About the Author
About the Contributor:
Joanna Trollope is the author of THE BEST OF FRIENDS, OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN, and most recently, MARRYING THE MISTRESS, among other books. She lives in England.
William Makepeace Thackeray, whose satiric novels are often regarded as the great upper-class counterpart to Dickens's panoramic depiction of lower-class Victorian society, was born on July 18, 1811, in Calcutta, India. His father, a prosperous official of the British East India Company, died four years later, and at the age of six Thackeray was sent to England to be educated. After graduating from the Charterhouse School in London, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1829 but left the following year without taking a degree. After reading law for a short time at the Middle Temple he moved to Paris in 1832 to study art. Although he eventually abandoned the idea of painting as a career, Thackeray continued to draw throughout his life, illustrating many of his own works. When financial reversals wiped out his inheritance, he resettled in London and turned to journalism for a livelihood. By then he had married Isabella Shawe, a young Irishwoman with whom he had three daughters.
Thackeray's earliest literary success, The Yellowplush Correspondence, a group of satiric sketches written in the guise of a cockney footman's memoirs, was serialized in Fraser's Magazine beginning in 1837. Catherine (serialized 1839-40; published 1869), his first novel, parodied the crime stories popular in Victorian England. Under the name Michael Angelo Titmarsh, the most famous of his many pseudonyms, Thackeray turned out The Paris Sketch Book (1840) and The Irish Sketch-Book (1843), two popular volumes of travel writing. The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), which chronicles the adventures of an Irish knave in eighteenth-century England, marked his first serious attack on social pretension. In The Book of Snobs (1848), a collection of satiric portraits originally published in Punch magazine (1846-47), he lampooned the avarice and snobbery occasioned by the Industrial Revolution.
Vanity Fair, Thackeray's resplendent social satire exposing the greed and corruption raging in England during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, brought him immediate acclaim when it appeared in Punch beginning in 1847. "The more I read Thackeray's works," wrote Charlotte Bronte, "the more certain I am that he stands alone—alone in his sagacity, alone in his truth, alone in his feeling (his feeling, though he makes no noise about it, is about the most genuine that ever lived on a printed page), alone in his power, alone in his simplicity, alone in his self-control. Thackeray is a Titan. . . . I regard him as the first of modern masters."
From the eBook edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. In her Introduction, Joanna Trollope asserts that "one of the huge charms of [Vanity Fair] is that nothing is conventional." Do you think Thackeray's choice of a protagonist speaks to this claim, given the novel's picaresque structure? How does this choice inform the novel? In what other ways does the novel confirm Trollope's claim?
2. What is your opinion of Thackeray's preface, "Before the Curtain"? How does it illuminate for you what he is attempting to do in the novel? In what ways is Thackeray "manager of the performance"? Discuss the role of the narrator in the novel. Is he reliable?
3. Why does Thackeray insist that this is a "novel without a hero"? Do you agree? What are the implications, if any, of such a claim?
4. Compare Becky and Amelia. What, if anything, does Thackeray intend by their contrasting destinies? Does one represent or confirm Thackeray's moral viewpoint better than the other, or do neither? What do you think of the preponderance of unlikable characters? Do you find Thackeray's outlook in any way misanthropic?
5. Anthony Trollope points out that many of Thackeray's contemporaries concluded upon reading Vanity Fair that he "was no novelist, but only a cynic." Do you agree? Do you think this judgment was simply a consequence of the period?
6. Robert Louis Stevenson, in a comment about the novel, remarked on Rawdon's striking of Lord Steyne in chapter 53, saying, "If Rawdon Crawley's blow were not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art." Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?
7. Discuss the significance of the Battle of Waterloo. What role does this crucial event play in the novel? Does it in any way serve as a metaphor for other episodes in the text?