Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thackeray: The 19th Century's First Punk?

I've always loved 19th century novels, with one exception. I could never quite get my head around Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Thackeray subtitled it "A novel without a hero" and I suspect that might have something to do with why.

Thackeray's view of humanity is dark. The way he tells his tale a lot closer to the tone of David Byrne and the other ground breaking punks of the 1980s than it is to Austen or Dickens. The latter are social satirists, but behind their writing you sense that as much as venal or even evil people infuriate them, they believe people could be kind to each other and that redeeming love is possible. There is something fundamentally optimistic about their vision of humankind, no matter how dark their stories may become--and Dickens' can become quite dark indeed.

But though Thackeray's tone, on the surface might make him seem closer to Austen than Dickens, in style, this is misleading. Thackeray has a much bleaker view of life. He gets you laughing, but when you are done laughing at his character-puppets--which is his characterization of them, not mine--you feel a bit less sure that any happy ending is possible, anywhere, for anyone.

It's possible the dark world-view seeping through his wit stems from the tragedy he experienced in his marriage. His young wife, whom he adored, became schizophrenic and had to be institutionalized. The law of the day made it impossible for him to divorce her and he might not have even if he could, given his love for her. This condemned him to live without a partner for the rest of his life and may have fatally affected his ability to trust in love, given how happy he had been in the early days of his marriage.

Whatever the explanation for Thackeray's dim view, his masterpiece, ironically, is a lot less popular now among serious readers than it was fifty years ago at the height of the uber-optimistic, totally fake 50s. Perhaps the degree to which cynicism pervades our media now takes much of the fun out of reading him. Readers have to turn to fiction to find satisfying happy endings and a positive world view--one reason why Romance, as a genre, continues to sell so strongly, even in a brutal market for all other kinds of reading.

The other problem with Thackeray is that much of his humor resembles what you see in today's cynically comic movies in that it is full of self-referential cultural references. But the culture he is referring to is too far in the past for us to get the jokes.

Austen's humor works a lot better for the modern reader because she stuck with making fun of universal traits of human nature. Everyone knows someone like Lady Catherine De Bourgh or Emma. But Thackeray frequently raises a laugh by poking fun at the novels his readers were familiar with, and that kind of humor goes right over the modern reader's head.

Fortunately, since I have been soaking my head in obscure early 19th century writing of late, I have been getting quite a few of his references and enjoying Vanity Fair far more than I could before.

Any of you who have ever researched Regency thieves' slang (cant) or read your way through Pierce Egan should still get a laugh from this Thackeray parody:
One two three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.
"Mofy! is that your snum?" said a voice from the area. "I'll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin."
"Nuffle your clod and beladle your glum banions," said Vizard with a dreadful oath. "This way men; if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser. You, Mark to the old gaff's mopus box! and I," added he in a lower but more horrible voice. "I will look to Amelia."
This very passage is cited online by a blogger who used it to illustrate why he hates 19th century novels. All that impenetrable prose! The blogger, obviously, missed that this was parody. But in 150 years you can be sure the self-referential content today's cynical punk culture loves so well will be likely to suffer the exact same fate.

If there's a lesson here it is probably that if you want your work to live forever, stick to making fun of basic human nature. It worked pretty well for Shakespeare, too.


Shayne Parkinson said...

"Vanity Fair" is among my favourite novels, though I don't find it easy to articulate just why. I usually find cynicism off-putting.

Perhaps it's because cynicism so often comes out of a sense of superiority; something that tends to set my teeth on edge. Thackeray's cynicism has always given me the feeling that it comes out of deep sadness and bitterness, as if it was part of his defence against descending into despair or even madness. It perhaps has something in common with "gallows humour".

Jenny Brown said...

You may be right. I find I like Thackeray the Authorial Voice (except when he descends into that dreadful Male Victorian adulation of stupid, childlike women). I am not so fond of the way he distances himself from his characters which does make them feel too much like puppets for my taste.

I'm enjoying the details he provides, though. I'm getting a lot of insights into daily life issues that I had not entirely understood. Though he is writing in 1843 not 1815 the edition I'm reading has critical notes that put the details into perspective and let me know which ones are historically accurate. A treasure trove indeed!

Shayne Parkinson said...

But surely he's being ironic in that adulation? I get the feeling that he rather despises Amelia. His description of Dobbin at the end, when he seems to have realised that he valued the unattainable more than it deserved, is part of that.

Yes, I do agree that his distancing from his characters can be off-putting. There's a reason I re-read my Austens far more often than I do VF. I generally like to be emotionally engaged with characters, and Thackeray puts obstacles in the way of that.

I find it interesting that VF is itself an historical novel, written about a time before railways, etc. Because of that, Thackeray can sometimes be more careful about giving us those details of everyday life than he might have been if writing about contemporary times. "Cranford" (which has little else in common with VF) has a similar historical distance.

Jenny Brown said...

Hmmm. I am taking adulation of Amelia as straightforward. Maybe I've read too much Dickens. But as I keep reading I'm noticing a lot of jabs at women that seem to edge into mysogyny.

I agree about the Historical Novel aspect. That's also true of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence which was written decades after the period she writes about.

I liked Cranford when I read it in my late 20s, but when I tried to reread it this past year I found the vaunted "charm" annoyingly cloying.

OTOH, I discovered a Regency treasure last month--Maria Edgeworth's Patronage. It is far more readable than Belinda, which is the only other book of her's I'd found. Belinda is overwritten and the plot verges on the bizarre. Patronage is almost like Trollope but with a bit more of an Austen tinge.

Jenny Brown said...

I'm almost done with VF. The more I read, the less I like. This kind of ironic social satire works best when presented in a couple verses and a bridge. I don't think I'd enjoy 700 pages of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" either.

The misogyny is getting to me too. The only females Thackeray seems to feel safe around are those whose passive, abuse-absorbing behavior verges on mental illness. I'm starting to think that it isn't entirely by chance he chose for a wife someone who rapidly descended into madness. Normal women--even women normal by Victorian standards, bring out far too much hostility.

Dickens had his own problems with women (including his rotten treatment of his wife) but he fundamentally likes them. Thackeray, I dunno. I think in another culture he might have been happier as a Priest.