The Pathos of Distance: Thackeray, Serialization, and Vanity Fair

  • David Payne
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


Many years ago, the editor and biographer Gordon Ray proposed an explanation for the appearance of Vanity Fair from a writer who, despite more than a decade of effort, had not yet produced a serial novel meeting either his or his audience’s requirements.1 After years in which Isabel Thackeray’s mental distress, and her husband’s unpredictable reactions to its vicissitudes, had allowed only intermittent contact between the father and his children, Thackeray’s “scale of values” underwent a profound change as a result of his permanent reunion with his daughters. Ray juxtaposes this rediscovery of his love for his children, and theirs for him, with the conception of Vanity Fair’s “dark moral.” In the same letter in which he rhapsodized to his mother about the “Divine Benevolence appointed to result from the union between parents and children,” Ray argues, Thackeray first states the vanitas theme to which readers and reviewers responded so intensely; Charlotte Brontë’s characterization of him as “the first social regenerator of the day” is only the best-known of these.2 The formal result of this moral revolution, Ray concludes, is the emergence of the essentially earnest narrative voice of Vanity Fair’s chapter 8, “bound to speak the truth as far as one knows it,” even if “a deal of disagreeable matter must come out in the course of such an undertaking” (83): a voice, that is, representing a “loose but temporarily tenable synthesis of ultimately irreconcilable social standards.”3


Narrative Voice Literary Field Brotherly Love Fellow Writer Evangelical Belief 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    On the equivocal reception of Catherine (1839–40) and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), as well as Thackeray’s own judgments on these serial novels, see, for example, Catherine, ed. Sheldon Goldfarb (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 144–6;Google Scholar
  2. The Luck of Barry Lyndon, ed. Edgar R Harden (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 232–6; and LPP 2: 193 (Thackeray’s conclusion in June 1845, six months after completing Barry Lyndon, that “I can suit the magazines, but I can’t hit the public, be hanged to them”).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    LPP 2: 309; Gordon N. Ray, “Vanity Fair: One Version of the Novelist’s Responsibility,” Essays by Divers Hands 25 (1950): 87–101, 95–6, 101.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    John Sutherland, Thackeray at Work (London: Athlone Press, 1974), 30–1;Google Scholar
  5. for a similar conclusion, see Peter Garrett, The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 110–12.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    See Kevin McLaughlin, Writing in Parts: Imitation and Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 10–12.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    LPP 1: 327–9; Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: the Uses of Adversity (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958) (hereafter “Ray”), 169, 189.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Quoted in Ray, 201. For the most complete analysis of Thackeray’s career to 1840, including especially his stints as owner of and principal writer for The National Standard (1833–4) and as foreign correspondent for The Constitutional (1836–7), see Richard Pearson, W. M. Thackeray and the Mediated Text: Writing for Periodicals in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), especially chapters 1, 3, and 5.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    John S. Farmer, Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1890; rpr. New York: Kraus, 1965), 2: 251–2; Dickens, SB, 123.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    [W. M. Thackeray,] “The Professor,” Bentley’s Miscellany 2 (September 1837): 277–88, 287. For the indispensable listing of Thackeray’s periodical output, see Edgar F. Harden, A Checklist of Contributions by William Makepeace Thackeray to Newspapers, Periodicals, Books, and Serial Part Issues, 1828–1868 (Victoria: University of Victoria Press, 1996). Citations to unreprinted works are hereafter identified by both title and their number in this list (i.e., “Harden no. 117”).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Ray, 203; Hester Thackeray Ritchie, ed., Thackeray and His Daughter (New York: Harper, 1924), 61–2, quoting Thackeray’s lecture “Charity and Humour” (1853), and including Thackeray’s own illustration of Minnie reading Nicholas Nickleby,Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    W. M. Thackeray, The Yellowplush Correspondence (1837–8, 1840), ed. Peter L. Shillingsburg (New York: Garland, 1991), 12, 26.Google Scholar
  13. For a thorough study of Thackeray’s contributions to Fraser’s in this period, as well as a list of incorrectly attributed articles, cited by Harden with approval, see Edward M. White, “Thackeray’s Contributions to Fraser’s Magazine,” Studies in Bibliography 19 (1966): 67–84.Google Scholar
  14. In particular, there seems no basis for the misattribution to Thackeray of the article entitled “Charles Dickens and his Works,” Fraser’s Magazine 21 (April 1840): 381–400, as in Robert L. Patten, George Cruikshank: His Life, Times, and Art, 2 vols (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992, 1996), 2: 56–7 n. 28.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    D. J. Taylor, Thackeray: a Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1999), 286.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    See, for example, Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 355.Google Scholar
  17. 21.
    Jonathan Arac, Commissioned Spirits: the Shaping of Social Motion in Dickens, Cariyle, Melville and Hawthorne, 2nd edn (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 89–93.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    PL 2: 86–7n. and 4: 509n.; Dickens’s letter of 28 February 1846 to the Daily News, quoted in Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime (London: Macmillan, 1962.), 225–6; Thackeray, “Going to See a Man Hanged,” Fraser’s Magazine 22 (August 1840): 150–8 (Harden no. 176), 153–4.Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    [W. M. Thackeray,] “A Box of Novels,” Fraser’s Magazine 29 (February 1844): 153–69 (Harden no. 268), 153.Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 1: 12: 4.Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 94; see also PR, 29n.Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    Thackeray, “A Box of Novels,” 168–9; DP, 148–50; on “A Christmas Carol” as a “spectacle of sympathy,” see Audrey Jaffe, Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 35.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    See Stephen Inwood, A History of London (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998), 352, 479–80, 493;Google Scholar
  24. see also W. D. Rubinstein, Men of Property: the Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981), 61.Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    See Andrew H. Miller, Novels Behind Glass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 37.
    Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1982), 211–14;Google Scholar
  27. see also John R. Reed, Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995), 202.Google Scholar
  28. 39.
    For a comparison of the serial and book versions of this passage, see Catherine Peters, The Thackeray Universe: Shifting Worlds o f Imagination and Reality (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 123.Google Scholar
  29. 40.
    [W. M. Thackeray,] “Christmas Books — No. 1,” Morning Chronicle (24 December 1845): 5–6 (Harden no. 460), rpr. in W. M. Thackeray’s Contributions to the Morning Chronicle, ed. Gordon N. Ray (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1955), 86–8.Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    Richard D. Altick, Punch: the Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841–1851 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997), 246.Google Scholar
  31. 42.
    Altick, Punch, 278; see also Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: the Influence of Evangelicalism on Nineteenth-Century Social Thought, 1785–1865, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 250.Google Scholar
  32. 43.
    W. M. Thackeray, The Book of Snobs, ed. and intro. John Sutherland (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 16.Google Scholar
  33. 47.
    For details, see Judith McMaster, “Novels by Eminent Hands: Flattery from the Author of Vanity Fair,” Dickens Studies Annual 18 (1989): 309–36.Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    [W. M. Thackeray,] “A Brother of the Press on the History of a Literary Man, Laman Blanchard, and the Chances of the Literary Profession,” Fraser’s Magazine 33 (March 1846): 332–42 (Harden no. 474), 333–4.Google Scholar
  35. 49.
    Dickens called Arthur Stanley’s Life of Dr. Arnold (1844) “the text-book of my faith,” while Forster regretted Arnold’s dislike for Dickens’s works (PL 4: 201 and nn.).Google Scholar
  36. 51.
    For the details of these identifications, see David Payne, “Thackeray v. Dickens in The Book of Snobs,” Thackeray Newsletter 51 (May 2000): 1–6, 52 (Nov. 2000): 1–2; on the omission of Dickens from Punch’s Prize Novelists, see Altick, Punch, 106–7; McMaster, “Novels by Eminent Hands.”Google Scholar
  37. 52.
    Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols (New York: Simon and Schuster), 1: 410, citing William Glyde Wilkins, Charles Dickens in America (New York: Scribner, 1911), 207–9.Google Scholar
  38. 53.
    Hatton, Critic (17 January 1885): 34–5, quoted in Ray, 427.Google Scholar
  39. 54.
    See Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 245.Google Scholar
  40. 55.
    Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1989), 25–6.Google Scholar
  41. 58.
    G. K. Chesterton, Masters of Literature: Thackeray (London, 1909), xxxii, quoted in Ray, Adversity, 16;Google Scholar
  42. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 228, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966), 157.Google Scholar
  43. 59.
    Edgar F. Harden, “The Discipline and Significance of Form in Vanity Fair,” PMLA 82 (1967): 530–41, in VF, 710–30, 719; see also Garrett, Victorian Multiplot Novel, 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 60.
    Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 221–3. On the institutional and ideological failure of Victorian Unitarians, who had long held incarnational and monist views, after 1850, see Hilton, The Age of Atonement, 300–4.Google Scholar
  45. 61.
    Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, 227; on the essential place of art in Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values,” see Richard Schacht, Nietzsche (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 367–79.Google Scholar
  46. 64.
    See, for example, Pierre Bourdieu, “Principles for a Sociology of Cultural Works,” in The Field of Cultural Production, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 183–91.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Payne 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Payne

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations