THACKERAY ON THE [OMNI]BUS

PART 1

Spoiler alert!!! Plots will be disclosed.

photo taken on the bus shortly prior to getting stuck in traffic, during which I conceived my project to read a book during my morning and evening commutes.
photo taken on the bus shortly prior to getting stuck in traffic, during which I conceived my project to read a book during my morning and evening commutes.

VANITY FAIR is one of those books I have wanted to read for a while.  A review[1] that I recently read shook loose this desire from that corner in the mind where my potential library is kept. I sought the book yesterday in the bookstore while I was in between doing one thing and another thing.  There were only two of Thackeray’s on the shelves: a hardcover Penguin Classics and a cheaper Modern Library.  I bought the cheaper, and I was glad later to see that it was unencumbered with editorial notes that explain everything.  I will have plenty of time to read it.  Almost every day I am spending a couple of hours on the bus. My time on the bus can be spent day dreaming or people watching or looking out the window or looking at a smart phone or being annoyed by other passengers.  The time passes most slowly when the bus is stalled in traffic.  It was while stuck in very bad traffic last week that I resolved to try to read a book during my morning and evening commutes. My reading experiences will be the premise of this serial.  I am writing as I finish every few chapters, while they are still fresh in my mind. I will eschew expert commentary on VANITY FAIR while performing this exercise.  I will carry no literary theory baggage with me onto the bus.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a fan of Dickens and Trollope.

I have read the first three chapters.  The author introduces Amelia Sedley as the heroine of the story, and he also introduces to us Amelia’s friend and companion, Rebecca Sharp. I will not yet speculate why Thackeray, in his “Novel without a hero”, identifies a heroine, and why her but not Becky. Becky nevertheless acts out a fit of heroic rage in the first chapter by flinging a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary out the window of the carriage that will ferry her and Amelia away from their school toward their future lives.  This little display of Regency performance art promises a formidable character to engage our interest.  It discloses Becky’s regard for her own abilities and her driving ambition.  Becky will be spending the fortnight with Amelia and her family at their house in Russell Square before she moves on to assume her position as governess to the children of a respectable family.  The author briefly describes Becky’s history and how she came to be at the school where she met Amelia.  We meet Amelia’s brother, Joseph (“He was a vain as a girl.”), and her parents. Before she has even met him, she has decided that she will marry Joseph because he is rich.

Vanity fair was one of the stations on the journey of the pilgrim in Pilgrims Progress, and Thackeray opens the story as a kind of stage manager of a performance at a Vanity Fair.  The stock characters are described and the curtain goes up. So far, the author seems to be staying ironically suspended above the stage as he observes the action.

I have to get off the bus now.

“But, lo! and just as the coach drove off, Miss Sharp put her pale face out of the window, and actually flung the book back into the garden.”    [2]
[1] Gorra, Michael. The Portrait of Miss Bart. THE NEW TORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (NYR BLOG), May 1, 2015.  Retrieved May 17, 2015 from http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/may/01/house-of-mirth-portrait-miss-bart/

[2] Image scanned by Gerald Ajam and captions by Tiaw Kay Siang and Sabrina Lim. Retrieved May 17, 2014 from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/thackeray/1.1.html

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