no interest in or use for education nor, as I will argue, for moral or intellectual reform of any kind. She is to be taken as is, and no bonnet or head-scarf is called for to cover or to shield (herself or others) from her actions.
Becky’s refusal of Johnson’s Dictionary is a refusal that reverberates as she demonstrates that her natural instincts serve her self-interest very nicely. Having made use of Miss Pinkerton’s school where she was "bound over as an articled pupil" because she could be "useful," and not to gain an education there, she is moved along when she becomes unmanageable and put to work as a governess, again, selling her skills in exchange for access to genteel society and, of course, money (49). Unlike the eminently improvable Amelia, or the anxious and ambitious type that includes Ellen of The Wide, Wide World and Gerty of The Lamplighter, Becky neither accepts nor needs instruction, except perhaps in the finer points of upper-class etiquette and speech—skills she gathers effortlessly: "that in a fortnight, and after three dinners in general society, this young woman had got up the genteel jargon so well, that a native could not speak it better; and it was only from her French being so good, that you could know she was not a born woman of fashion" (342). While Thackeray notes condescendingly that Becky "went through the little course of study which was considered necessary for ladies in those days," beyond this obligatory bit virtually all of what she knows is innately hers (51). The American heroines Ellen and Gerty, on the other hand, are desperate to learn and go to great lengths and make significant sacrifices of time and energy to learn, with French being just one example of the staple accomplishments the American novels take up, the same Thackeray mocks. As Ellen in The Wide, Wide World confesses, "I determined I would try to study myself. . . . French I can do nothing at all with, and that is what I wanted to learn most of all." Gerty, too, "conceived a strong desire to learn French," and proceeds to demonstrate "a wonderful determination for doing so." In contrast to the American heroines’s commanding self-discipline and dutiful drive to learn French (not by accident a necessary accomplishment for a "lady" in genteel society), it is simply Becky’s "mother-tongue." And while Becky does practice her music "incessantly" at Miss Pinkerton’s, it is a labor which says more about the expression of her passionate nature than it does about her desire to improve her skills.
The representation of this proper feminine model, and its relevance to understanding how Becky’s shocking "natural" behavior plays into this tradition, can best be viewed through one of the central conventions of the period’s fiction—that of the motherless child. As the critic Carolyn Dever convincingly argues in Death of the Mother, the absence of the mother in Victorian fiction is a prerequisite for re/forming the ideal mother. In each of the novels I discuss, the protagonist is (at least initially) an orphan, a formulation which enables the ambiguity necessary to sustaining the ideal of a classless society (the orphans’ origins are never fully known, or are revealed at the end of the novel). With the notable exception of Vanity Fair, the void this absence creates is filled in each case with two linked substitutes, reading/books and the idealized maternal figure. The surrogate maternal characters, Emily in The Lamplighter and Alice in The Wide, Wide World, are themselves motherless, in effect doubling the effective absence and its representational possibilities. No better way could be contrived of representing the possibilities inherent in the threatened sacred feminine than through following the moral, intellectual and religious development of these lost children and their doubles. And while poverty and injustice are heaped upon the orphans, they are represented as spirited and capable in their struggle to master their passions. As Ellen confesses tearfully to Alice in one of their first meetings: " The worst is,—oh the worst is—that I meant—I meant to be a good child, and I have been I have been worse than ever I was in my life before. I have been passionate and cross, and bad feelings keep coming, and I know it’s wrong, and it makes me miserable" (151). In turn, Gerty, of The Lamplighter confesses to her blind guide Emily on their first meeting (in a church, no less), "But I an’t good...I’m real bad!" (66). For, like Ellen, her passions "once excited...were always extreme" (148), although she badly wants to be "good." Through the representation of the good mother/orphan and her unfailing guidance of the passionate child/orphan (Emily and Gerty in The Lamplighter, Alice and Ellen in The Wide, Wide World) these novels repeat and reinforce the necessity and possibility of learning to be (domesticated) women. Of Becky we are told, "she never had been a girl; she had been a woman since she was eight years old," which means not just that she is knowledgeable about the world, but more importantly, that she is sexually compromised. Thackeray indicates as much with his shadowy description of her history with Mr. Crisp in Chapter Two, when he writes knowingly of her outlook in leaving school and embarking on a visit with Amelia’s family that "in all events, if Rebecca was not beginning the world, she was beginning it over again" (49, 53).
For Gerty and Ellen the process of becoming their guiding maternal ideal (Emily or Alice) is a great portion of the story the novel tells. As each learns to discipline her body and mind by decoding the necessary lessons for performing genteel womanly behavior, the reading these girls do and that their surrogate mothers give them access to is what fully transforms them. The paradox generated by the values circulating around sincere behavior and the learning of authenticity in antebellum American culture provides insight into the American novels’s preoccupation with learning and reform as exemplified by these characters. The partial resolution of this paradox by mid-century enables us to better understand the central place the idealized heroine of The Wide, Wide World holds in American domestic fiction, and how her sentimentality can be understood without creating an inapproachable divide between Warner’s novel (and others like it, including Cummins’s) and other British reprints, including Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair.
The standard version of this period’s history is that the preoccupation with education that is characteristic of the age may in part be explained by social and economic change during the Jacksonian Era that eroded established means of identifying status, class and identity. As many historians have argued, in their absence a crisis of confidence arose, resulting in a flood of instructions for American men and women. "Conduct guides," whose purpose was to instruct Americans in how to behave—including how to dress, walk, mourn, worship, eat, and speak—flooded the market beginning in the 1830s and continued to appear in great numbers through the 1850s. I quibble with this analysis only insofar as conduct guides did not spring out of nowhere, nor did they disappear after 1860. They were published in great numbers throughout the nineteenth century and beyond and, as Nancy Armstrong has argued convincingly in her study of the British novel, Desire and Domestic Fiction, their origins may be traced to Richardson’s Pamela (1740). Virtually every period in American history may be characterized as containing great economic and social upheaval. The 1850s are no exception, and perhaps even merit some special consideration on the grounds that the nation did in fact go through fairly radical social, political and economic upheaval on the eve of the Civil War as well as during the crash of 1857. Thus, while Americans experienced great economic and social change during this period, it is the way these anxieties were manifested—how they were expressed within the writing of the period—that concerns me.
What is compelling about the proliferation of conduct guides during this period is how, somewhat paradoxically, they were aimed at instructing readers in the art of being sincere. As Karen Haltunnen argues in Confidence Men and Painted Women, the anxiety over social and economic anomie was resolving itself by mid-century as Americans became more comfortable with the manners and rituals that marked genteel, middle-class conduct; that is, they became more secure in the idea that proper manners, dress and conduct represented their sincerity (rather than hiding it), and guarded them against what continued to be their greatest fear, the hypocrite or the masked upstart (197). Warner’s representation of the ideal feminine emphasize how Ellen’s piety is manifested internally, a formula for politeness echoed by an advice manual of the period which advised that "true politeness has its foundation in benevolence. . . It is not confined to mere exterior behavior . . . it proceeds from the heart" (Manual of Politeness 7). This internal sense, however, is repeatedly linked to a morality that performs itself through deeds and actions while at the same time arising out of that performance. As Kathryn Sklar argues, a shift toward an emphasis on outward manifestations of piety and morality took place during this period that "was congruent with an increasingly democratic and individualized ethos." As behavior was valued over the psychological state of a "joyous love to God," conduct became crucially important. This shift changed, Sklar argues, "what had theoretically been merely superficial behavioral modes into rigid moral determinants. . . . Sexually differentiated definitions of morality were thereby heightened, since so-called natural and unnatural behavior could now be equated with the moral and immoral" (83). We can then explain how natural characteristics or the "undomesticated," including blacks and non-assimilated immigrants, were linked to immorality by examining more closely some of the origins of domesticity.
As Kathleen McHugh asks in her American Domesticity: "What have slavery, suffrage, and citizenship to do with domesticity? In the period between 1787 and 1840, the rise of the cult of domesticity coincided almost exactly with the fight for universal white manhood suffrage." Over the course of this fight, she argues, "the criterion for the franchise shifted from exclusions based on unequal distribution of property to exclusions that legally constituted identity itself as the premise for inequality" (39). One of the consequences of this shift toward a politics of identity-based citizenship (rather than class- or property-based) was "the transformation of domestic property relations." As McHugh argues, this transformation affirmed the private sphere as "domestic discourses formulated and celebrated the value of private property or the domicile as precisely dematerialized and idealized" (40). Connecting these discourses back to the natural and consequently back to Becky Sharp, we can see how McHugh’s argument helps to explain the connections between feminine identity and property and in turn how Becky’s need for property and the subjectivity that is underwritten by that property. As Becky herself famously acknowledges, in a tone reminiscent of Austen: "It isn’t difficult to be a country gentleman’s wife. . . I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year" (495). Thackeray’s narrator is unapologetic about the link between being a "good woman" and possessing property, with Becky’s quest for riches, social stature and sexual purity underwritten by the narrator’s comment that "who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations—and that it was only a question of money and fortune that made the difference between her and an honest woman" (496).
External manifestations of piety and morality gained in importance during this period in part because Americans were able to consolidate their construction of "natural" behavior through the articulation of, paradoxically, unpretentious manners while distinguishing those "natural" manners from "unnatural" behavior. In turn, the more rigid requirements for feminine gender performance was linked to the evolving importance of the private sphere and the construct of domesticity. And while England was not undergoing an identical crisis, the antecedents for and the intellectual foundation of the crisis are shared. What, I think, distinguishes the two at this point is the American drive toward nationalism and its explicit identification of simplicity as "American." This meant that in food, dress, and manners Americans began to desire to express and distinguish themselves—as Americans. This is not to say that the slightly conflicted Anglophilia that I would argue is a characteristic of the period did not exist. It is to say that Americans were beginning, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the impending fight over a united nation, to see themselves as separate, and as embodiments of new and simpler values. When Thackeray has a bit of fun with the construct of the "artless" woman, it is a construct that perhaps resonated even more strongly on the American side of the Atlantic. The feared interloper, according to Vanity Fair’s narrator, is not far removed from what the revered figure represented in the American domestic novel. As Thackeray’s narrator somewhat wickedly warns:
The best of women (I have heard my grandmother say) are hypocrites. We don’t know how much they hide from us: how watchful they are when they seem most artless and confidential: how often those frank smiles they wear so easily, are traps to elude or disarm—I don’t mean in your mere coquettes, but your domestic models, paragons of female virtue. (210-1)
The cynicism of this view of the polished woman contrasts starkly with the American novel’s unerring faith in the true woman’s use of manners as a means of expressing authentic feeling. Indeed, it might be read as a scathing indictment of America’s polite but deeply hypocritical white women’s culture on the eve of war. Americans, I want to suggest, clung to the idea that actions (manners) expressed feelings (the source of truth). As Gerty in The Lamplighter demonstrates, perfect manners could not be separated from genuine emotion. The young and impressionable Fanny, when forced to tell Gerty’s rule for learning politeness, responds that her advice "was the same my music-master gave me last winter" when she asked him how she should "learn to play with expression." The answer he gave and which Gerty’s recommends was "You must cultivate your heart, Miss Bruce; you must cultivate your heart" (240-1). Thus while Cummins represents good manners as the result of genuine feeling, Thackeray represents them as pure artifice—as a part of the theater of society. Which is not to say that Becky’s manners were lacking—in fact, Becky’s "manners were fine, and her air distingué" (342). Clearly, however, Becky’s manners are precisely that, a means (access and acceptance) to an end (money, a husband) in genteel society—their honesty more closely matches England’s treatment of race, whereas the American model seems to cling to a justification that manners might cover for hypocrisy.
Warner repeatedly engages the question of manners in The Wide, Wide World, with Ellen’s and others’ manners discussed throughout the novel as markers of class, nation and racial identification. The following discussion gives some indication of this:
"She is a fascinating child," said Mrs. Gillespsie. "I cannot comprehend where she gets the manner she has. I never saw such a perfectly polite child; and there she has been for months with nobody to speak to her but two gentlemen and the servants. It is natural to her, I suppose; she can have nobody to teach her." (475)
Warner’s emphasis on Ellen’s innate goodness is something of a paradox. While she shows that Ellen is passionate, and that those passions must be tamed and controlled through submission to God, she is also careful to demonstrate that Ellen is inherently "good" or unusually pious by nature. What Thackeray represents in Amelia as so much foolish falsehood—including the maudlin scenes that characterize sentimentality—are, paradoxically, in the American novels, represented as a manifestation of authentic feeling.
Contextualizing this split between the Thackeray’s cynicism and the American novelists’ more naive values requires delving deeper into the logic of sentimentality, and how it works within all three novels to subsume social and racial difference behind the already racialized and gendered enclave of the private middle-class home—the sanctuary of the white, middle-class woman. Indeed, as Shirley Samuels has argued, by resolving public difficulty within the private sphere, domestic sentimentalism in the American novels at once erased unresolvable differences and ignored them. In these texts, a specifically racialized class status is ostensibly secured by the knowledge of a set of rules that could be learned by anyone, and yet which are in effect a set of codes that enable the means of identification necessary to exclusion. At the center of this code, or deeply embedded within the logic of sentimentality, is the work it does in building and maintaining the boundaries defining of gender. Becky Sharp, because she is represented as the antithesis of the sentimental heroine, provides a striking example of the contours of gender. Because she is anti-sentimental, the result is the representation of an ambiguously gendered character.
In fact I’d like to go further and suggest that Becky is coded masculine, identified as she is with the marketplace and with men throughout Vanity Fair. "She had never mingled in the society of women," Thackeray writes early in his description of her, a situation that might in part explain what he describes as "her hostility to her kind" (50, 48). Extending her quasi-masculinity and its consequences further, into the marketplace, I see her performing as a commodity in the text as she is repeatedly exchanged by (exchanges herself with) men and women, gathering use-value without engaging in the labor of self-improvement, becoming more and more expensive as she moves up the marriage market until she finally oversteps the line of propriety in her quest for greater riches and status, thus ultimately devaluing herself. Most importantly, Becky’s value (as a subject, as a woman) is naturalized as an exchange value since one might argue that the most feminine behavior in the marriage market—being a commodity—is precisely what women are expected to do. The difference is that Becky understands herself and her relation to the world in commodity terms (she is for sale to Miss Pinkerton and then to the right husband, for the right price), and her efforts at self-promotion amount to a fairly successful marketing of her own assets.
I see Becky’s status as a commodity, combined with Thackeray’s representation of her as natural and his repeated emphasis on her as anti-domestic, as a set of conditions that by coding her masculine invert many of the key assumptions sustaining the sentimental novel. The text, through Becky, subverts domesticity and its basic values by representing them as so much falsehood, so much pretense; and yet, the text’s effort to undermine the tired genre goes much further, exposing the artificiality of white femininity itself. Thackeray, by coding Becky as masculine and yet representing her as a woman, enables her to enact, in an extreme form, the basic preoccupation with natural passions so evident in the period’s popular fiction. In other words, Becky is an expression of what Reynolds identifies as the subversive impulse that floods the sensation fiction of the period—that is, she embodies the shocking human passions and their untrained expression that is at the core of this crude mode of reform writing, an expression that embodies masculinity.
Thackeray’s novel thus may be seen to work in concert with American domestic fiction, but the novel does so in a way that draws its readers’ attention to sentimentality’s central pretensions. For it is not ultimately learning and diligence, it is not spiritual and moral reform that makes womanly virtue possible; rather, these are revealed as the pretensions hiding the essential difference between classes—and it is ultimately the very American obsession with race that is underscored as the real difference between women. To be "natural," then, had a dual and somewhat contradictory meaning since it simultaneously signaled effortless, authentic performance of the "self" while also indicating an undesirable absence of cultivation and domestication most damningly and shockingly linked to female sexual passion which is in turn coded black.
In this formulation we can see that Thackeray’s representation of Becky and her passionate, fiery and indeed often uncontrollable nature plays on the divide in American popular fiction between the sentimental and sensational modes. For while impulsiveness is represented in both genres as a great evil to be conquered (although it is often not conquered in the sensation novels), it is the play of race and gender that complicates the divide. For white female protagonists, the necessity of concealing and ultimately ridding the self of all uncontrolled desires and impulses is at the center of the drive toward achieving the virtue necessary to becoming a genteel wife—the end that is in store for virtually all heroines in all coming-of-age novels. This end, and its links to controlling the passions, cannot be overemphasized as the failure to achieve this control is represented not only as a moral failure but also as a failure to become, or to prove one’s orphan-self to be, of solid (white) blood.
Vanity Fair provides a tame antidote that plays upon the pretensions of the sentimental novel while outing many of its most insipid conventions. And yet it fleshes out the space between genres, providing some of the gray area between genteel women’s writing and the cruder yet extremely popular sensation novels of the period. That these novels existed in a divided universe of male and female is, I think, an untenable proposition, one that becomes more strained as we begin to understand the role of British reprints in this market and how their often less dogmatic narratives and more complex characters provide one more of the missing pieces of this period’s literary history. By so explicitly engaging the formula followed by conventional sentimental fiction, Vanity Fair complicates our understanding of readers, texts, and the relations between them in 1850s America.
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