Vanity Fair and Queen Semiramis

Title page Vanity Fair

Original title page

I was all prepared to give the readers of The Landing blog my thoughts upon reading Vanity Fair, when one of the minor female characters, Miss Pinkerton, side tracked my intentions. I ended up delving into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Wikipedia for a bit of research into Thackeray’s historical allusions relating to the character. Finally, I came to the conclusion that this particular Thackeray creation bears a startling resemblance to a formidable maiden aunt in one of my favourite children’s stories.

Now read on….

Vanity Fair opens in the Pinkerton Academy for Young Ladies, when two of the main protagonists in the story are preparing to leave for the wide world. The two girls were Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp, but for me, the redoubtable principal Miss Barbara Pinkerton (an ‘austere and godlike woman’ who was ‘as tall as a grenadier) stole the opening chapter. She is shown here parting from Becky Sharp, her least favourite pupil, who has the audacity to address the principal in perfect French:

Miss Pinkerton did not understand French; she only directed those who did: but biting her lips and throwing up her venerable and Roman nosed head (on the top of which figured a large and solemn turban), she said, ‘Miss Sharp, I wish you a good morning.’ As the Hammersmith Semiramis spoke, she waved one hand by way of adieu, and to give Miss Sharp an opportunity of shaking one of the fingers of the hand which was left out for that purpose.

Semiramis Regina

A no-nonsense kind of a woman…

That was the second time that Thackeray referred to Miss Pinkerton’s affinity with Semiramis, the first being at the opening of the chapter, where we are told ‘that majestic lady: the Semiramis of Hammersmith’ had been a friend of celebrated literary luminaries Dr Samuel Johnson and Mrs Hester Chapone. Now, I have to confess that I had only a vague recollection that Semiramis had been a queen or possibly a goddess of some sort, hence the dive into Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The entry describes a legend about a woman who was the daughter of the goddess Derceto and an un-named Assyrian who went on to marry Ninus, King of Assyria. Brewer points out that this and many other legends grew up around a real Assyrian princess who lived circa 800 BC.

I assumed that Thackeray was comparing his redoubtable principal to the historical princess (who married King Shamsi-Adad V of Assyria), rather than the mythological Semiramis, but it is hard to say. Murder and suchlike heinous goings on were some of the activities of the legendary queen, so maybe it was a bit of a stretch to use her as a role model. However, the real Semiramis (ruled 810-806 BC) according to Vicki León in Uppity Women of Ancient Times was quite a strong capable ruler so perhaps she is a more likely source. The illustration from this book portrays the queen in soft woman-hood mode, so I can’t see her as an indomitable leader, but apparently she was. Apart from the questionable claims that she invented trousers for women and chastity belts for men, Semiramis achieved great things:Uppity Women of Ancient Times

Under her leadership, a new system of canals and dikes irrigated the flatland between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the twin cities of Nimrud and Nineveh became the bright lights of Assyria. A true power player, Semiramis led military expeditions against the Medes as far afield as India, and forged tactical alliances as far west as Turkey.


Not a weapon in sight…

Perhaps we may safely assume that Miss Pinkerton ran her school with the authority, determination and majesty of an Assyrian Queen. The mythological Semiramis was rumoured to have slept with her son after her husband’s death, which would not have been at all a respectable thing for a principal of a select girls’ school, especially since Semiramis had put Ninus to death in the first place. I cannot help wondering if this was a joke on Thackeray’s part. Would his readers have been aware of the two aspects of Semiramis I wonder? She was obviously as proud as any queen, but I presume that contemporary readers would have been familiar with the Semiramis comparison.

I also gleaned from Brewer’s Dictionary that a couple of European female monarchs were honoured with the nickname ‘Semiramis of the North’. One of these was Catherine II of Russia, (1729-1796) whose deeds were a little murky; the other was Margareta of Norway, Sweden and Denmark (1353-1414) who seems to have been a capable ruler, without the vexatious tendency to murder her relatives. Clearly, Miss Pinkerton is one of a very select band of inspiring rulers whose achievements know no bounds.

Talking about inspirational, magisterial rulers, I will finish by bringing you a wonderful creation from

Aunt Fidget

Enough to terrify anyone…

Russell Hoban, brilliantly illustrated by Quentin Blake, called Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. This is the character I mentioned in my introduction. I am sure that you will see instantly her kinship with both the aforementioned school principal, Miss B Pinkerton and Queen Semiramis herself. As I was reading Vanity Fair, Blake’s drawing of  remarkable Aunt Fidget popped into my head and wouldn’t go away. Hoban describes her thus, ‘She wore an iron hat and took no nonsense from anyone’. She was as assured of the benefits of regular reading of the Nautical Almanac as Miss Pinkerton was of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. However, I do hope that Miss Pinkerton never said ‘Eat your mutton and your cabbage-and-potato sog’ to her pupils, or fed them with greasy bloaters as Aunt Fidget was fond of doing.

I seem to have come some distance from Thackeray, via an Assyrian Queen and Quentin Blake, but I hope you enjoyed the journey!

Credits: additional images from Wikipedia, with thanks.


Vanity Fair: Next on the List

Here is a little holding post while I finish reading Vanity Fair, (William Makepeace Thackeray) which I mentioned in a previous post as a future TBR Pile target. I haven’t seen any filmed versions of the book but I thought I’d watch this 2004 film with Reese Witherspoon once I have digested the original story. I have a feeling that the BBC did a series a few years ago but I haven’t checked yet.



I am over half-way through and really enjoying the book, though I could do with an edition that has notes to explain some of the references that nineteenth century readers would have easily understood. Look out for a more detailed post soon!


Credit: Trailer video from YouTube, uploaded on July 18, 2006 by The Adventures of Ricey (with thanks)  


Puzzling Over Literature: John Sutherland on C19 Fiction

This blog post returns to the subject of essays, literary essays in particular, in the shape of John Sutherland’s collection of pieces delving behind the scenes of some well-known nineteenth century novels. Not surprisingly, the book’s title Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (OUP, 1996) attracted me straightaway. I can’t remember how long Sutherland’s book has been on the TBR Pile, but I probably bought it in the year of publication. Sutherland later wrote follow-up collections of articles on literary puzzles called Can Jane Eyre be Happy? (1997) and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (1999) neither of which I have got around to buying, which given the parlous state of the unread pile is probably just as well.

Is Heathclif a Murderer?

Literary Puzzles…

I have dipped into Sutherland’s collection at various times over the years, but this time I set out to read all of the essays (thirty-four) in the book. The pieces vary in length from about three and a half pages up to eight pages, so I found them ideal for bus and Luas journeys. I began, as I did when I read the Somerset Maugham essays, with those discussing books that I have read. Obviously, the literary puzzle that Sutherland dissects has more resonance if you have read the original work. Even so, there were certainly things that I had never noticed before; such are the benefits of a very close textual reading. I have discovered that there is a definite plot spoil element to my mission. I won’t however reveal these to you, dear reader. Suffice to say that  I will know what plot features and anomalies to look out for in for instance, Jude the Obscure, The Master of Ballantrae and Phineas Finn when I finally get around to tackling them.

In his introduction, John Sutherland acknowledges that his solutions may not be the most plausible. He explains the rationale behind his exploration of these literary brainteasers, which he defends from any accusation of mere frivolity:

But I would argue that however far my solutions are fetched the problems which inspire them are not frivolous. It is worthwhile for readers to be curious where Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth comes from, or to wonder why The Picture of Dorian Gray is so ‘queerly’ disturbing, or to inquire why George Eliot and Henry James consciously flawed the printed endings to their greatest novels. It is less crucial, but no less thought-provoking, that Henry Esmond –the highly literate creation of a highly literate author-should quote from a work forty years before it will be written. The questions which have provoked this book are, I maintain, good questions.

If you are the kind of reader that says, ‘But hang on a minute, didn’t that…’ or ‘That timing doesn’t make Can Jane Eyre be Happy?sense’ or who argues about what the author really meant in writing the closing paragraphs, then this is the book for you. Some of the puzzles can be shown to be errors as the result of hasty writing; perhaps due to mistakes in plotting; or inaccuracies arising from the pressure of producing a story in instalments. Others are more intriguing (and as Sutherland points out, not in any way frivolous), such as the question of whether Thomas Bertram’s wealth was acquired on the backs of slaves. Some questions are of identifying plot location, explaining seasonal oddities or tracing missing days. Other questions arise simply out of the passage of time, as the modern reader misses allusions that would have been familiar to a contemporary reader.

The solutions that Sutherland offers in his essays have either been sending me back to re-read or have inspired me with an urge to read the original. One of the books with a mystery is Vanity Fair, which has been on my shelves since the 1980s. It is part of my classics series with the green/gold binding (Book Club), so as they all look alike, I won’t scan in a picture. Not only have I never read Vanity Fair, I have never read anything else by Thackeray so this seems as good a moment as any to rectify that omission. Be prepared for updates on my experiences with the folks inhabiting Vanity Fair. For obvious reasons, I will not even tell you the title of Sutherland’s piece on the mystery in Vanity Fair. You will just have to read it yourself (after reading the book of course!)

Has anyone else read any of the books in this series? Do drop me a line…

Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?

Picture Credits: Book jackets taken from Amazon.