Thursday, November 27, 2008

Vanity Fair's Conclusion (Spoiler Alert!), plus More Alcohol!

I finished "Vanity Fair" today, and to celebrate I'm drinking a glass of rack punch, the drink that did in Joseph Sedley. More on this rack punch in a bit. But first, then end of "Vanity Fair"!

To start, I have to say that Thackeray is one hell of a writer. I just needed make that clear. There's a lot going on at the book's end and I'll just comment on a few things. First, old Dobbin finally grows a pair! Trying to warn Amelia of Becky's nature, Amelia gets pissed at him, and he says, basically, "I'm over it" and leaves Amelia. He gives up on the woman he's been trying to woo for years, realizing that it's hopeless and he's just wasting his time. And so what happens? Of course, Amelia starts realizing how great he's been to her. Yep, it's the old "they want what they can't have", also known as "playing hard to get". As soon as Dobbin tells her off and leaves, Amelia now wants him. Funny how that works. So finally Amelia writes Dobbin and tells him to come back and marry her. And at the same time, Becky actually shows some real emotion and tells Amelia that Dobbin is a great guy and she should go after him, and by the way, her (Amelia's) husband had wanted to run away with Becky and here's the note he wrote to her that proves it and maybe Amelia shouldn't be idolizing him so. Oooh, snap! So Dobbin returns, and Amelia is grateful and they get married and have a daughter and live happily ever after. Well, except Thackeray throws this little tidbit in:

Good-bye, Colonel - God bless you, honest William! - Farewell, dear Amelia - Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!

Parasite!?! OUCH! And yet, it's so true. Dobbin got what he always wanted, and maybe that's not so great. "Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" God, I love this book.

And then there's Becky. Oh, Becky. I touched upon previously the question of whether she was guilty of not in having an affair with Lord Steyne. While this is an open question, she seems to get more and more evil as the book ends. Or at least, it's implied that she's evil, although again it's mostly hearsay. But something very curious happens at the end of the novel. Becky has taken up with old Joseph Sedley, not in a sexual way, but she has worked the situation so that Sedley is supporting her. Dobbin comes to Sedley's room and tells him he should just leave and not tell Becky, and Joseph says:
He would go back to India. He would do anything; only he must have time: they musn't say anything to Mrs. Crawley: - she'd - she'd kill me if she knew it. You don't know what a terrible woman she is.

Now here's the interesting part: Becky is not in the room, nor is she eavesdropping, when Joseph says all this to Dobbin. At least, that's not mentioned in the text. But Thackeray has an illustration called "Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra" where she's apparently hiding behind a curtain listening in to this conversation. And several months later Joseph Sedley is dead, and hey, that's a coincidence, Becky gets half the money from his life insurance. So are we to assume Becky killed Joseph? Clytemnestra, for those of you who might not remember their Greek mythology so well, was the wife of Agamenon who murdered him after he returned from the Trojan War. The illustrations (drawn by Thackeray himself) have so far been just illustrations of the scenes in the novel, and yet this one differs from the text. What are we to make of that?

And another curious thing, which, in order to really understand, I'd have to reread the novel, paying close attention to this, is the narrator. I find the narrator of this book quite fascinating. At the novel's beginning, Thackeray talks about being a puppet master, and makes his narrator seem like the all knowing guy who made this shit up. Yet, as the novel moves along, the narrator's voice changes, or maybe just becomes more complex. There are times when the narrator says he doesn't know what happens either inside someone's head, or behind closed doors (and damn it, I didn't write these instances down, so I can't cite them here). And then there's this passage, in Chapter 62, where Dobbin, Amelia, Sedley, and Georgey all go traveling to Germany, and to the town of Pumpernickle. The narrator states:
It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance.

Huh? If the narrator is the omniscient puppet master, how can he just make their acquaintance in an obscure German town? And how can he say every word is true when he's belied that before? I dunno. Maybe he's speaking in more metaphysical terms. Maybe "every word is true" means that his picture of humanity is all true. Or something like that. Or not. My powers of analysis fail me here. Or maybe that's just the rack punch kicking in.

And speaking of rack punch, in honor of this awesome novel I have recreated the drink that kicked Joseph Sedley's ass. First, as I previously posted rack punch refers to Arrack punch, and a recipe for that can be found here. This recipe is from the classic cocktail book "How to Mix Drinks" by Jerry Thomas, written in 1862. It's basically the original bartender's guide. Since it's written just 14 years after "Vanity Fair", we can hopefully assume that the rack punch recipe in the book is the same as the one Thackeray had in mind. Anyway, to make this drink, I first had to find some Arrack. Fortunately, arrack is still available, although hard to find, and I managed to procure a bottle from my local BevMo. The arrack I bought, called Batavia-Arrack, is distilled from sugar cane (98%) and Java red rice (2%). It was distilled in Java, blended in Amsterdam (Java was the Dutch East Indies), and produced in Austria (not sure what "produced" means). It's 50% alcohol (100 proof). I tasted some neat, and it tastes very similar to rum, which you might expect since rum is generally distilled from sugar cane, but there's a definite non-rum taste in there as well, presumably from the rice. The rack punch recipe calls for mixing the Arrack with rum, lemon juice, simple syrup, and water, which I did. I shook the punch in a shaker with ice, and poured into a cocktail glass. The results are shown here:

The verdict: not bad. In fact, I can see how Joseph might have enjoyed a full bowl of this. It's lemony, and sweet but not too sweet, and you can definitely taste the rum and Arrack. But since it's cut with water, it's only about 20% alcohol, so it's pretty smooth and could be drunk at a quick pace. And it packs, no pun intended, a punch. Mmmmm.

One more alcohol obscurity pops up towards the end of "Vanity Fair". When the characters are in the town of Pumpernickle, they and the townspeople are noted at several points to be drinking "small beer". Fortunately, because I am living in San Francisco, I not only know what small beer is, but I have tasted it as well. Small beer is an English invention, dating from the 1700s. When a brewer made a batch of a strongly-flavored beer, they would use lots of malt, hops, and grains. After the beer was made, they would pour off the new batch of beer, and then add more water and yeast to the wort, or grain residue, and then brew a second batch of beer without adding new grain. Because the first batch of beer used up much of the flavorings and sugars in the grain, this second batch, called small beer, would be a more mildly-flavored beer, and would have less alcohol, since there was now less sugar for the yeast to ferment. There is only one small beer I know of that is still made today, and it's produced by the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. I've only ever seen the beer sold here in San Francisco, but I have had it a few times, and I love it. Anchor Small Beer is very light, and also very bitter, but bitter in that great beer way. It reminds me of a bitter cask ale that one might find on tap in an English pub. Definitely worth seeking out and picking up a bottle or two. And in case you haven't figured it out by now, "Vanity Fair" is definitely worth picking up as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

love the idea, love that you're drinking rack punch. great book, and best of luck on the endeavor. just finishing up a grad. class on 19th cent. british lit. and most books you're reading i had to read this semester. good times.