From Bunyan to the phone hacking scandal: the history of Vanity Fair

At Vanity Fair: From Bunyan to Thackeray by Kirsty Milne takes us from The Pilgrim's Progress to Condé Nast’s glamorous title.

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Many years ago, in the town of Vanity, Satan founded a fair and filled it with rogues and cheats, adulterers and liars, thieves and murderers. At this fair, wrote John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, can be bought whatever you desire: “Houses, Lands, Trades, Places, Honours, Preferments, Titles”, even “Countreys” and “Kingdoms”. The terrible list goes on to include “Lusts, Pleasures . . . Whores, Bauds, Wives, Husbands, Children, Masters, Servants, Lives, Blood, Bodies, Souls, Silver, Gold, Pearls, Precious Stones, and what not”. Following the Holy Way, Christian and Faithful pass through Vanity Fair. Wanting only to purchase “the truth”, they avert their eyes from the stalls. Their dishevelled presence creates a stir and the two pilgrims are arrested as enemies of the local customs and laws. Found guilty by Judge Hate Good, Faithful is burned at the stake but Christian escapes, this time accompanied by a former resident of Vanity Fair, called Hopeful.

It is worth remembering when we read his account of the trial of Faithful that The Pilgrim’s Progress was begun in Bedford County Jail where, between 1660 and 1672, Bunyan was imprisoned for illegal preaching. Published in 1678, his religious allegory was an immediate success; by the time of his death ten years later, 100,000 copies had been printed, and over time it became a ubiquitous source of quotations and allusions. When, in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott titled the chapter in which Meg attends her first party “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”, her readers all knew the fated reference.

So why would Thackeray, a mid-Victorian man about town with no interest in fanatical religion or 17th-century publications, name his new novel after a bleak episode in Bunyan? In Vanity Fair, whose first instalment appeared in Punch in 1847, the rise of Becky Sharp, who sells herself in a city of rogues, cheats and adulterers, is told by an imposing narrator who is part preacher, part ass. Unlike Christian and Faithful, Becky Sharp is a consumer who embraces the culture of Vanity Fair and knows that the only way out is through upward mobility.

Nowadays we enter Vanity Fair through the glossy covers of an American magazine, where can be found still more rogues, cheats and adulterers, with plenty of what not thrown in. Before Condé Nast co-opted the title in 1913, there had been a British Vanity Fair (which ran from 1868 to 1914), specialising in politics, satire and gossip. The new, American version was described by its first editor, Frank Crowninshield (a name Bunyan himself might have chosen), as a celebration of America’s “increased devotion to pleasure, to happiness, to dancing, to sport, to the delights of the country, to laughter, and to all forms of cheerfulness”.

At Vanity Fair plots the progress of what Kirsty Milne calls this “runaway metaphor”. Published posthumously – Milne, a journalist, academic and former writer for the New Statesman, died in 2013 – the book asks: how did the idea of Vanity Fair originate and how did it change, so that a story of Puritan prohibition could refigure itself as a celebration of cavalier consumption? How is it that a kangaroo court, in which a man is martyred for holding his own beliefs, could become an “aspirational showcase for celebrity, wealth and power”?

While the bookends of her study are Bunyan and Thackeray, Milne traces the term as it appears in 18th- and 19th-century novels, letters, journalism and light verse. The result is a pugnacious and provocative interrogation of the ways in which “a literary text is constructed” and of the relationship between 17th-century Puritanism and the modern free market. The fair and the puritan have always, Milne argues, been interdependent: fairs, with their “impulse-driven economy”, rely on the puritan’s “impulse control”. Together they create the Janus-face of modern capitalism, described by the American sociologist Daniel Bell as “puritan by day, hedonist by night”.

Tracking down Bunyan’s model for Vanity Fair, Milne departs from the established view that it was “drawn from life”, from the fair at Stourbridge Common, near Cambridge, or from Bartholomew’s Fair in London. Bunyan’s sources, Milne suggests, can be found in anti-Puritan stage satires such as Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614) – which features a hot-headed Puritan preacher called Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – and in the pamphlet idiom of the English Civil War: specifically the “fair pamphlets” of the 1640s which used the idea of the fair to satirise the bishops. Throughout anti-Catholic propaganda, Rome was depicted as a fair where religion was commercialised: the vanity fair had long been rooted in the Puritan imagination.

Milne also challenges the standard view of Vanity Fair as Bunyan’s attack on “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. Instead, she argues that it carried, for Bunyan, multiple meanings that culminate in a “howl of anger” at the mistreatment of Nonconformists. In Milne’s hands, The Pilgrim’s Progress emerges as far more generically and stylistically complex than critics have previously supposed, and her portrayal of Bunyan gives the lie to Robert Southey’s man of “thick ignorance”, the unlettered tinker who “fell suddenly into an Allegory”. In so doing, Milne allows Bunyan’s masterpiece to shake off its dowdy garb and roar back to life as a piece of “knockabout satire”, a bold riposte to the anti-Puritan tradition (remember poor Malvolio?).

Central to Milne’s understanding of the transformation of Vanity Fair is the idea of cultural memory, by which a “trope” such as Bunyan’s can be “misremembered, reinvented and co-opted under pressure from cultural change”. Just as Bunyan reinvented the Puritan fair scenario in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair misremembered Bunyan, “suppressing or bypassing” the puritan inheritance of the mid-19th century. To illustrate the relationship between Thackeray and Bunyan, Milne quotes from Professor John Ellis’s description of turning novels into films: “The adaptation trades upon the memory of the novel, a memory that can derive from actual reading or, as is more likely with a classic of literature, a generally circulated cultural memory. The adaptation consumes this memory, aiming to efface it with the presence of its own images.” Milne’s is a challenging and carefully plotted thesis, which results in a blindsidingly brilliant approach to the study of literary history.

In the world of Condé Nast, Vanity Fair becomes the place we all want to inhabit, rather than the dystopian police state from which Christian escapes. As such, Condé Nast’s “misremembering” of Bunyan might seem “so perverse as to border on travesty”. But, Milne reminds us, it is the nature of this perverse metaphor to “shed its negative connotations and become a sunnier space of beauty and power-play, where no one condemns or stands aloof – although they may be excluded for being boring, ugly, or undistinguished”. In 1914, as Frank Crowninshield welcomed readers to his magazine, he paid tribute to the pedigree of its title. Bunyan and Thackeray, Crowninshield said, “had a determination to tell the truth about life”. Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair would follow their lead by chronicling the “progress” of American lives, “cheerfully, truthfully, and entertainingly”.

Yet if it is truth we are looking for, it is to Bunyan that we should turn. Little has changed, Milne concludes, between the town visited by Christian and Faithful and the phone-hacking, people-trafficking, “cash for honours” and kidney-selling culture of our own Vanity Fair.

At Vanity Fair: From Bunyan to Thackery by Kirsty Milne is published by Cambridge University Press (237pp, £64.99)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie