Places: Vanity Fair

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1847-1848; book, 1848

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedVanity Fair

Vanity Vanity FairFair. Place on the way to the Celestial City that John Bunyan created in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), which represents the destructive temptations of the world. For Thackeray, “Vanity Fair” is likewise the place where lusts and pleasures are bought and sold, but for him the moral dimension of the threat of damnation is minimized. His Vanity Fair is mildly amusing and satirical; his characters are like puppets, jockeying for social position and money. His novel has no hero or heroine, but only his panoramic view of various versions of Vanity Fair, all filled with snobbery and acquisitiveness.

Miss Pinkerton’s Minerva House Academy

Miss Pinkerton’s Minerva House Academy. Girls’ school in which the wealthy Amelia Sedley and her orphaned friend, Rebecca Sharp, are trained. The importance of position and money is immediately obvious in the academy, for Amelia is polished with husband-acquiring skills, while the orphan Rebecca must earn her keep by teaching French, and she must also soon become a governess in the household of the wealthy Lord Pitt Crawley. The social contrast between the two students is also made obvious in parallel scenes at Dr. Swishtail’s School, whose male students include the wealthy and snobbish George Osborne and the modest grocer’s son, William Dobbin.

*Vauxhall

*Vauxhall. Pleasure gardens in London that represent Vanity Fair in microcosm, with their love of display, dark walkways, and matchmaking. There, Amelia plans a party and includes her brother Jos Sedley, a perfect counterpart to Vauxhall itself, foolishly vain and pleasure-seeking. Becky works hard to charm Jos in the hope of escaping from having to work for her living, but Jos’s overindulgence in punch and his friend George’s snobbery prevent her from snaring him.

Great Gaunt Street

Great Gaunt Street. London street on which stands the gloomy home of Lord Pitt Crawley, to whom Becky reports for work as a governess. Crawley finds Becky attractive, and she vows to make good use of all opportunities to advance herself in his home. His house, though grand with family portraits, is ruled over by no handsome baronet, but by a dirty, vulgar, and lewd old man. However, his country home, Queen’s Crawley, proves to be a fertile ground for the shrewd Becky. She wins the affections of those who count in the household, especially wealthy old Miss Crawley, whose fortune and ill health make her everyone’s focus. This wretched family is driven by greed, jealousy, and snobbery, and its members’ very names reflect their vain, empty, selfish lives: “Rawdon” and the other “Pitts” of “Gaunt” Street and Queen’s “Crawley.”

*Park Lane

*Park Lane. Home in London’s Mayfair district of Miss Crawley, to which Becky is called to care for the wealthy, ailing, old woman. Comic but disgusting scenes follow those in the country home, as the rivals for Miss Crawley’s fortune gather. Also on the scene are both Lord Pitt and his son Rawdon, rivals for Becky, each setting up in his own room adjacent to the sickroom and waiting for Becky, who regularly “comforts” them with news of the invalid’s health.

At this house the old satyr, Lord Pitt Crawley, gets on his knees and proposes marriage to Becky, only days after his second wife dies. Becky tearfully declines, regretting her recent hasty and secret wedding to his son. This unfeeling and mercenary approach to both death and marriage is later echoed in the old man’s death scene at Queen’s Crawley. The butler’s daughter had hoped to become his third wife, but while he is dying, she ravages the house’s cupboards, leaving a fellow servant to make faces at the impotent and whimpering lord on his deathbed. In both of these scenes, readers are shown that the residents of Vanity Fair make no foolish pretense to respect or to decency in love or death; instead, this acquisitive society values self-promotion at all costs.

*Brussels

*Brussels. Belgian city that represents a continental version of Vanity Fair. Brussels is located on the fringes of the great Waterloo battlefield, whose fighting remains totally offstage as Thackeray focuses on the civilian hangers-on and their social life in the weeks before the battle. There, the cowardly Jos Sedley, on leave from India, postures in his mustache and military dress, and Becky triumphs at a ball given on the eve of battle. All the characters are seen in a pointless and mindless pursuit of pleasure, while Napoleon’s dangerous military threat is ignored. Meanwhile, Amelia suffers from her husband’s flirtations with Becky, and Jos swaggers like a fat child. As an afterthought, Thackeray closes chapter 32 with a single battlefield scene: George lying face down, dead with a bullet through his heart.

*Curzon Street

*Curzon Street. Street in London’s fashionable Mayfair district where Becky and Rawdon settle after they have become adept at living well on nothing. There, Becky plots to secure the needed connections to realize her ambition of being presented at court before Vanity Fair’s supreme representative of self-indulgent dandyism, King George IV. She works tirelessly to become the vogue in London and to maintain her fashionable address and entertainment schedule.

Becky’s court appearance secures her the conquest of the Marquis of Steyne and an invitation to his house in Gaunt Square, adjacent to the very house where Becky first goes as a governess. Although she now has no more real security or money than she did when she set out as a governess from this same street, she prides herself on belonging to Vanity Fair. When Rawdon is arrested and held in a sponging house by bailiffs for his ever-mounting debts, Becky pretends to have no money to rescue him and, instead, uses his absence from home as an opportunity to entertain Lord Steyne. The great discovery scene that follows is one of the novel’s most memorable. Becky, covered with jewels and her arms coiled with bracelets, is in the arms of Lord Steyne. Rawdon enters and flings a diamond at the earl, scarring him for life. When he discovers that Becky did have money, he leaves her for good. Becky, fallen from her greatest heights in Vanity Fair, then becomes shabbily bohemian.

Pumpernickel

Pumpernickel. Small German duchy that is another microcosm of Vanity Fair and provides Becky with a second chance to snare Jos Sedley and his wealth which had escaped her at Vauxhall in the opening chapters. There, she also performs her single generous action. In a crucial awakening scene, she shows Amelia a love letter the faithless George sent to her on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, in which he was killed. The letter enables Amelia finally to stop cherishing her false sentiments for her dead husband and wed the loving William Dobbin. Ever resourceful, Becky also fastens herself on Jos, who then mysteriously declines, leaving his widow with a large insurance settlement. Now Becky can leave behind the low gaming tables of Europe to which she had resorted and return to England’s provincial spas of Cheltenham and Bath where the novelist leaves her, still with a great deal of charm. Her final appearance is at a literal fair, suggesting that she will always be bargaining.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. William Makepeace Thackeray. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Contemporary critical anthology brings together essays on Thackeray’s main novels. Excellent starting place for discussion of Thackeray’s major works.Harden, Edgar F. The Emergence of Thackeray’s Serial Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979. Discussion of the serial structure of five novels, including Vanity Fair, with focus upon the manuscripts and process of composition as the novels evolved. Explains how the fact that the novel was written in serial installments shaped its form.Ray, Gordon N. “Thackeray: ‘The Newcomes.’ ” In The Age of Wisdom (1847-1864). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958. The authoritative biography of Thackeray, authorized by the Thackeray family. The two volume set contains an in-depth study of Thackeray as well as an excellent study of the novel.Sundell, M. G., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Vanity Fair.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Comprehensive collection of six essays on such topics as characters, form, theme, and content. Eight short viewpoints give concise focus to various elements of the novel.Tillotson, Kathleen. “Vanity Fair.” In Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander Welsh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Discusses Thackeray’s plan and purpose. The book contains two other excellent essays: “On the Style of Vanity Fair” by G. A. Craig and “Neoclassical Conventions” by John Loofbourow.
Categories: Places