[The illuminated “T” is based on one of the drawings Thackeray created for Vanity Fair. — George P. Landow]


hackeray’s illustrations for Vanity Fair form three strands of activity: the etchings support the narrative and the representation of characters; the ‘small cuts’ provide humorous links with the contemporary world and other anecdotal information; and the initials offer a series of symbolic commentaries on developments in the story while exploring its moral themes. Each type of illustration adds a new perspective to the reading experience and taken as a whole they magnify the text’s impact, allowing us to discover many strata of meaning and implication.

Thackeray is consistent in his treatment of these designs and the tripartite model, with its range of functions, never slips. The integrity of each type encourages us to view them as discrete units, and yet it is important, finally, to consider them as a unified whole. Previous analysis has focused on the interactions between the images and the text, but another way to read Thackeray’s designs, with all of their complexities, is to see them as part of an ensemble, a visual montage in which they generate meaning not only by picturing the words, but by interacting with each other as they serve their literary material.

The illustrations function throughout the length of the published serial (1847–48) as an assertion of continuity; the narrative etchings carry the characters forward, the minor engravings provide miniature glimpses of actions and characters to bolster the main events, and the initials reinforce the reader’s perceptions of theme as they develop over time. This cross-narrative linkage is extremely important as a means to maintain the novel’s focus over a two-year period. The audience’s interest in a serial might easily flag over an extended period, but the illustrations act as nodes, points of crystallized information which would help, with every purchase of a new serial part, to jog the memory and re-activate the reader/viewer’s interest. This arrangement is substantially the same as the workings of illustration in Dickensian serials of the period, and in both cases the images provide a free flow of information that stimulates the imagination by presenting it in a graphic form.

This effect is rather like an extended linear pictogram or frame that contains the letterpress, and even without the writing it would be possible to reconstruct the primary events. Analogies can be drawn with the cinema, and Thackeray’s technique seems to anticipate the development of film. As in a photo-play, we read the montage as a whole (the etchings), focus in on small, intimate scenes in close-up (the minor wood-engravings), and search for signs of underlying meanings in an iconographic scheme (the initials). The illustrations seem to prefigure the montage-structures of Eisenstein and other early film makers, acting as a guide to direct us through the vast intricacies of Thackeray’s text.

The connection between images, using what can loosely be called a cinematic technique, is also used to unify the parts of individual chapters. This structure is partly a matter of focusing attention on quick-flowing events, a technique exemplified by the illustrations appearing in Chapter 1. These act, in support of the text, to establish the settings and characters. The central idea is Becky’s departure from Miss Pinkerton’s, and her means of leaving, the coach, appears in three of the five images. The initial (p.1) shows the vehicle arriving; the etching illustrates its drawing away from the gate, with Becky throwing the dictionary back at Miss Jemima (facing p.7); and the final image, in a small cut, is a rear view of the carriage moving into the distance (p.7). These three link up to provide what can be conceptualized in cinematic terms as a series of continuity shots – one of arrival, one of the early stages of departure, and one of the ‘horizon shot’. This is the essence of narrative film- making, and Thackeray’s ensemble prefigures the notion of placement, as if we were temporarily positioned in and around Pinkerton’s academy, seeing the carriage from varying perspectives as it moves in time and space. Immersed in the montage, as it were, we are drawn into the story. The action is further intercut by two other designs, both of which show characters reading. The first is of Ms Pinkerton at a desk, preparing Becky’s account (p.2), while the second is of a lounging raconteur, scrutinising the very chapter that we too are reading (p.5). Apparently incidental, these two moments are important in establishing the twin polarities of the story, with one representing pseudo-respectability in the form of Ms Pinkerton, and the other the unconventional lifestyle that Becky will ultimately pursue. We can see, in other words, how Thackeray uses the connections between his images for specific purposes, notably to highlight the narrative and introduce a major theme. This nuanced structuring informs the other chapters, and helps, in every case, to privilege certain elements and guide the reader through each part.

A second example encapsulates this strategy in the form of linkage that is used to create a rich thematic resonance. In Chapter 4, the emphasis is the idea of sexual adventuring and entrapment, and each illustration contributes to the development and deconstruction of this theme. The initial shows Becky fishing for a fat fish, the emblem of Jos (p.22), and this image connects to the etching of her playing cat’s cradle with her victim, ensnaring him in green silk as surely as she tried to catch him on a fishing line (facing p.32); facing this design is a small cut depicting George and Amelia (p.32), a portrait of true love which contrasts with Becky’s fakery. The illustrations are thus arranged to point to a fundamental contrast between emotional emptiness and the real item; however, both are viewed with amused contempt by the servants (p.29).

Such intricacy typifies the novel as a whole. It can be read, finally, as a vast network, a rhythmic arrangement of picture and word in which the complexity of the interplay generates many possible readings. Thackeray may not be an entirely competent artist, but above all else he was a gifted illustrator, who understood how visualized material acts as a fractured mirror, endlessly transforming what is written in the text, and forcing to realize the brokenness of a world of chance and opportunity.

Works Cited

Thackeray, W. M. Vanity Fair.London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849 [this is a reprint of the first edition, retaining the same pagination].

Created 23 January 2014