(Re)reading Thackeray on Grief’s Inequity

Which of the dead are most tenderly and passionately deplored? Those who love the survivors the least, I believe. The death of a child occasions a passion of grief and frantic tears, such as your end, brother reader, will never inspire. The death of an infant which scarce knew you, which a week’s absence from you would have caused to forget you, will strike you down more than the loss of your closest friend, or your first-born son—a man grown like yourself, with children of his own. We may be harsh and stern with Judah and Simeon—our love and pity gush out for Benjamin, the little one. And if you are old, as some reader of this may be or shall be old and rich, or old and poor—you may one day be thinking for yourself—”These people are very good round about me, but they won’t grieve too much when I am gone. I am very rich, and they want my inheritance—or very poor, and they are tired of supporting me.”

Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847-8)

In the monograph on nineteenth-century Bloomsbury I’m writing, Vanity Fair features as a turning point in the period in which the metropolitan locality of Russell Square and its environs becomes fully enfranchised into the literary geography of the novel for the first time. Just as other previously neglected parts of the nation were then being exploited substantively and appreciatively in the work of his contemporaries, such as Yorkshire in the Brontës or Manchester in Gaskell, so Thackeray expands the geographical scope of the metropolitan novel by writing a sprawling masterpiece whose heart is in socially marginal Bloomsbury, a part of town that had been overtly scorned and mocked by the silver-fork school of fiction this text critically draws upon and subverts. Having developed this argument about the novel for several years, I had thought the lecture I’m giving in a couple of weeks on Vanity Fair would write itself: barring the more general material that I’d need to add in order to calibrate my take on Thackeray for an undergraduate context, surely I knew what I wanted to say?

Returning to the text, however, I’m confronted with an embarrassment of riches that is at once wonderful to behold and difficult to handle. Much of what I’ve become newly interested in through this most recent reading I guess I’ll have to leave aside in order to present something manageable and meaningful for students, who have probably never encountered any of it before. But Thackeray’s focus on death and grieving, as exemplified in the passage above, which in my memory of the text I had confined or reduced to something less nuanced, will have to find its way into the lecture somehow, I reckon. I’m going to have to get my thinking hat on, and try to make some better sense of how the novel’s account of the work of mourning might relate to its innovative geography. How do the widow Amelia’s almost obsessive daily trips to Bloomsbury to pay homage to her dead husband’s memorial in the Foundling Hospital relate to the locality’s fluctuating value within the city’s live social currency? Hmm – probably not a question to pose in the lecture itself! But it’s just interesting how the rereading we do for teaching purposes can redirect us into avenues of research that we’d otherwise never have discovered…

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