Tuesday 26 April 2022

Review of the 2013 Anna Karenina, starring Vittoria Puccini

This is the 6th adaptation of Anna Karenina that I’ve seen so far.

For years, I had an inexplicable obsession with the story and watched it over and over again, in different adaptations, but didn’t read Tolstoy’s novel till I was 20. I had seen the 1935 version (Greta Garbo), 1948 (Vivien Leigh), 1967 (Tatiana Samoilova), 1997 (Sophie Marceau), 2012 (Keira Knightley), and just watched the 2013 European production, written by Francesco Arlanch and directed by Christian Duguay, with Vittoria Puccini in the title role. 

What do I think? 

Let’s start with the positives. First of all, this version is alternatively presented as a two-part miniseries or a single film of 3 hours 15 minutes, and the filmmakers try to have a balance between Anna’s story and Levin’s story. The novel, in spite of its title, is not only about Anna, but most adaptations tend to sacrifice the story of Levin and Kitty. The film also pays more attention to Karenin, who is often neglected.  

Secondly, I do like Vittoria Puccini as Anna. I cannot make any fair comparison between her and Greta Garbo or Vivien Leigh because it’s so long ago—all I vaguely remember is that Greta Garbo is too imposing, and Vivien Leigh has a mischievous quality and quick way of speaking that I think aren’t right for the role. Vittoria Puccini is very attractive, and she has the charm, the sensuality, and the passionate quality that Tatiana Samoilova lacks—Tatiana Samoilova, from what I remember, is too stiff, too dry, too serious. She’s also better than Sophie Marceau and Keira Knightley, especially the latter, who is too bony, too sure of herself, and nothing like Tolstoy’s Anna. 

Vittoria Puccini conveys well the conflicts in Anna, the passion, the pleasure, the guilt, the shame, the doubt, the jealousy, the insecurities in the character. 

As Karenin, Benjamin Sadler is all right. He’s not quite the Karenin on the page, but a film adaptation could never convey the psychological depth and complexity of Tolstoy’s novels. The general problem with early adaptations of Anna Karenina is that Karenin is often portrayed as a monster, then the 2012 film swung to the other extreme and made Karenin (Jude Law) too nice, and more attractive than Vronsky (Aaron Johnson). Benjamin Sadler doesn’t come across as so cold, stern, stuffy, and duty-bound as the Karenin in my head, but at least he does portray him as always talking about work and thinking about duty, and at the same time having his vulnerabilities. He plays Karenin as a man not used to expressing his feelings, and the film focuses more on him than on Vronsky, which makes an interesting approach.

Santiago Cabrera as Vronsky is good-looking. Lou de Laâge as Kitty and Max von Thun as Levin are all right. 

But the 2013 film has problems, and I’m going to complain. 

First of all, it has the same disease that afflicts most modern films: the fear of staying still. The camera is always moving, often for no reason—many shots wobble as though filmed with a gimbal—and they keep cutting every 4-5 seconds or so. It is very distracting. The screenwriter Francesco Arlanch pays more attention to characters and aspects often neglected in other adaptations, and with Vittoria Puccini’s performance, this version has the potential to be good, but Christian Duguay (the director) doesn’t allow a shot to linger, doesn’t allow the audience to feel with the characters. The constant cuts, combined with the constant camera movements, distract from the emotions of the scenes.

Another technical problem is that it is dubbed, even though the actors speak English—perhaps the director wants a consistent English accent for the European cast—and the dubbing is rather quiet so sometimes dialogue is drowned out by music or other sounds. But that’s not always a bad thing, as some of the dialogue is quite atrocious.

I also have other complaints. If the film should be praised for giving more screentime to Karenin, it must be criticised for reducing Vronsky—not only in the sense that the character ends up being less prominent than Karenin, but also in the way the script reduces Vronsky to a shallow, frivolous character—and it is the fault of the script, not Santiago Cabrera’s. As a man, Tolstoy’s Vronsky may not be particularly deep or thoughtful, but he is ennobled by his love for Anna. Before meeting Anna, he may have been a frivolous man playing with Kitty’s feelings, but he does truly love Anna.

The 2013 Vronsky is different. He says to Betsy, more than once, that it’s just a game. And when Anna tells him she’s pregnant, he has a pause, then says: 

“It’s better this way.” 


“What we have between us is no longer a game... I love you. Leave Karenin, and be with me...” 

In the novel, it has never been a game. At the beginning, Vronsky may not realise how serious it is, but he never treats it as a game. 

Compare it to the words of Tolstoy’s Vronsky: 

“‘Yes,’ he said, resolutely approaching her. ‘Neither you nor I looked on our union as an amusement, and now our fate is sealed. We must end’—he went on, looking round—‘this falsehood in which we are living.’” (P.2, ch.22) 

That is the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude. Here’s the same line translated by Rosamund Bartlett: 

“‘Yes,’ he said decisively, going up to her. ‘Neither you nor I have looked on our relationship as a trivial amusement, and now our fate is decided. It is essential to put an end’, he said, looking round, ‘to the lie we are living.’”

The line in the film is significantly different—it changes the relationship between Anna and Vronsky, and changes his character. 

Worst of all, the 2013 film downplays Anna’s death. Vittoria Puccini portrays well the conflicts in Anna, so the film does an injustice to both Tolstoy and the actress—Anna’s suicide scene is intercut with the scene of Levin waiting for his baby’s birth—then Anna throws herself under the train, leaving little emotional impact. Not only so, the film diminishes its impact on Vronsky, whereas in the novel, Vronsky is devastated and joins the war, clearly as a way of killing himself. Other people move on with their lives after Anna’s death, Vronsky doesn’t.

The film in a way reduces her affair to something trivial, and her death utterly meaningless. 

Another thing I don’t like is that the film makes Dolly more prominent but doesn’t realise the potential. Tolstoy doesn’t only contrast Anna with Kitty, but also with Dolly: Anna’s is the tragedy of a woman who leaves her husband, and Dolly’s is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t. Dolly says in the film that Anna saves her marriage, but what kind of marriage is it? In this version, Oblonsky is reduced to next to nothing whilst Dolly gets more screentime, compared to some other adaptations, but the scene of her catching her husband cheating and the scene of her getting insulted over the unpaid bills aren’t enough to convey the suffering, the humiliation and loneliness and unhappiness in her marriage.  

It almost feels as though the filmmakers are saying that Anna saves Dolly’s marriage but destroys her own, for nothing. 

Should you watch it? Perhaps, if you want to see a different approach to the story. There are good things in it. 

If anything, it makes me want to revisit the novel. 

Friday 22 April 2022

Vanity Fair: how Thackeray gives life to “insignificant” characters

1/ Vanity Fair is a long novel, spanning about 18 years, with lots of characters. The star, everyone would agree, is Becky Sharp, one of the greatest female characters (I’ve encountered) in literature. Among the rest of the characters, some are interesting, complex, and fully developed (George Osborne and father), some are well-drawn though dull (Rawdon Crawley, Amelia Sedley), some are types (Pitt Crawley), and many are cardboard cut-outs. 

But once in a while, Thackeray adds more life to the minor, “insignificant” characters, and makes one care more about them, at least in those moments.

For example, when William Dobbin helps bring about the marriage of George Osborne and Amelia, he’s the one who comes to the Osbornes to try to get the old man to reconcile with his son and approve of the marriage, but before that, he speaks to George’s sister Jane and tries to get some support. Thackeray depicts the heated meeting between the two men, then switches to old Mr Osborne’s perspective, depicts his wounded pride and anger, and depicts him not only burning the will but also removing George’s name from the family Bible. It is turbulent chapter. But after all that, Thackeray writes:  

“When Captain Dobbin took leave of Miss Osborne we have said that he asked leave to come and pay her another visit, and the spinster expected him for some hours the next day, when, perhaps, had he come, and had he asked her that question which she was prepared to answer, she would have declared herself as her brother's friend, and a reconciliation might have been effected between George and his angry father. But though she waited at home the Captain never came. […] In the course of the day Miss Osborne heard her father give orders that that meddling scoundrel, Captain Dobbin, should never be admitted within his doors again, and any hopes in which she may have indulged privately were thus abruptly brought to an end.” (Ch.24) 

Thackeray draws one’s attention to a character nobody has cared much about—before this moment, the Misses Osborne, Misses Crawley, and Misses Dobbin are all lumped together, interchangeable, but now there’s some difference. 

Jane’s hopes are shattered, and she has to watch Frederick Bullock being loving and affectionate to her sister Maria. The two of them later get married. 

“One can fancy the pangs with which Miss Osborne in her solitude in Russell Square read the Morning Post, where her sister's name occurred every now and then, in the articles headed "Fashionable Reunions," and where she had an opportunity of reading a description of Mrs. F. Bullock's costume, when presented at the drawing room by Lady Frederica Bullock. Jane's own life, as we have said, admitted of no such grandeur. It was an awful existence. She had to get up of black winter's mornings to make breakfast for her scowling old father, who would have turned the whole house out of doors if his tea had not been ready at half-past eight. She remained silent opposite to him, listening to the urn hissing, and sitting in tremor while the parent read his paper and consumed his accustomed portion of muffins and tea.” (Ch.42)

Jane Osborne never becomes an interesting character as such, but she feels more alive, especially when, some time later, Thackeray tells us her backstory. Tolstoy uses a similar technique: no character in Anna Karenina, War and Peace, or Hadji Murad feels like a cardboard cut-out or the author’s puppet, because even with the most insignificant characters, Tolstoy gives them a backstory, or adds “superfluous” details that don’t seem to serve the plot, and the characters all seem to have a life of their own.  

In chapter 37, Thackeray first mentions Lord Steyne, a Marquis who is enchanted with Becky and who introduces her and Rawdon to high society. He is always hanging out at the Crawleys’. But it’s 10 chapters later when Thackeray brings the reader to Lord Steyne’s house, and introduces us to the family.      

“So, if Mr. Eaves's information be correct, it is very likely that this lady, in her high station, had to submit to many a private indignity and to hide many secret griefs under a calm face.” (Ch.47)

I shall not say what the secret is, in case you haven’t read Vanity Fair. Later, we see her again when Becky is at a party for high society, the men have temporarily left the room, and the ladies treat Becky with such disdain that Lady Steyne pities her. 

“[Rebecca] sang religious songs of Mozart, which had been early favourites of Lady Steyne, and with such sweetness and tenderness that the lady, lingering round the piano, sat down by its side and listened until the tears rolled down her eyes. It is true that the opposition ladies at the other end of the room kept up a loud and ceaseless buzzing and talking, but the Lady Steyne did not hear those rumours. She was a child again—and had wandered back through a forty years' wilderness to her convent garden. The chapel organ had pealed the same tones, the organist, the sister whom she loved best of the community, had taught them to her in those early happy days. She was a girl once more, and the brief period of her happiness bloomed out again for an hour—she started when the jarring doors were flung open, and with a loud laugh from Lord Steyne, the men of the party entered full of gaiety.

He saw at a glance what had happened in his absence, and was grateful to his wife for once.” (Ch.49) 

This is such a great scene. For a moment, nobody else matters, even Becky fades to the background, and we’re in Lady Steyne’s head. 

When I read, I don’t have the habit of pretending characters are real people, but I do wish Thackeray had written more—a separate novel perhaps—about Lady Steyne. He makes me interested in her even though she only appears a couple of times in the novel. 

2/ In the previous blog post, I wrote that Rawdon Crawley was dull and didn’t have much of a personality. He lives in delusion for a long time, as Amelia does. But Thackeray makes him more interesting when he finally sees the truth, and walks away: Becky continues with her tricks, and in the reader’s mind, there may be some ambiguity about how guilty Becky is and what she has done, but the tricks no longer work for Rawdon and nobody can sway him.

Thackeray uses the same technique for two other characters: William Dobbin, who is kind but boring and a bit of simp, becomes much more interesting and dignified when he walks away from Amelia; and Lady Jane, soft, gentle, submissive, “the perfect wife” with no opinions of her own, also becomes more interesting when she finally reaches her limits and stands up to her husband Pitt Crawley, refusing to have Becky under her roof after what she has done. 

3/ In Vanity Fair, Sir Pitt is rather interesting, though minor. Here’s a passage that makes the reader see him differently (Hester is the maid): 

“Of sunshiny days this old gentleman was taken out in a chair on the terrace—the very chair which Miss Crawley had had at Brighton, and which had been transported thence with a number of Lady Southdown's effects to Queen's Crawley. Lady Jane always walked by the old man, and was an evident favourite with him. He used to nod many times to her and smile when she came in, and utter inarticulate deprecatory moans when she was going away. When the door shut upon her he would cry and sob—whereupon Hester's face and manner, which was always exceedingly bland and gentle while her lady was present, would change at once, and she would make faces at him and clench her fist and scream out "Hold your tongue, you stoopid old fool," and twirl away his chair from the fire which he loved to look at—at which he would cry more. For this was all that was left after more than seventy years of cunning, and struggling, and drinking, and scheming, and sin and selfishness—a whimpering old idiot put in and out of bed and cleaned and fed like a baby.” (Ch.40) 

That last line is affecting.

If you haven’t read Vanity Fair, what are you waiting for? 

Sunday 17 April 2022

Characters in Vanity Fair [Update 2]

The two women at the centre of Vanity Fair are Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and Amelia (Emmy) Sedley, who are later Mrs Rawdon Crawley and Mrs George Osborne respectively. 

The novel mostly revolves around 3 families—the Sedleys, the Crawleys, and the Osbornes—and also William Dobbin, who is friends with George Osborne and in love with Amelia.

If I have to name the most interesting characters in Vanity Fair, I would say Becky Sharp, George Osborne, Mr Osborne (his father), Joseph Sedley (Amelia’s brother), and Miss Matilda Crawley (Pitt and Rawdon’s spinster aunt).  

Becky Sharp is an obvious choice: Vanity Fair wouldn’t be Vanity Fair without her. Right from the beginning, Thackeray sets up her and Amelia to be foil for each other, but I doubt any reader would pick the soft and gentle Amelia to be a favourite, as she is insipid. On the surface, Amelia may be grouped together with good, virtuous female characters whom readers like to hate, such as Fanny Price from Mansfield Park and Esther Summerson from Bleak House, but she’s nothing like them: she doesn’t have the sharp eye, introspection, and moral strength of Fanny Price, and doesn’t have the observation and sense of humour of Esther Summerson. Amelia isn’t just insipid—she is passive, vacuous, oblivious, and self-absorbed. She notices nothing. But I think Amelia becomes less boring as a character when Thackeray shows that the gentle, good-natured woman everyone loves isn’t so good after all, and she is shallow. 

Becky is a social climber, a liar, a hypocrite, a schemer, a manipulator, a chameleon, a deceitful friend, an unfaithful wife, a distant and cold mother, and yet we can’t help being enthralled by her. She is one of the greatest creations in literature. 

For example, look at the scene when George Osborne visits the Crawleys and sees Becky again after some time. At this point, Becky Sharp is a governess at the Crawleys. 

“When the young men went upstairs, and after Osborne's introduction to Miss Crawley, he walked up to Rebecca with a patronising, easy swagger. He was going to be kind to her and protect her. He would even shake hands with her, as a friend of Amelia's; and saying, "Ah, Miss Sharp! how-dy-doo?" held out his left hand towards her, expecting that she would be quite confounded at the honour.

Miss Sharp put out her right forefinger, and gave him a little nod, so cool and killing, that Rawdon Crawley, watching the operations from the other room, could hardly restrain his laughter as he saw the Lieutenant's entire discomfiture; the start he gave, the pause, and the perfect clumsiness with which he at length condescended to take the finger which was offered for his embrace.” (Ch.14) 

Last time they met, Becky was trying to bait the rich Joseph Sedley, and George Osborne was advising him against it because of her low background. Now he alludes to her failed attempt, in front of others, but she’s utterly cool. 

“Thus was George utterly routed. Not that Rebecca was in the right; but she had managed most successfully to put him in the wrong. And he now shamefully fled, feeling, if he stayed another minute, that he would have been made to look foolish in the presence of Amelia.” (ibid.) 

Isn’t she a fabulous character? 

Now look at this: 

“My Lady Bareacres cut Mrs. Crawley on the stairs when they met by chance; and in all places where the latter's name was mentioned, spoke perseveringly ill of her neighbour. The Countess was shocked at the familiarity of General Tufto with the aide-de-camp's wife. The Lady Blanche avoided her as if she had been an infectious disease.” (Ch.32) 

From the first appearance in the novel, they’re described as snobbish: Amelia writes to her mother “how the Countess of Bareacres would not answer when spoken to; how Lady Blanche stared at her with her eye-glass” (Ch.28). But Becky isn’t Amelia, and things change when the war spreads and people want to get out of Brussels.  

“Rebecca had her revenge now upon these insolent enemies. It became known in the hotel that Captain Crawley's horses had been left behind, and when the panic began, Lady Bareacres condescended to send her maid to the Captain's wife with her Ladyship's compliments, and a desire to know the price of Mrs. Crawley's horses. Mrs. Crawley returned a note with her compliments, and an intimation that it was not her custom to transact bargains with ladies' maids.

[…] What will not necessity do? The Countess herself actually came to wait upon Mrs. Crawley on the failure of her second envoy. She entreated her to name her own price; she even offered to invite Becky to Bareacres House, if the latter would but give her the means of returning to that residence.” (Ch.32) 

She laughs in the Countess’s face. It’s hard not to love Becky in those moments. It’s delicious. 

In some ways, Becky Sharp is a cousin to Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park and Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, but she beats them both. Compared to Mary Crawford, she comes from a poorer family and has to try harder, and has grander schemes. Becky is more similar to Undine, who is also a social climber, but the central difference is that Edith Wharton doesn’t allow Undine to be charming and bewitching to the reader, as Thackeray does with Becky Sharp or Jane Austen does with Mary Crawford. Edith Wharton’s contempt for her own character comes through. 

Miss Matilda Crawley, the spinster aunt, is also a memorable character. 

“She was a bel esprit, and a dreadful Radical for those days. She had been in France (where St. Just, they say, inspired her with an unfortunate passion), and loved, ever after, French novels, French cookery, and French wines. She read Voltaire, and had Rousseau by heart; talked very lightly about divorce, and most energetically of the rights of women.” (Ch.10) 

She’s painted with a few large strokes, and she is vivid. 

“Besides being such a fine religionist, Miss Crawley was, as we have said, an Ultra-liberal in opinions, and always took occasion to express these in the most candid manner.

"What is birth, my dear!" she would say to Rebecca—"Look at my brother Pitt; look at the Huddlestons, who have been here since Henry II; look at poor Bute at the parsonage—is any one of them equal to you in intelligence or breeding? Equal to you—they are not even equal to poor dear Briggs, my companion, or Bowls, my butler. You, my love, are a little paragon—positively a little jewel—You have more brains than half the shire—if merit had its reward you ought to be a Duchess—no, there ought to be no duchesses at all—but you ought to have no superior, and I consider you, my love, as my equal in every respect; and—will you put some coals on the fire, my dear; and will you pick this dress of mine, and alter it, you who can do it so well?" So this old philanthropist used to make her equal run of her errands, execute her millinery, and read her to sleep with French novels, every night.” (Ch.11) 

And we can see how liberal she is, when the “little jewel” Becky secretly marries her favourite nephew Rawdon. 

Among the male characters, the greatest is George Osborne. William Dobbin, in comparison, is insipid—Thackery’s strength clearly isn’t in noble or good-natured characters. To use today’s slang, Dobbin is a bit of a simp. Another major character in the novel, Rawdon Crawley, doesn’t have much of a personality: he starts off as a bad boy, but submits to his devious wife and gradually loses his identity: “that was now his avocation in life. He was Colonel Crawley no more. He was Mrs. Crawley's husband.” (Ch.37) 

George Osborne is more interesting because he’s more complex and multifaceted: he’s an asshole, but has the nobility to recognise and acknowledge Dobbin; he’s a snob, but loves and chooses to marry Amelia; he’s selfish, thoughtless, and unprincipled, but does have a conscience, at least sometimes; he’s captivated by Becky and even tempted to betray his wife (the ball scene in Vanity Fair makes me think of Anna Karenina), but does love Amelia and afterwards realises what he has almost done; he’s careless with money, but in the army, is a brave and respectable soldier… Thackeray depicts George Osborne so that we think Amelia is foolish for idealising him and loving him for so long, not noticing William Dobbin’s affection, but at the same time, we can also see why she loves him, why other characters get along with him, and why the noble Dobbin is best friends with someone so self-centred and unprincipled. 

I think the way Thackeray depicts the difference and quarrel between George Osborne and his father is especially excellent: we can see why George, who is normally distracted by all sorts of diversions and thoughtless or even cold to Amelia, would openly defy his own father and risk disinheritance, by marrying the poor Amelia. 

I would even go as far as saying that the Osbornes are one of the most interesting depicts of father-son relationships in literature. 

“Turning one over after another, and musing over these memorials, the unhappy man passed many hours. His dearest vanities, ambitious hopes, had all been here. What pride he had in his boy! He was the handsomest child ever seen. […] And this, this was the end of all!—to marry a bankrupt and fly in the face of duty and fortune! What humiliation and fury: what pangs of sickening rage, balked ambition and love; what wounds of outraged vanity, tenderness even, had this old worldling now to suffer under!” (Ch.24)  

That is a great passage. Before this chapter, Thackeray lets the reader see it from George’s point of view, but now he writes about the father’s perspective. Thackeray has sympathy for everybody. 

After George’s death: 

“He remembered them once before so in a fever, when every one thought the lad was dying, and he lay on his bed speechless, and gazing with a dreadful gloom. Good God! how the father clung to the doctor then, and with what a sickening anxiety he followed him: what a weight of grief was off his mind when, after the crisis of the fever, the lad recovered, and looked at his father once more with eyes that recognised him. But now there was no help or cure, or chance of reconcilement: above all, there were no humble words to soothe vanity outraged and furious, or bring to its natural flow the poisoned, angry blood. And it is hard to say which pang it was that tore the proud father's heart most keenly—that his son should have gone out of the reach of his forgiveness, or that the apology which his own pride expected should have escaped him.” (Ch.35) 

A few deaths in Vanity Fair are not much more than plot devices—Nabokov’s remark that in Jane Austen’s novels, no character dies in the author’s arms could be true for the deaths of Lady Crawley (Sir Pitt’s wife), Miss Matilda Crawley, and Sir Pitt in Vanity Fair—but the death of George Osborne has a great impact on many characters, and it is poignant. The old man switches his seat at church so he can face the inscription about George on the wall. 

And yet, the interesting thing is that even then, old Osborne doesn’t really forgive his son, and turns his anger and regret into hatred for Amelia, rather than take care of his dead son’s widow and child. That is extreme, but it is believable. 

Compared to George Osborne, Joseph Sedley is not so multifaceted. Readers who want depth may not see much in Joseph, but the character is very vivid: he is obese but vain about his clothing, self-important but deep down insecure and gullible, foolish, cowardly, lazy, pompous… And most of all, the characterisation is very funny. 

“"The children must have someone with them," cried Mrs. Sedley.

"Let Joe go," said-his father, laughing. "He's big enough." At which speech even Mr. Sambo at the sideboard burst out laughing, and poor fat Joe felt inclined to become a parricide almost.

"Undo his stays!" continued the pitiless old gentleman. "Fling some water in his face, Miss Sharp, or carry him upstairs: the dear creature's fainting. Poor victim! carry him up; he's as light as a feather!"

"If I stand this, sir, I'm d———!" roared Joseph.” (Ch.4) 

It’s hard to explain why many characters in the novel are types, as it is a satire, and Joseph is also a type, but he’s much more vividly drawn than others. 

At some point, I should perhaps write about the “insignificant” characters in Vanity Fair. I do think it’s one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

Addendum (21/4/2022): It is to be expected that in a novel spanning so many years, the characters would change and our view of them wouldn’t stay the same. 

A lot has happened since I wrote the blog post (which is an argument for writing blog posts after reading the book, though I doubt I’ll change). 

Old Mr Osborne is even more finely portrayed than I thought—I like that he doesn’t change upon George’s death, which would have appeared rather contrived and amateurish, but persists in his anger, resentment, and hatred, and becomes a tyrant to his spinster daughter Jane, but he gradually has a change of heart after he sees the boy. It is more believable, more subtle this way.

I was unfair to both Amelia and Joseph Sedley. Joseph, for all his foibles, is good to his own family—compare him to, say, Pitt Crawley (Rawdon’s brother). And Amelia is in some ways self-absorbed, but she does take care of her parents, and does have lots of patience for them. Her main fault is that she notices nothing, and lives with delusion for so long. And she is insipid, but if she’s meant to be, isn’t that a success for Thackeray?

The same can be said about Rawdon Crawley: he is dull and doesn’t have much of a personality, but isn’t that also the point?  

“Rawdon Crawley was scared at these triumphs. They seemed to separate his wife farther than ever from him somehow. He thought with a feeling very like pain how immeasurably she was his superior.” (Ch.51) 

Rawdon isn’t meant to be Ralph Marvell: in The Custom of the Country, Undine is a little philistine who is attractive and full of life, and Ralph is more intelligent, more refined than her, but that isn’t the case for Rawdon and Becky. Rawdon is described as dull, without an identity beyond “Mrs Crawley’s husband”, and he follows Becky around like a shadow, not noticing what she’s been doing and how she’s been ruining their reputation. Chapter 53 is excellent, and heartbreaking. 

I’m currently on chapter 62. 

Addendum (22/4/2022): Finished, after 17 days or so. I read relatively quickly, perhaps because I have been ill with Covid and unable to do anything else. Great, masterful novel, one of the best novels of 19th century British literature, why did I not read it till now? 

Friday 15 April 2022

Vanity Fair: “who pities a poor barber…?”

As I’ve said before, one of the main attractions of Vanity Fair is the narrator. He can be sarcastic and cynical, he can be warm, he can be funny. And sometimes he can make you see things differently. 

For example, in a chapter titled “How to Live Well on Nothing a Year”, he writes about the way Rebecca (Becky Sharp) and her husband Rawdon Crawley live a life of luxury without having much income. 

“It was not for some weeks after the Crawleys' departure that the landlord of the hotel which they occupied during their residence at Paris found out the losses which he had sustained: not until Madame Marabou, the milliner, made repeated visits with her little bill for articles supplied to Madame Crawley; not until Monsieur Didelot from Boule d'Or in the Palais Royal had asked half a dozen times whether cette charmante Miladi who had bought watches and bracelets of him was de retour. It is a fact that even the poor gardener's wife, who had nursed madame's child, was never paid after the first six months for that supply of the milk of human kindness with which she had furnished the lusty and healthy little Rawdon. No, not even the nurse was paid—the Crawleys were in too great a hurry to remember their trifling debt to her.” (Ch.36) 

The Crawleys, especially Becky, are basically con-artists. It does raise an important question though: how did things work in the Regency era that some people could get away with not paying for things for so long? 

“As luck would have it, Raggles' house in Curzon Street was to let when Rawdon and his wife returned to London. […] And the old man not only let his house to the Colonel but officiated as his butler whenever he had company; Mrs. Raggles operating in the kitchen below and sending up dinners of which old Miss Crawley herself might have approved. This was the way, then, Crawley got his house for nothing; for though Raggles had to pay taxes and rates, and the interest of the mortgage to the brother butler; and the insurance of his life; and the charges for his children at school; and the value of the meat and drink which his own family—and for a time that of Colonel Crawley too—consumed; and though the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison: yet somebody must pay even for gentlemen who live for nothing a year—and so it was this unlucky Raggles was made the representative of Colonel Crawley's defective capital.

I wonder how many families are driven to roguery and to ruin by great practitioners in Crawley's way?—how many great noblemen rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums and cheat for a few shillings? When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house—and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady's dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed: as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither.” (Ch.37) 

To you, this may be nothing special, I don’t know. But personally I find it interesting because I often read 19th century novels and don’t think other writers directly address, as Thackeray does, the impact on the tradesmen and employees when a person of higher class lives beyond their means and cheats them, or goes bankrupt and cannot repay debts.  

This is one example of Thackeray’s digressions—they don’t advance the plot, but who cares, they’re interesting in themselves. 

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Vanity Fair and other 19th century novels, or What Thackeray does and doesn’t do

I don’t often talk about publishing date and settings, but in this case, it’s interesting. Vanity Fair started to be serialised in 1847 (until 1848), the same year as Jane Eyre (as well as Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey), which means that 1847 had (at least) two important novels in which an employer wanted to marry a governess.

Vanity Fair however was a historical novel, like War and Peace, and set around the same time; on the international scale, it was set during the Napoleonic Wars, and on the national scale, it was during the Regency era, i.e. Jane Austen’s time; the first time Thackeray specified time in the novel was in chapter 18 and it was 1815, the year Emma was published. 

Why are these details interesting? Because you can compare the novels and see what Thackery does or doesn’t do. 

Donald Rayfield points out some similarities between Vanity Fair and War and Peace (here come the spoilers):  

“Like Thackeray, only far more murderous, Tolstoy gets rid of the minx (Becky Sharp or Hélène Kuragina), kills off his handsome hero in a pivotal battle (Captain Osborne at Waterloo or Prince Andrei after Borodino), and chastens his naive heroine (Amelia or Natasha) into learning to love the avuncular older man (William Dobbin or Pierre Bezukhov), and to prize moral over physical beauty. Both novels are about native (English or Russian) values and morals superseding French ones.” (source

The most obvious difference between the two novels is that Vanity Fair is more like the Peace of War and Peace: Thackeray doesn’t depict the battles, even though some of his characters go to war. He says: 

“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.” (Ch.30) 

The development of the war is either summarised by the narrator, or reported by characters as news to other characters. 

Vanity Fair also has a smaller scope: War and Peace revolves around 5 families and has many major characters, whereas the one narrative at the beginning of Vanity Fair is split into two, mainly following Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Some characters are therefore abandoned for long stretches of the story, such as Miss Crawley. 

Vanity Fair also confirms my impression that in the 19th century, British literature had a bit of an obsession with money and inheritance, more than Russian literature did. The themes do appear in Russian works, but Russian writers seem more interested in philosophical ideas, the soul, and/or how to live. I’m generalising and simplifying, of course. 

But if you compare Vanity Fair to Jane Austen’s novels, Thackeray makes you notice the things Austen doesn’t write about.  

First of all is the marriage plot. 

“As his hero and heroine pass the matrimonial barrier, the novelist generally drops the curtain, as if the drama were over then: the doubts and struggles of life ended: as if, once landed in the marriage country, all were green and pleasant there: and wife and husband had nothing to do but to link each other's arms together, and wander gently downwards towards old age in happy and perfect fruition. But our little Amelia was just on the bank of her new country, and was already looking anxiously back towards the sad friendly figures waving farewell to her across the stream, from the other distant shore.” (Ch.26) 

Is that a deliberate dig at Jane Austen for ending all of her novels at the wedding and not following the married couple? Thackeray follows his two couples and depicts their marriages. 

Secondly, whereas servants are more or less invisible in Austen, the first character we see in Vanity Fair, after the curtain’s lifted, is the black servant Sambo, and Thackeray constantly mentions him. Quite prominent in (parts of) the novel are Mrs Beckinsop, the Sedleys’ housekeeper, and Mrs Firkin, Miss Crawley’s maid. On a side note, the jealousy of Mrs Firkin and Miss Briggs (dame de compagnie) over Miss Crawley’s partiality to the governess Becky Sharp reminds me of the rivalry and jealousy of Françoise and Eulalie in Swann’s Way

Thirdly, “socially aware” readers may like that Thackeray deliberately mentions other races, and the colonies. 

“Joseph Sedley was twelve years older than his sister Amelia. He was in the East India Company's Civil Service, and his name appeared, at the period of which we write, in the Bengal division of the East India Register, as collector of Boggley Wollah, an honourable and lucrative post, as everybody knows: in order to know to what higher posts Joseph rose in the service, the reader is referred to the same periodical.

Boggley Wollah is situated in a fine, lonely, marshy, jungly district, famous for snipe-shooting, and where not unfrequently you may flush a tiger. Ramgunge, where there is a magistrate, is only forty miles off, and there is a cavalry station about thirty miles farther; so Joseph wrote home to his parents, when he took possession of his collectorship. He had lived for about eight years of his life, quite alone, at this charming place, scarcely seeing a Christian face except twice a year, when the detachment arrived to carry off the revenues which he had collected, to Calcutta.


On returning to India, and ever after, he used to talk of the pleasure of this period of his existence with great enthusiasm, and give you to understand that he and Brummel were the leading bucks of the day…” (Ch.3) 

There is even a scene of the Sedleys introducing Becky Sharp to curry. But how does Joseph Sedley make money and become so rich, especially when he’s such an idiot?—one can’t help asking, as the stupid Joseph keeps telling his “Indian stories” but doesn’t talk about what kind of work he did—does Thackeray leave the reader wondering, or deliberately lead the reader to ask such questions? 

Later on: 

“George, in conversation with Amelia, was rallying the appearance of a young lady of whom his father and sisters had lately made the acquaintance, and who was an object of vast respect to the Russell Square family. She was reported to have I don't know how many plantations in the West Indies; a deal of money in the funds; and three stars to her name in the East India stockholders' list. She had a mansion in Surrey, and a house in Portland Place. The name of the rich West India heiress had been mentioned with applause in the Morning Post.” (Ch.20) 

In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen does allude to the plantation in Antigua, and at some point, also the slave trade, but the references in Vanity Fair are more explicit. 

“"How old is she?" asked Emmy, to whom George was rattling away regarding this dark paragon, on the morning of their reunion—rattling away as no other man in the world surely could.

"Why the Black Princess, though she has only just left school, must be two or three and twenty. And you should see the hand she writes! Mrs. Colonel Haggistoun usually writes her letters, but in a moment of confidence, she put pen to paper for my sisters; she spelt satin satting, and Saint James's, Saint Jams."

"Why, surely it must be Miss Swartz, the parlour boarder," Emmy said, remembering that good-natured young mulatto girl, who had been so hysterically affected when Amelia left Miss Pinkerton's academy.

"The very name," George said. "Her father was a German Jew—a slave-owner they say—connected with the Cannibal Islands in some way or other. He died last year, and Miss Pinkerton has finished her education..."” (ibid.) 

George Osborne talks about Miss Swartz as a daughter of a slave-owner, whilst talking about her wealth. The connection is explicit. 

Thackeray also mentions other races or ethnicities. When Sambo, the servant of the Sedleys appears, Thackeray often mentions him as “black Sambo” or “Sambo, the black servant”. 

There are a few references to Jews.   

“The Hebrew aide-de-camp in the service of the officer at the table bid against the Hebrew gentleman employed by the elephant purchasers, and a brisk battle ensued over this little piano, the combatants being greatly encouraged by Mr. Hammerdown.” (Ch.17) 

Miss Swartz, as mentioned above, is a daughter of a German Jew and a West Indian—her hair is described as jet-black and curly as Sambo’s. 

Vanity Fair also reflects British people’s view on race at the time. 

“Mr. Sedley was neutral. "Let Jos marry whom he likes," he said; "it's no affair of mine. This girl has no fortune; no more had Mrs. Sedley. She seems good-humoured and clever, and will keep him in order, perhaps. Better she, my dear, than a black Mrs. Sedley, and a dozen of mahogany grandchildren."” (Ch.6) 

The girl with no fortune, in case you don’t know the book or don’t remember, is Becky Sharp. 

The word “mahogany” appears again later, in a different context: when Mr Osborne hints to George that he wants her to marry Rhoda Swartz. 

“This imperative hint disturbed George a good deal. He was in the very first enthusiasm and delight of his second courtship of Amelia, which was inexpressibly sweet to him. The contrast of her manners and appearance with those of the heiress, made the idea of a union with the latter appear doubly ludicrous and odious. Carriages and opera-boxes, thought he; fancy being seen in them by the side of such a mahogany charmer as that!” (Ch.21)

But the word “mahogany” is also used by the writer/ narrator himself. 

“There was a large West Indian, whom nobody came to see, with a mahogany complexion, a woolly head, and an exceedingly dandyfied appearance…” (Ch.56) 

Some people may object to this line in Vanity Fair:

“"Marry that mulatto woman?" George said, pulling up his shirt-collars. "I don't like the colour, sir. Ask the black that sweeps opposite Fleet Market, sir. I'm not going to marry a Hottentot Venus."” (Ch.21) 

Does that mean George Osborne is a racist? Perhaps, but not necessarily. We must consider the full context: George Osborne is angry that his father insults Amelia, threatens to cut him off, and tries to force him to marry Rhoda Swartz for money (about her, he thinks, “she looked like a China doll, which has nothing to do all day but to grin and wag its head. By Jove, Will, it was all I could do to prevent myself from throwing the sofa-cushion at her”—ibid.), so this may just be something he says to provoke his father. But it’s also possible that George Osborne is racist—he is a self-centred, unpleasant, and unprincipled man. 

Nevertheless, the novel reflects what some people thought about other races at the time, and it’s more explicit than in Jane Austen’s major novels. I say major novels because she did have characters from the West Indies in her last, unfinished novel Sanditon—we cannot know what she would have written, had she lived longer and been able to finish it.

I’m currently on chapter 33. When I searched for the word “Oriental” on Gutenberg, I found this passage: 

“Young Bedwin Sands, then an elegant dandy and Eastern traveller, was manager of the revels. […] and he travelled about with a black attendant of most unprepossessing appearance, just like another Brian de Bois Guilbert. Bedwin, his costumes, and black man, were hailed at Gaunt House as very valuable acquisitions.

He led off the first charade. A Turkish officer with an immense plume of feathers (the Janizaries were supposed to be still in existence, and the tarboosh had not as yet displaced the ancient and majestic head-dress of the true believers) was seen couched on a divan, and making believe to puff at a narghile, in which, however, for the sake of the ladies, only a fragrant pastille was allowed to smoke. The Turkish dignitary yawns and expresses signs of weariness and idleness. He claps his hands and Mesrour the Nubian appears, with bare arms, bangles, yataghans, and every Eastern ornament—gaunt, tall, and hideous. He makes a salaam before my lord the Aga.

A thrill of terror and delight runs through the assembly. The ladies whisper to one another. The black slave was given to Bedwin Sands by an Egyptian pasha in exchange for three dozen of Maraschino. He has sewn up ever so many odalisques in sacks and tilted them into the Nile...” (Ch.51)

Look at the last two sentences. 

Note that I’m just pointing out what Thackeray and other 19th century novelists do or don’t do—I’m not saying he’s better or worse because of it.

Side note: my boyfriend tested positive for Covid last week, I myself haven’t got tested but I’m sick at the moment, so this is probably it. 

Sunday 10 April 2022

The writing in Vanity Fair

I’ve been reading, and very much enjoying, Vanity Fair

Compared to Dickens’s, Thackeray’s prose is plainer, more straightforward. Nothing extraordinary as such about his descriptions.

“Changed into a man of this sort, Dobbin found the once florid, jovial, and prosperous John Sedley. His coat, that used to be so glossy and trim, was white at the seams, and the buttons showed the copper. His face had fallen in, and was unshorn; his frill and neckcloth hung limp under his bagging waistcoat. When he used to treat the boys in old days at a coffee-house, he would shout and laugh louder than anybody there, and have all the waiters skipping round him; it was quite painful to see how humble and civil he was to John of the Tapioca, a blear-eyed old attendant in dingy stockings and cracked pumps, whose business it was to serve glasses of wafers, and bumpers of ink in pewter, and slices of paper to the frequenters of this dreary house of entertainment, where nothing else seemed to be consumed.” (Ch.20) 

Compared to Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, or Edith Wharton, Thackeray is not a very visual writer. He’s more interested in manners and personalities—in this regard, he’s closer to Jane Austen. 

“As the only endowments with which Nature had gifted Lady Crawley were those of pink cheeks and a white skin, and as she had no sort of character, nor talents, nor opinions, nor occupations, nor amusements, nor that vigour of soul and ferocity of temper which often falls to the lot of entirely foolish women, her hold upon Sir Pitt's affections was not very great. Her roses faded out of her cheeks, and the pretty freshness left her figure after the birth of a couple of children, and she became a mere machine in her husband's house of no more use than the late Lady Crawley's grand piano. Being a light-complexioned woman, she wore light clothes, as most blondes will, and appeared, in preference, in draggled sea-green, or slatternly sky-blue.” (Ch.9)

There isn’t much to say about his metaphors and similes either. 

“When men of a certain sort, ladies, are in love, though they see the hook and the string, and the whole apparatus with which they are to be taken, they gorge the bait nevertheless—they must come to it—they must swallow it—and are presently struck and landed gasping.” (Ch.14) 

That’s a cliché. 

“… and the rogue Jos, willing to kill two birds with one stone.” (Ch.22) 

Another cliché. 

“She put up the two or three trinkets: and, as for the letters, she drew them out of the place where she kept them; and read them over—as if she did not know them by heart already: but she could not part with them. That effort was too much for her; she placed them back in her bosom again—as you have seen a woman nurse a child that is dead.” (Ch.18) 

I’m sure we’ve seen that comparison many times before. 

“These were the materials which prudent Mrs. Bute gathered together in Park Lane, the provisions and ammunition as it were with which she fortified the house against the siege which she knew that Rawdon and his wife would lay to Miss Crawley.” (Ch.19) 

Again, the metaphor is not extraordinary. 

“When anybody entered the room, she uttered a shshshsh so sibilant and ominous, that it frightened the poor old lady in her bed, from which she could not look without seeing Mrs. Bute's beady eyes eagerly fixed on her, as the latter sate steadfast in the arm-chair by the bedside. They seemed to lighten in the dark (for she kept the curtains closed) as she moved about the room on velvet paws like a cat.” (ibid.) 

This is a bit more interesting because of the phrase “velvet paws”, but to compare someone walking quietly to a cat isn’t unusual. 

“Mrs. Bute said (letting the cat of selfishness out of the bag of secrecy)…” (ibid.) 

This one is more interesting, as Thackeray adds some colour to the idiom. 

“… And her kind thoughts sped away as if they were angels and had wings, and flying down the river to Chatham and Rochester, strove to peep into the barracks where George was. . . . All things considered, I think it was as well the gates were shut, and the sentry allowed no one to pass; so that the poor little white-robed angel could not hear the songs those young fellows were roaring over the whisky-punch.” (Ch.13) 

I also like this one: “her kind thoughts sped away as if they were angels and had wings” is a cliché, but the comment from the narrator is brilliant. 

However, if it’s often banal when Thackeray picks a metaphor, or compares one thing to another, I like the way he compares a situation to another, which is not dissimilar from what Proust does. 

“When she called Sedley a very handsome man, she knew that Amelia would tell her mother, who would probably tell Joseph, or who, at any rate, would be pleased by the compliment paid to her son. All mothers are. If you had told Sycorax that her son Caliban was as handsome as Apollo, she would have been pleased, witch as she was.” (Ch.3) 

Now that is good—very funny. Here’s another Shakespeare reference: 

“I know where she kept that packet she had—and can steal in and out of her chamber like Iachimo—like Iachimo? No—that is a bad part. I will only act Moonshine, and peep harmless into the bed where faith and beauty and innocence lie dreaming.” (Ch.12) 

I like that. 

“… And who on earth, after the daily experience we have, can question the probability of a gentleman marrying anybody? How many of the wise and learned have married their cooks? Did not Lord Eldon himself, the most prudent of men, make a runaway match? Were not Achilles and Ajax both in love with their servant maids? And are we to expect a heavy dragoon with strong desires and small brains, who had never controlled a passion in his life, to become prudent all of a sudden, and to refuse to pay any price for an indulgence to which he had a mind? If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!” (Ch.16) 

Even when I don’t recognise the reference, it is interesting.

“This prostration and sweet unrepining obedience exquisitely touched and flattered George Osborne. He saw a slave before him in that simple yielding faithful creature, and his soul within him thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power. He would be generous-minded, Sultan as he was, and raise up this kneeling Esther and make a queen of her: besides, her sadness and beauty touched him as much as her submission, and so he cheered her, and raised her up and forgave her, so to speak. All her hopes and feelings, which were dying and withering, this her sun having been removed from her, bloomed again and at once, its light being restored.” (Ch.20) 

It seems that many modern readers don’t like the authorial voice, but I love it—I love the comparisons, I love the digressions. Before, when talking about Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede, I often said I didn’t like intrusive narrators, but it turns out that it all depends on the personality that the narrator projects, and I simply don’t like George Eliot.  

“Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody; nor can it be expected that twenty-four young ladies should all be as amiable as the heroine of this work, Miss Sedley (whom we have selected for the very reason that she was the best-natured of all, otherwise what on earth was to have prevented us from putting up Miss Swartz, or Miss Crump, or Miss Hopkins, as heroine in her place!) it could not be expected that every one should be of the humble and gentle temper of Miss Amelia Sedley…” (Ch.2) 

The best way to deal with the narrator is, I suppose, to see him as a character. 

“That next morning, which Rebecca thought was to dawn upon her fortune, found Sedley groaning in agonies which the pen refuses to describe. Soda-water was not invented yet. Small beer—will it be believed!—was the only drink with which unhappy gentlemen soothed the fever of their previous night's potation. With this mild beverage before him, George Osborne found the ex-Collector of Boggley Wollah groaning on the sofa at his lodgings.” (Ch.6) 

Why do people complain about the narrator? He’s engaging and full of vitality. 

“… But though he had a fine flux of words, and delivered his little voice with great pomposity and pleasure to himself, and never advanced any sentiment or opinion which was not perfectly trite and stale, and supported by a Latin quotation; yet he failed somehow, in spite of a mediocrity which ought to have insured any man a success. He did not even get the prize poem, which all his friends said he was sure of.” (Ch.9) 

I like the sarcasm (“he” is Pitt Crawley). 

“He was always thinking of his brother's soul, or of the souls of those who differed with him in opinion: it is a sort of comfort which many of the serious give themselves.” (Ch.10) 

I feel that line very, very strongly (some of you may know why). 

“He had then been to pass three hours with Amelia, his dear little Amelia, at Fulham; and he came home to find his sisters spread in starched muslin in the drawing-room, the dowagers cackling in the background, and honest Swartz in her favourite amber-coloured satin, with turquoise bracelets, countless rings, flowers, feathers, and all sorts of tags and gimcracks, about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” (Ch.21) 

Hahahaha. This is perhaps George Osborne’s thoughts rather than the narrator’s, but isn’t the writing hilarious? 

The authorial voice, I think, is one of the main attractions of Vanity Fair. The other attractions are the vitality and characterisation. The characters are superbly drawn. 

But I’ll get to that later. 

Friday 1 April 2022

The White Devil by John Webster

 1/ The White Devil opens with a gripping word: “Banish’d!”. 

Banished is Count Lodovico. 

“LODOVICO […] Fortune’s a right whore; 

If she give aught, she deals it in small parcels, 

That she may take away all at one swoop…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Whilst it’s often debatable, if not downright wrong, when a character in Shakespeare is banished, it’s not the case here—Lodovico is a criminal and despicable man. 

“ANTONELLI […] We see that trees bear no such pleasant fruit, 

There where they grew first, as where they are new set, 

Perfumes the more they are chaf’d the more they render 

Their pleasing scents; and so affliction 

Expresseth virtue fully, whether true 

Or else adulterate.” 


This is one of his men trying to cheer him up, but I do like that—relatable, shall we say? 

2/ My first thought, as I looked at the dramatis personae, was that it made me realise how simple and straightforward relationships in Shakespeare’s plays were. 

The relationships in The White Devil are quite dense. 

Paulo Giordano Orsino, Duke of Bracciano and called Bracciano throughout the play, is married to Isabella and in love with Vittoria. 

He and Isabella have a son called Giovanni. 

Isabella has a brother, Francisco the Medici, Duke of Florence. 

Vittoria Corombona is first married to Camillo, and later married to Bracciano. Camillo’s cousin is Monticelso, a Cardinal. 

Vittoria has two brothers named Marcello and Flamineo, a mother named Cornelia, and a servant named Zanche (who is a Moor). Marcello is an attendant of Francisco, the Duke of Florence. Flamineo is secretary to Bracciano, and acts as a pandar. 

Webster also complicates the relationships of supporting characters: Antonelli and Gasparo are friends of Lodovico and dependents of Francisco; Carlo and Pedro are followers of Bracciano but secretly in league with Francisco; Zanche is servant to Vittorio and in love with Flamineo and later with Francisco, and so on and so forth. 

However, when you read the play itself, Webster handles it so superbly that everything is clear and there’s no question about who’s who or who’s related to whom. 

3/ The poetry is so good.  

“CORNELIA [aside] My fears are fall’n upon me; O my heart! 

My son the pandar! Now I find our house 

Sinking to ruin; earthquakes leave behind, 

Where they have tyrannized, iron, or lead, or stone, 

But, woe to ruin, violent lust leaves none.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

That is when Cornelia sees her son Flamineo bring Bracciano to Vittoria. 

“CORNELIA O that this fair garden

Had with all poisoned herbs of Thessaly

At first been planted; made a nursery 

For witchcraft; rather than a burial plot 

For both your honors. 

VITTORIA Dearest mother, hear me. 

CORNELIA O thou dost make my brow bend to the earth 

Sooner than nature. See the curse of children! 

In life they keep us frequently in tears, 

And in the cold grave leave us in pale fears.” 


I’ve read that Webster changed the character of the mother and made her a moral woman. That I think is good for the balance of the play, as there are many immoral, scheming, and cruel characters.  

Cornelia is also more likable and sympathetic than Monticelso, the Cardinal. When we first see him, he and Francisco warn Bracciano against having an affair and try to bring him and Isabella together again. 

“MONTICELSO […] O my lord, 

The drunkard after all his lavish cups

Is dry, and then is sober; so at length, 

When you awake from this lascivious dream, 

Repentance then will follow: like the sting

Plac’d in the adder’s tail. Wretched are princes

When fortune blasteth but a petty flower 

Of their unwieldy crowns, or ravisheth 

But one pearl from their scepter; but alas! 

When they to wilful shipwreck loose good fame

All princely titles perish with their name.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

I like that. But Monticelso’s language is very different at the trial of Vittoria. 

“MONTICELSO Shall I expound whore to you? sure I shall, 

I’ll give their perfect character. They are first, 

Sweetness which rot the eater; in man’s nostril 

Poisoned perfumes; they are coz’ning alchemy; 

Shipwrecks in calmest weather. What are whores? 

Cold Russian winters, that appear so barren, 

As if that nature had forgot the spring. 

They are the true material fire of hell; 

Worse than those tributes I’th’ Low Countries paid, 

Exactions upon meat, drink, garments, sleep, 

Ay, even on man’s perdition, his sin. 

They are those brittle evidence of law

Which forfeit all a wretched man’s estate

For leaving out one syllable. What are whores? 

They are those flattering bells have all one tune 

At weddings and at funerals; your rich whores

Are only treasuries by extortion fill’d 

And emptied by curs’d riot. They are worse,

Worse than dead bodies, which are begg’d at gallows

And wrought upon by surgeons, to teach man 

Wherein he is imperfect. What’s a whore? 

She’s like the guilty counterfeited coin,

Which whoso’er first stamps it brings in trouble

All that receive it.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Is that the language for a Cardinal? It is revolting. Whereas Cornelia comes across as moral and full of grief for her scheming children, Monticelso appears full of hate and bitterness. 

The trial however belongs to Vittoria. She dominates it. Vittoria is calculating and heartless but so compelling a character, and she knows the law—she knows they have no proof of her involvement in Camillo’s death, and knows that Montilcelso is acting out of bounds (it’s very likely that Webster himself was legally trained, as there was record of a John Webster admitted to the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court). 

“VITTORIA You are deceived. 

For know that all your strict-combined heads

Which strike against this mine of diamonds

Shall prove but glassen hammers, they shall break: 

These are but feigned shadows of my evils. 

Terrify babes, my lord, with painted devils,

I am past such needless palsy. For your names 

Of “whore” and “murd’ress”, they proceed from you 

As if a man should spit against the wind,

The filth returns in’s face.”


How could anyone not like such a speech? 

Personally, it’s rather interesting to read The White Devil after reading the chapter about the bawdy court in Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age

“Women, who were habitually encouraged to be silent and submissive, had the opportunity to become active agents in the bawdy court, just as fictional women are active agents—usually wittier and more eloquent than the men—in Shakespeare's comedies.

According to one historian, in the city of London in the early seventeenth century, 80 percent of sex and marriage cases were brought to the bawdy courts by women. A woman's reputation was her most precious commodity. The bawdy court was the place where she could publicly defend her honor. But it was also the place where quarrels between women could be formalized and played out.” (Ch.11) 

That’s not quite the case here, as Vittoria is charged with murdering her husband, but she does take the opportunity to defend herself in public, and makes a compelling case for herself. With her strong personality and supreme confidence, Vittoria dominates the courtroom from the first moment, when she tells the lawyer not to speak Latin, despite understanding it herself, and mocks him for using jargon and big words, as she wants everyone present to understand the charges against her. 

4/ Vittorio’s brother Flamineo is also a compelling character. 

“FLAMINEO Pray what means have you 

To keep me from the galleys, or the gallows?” 

(Act 1 scene 2)  

Flamineo is talking to his mother Cornelia—poverty is how he justifies his immoral actions. The entire speech is interesting, but I have to cut it short and point to the last few lines of the speech: 

“FLAMINEO […] And shall I, 

Having a path so open and so free

To my preferment, still retain your milk 

In my pale forehead? No, this face of mine

I’ll arm and fortify with lusty wine 

’Gainst shame and blushing.” 


“Arm”, “fortify”—isn’t that an interesting metaphor? 

Later, when he watches Bracciano dying: 

“FLAMINEO To see what solitariness is about dying princes. As heretofore they have unpeopled towns, divorc’d friends, and made great houses unhospitable, so now (O justice!), where are their flatterers now? Flatterers are but the shadows of princes’ bodies; the least thick cloud makes them invisible.” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

Now look at the scene where the mad Cornelia is with Marcello’s corpse, and sees Flamineo (who killed his own brother): 

“CORNELIA Will you make me such a fool? Here’s a white hand. 

Can blood so soon be wash’d out? Let me see: 

When screech owls croak upon the chimney-tops, 

And the strange cricket i’th’oven sings and hops, 

And yellow spots do on your hands appear, 

Be certain then you of a corse shall hear…”

(Act 5 scene 4) 

It is a moving scene, and Flamineo has a bad conscience. 

“FLAMINEO […] I have liv’d 

Riotously ill, like some that live in court; 

And sometimes, when my face was full of smiles 

Have felt the maze of conscience in my breast. 

Oft gay and honor’d robes those tortures try: 

We think cag’ birds sing, when indeed they cry.” 


That is believable, and the scene of Flamineo with Vittoria and the pistols is very good. The play is full of energy and excitement and conflict to the very end. 

I like Flamineo’s speech when he’s dying and Lodovico asks what he’s thinking: 

“FLAMINEO Nothing; of nothing; leave thy idle questions: 

I am i’th’way to study a long silence, 

To prate were idle. I remember nothing. 

There’s nothing of so infinite vexation 

As man’s own thoughts.” 

(Act 5 scene 6) 

The play is full of interesting passages like that. 

5/ We know that Shakespeare and John Fletcher wrote a (lost) play called The History of Cardenio, most likely based on an episode in Don Quixote

Ben Jonson references Don Quixote in The Alchemist

Now I’ve come across what looks like a Don Quixote reference in The White Devil

“CONJURER […] Others that raise up their confederate spirits 

’Bout windmills, and endanger their own necks

For making of a squib…” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

6/ The main difference between Webster and Shakespeare is that Webster has a much darker vision of life and human nature—humanity to him seems to be driven by lust or cruelty or a thirst for power—and he often uses animal imagery as though humanity’s not much better than beasts. And, unlike Shakespeare, Webster doesn’t examine evil as such—he just depicts it. 

And the evil, the sense of horrors he depicts is vivid and compelling. Webster is a superb playwright. The scene where Bracciano and Vittoria argue because he becomes jealous and calls her a whore, then ends up promising to get her out of “the house of convertites” and make her a duchess, is excellent, for example. The courtroom scene, or the scene of Francisco getting from Giovanni the news of Isabella’s death is also excellent.

One thing I’d note is that he feels narrow—I don’t mean in comparison with Shakespeare, as everyone is narrow compared to Shakespeare—I mean that he feels narrow in general. He’s mostly known for two plays, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, and repeats himself. Both present a bleak vision of the world, reeking of depravity and cruelty. Both are revenge plays in which the avenger is a criminal not much better than the people he kills. Both have a woman who falls in love with someone on the avenging side and reveals the crime, otherwise unknown (deus ex machina, no?). 

When there are parallels between Shakespeare’s plays (or, say, Jane Austen’s novels), the parallels illuminate each other; whereas these similarities I’ve pointed out in Webster’s plays are more like repetitions. In The White Devil, Zanche falls in love with Francisco, disguised as a Moor, and tells him about how Bracciano, Flamineo, and Vittoria were involved in the murder of Camillo and Isabella; in The Duchess of Malfi, the Cardinal’s mistress Julia falls for Bosola and helps him discover the truth about the Cardinal’s involvement in the Duchess’s death; these are deus ex machina, or at least the same plot device that Webster reuses, rather than conscious parallels. 

I’m probably talking nonsense. 

Between the two plays, I think The Duchess of Malfi is better. Firstly, in The White Devil, the two victims don’t have lots of time on stage and aren’t very compelling, and Webster mostly focuses on the villains, especially Vittoria, whereas in The Duchess of Malfi, he shifts the focus to the victim and creates her as a good and compelling character. There’s more light in the play, so to speak. The killing scene of the Duchess is also central to the play, and it is striking; one can’t say the same about the killing of Camillo and Isabella in The White Devil

More importantly, there’s a strange beauty in The Duchess of Malfi that I can’t quite explain. Is it the scene with the madmen? The scene at the cemetery, with the echo from the grave? The way the Duchess dies twice (like Desdemona)? I’m not sure. But amidst all the horrors in the play, there’s a curious beauty.  

Addendum: When I wrote the blog post, I forgot to mention Webster’s fabulous Preface. I just love Webster.

If you read the play, don't skip the Preface.