The Battle of Waterloo in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
First published in monthly parts over 1847–8, and then as a single volume in 1848, Vanity Fair: a novel without a hero, traces the interwoven destinies of two very different heroines during the period of Waterloo and its aftermath. The orphaned Becky Sharp is resourceful and socially ambitious, whilst her school friend Amelia Sedley is trusting and unworldly. As the war clouds gather, the main characters move with their soldier husbands and the British army to Brussels. George Osborne, Amelia’s husband dies in the Battle of Waterloo, although we learn nothing more about his death. The novel is filled with references to the battle, yet the action remains off-stage. Thackeray had created a novel without a hero, leaving readers to provide their own interpretation of the action.Commemoration and the 1840s
Since it first appeared, there has been speculation over how much the novel was about 1815 and how much it was about the 1840s. At the time it was written, there were public debates about the ways in which war heroes might be honoured and commemorated. There was public controversy over the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, mounted on the Wellington Arch, opposite Apsley House. 1847 also saw the issue of a military general service medal for all ranks in the British army who had taken part in the Peninsular War — at least, for those that had survived until this point and who made application for it. The conflicts of the Napoleonic Wars were thus still very much in public consciousness and continued to have a place in helping define a sense of British national identity and an evocation of national pride.1848 was also remarkable as a year of revolutions and uprisings across Europe: the government of France was one of those to be overthrown. Faced with the spectre of a challenge to the European status quo, it is not hard to see how the concerns of the 1840s became blended with those of 1815. Reviewers of the novel in 1848 saw both the contemporaneity and universality of the story as a romanticised history of Britain. As Abraham Hayward noted in his review of the book in the Edinburgh Review of January 1848, it harked back to a time when ‘the war fever was at its height: Napoleon was regarded as an actual monster: [and] the belief that one Englishman could beat two Frenchmen, and ought to do it whenever he had the opportunity, was universal …’How did Thackeray treat Waterloo?
Thackeray treats Waterloo as a historical narrative revisited and revised through a prism of patriotism. Yet the contemporary resonances of the battle and the leaders of the opposing armies were also apparent: connections between imperialism and competition, war and profit, and war and social advancement were as meaningful in the context of the 1840s as in 1815. Wellington was an elder statesman of the Tory party and its leader in the House of Lords in the 1840s. He was still a figure in whom the nation could place its hope, just as the Wellington evoked in the novel was one in whom ‘everyone had such a perfect feeling of confidence’.Thackeray’s depiction of the battle is nevertheless not romantic. The character who becomes the main authority on the battle is Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, who, as a civilian, does not set foot on the battlefield and spends most of the time during the engagement getting ready to flee Brussels, abandoning his sister as he goes. The devastation of close combat warfare — the fury of the fighting, the terrible damage wrought by artillery ‘ploughing up their ranks’, the comradeship and loss as men fell and ‘resolute survivors’ closed in — are described in a few eloquent sentences. From these lines the reader also learns of the tactics of close action in the battle, the formation of British infantry in their squares, which worked so effectively against French cavalry charges, and the last desperate push by the elite Imperial Guards of the French army before the balance of the action turned and the battle was lost to Napoleon.
Document: extract from Chapter 32 of Vanity Fair: Jos takes flight, and the war closes
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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo
Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo
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