Exactly two hundred years ago today, on July 18, 1811, there was born in a house on what used to be called Freeschool Street in Calcutta, not far from St. Xavier’s College where I once studied, a child to an English couple serving the East India Company. That child was to become one of the immortals of English literature. His name was William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 – 1863).
He wrote many books, but the one that I read many years ago was Vanity Fair in which there is a description of how fairs used to be in those days: they were as different from the fairs to day in America are as these are from the melas of India. Here is the descrition Thackaray gave:
As the manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the faces of the actors and buffoons when they come off from their business; and Tom Fool washing the paint off his cheeks before he sits down to dinner with his wife and the little Jack Puddings behind the canvas. The curtain will be up presently, and he will be turning over head and heels, and crying, “How are you?”
The novel exposes the hollowness and pretensions of average people, and shows no nobility of character or heroes worthy of admiration. Rather it shows how cleverness is often associated with craftiness, and goodness with mediocrity, even stupidity. It is a sad reflection on the human condition. Indeed the subtitle of Vanity Fair is: A Novel without a Hero. One wishes we lived in a better world.
But then, Thackeray did not have a very happy life. His wife became mentally ill, and fell off a ship when they were sailing to Ireland. He had a couple of unrequited love affairs, and he was to die when only in his early fifties. So his cynicism was understandable. But he was a master story teller, a good painter with words of human feelings and foibles.
July 18, 2011