The author has kindly shared the following post on the discusison list Victoria, which provides a valuable example of the way paying attention to errors in textual editing can produce important insights about what an author intends to say. — George P. Landow

I've been looking into seventeenth-century sermons for an article on Oliver Cromwell (don't ask), which led me to discover that the word sermon is etymologically related to the word discourse, which reminded me of the textual crux in Thackeray's Vanity Fair which I put my mind to many years ago.

It has to do with Chapter 17, the auction scene, in which the auctioneer (or "orator," as the narrator calls him) tries to create interest in a picture of Jos Sedley on an elephant. In the audience Captain Dobbin cannot keep himself from grinning at the sight of Jos. This draws the attention of the auctioneer, who senses a sale, but Dobbin turns away, blushing, and in the words of the first edition, "the auctioneer repeated his discomposure."

An Elephant for Sale by William Makepeace Thackeray. Wood engraving. c.1861. Illustration for for Chapter 17, Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

"No. 369," roared Mr. Hammerdown. "Portrait of a gentleman on an elephant. Who'll bid for the gentleman on the elephant? Lift up the picture, Blowman, and let the company examine this lot."

The phrase makes no sense, of course, and one suggestion (by George Saintsbury in 1908), picking up on Dobbin's embarrassment, was to emend to say "respected his discomposure." I, on the other hand, suggested emending "discomposure" to read "discourse" so that the text would read: "the Captain ... turned away his head, and the auctioneer repeated his discourse."

I was unable to convince the editor of the most recent scholarly edition of the novel to adopt my emendation; he said "discourse" meant something formal and serious, and was not suited to an auctioneer. I tried to respond by citing Victorian examples of the use of the word in an informal setting, but I now think I was missing the point: Thackeray wanted to use a formal word, a word even conjuring up the sense of a sermon, to ironically highlight something about auctioneers and Vanity Fair: in Vanity Fair, the true religion is money, and one of its high priests is the auctioneer delivering his sermons on the sacred objects of the day: commodities. In this regard, it is useful to consult Thackeray's early sketch, in his Fitz-Boodle Papers, in which he facetiously promotes the profession of auctioneer: consider "the auctioneer's pulpit," he says, and even goes on to talk about what an auctioneer should or should not "discourse about" and ends by discussing his "pulpit oratory."

So because of a textual error in the first edition we have lost an example of Thackeray's hitting off the overly commercialized nature of his society, an example of him showing how the Victorian Vanity Fair had given itself over to the religion of commerce.


Goldfarb, Sheldon. "Repeated Discomposure: A Vanity Fair Textual Problem." English Language Notes 34, 3 (1987): 34-36. [See also Thackeray Newsletter 44(1996): 1-7.

Last modified 13 April 2020