anity Fair contains 83 minor wood-engravings which are inserted into the text and punctuate the flow of the story. In terms of variety they are by far the most extended visual material to appear in the book, and yet they have never been analysed in detail. Figured as ‘small cuts’, as Punch artists such as Thackeray would have called them, they are highly calculated, and add other layers of meaning. The author marked the exact places in the manuscript where these illustrations should appear, and treats them as an important part of his interactive scheme.
Their functions are multiple and extend over several domains, encouraging the reader/viewer to engage with the text in various ways. They work conventionally as para-textual illustrations, acting to reaffirm a point made in the writing, to highlight a specific event, to stress the appearance and implications of a character and generally to buttress the writer’s effects. Yet other designs contradict what is written, so producing a curious mix of affirmation and questioning.
A good example of narrative reinforcement is the image of Becky’s sitting on top of the carriage (Vanity Fair, p.63). Here the written passage is crystallized into a congested design which subtly suggests the movement of the coach while simultaneously explaining why the passengers want to remain inside by showing how crowded and uncomfortable it is ‘up top’. Thackeray further reinforces our notion of Becky’s persona, placing her mischievous face at the centre of the composition; even here, he implies, she is working some scheme.
Left: Becky sitting on top of the carriage. Right: Jos came creaking and puffing up the final stairs. Click on image to enlarge it.
Character-drawing to underscore the written descriptions is an important role for the small illustrations and all of the main parts, and many of the servants who otherwise only peripherally engage with the narrative, are shown. In each case we read the letterpress and glance for confirmation at the image placed directly next to the description. When Jos comes ‘creaking and puffing up the final stairs’ (p.592) to find a student peering through the key-hole, we see exactly the same scene in the accompanying design. The writing is confirmed by the imagery, to create what appears to be a symmetrical arrangement of image and word. But it is also a matter of visual expansion, of developing our sense of the absurdity of the event and the silliness of the character by adding information which is only implied in the writing. The main focus is on the puffing Jos, all pomp and unwieldy fatness, who has visibly aged since he appeared in the early instalments.
The small engravings are in this sense a powerful means of maintaining the writing of character, and Thackeray deploys them to focus each individual’s most idiosyncratic expressions and gestures. The cuts further act to heighten the satire. Some of the least worked and least ostentatious designs are paradoxically the harshest and most penetrating. Thackeray regularly punishes his characters and many of his sketches are key-hole images of trivial but revealing aspects of the actors’ inner lives.
Left: Miss Swartz. Right: The Hebrew aide-de-camp. Click on image to enlarge it.
Indeed, he sometimes takes this microscopic mockery to extremes, affronting us with a challenge to propriety. Jos is shown unsympathetically enough, as he is in the full-page etchings, but in the treatment of Ms Swartz the author calls for cruel laughter; shown as a coarse racial stereotype (p. 182) and disparaged as ‘the Black’, she is pure caricature. The same can be said of ‘the Hebrew’ (p.146), a Jewish type to match the author’s other illiberal designs. The humour of these interpolated grotesques is in many ways redolent of the arch mockery of Punch; offensive by our own standards, they are telling signs of an uneasy cosmopolitanism, the emblems of world without moral compass. ‘Vanity Fair’ knows no racial bounds, but everyone is aware of what it means to be English – or not.
Left: People in those days. Right: A relaxed reader. Click on image to enlarge it.
The question of the small cuts’ showing of the wider world is another interesting link between the written text and society at large. The full-page etchings reinforce the tale’s supposed realism by depicting street scenes, but the minor engravings add a layer of ambivalence by contrasting the action – which is set in the Regency period – with the ‘modern’ age of the 1840s, when the story was written and consumed (1847–48). They notably work as a device to stress the novel’s status as a work of fiction, contradicting its claims to be a piece of historical reportage. This emphasis on artifice is amusingly conveyed by showing a reader perusing the latest instalment from the comfort of the club-room. The drawing is a droll caricature (p.5) of a louche raconteur writing critical annotations on the text; as the author comments:
I have no doubt, JONES, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce it to be excessively foolish, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute [annotating the book’s excesses]. Well, he is a lofty man of genius … and so he had better take warning and go elsewhere [pp. 5–6].
The effect is one of ironic distancing in which the author reminds his readers of the text’s artificiality. It pretends to show an encapsulated reality – but there is another reality, the here-and-now of the reader’s world, which frames it. Vanity Fair charts bogus lives and fake situations and Thackeray extends his critique by showing how his book is itself a piece of artifice, a sign of reality but not reality itself. Like all art it is a matter of deception which happens to be about deception; but to realize its limitations all we have to do is see Jones reading words on some pages. Such self-reflexivity is taken even further in illustrations depicting the characters as puppets (p. 11, p. 624) arranged by the author, and the writer even takes the opportunity, in a fake pictorial footnote, to show how (p.56) the ‘real’ characters of the period would appear. They are, he insists, very different from how he has shown them – and if this is the case, can we trust the author at all? Inscribed in what often appear to be little more than doodlings, Thackeray’s joke is a subtle one, and one often missed by critics who have privileged the etchings and initials.
We can see, in short, how the interpolated cuts are highly ambiguous. They reinforce the characters’ appearance and behaviour while at the same time insisting on their artifice, the products of a novel written to amuse a contemporary audience. On the one hand they underline the integrity of the fictional world; on the other, they show it as an entertainment, no more realistic or ‘true’ than a puppet show. Such ironies multiply the fiction’s mocking tone and ultimately pose two distinct questions: if illustrations depict the action, who is showing them? And how might we interpret what we read – and see? In the words of Judith Fisher, whose comments about Pendennis also apply to Vanity Fair, the dual text is ‘incomplete and untrustworthy’ because the words and images destabilize each other, creating
A process of seeing and reading [that] compels readers to endlessly revise what they have read and seen. Readers become aware of the interpretive strategies [they need] to apply to create stable stories and thus realize how much ‘story’ depends upon interpretation [p.72].
There are of course no ‘correct’ answers, but we can certainly say that the interplay of the small designs and the text is another, sophisticated strand at work within the author’s strategy.
Fisher, Judith. ‘Image versus Text in the Illustrated Novels of William Makepeace Thackeray.’ Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Eds. Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. pp. 60–87.
Thackeray, W. M. Vanity Fair.London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849 [this is a reprint of the first edition, retaining the same pagination].
Created 21 January 2014