By John Sutherland
We can never know the Victorians as well as they knew themselves. Nor–however well we annotate our texts–can we read Victorian novels as responsively as Victorians read them. They, not we, own their fiction. Thackeray and his original readers shared a common ground so familiar that there was no need for it to be spelled out. The challenge for the modern reader is to reconstruct that background as fully as we can. To ‘Victorianize’ ourselves, one might say.
It goes beyond stripping out the furniture of everyday life (horses not motorised transport, no running hot water, rampant infectious diseases) into attitudes. Can we—to take one troublesome example—in reading, say, Vanity Fair, ‘Victorianize’ our contemporary feelings about race? Or should we accept the jolt that overt 19th-century racism gives the modern reader, take it on board, and analyse what lies behind it?
It crops up in the very opening pages of Vanity Fair. Thackeray’s first full-page illustration in the novel shows the coach carrying Amelia and Becky (she hurling her Johnson’s ‘Dixonary’ out of the window) from Miss Pinkerton’s to the freedom of Russell Square. Free, free at last. Looked at closely, we may also note a black footman riding postilion in the Sedley coach. He is, we later learn, called Sambo. He features a couple of times in the first numbers and his presence hints, obliquely, that the slave trade is one field of business that the two rich merchants, Mr Sedley and Mr Osborne, may have made money from. The trade was, of course, abolished by Wilberforce’s act in 1805, but slaves continued to work in the British West Indies on the sugar plantations until the 1830s. The opening chapters of Vanity Fair are set in 1813.
When we first encounter George Osborne and Dobbin, they are just back from the West Indies. What was their regiment doing? Protecting the British interest in sugar cane production in the Caribbean possessions of the Crown (it is, incidentally, the same crop which enriches Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and the Bertram family in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park; the English were addicted to sugar in their tea and cakes).
There is another character in the novel with an interest in the West Indies. Amelia’s and Becky’s schoolmate at Miss Pinkerton’s academy, Miss Swartz, is introduced as the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s.’ St. Kitt’s, one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, had (until well into the twentieth century) a monoculture economy based on one crop, sugar. The plantations were worked, until the mid-1830s, by slaves–of whom Miss Swartz’s mother must have been one. Dobbin’s and George’s regiment, the ‘—-th,’ has recently been garrisoned at St. Kitts just before we encounter them. One of their duties would be to put down the occasional slave rebellions.
Miss Swartz is, we deduce, the daughter of a sugar merchant (the name hints at Jewish paternity) who has consoled himself with a black concubine. This was normal practice. It was also something painfully familiar to Thackeray. His father had been a high-ranking official in the East India Company. Thackeray, we recall, was born in Calcutta and educated himself on money earned in India. Before marrying, Thackeray’s father, as was normal, had a ‘native’ mistress and by her an illegitimate daughter, Sarah Blechynden. It was an embarrassment to the novelist, who declined any relationship with his half-sister in later life. In the truly hideous depiction Thackeray made of Miss Swartz (he illustrated his fiction, of course) in chapter 21 (‘Miss Swartz Rehearsing for the Drawing-Room’) one may suspect spite and an element of shame. What was the abolitionist’s motto—‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’? What was Miss Swartz’s mute cry, ‘Am I not a Woman and a Sister?’ No is the answer Thackeray returns.
Thackeray’s views on race remained unreconstructed. In a letter sent to his mother from America, on his first trip there (now a world-famous as the author of Vanity Fair) he wrote of the black slaves he saw in the south: ‘They are not my men and brethren, these strange people with theire retreating foreheads, and with great obtruding lips and jaws . . . Sambo is not my man and my brother.’ Thackeray died during the American Civil War. He proclaimed himself a firm supporter of the Confederacy and slavery.
The racist vein can be followed, disfiguring all of the subsequent fiction. In Henry Esmond (1852), the hero and his wife finish as happy-ever-after slave owners in Virginia. In The Newcomes (1856) we have Rummun Loll, the Indian swindler with a taste for European women. In The Virginians (1859), drawing directly on the American experience, there is Gumbo, at best a sub-human clown at worst a liar and poltroon. And in the last complete novel, Philip (1862), a prominent role is given to Captain Woolcomb, the mulatto dandy who steals Agnes from the blue-eyed hero. When this odious ‘blackamoor’ stands for parliament, ‘manly’ Philip speaks rousingly against him:
‘If the two men’, bawled Philip from the ‘Ram’ window, ‘could decide the contest with their coats off before the market-house yonder, which do you think would win—the fair man or the darkey? . . . Are you men? Are you Englishmen? Are you white slaves to be sold to that fellow?’
I love Thackeray’s fiction and have spent years of my scholarly career working on him. But I do not love passages like the above. It is too easy, I think, to say ‘autre temps autre moeurs’—the Victorians had their funny little ways. Nor would one go so far as a recent editor of Huckleberry Finn who has, for the purpose of teaching Twain’s novel, published a version of the novel sanitised of all Huck’s casual racisms. But what does one do with the texts of Thackeray’s one loves? Look (shiftily) the other way and don’t bring the subject up would seem to be the only solution. Is there a better?
John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL, and has authored more than twenty books. He is the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Vanity Fair, which is one of the few editions to include all of the author’s illustrations.