The first Victorian novel that seduced me onto the path I have as a Victorian scholar was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. This novel without a hero drew me in by mocking everything that was wrong with Regency and Victorian culture even as the latter had barely begun. Becky Sharp was a slap in the face to the hypocrisy of the middle-class bourgeois attitude toward difference. From the moment she throws that damnable dictionary out the window until we leave her smirking in Amelia’s face at the end, she is an unmatched survivor. I am Becky Sharp – at least I wish I was Becky Sharp.
I have also read Barry Lyndon (excellent!) and The Newcomes (a bit dry). I have recently begun my fourth Thackeray: The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852).
What fascinates me about Esmond is the role that books play in this book. First, it was originally printed in an eighteenth-century typeface to reflect the historical period in which the novel takes place (1690s until the early-eighteenth-century reign of the good Queen Anne). My Penguin Classics editors did not use that type and I find that unfortunate because the materiality of the book is so central to work.
In addition, the novel’s bildüngsroman of Book I follows the coming of age of Henry (Harry) Esmond as he works as a page and is eventually sent to university by his Aristocratic Catholic family members Lord and Lady Castlewood. Throughout the book we are told what he is reading from the Restoration comedies he sneaks out of Lord Castlewood’s collection, to Horace, Pope, Swift, etc.
The novel addresses the Tory/Whig conflicts as well as the battle for religious toleration in Britain’s Augustan age. Esmond’s conflict is a microcosm of the larger political conflict that occupied the politics of the era. I am just about to read Book II and I cannot wait to see what happens now that his life has fallen apart and Harry finds himself in prison, abandoned by his family and no one to turn to.
Thackeray’s works are very reminiscent of the episodic novels of Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding; however, Thackeray’s work features a unity of storytelling that does not typically leave loose ends hanging or engage in an adventurous turn without some larger narrative purpose.
If you have not yet had the chance to read Thackeray, why not start now? Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon are both fantastic reads and have quality editions available with Oxford World’s Classics. With Vanity Fair, I do recommend the Norton Critical edition assembled by Victorian and Bibliographical Scholar, Peter L. Shillingsburg.
Happy reading Vicky and Eddie readers!
(P.S. The Image is Beatrix Knighting Esmond (1857) by Augustus Leopold Egg, held by the Tate Gallery in London, UK).