a1 University of Córdoba, Spain
The significance of the Waterloo episode in Vanity Fair remains somewhat obscure. Early reviewers of the novel either ignored it or suggested its downright insignificance: “The battle of Waterloo, it is true, is introduced; but as far as regards the story, it brings about only one death, and one bankruptcy, which might either of them have happened in a hundred of other ways” (Rigby 79). Furthermore, when compared to Stendhal's La chartreuse de Parme and Hugo's Les misérables, two novels where a report of the battle is at least attempted, Vanity Fair looks exceptional. The novel's mimetic elusiveness vis-à-vis the battle has been a source of puzzle and the object of some critical contention. In line with John Carey, who argued that “Vanity Fair is built round a thunderous void” (189), John Sutherland suggested that “Thackeray's battlefield reticence” impinged on the novel's “historical fabric” producing “gaping, but evidently carefully placed, holes” (15), the larger being (no pun intended) Waterloo. Some critics explained away this omission by invoking Thackeray's anti-heroic restraint, a position best expressed by Tolstoy: “For an historian considering the achievement of a certain aim, there are heroes; for the artist treating of man's relation to all sides of life there cannot and should not be heroes, but there should be men” (1309). Other readers blamed the silencing effect of an elegiac trauma – an “agony of glory,” in Coleridge's terms – not uncommonly affecting the winning side in a violent conflict. One could also adduce reasons of epistemological honesty, in line with Tolstoy's blunt assertion that “in every description of a battle there is a necessary lie” (1310).