Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My mascot, Little William Thackeray - don't take it all so seriously

Since I have been commending myself for my exemplary humility, I will take the opportunity to explain the internet icon I have been using for a while. This fellow:
That's a self-portrait of William Thackeray, which can be found at the end of Chapter IX of Vanity Fair. I don't look much like Thackeray - only the grinning mask, pointy-toed slippers, and over-sized head are accurate. But the lil' fella seems to capture a good part of the spirit of Wuthering Expectations. Whenever I see him, I remind myself not to take this business so seriously.

Why is he there? Thackeray has just introduced Miss Crawley, the well-to-do maiden aunt, and described how her relatives love her, "for she had a balance at her banker's which would have made her beloved anywhere". Then he switches, for the last paragraph, to the first person plural:

"What a dignity it gives an old lady, that balance at the banker's! How tenderly we look at her faults if she is a relative (and may every reader have a score of such), what a kind good-natured old creature we find her!... How, when she comes to pay us a visit, we generally find an opportunity to let our friends know her station in the world! We say (and with perfect truth) I wish I had Miss MacWhirter's signature to a cheque for five thousand pounds. She wouldn't miss it, says your wife. She is my aunt, say you, in an easy careless way, when your friend asks if Miss MacWhirter is any relative."

Now that's a dirty trick. What happened to "we"? Now it's "you". It's almost as if Thackeray is trying to implicate me, the reader, in this low behavior. Me! "[A]nd with perfect truth"! Now the aunt (not the aunt in the story, but Thackeray's aunt, or possibly my aunt) comes to visit:

"What a good fire there is in her room when she comes to pay you a visit, although your wife laces her stays without one! The house during her stay assumes a festive, neat, warm, jovial, snug appearance not visible at other seasons. You yourself, dear sir, forget to go to sleep after dinner, and find yourself all of a sudden (though you invariably lose) very fond of a rubber. What good dinners you have--game every day, Malmsey-Madeira, and no end of fish from London."

There's that "you" again - "You yourself", even. The end of the chapter:

"Ah, gracious powers! I wish you would send me an old aunt--a maiden aunt--an aunt with a lozenge on her carriage, and a front of light coffee-coloured hair--how my children should work workbags for her, and my Julia and I would make her comfortable! Sweet--sweet vision! Foolish--foolish dream!"

And then we have stony-faced little Thackeray, mask in hand. Why, it seems that the jokey tone was just a mask. He was serious after all. Unless the drawing is also a joke (which it is). The Thackeray portrait, like the name of the blog in a way, helps me tamp down the vanity a bit.

For whatever reason, I never wrote about this book, an outrageous masterpiece about which I had been misled in various ways. I will recommend Mr. Virus's posts at Blogging the Canon on this book, fine reading all, my favorite being the inspirational hands-on research into the exact composition of rack punch.


  1. My edition of "Vanity Fair" came without the engravings (I was quite disappointed). I also never read it quite so in depth, noting these tiny subtleties. And I read this two weeks ago... But wow, that's a pretty great portrait.

  2. Thackeray not only approved editions without illustrations, but actually edited the text to remove references to the illustrations.

    I thought the pictures were wonderful, but the author didn't seem to have set such a high value on them.

  3. HA! When I got to this chapter, I was all, I've read this bit before. But I knew I'd never read Vanity Fair before (not like that time I was reading American Gods and was all, I remember this scene!! I've already READ this!).

    A mystery solved.

  4. No comment- just read and enjoyed.