At Home and Abroad in Victorian
and Edwardian Fiction: From Vanity
Fair to The Secret Agent
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY, born in Calcutta in 1811, might have become the first great novelist of Anglo-India. His father, an East India Company official, died when he was 3, and in 1817 he was sent back to England. In his early twenties he lost the money he had inherited from his father, partly as a result of the collapse of Indian investments, and he never returned to the East. Since Thackeray is a satirist who manifestly loves and admires what he pokes fun at, it is significant that his juvenilia includes The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan (1838), a hilarious send-up of the military memoir which in some ways anticipates the Boy's Own Paper style of imperial romance. (Who can forget the siege of Futtyghur, when the gallant British officer commanding the defence takes off the trunks of 134 enemy elephants with a single cannon shot?) In Vanity Fair (1848) Jos Sedley, the Indian nabob with the 'honourable and lucrative post' of Collector of Boggley Wallah,1 is another figure of fun even though Thackeray's father had held the title of Collector. Major Dobbin is posted to Madras, and plans to devote the rest of his life after retiring from the army to writing a history of the Punjab. But, out of more than sixty chapters, only one is set in India, and that is mainly devoted to home thoughts from abroad.
Although the action of Vanity Fair mostly takes place in and around London, we can never forget that Thackeray's London is the centre of a global economy and the capital of a large empire. Dobbin and his friend George Osborne have served in Canada, the West Indies, and Central America before taking part in the Battle of Waterloo. Jos Sedley brings back a black servant from India, as well as the curry and green chillis that so