Study Guide

Vanity Fair Society and Class

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Society and Class

Miss Swartz, the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt's, on the day Amelia went away, she was in such a passion of tears that they were obliged to send for Dr. Floss, and half tipsify her with sal volatile [...] Miss Jemima had already whimpered several times at the idea of Amelia's departure; and, but for fear of her sister, would have gone off in downright hysterics, like the heiress (who paid double) of St. Kitt's. Such luxury of grief, however, is only allowed to parlour-boarders. (1.25)

From the very beginning, it's amazing how complex the social ranking of each character is. Here, we've got the mixed-race orphan heiress. She is half-Jewish, half-Jamaican, which lowers her standing (in that racist and anti-Semitic time). However, she is super-rich, which is a social plus, so she is allowed to come to this elite school and allowed special treatment (the doctor, the excess tears). But of course, she has to pay double for this privilege, reinforcing her inferior position.

The humble calling of her female parent Miss Sharp never alluded to, but used to state subsequently that the Entrechats were a noble family of Gascony, and took great pride in her descent from them. And curious it is that as she advanced in life this young lady's ancestors increased in rank and splendour. (2.12)

Though Becky might not allude to it, the narrator does – an "entrechat" is a kind of ballet leap. It may help to realize that at this time, female dancers were considered only a step or two from being prostitutes (see, for example, Degas's paintings of ballerinas).

[Dobbin's] parent was a grocer in the city: and it was bruited abroad that he was admitted into Dr. Swishtail's academy upon what are called "mutual principles"--that is to say, the expenses of his board and schooling were defrayed by his father in goods, not money; [...] The jokes were frightful, and merciless against him. "Hullo, Dobbin," one wag would say, "here's good news in the paper. Sugars is ris', my boy." Another would set a sum--"If a pound of mutton-candles cost sevenpence-halfpenny, how much must Dobbin cost?" and a roar would follow from all the circle of young knaves, usher and all, who rightly considered that the selling of goods by retail is a shameful and infamous practice, meriting the contempt and scorn of all real gentlemen. (5.1-2)

So the class system is so ingrained and important that even kids know the drill and can use it as bullying fodder. There are two funny/ironic things here: 1) England would collapse if not for its merchant class at this time (the 19th century was a time of huge capitalist expansion); and 2) it's Dobbin's dad's awesome tradesman skills that eventually earn him a title.

The argument stands thus--Osborne, in love with Amelia, has asked an old friend to dinner and to Vauxhall--Jos Sedley is in love with Rebecca. Will he marry her? That is the great subject now in hand. We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner. Suppose we had laid the scene in Grosvenor Square, with the very same adventures--would not some people have listened? Suppose we had shown how Lord Joseph Sedley fell in love, and the Marquis of Osborne became attached to Lady Amelia, with the full consent of the Duke, her noble father: or instead of the supremely genteel, suppose we had resorted to the entirely low, and described what was going on in Mr. Sedley's kitchen--how black Sambo was in love with the cook (as indeed he was), and how he fought a battle with the coachman in her behalf; how the knife-boy was caught stealing a cold shoulder of mutton, and Miss Sedley's new femme de chambre refused to go to bed without a wax candle; such incidents might be made to provoke much delightful laughter, and be supposed to represent scenes of "life." Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible, and made the lover of the new femme de chambre a professional burglar, who bursts into the house with his band, slaughters black Sambo at the feet of his master, and carries off Amelia in her night-dress, not to be let loose again till the third volume, we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall. (6.1-2)

It's interesting that Thackeray is pretending that different literary genres would be set on different rungs of the social ladder. Of course, we know that this story actually will at some point feature lords and even a marquis and still will "provoke delightful laughter." At the same time, it will have moments of "thrilling interest" without being set in the servants' chambers. Why then this aside about how tone and rank have to go together?

"Why should I spare him?" Osborne said to his friend's remonstrances, when they quitted the invalid [Jos], leaving him under the hands of Doctor Gollop. "What the deuce right has he to give himself his patronizing airs, and make fools of us at Vauxhall? Who's this little schoolgirl that is ogling and making love to him? Hang it, the family's low enough already, without HER. A governess is all very well, but I'd rather have a lady for my sister-in-law. I'm a liberal man; but I've proper pride, and know my own station: let her know hers." (6.46)

Nice, right? This is our second sharp look at exactly who this George Osborne fellow is. First, Becky catches him looking at himself admiringly in the mirror, and now he's a little too high and mighty to have her for a relative.

But this did not alter Mrs. Blenkinsop's opinion of Miss Sharp. "I don't trust them governesses, Pinner," she remarked to the maid. "They give themselves the hairs and hupstarts of ladies, and their wages is no better than you nor me." (6.73)

This kind of becomes a universal theme in British literature – where do governesses fit in the social ladder? They're kind of like servants, but not really. They're not really moms or wives, but kind of. Check out Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Mary Poppins for some examples of this ambiguity.

Rebecca had never seen a Baronet, as far as she knew, and [...] she began to depict in her own mind what a Baronet must be. "I wonder, does he wear a star?" thought she, "or is it only lords that wear stars? But he will be very handsomely dressed in a court suit, with ruffles, and his hair a little powdered, like Mr. Wroughton at Covent Garden. I suppose he will be awfully proud, and that I shall be treated most contemptuously. Still I must bear my hard lot as well as I can--at least, I shall be amongst GENTLEFOLKS, and not with vulgar city people" [...] When the bell was rung [at the Crawley mansion in London], a head appeared between the interstices of the dining-room shutters, and the door was opened by a man in drab breeches and gaiters, with a dirty old coat, a foul old neckcloth lashed round his bristly neck, a shining bald head, a leering red face, a pair of twinkling grey eyes, and a mouth perpetually on the grin. (7.8-10)

So it's obviously hilarious that this gross old man whom Becky takes to be some kind of under-servant turns out to actually be Sir Pitt himself. It's interesting that although often the reader is looking at the characters from above and laughing at them along with the narrator, in this passage we are right there with Becky wondering about the extremely grand personage we're about to meet. It's a clever shift of point of view that makes the final joke funnier and also gets at the reader's own fascination with and awe of the aristocracy. (We have to be able to think like Becky to go along with her here).

"Is he a presentable sort of a person?" the aunt [Miss Crawley] inquired.

"Presentable?--oh, very well. You wouldn't see any difference," (14.77-78)

An excellent summary of the "looks and manners" style of being a gentleman that George Osborne represents. He can pass for genteel without a hitch.

"Do you suppose a man of my habits can live on his pay and a hundred a year?" George cried out in great anger. "You must be a fool to talk so, Dobbin. How the deuce am I to keep up my position in the world upon such a pitiful pittance? I can't change my habits. I must have my comforts. I wasn't brought up on porridge, like MacWhirter, or on potatoes, like old O'Dowd. Do you expect my wife to take in soldiers' washing, or ride after the regiment in a baggage waggon?" (25.15)

Just so we're clear, Amelia, her mother, her father, and George Jr. end up living on about 100 pounds a year, and it's clearly a pretty poor existence for people used to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Still, this is meant to be an obnoxious statement that indicts George as a petty, entitled jerk.

The sight of the very great company of lords and ladies and fashionable persons who thronged the town, and appeared in every public place, filled George's truly British soul with intense delight. They flung off that happy frigidity and insolence of demeanour which occasionally characterises the great at home, and appearing in numberless public places, condescended to mingle with the rest of the company whom they met there. One night at a party given by the general of the division to which George's regiment belonged, he had the honour of dancing with Lady Blanche Thistlewood, Lord Bareacres' daughter; he bustled for ices and refreshments for the two noble ladies; he pushed and squeezed for Lady Bareacres' carriage; he bragged about the Countess when he got home, in a way which his own father could not have surpassed. He called upon the ladies the next day; he rode by their side in the Park; he asked their party to a great dinner at a restaurateur's, and was quite wild with exultation when they agreed to come. [...] "Well, my dear Blanche," said the mother, "I suppose, as Papa wants to go, we must go; but we needn't know them in England, you know." And so, determined to cut their new acquaintance in Bond Street, these great folks went to eat his dinner at Brussels, and condescending to make him pay for their pleasure, showed their dignity by making his wife uncomfortable, and carefully excluding her from the conversation. This is a species of dignity in which the high-bred British female reigns supreme. To watch the behaviour of a fine lady to other and humbler women, is a very good sport for a philosophical frequenter of Vanity Fair. (28.16-20)

Thackeray is at his best when he does these super-detailed analyses of how people act toward each other. Notice how many factors are at play here. 1) Place: the Bareacres family will speak to George in Brussels, though they are totally going to deny his existence in London. 2) Gender: Count Bareacres can hang out with a wider range of people than the women in the family without damaging his rep. His womenfolk go along because he goes. They in turn can talk to George but make sure to snub Amelia, who seems slightly lower class than he is. 3) Money: George must pay to even get them to speak to him, but they retain their ability to be condescending to prove their higher status. Such a crazily delicate balance!