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Russian and Vanity Fair

July 8, 2019

Recently I listened to an audiobook of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48), a wonderful novel I wish I’d read long ago with a few moments I couldn’t help seeing through a Russian lens.

Near the end one of two German students wheedling Becky Sharp (by then Mrs. Crawley) to go out with them is “in jack-boots and a dirty schlafrock [OED: ‘Chiefly in German contexts, a dressing gown,’ citing this passage],” like the schlafrocks you’ll find in Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, etc.

Then the narrator digresses to describe a statue of a former leader of the German town of Pumpernickel:

[…] the last Transparency but three, the great and renowned Victor Aurelius XIV, built a magnificent bridge, on which his own statue rises, surrounded by water-nymphs and emblems of victory, peace, and plenty; he has his foot on the neck of a prostrate Turk—history says he engaged and ran a Janissary through the body at the relief of Vienna by Sobieski — but, quite undisturbed by the agonies of that prostrate Mahometan, who writhes at his feet in the most ghastly manner, the prince smiles blandly, and points with his truncheon in the direction of the Aurelius Platz, where he began to erect a new palace that would have been the wonder of his age, had the great-souled prince but had funds to complete it. (260-61)

Great-souled! This was like finding “machine” in the meaning “car” in an 1910s American children’s book series. And this is what it took for me to see that великодушный ‘great-souled’ is a calque of some language’s version of “magnanimous” (with magnanimous, great-souled, and великодушный all meaning generous, rather than good, wise, or spiritual).

Most of all I imagined Russian novelists reading Thackeray. The narrator’s superficially polite yet savagely ironic manner was probably a model for Dostoevsky, for example, when he laid out Nastasya Fillipovna’s backstory in book 1, chapter 4 of The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69). (It’s as if Dostoevsky took Thackeray but turned up the “savage” dial, while Trollope borrowed the same approach but put his chips on “superficially polite.”)

And I think Lev Tolstoi took this as a personal challenge:

We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly. We should only be in the way of the manœuvres that the gallant fellows are performing over head. We shall go no farther with the —th than to the city gate: and leaving Major O’Dowd to his duty, come back to the major’s wife, and the ladies and the baggage. (141)


I haven’t checked what Tolstoi scholars have to say about this, but my guess is that Thackeray’s words above led to Tolstoi’s below from chapter 3 of “Sevastopol in May” (Севастополь в мае, 1855):

Vanity, vanity, and vanity everywhere—even at the edge of the grave and among people ready to die for a lofty conviction. Vanity! It must be the characteristic feature and the particular disease of our age. Why was nothing heard of this passion from those who lived before, unlike smallpox or cholera? Why are there only three kinds of people in our age: some who take the element of vanity as a fact that undoubtedly exists and is therefore just and who freely submit to it; others who take it as an unfortunate but insurmountable condition; and still others who act under its influence in an unconscious and servile manner? Why did the Homers and Shakespeares speak of love, glory, and suffering, while the literature of our time is only an unending tale of “Snobs” and “Vanity”? (translation of a paragraph that begins Тщеславие, тщеславие и тщеславие везде)

Thackeray published The Book of Snobs the same year as Vanity Fair, so those capital letters are no accident.

Tolstoi, if I remember right, would go on to be pretty contemptuous about what he perceived as his readers’ wish for him to confine himself to feminine-coded family chronicles and love stories, and from the beginning wanted to show that he wasn’t afraid to stick with the “gallant fellows” going to war, even if the most masculine spheres were equally permeated by Thackeray’s and the age’s “vanity.” The gender politics of Vanity Fair, meanwhile, are fascinating and do not always play out the way the narrator leads you to expect. A passage that begins as a condemnation of society’s hypocrisy (“the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name”) moves into a metaphor of a syren/mermaid that’s as vividly written a bit of misogyny as I can remember reading (316-17).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2019 4:01 am

    Russian translations of Thackeray started appearing in the late 1840s. Not only VF and The Book of Snobs but the sprawling monsters as well: Pendennis was published in Russia in 1852, and The Newcomes in 1856. There seems to be a lot of published research out there, in Russian, on Thackeray’s Russian adventures.

    The Pumpernickel episode, with the great-hearted prince and the tobacco-smelling students, could be an extended riff on Carlyle or even a parody. My impression of VF, for all its literary qualities, is that the author’s misogyny and self-pity keep the circus going.

    • July 15, 2019 9:30 am

      Interesting—I need to read more Thackeray and some of the Thackeray/Russia research you’re talking about.

      I’m curious what exactly you mean by the author’s self-pity.

      • July 15, 2019 4:38 pm

        I couldn’t help feeling that poor Dobbin was a stand-in for the author. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him while admiring his quiet stoicism.

      • July 16, 2019 10:30 am

        That makes sense. I guess I thought we were in theory supposed to admire Dobbin’s quiet stoicism and Amelia Sedley’s naive kindness, but the narrator enjoyed being acerbic and indicting himself and the reader for our attachments to vanity so much that it felt like the author was joining us in looking at virtue from the outside.

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