Vauxhall Is For Lovers: The Pleasure Gardens in Thackeray's Vanity Fair
Long before contemporary historical romance writers used Vauxhall to bring simmering attractions to a boil, William Makepeace Thackeray did the same. The difference is that Thackeray had actually been to Vauxhall—and saw the venue through the eyes of bathetic experience.
In his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, Thackeray sends his characters to Vauxhall when decisions need to be made about matrimony and romance. The novel follows gentle, kind Amelia Sedley and her avaricious yet delightful friend, Becky Sharp, to the pleasure gardens with their different suitors. Becky is on the precipice of receiving a proposal from Amelia’s brother, Jos, who is very silly but rich—and thus a veritable catch for the shabby-genteel Becky who has recently accepted a post as a governess. Everyone has speculated about their potential engagement for weeks, but Jos has been unable to cough up the question. He has resolved to finally do it at Vauxhall, which Thackeray treats a bit like the nineteenth-century equivalent of proposing at a sporting arena. For her part, Amelia is escorted by her two future husbands, although no one knows at that point that both men will come to marry her. The first man and husband, dashing and fickle George Osborne, is her original beloved who later dies at the Battle of Waterloo. The second is his best friend, Mr. Dobbin, who is already secretly in love with Amelia at Vauxhall and is, in the end, much more worthy of her affections.
The evening at Vauxhall gets off to a promising enough start: they “were perfectly happy..in their box: where the most delightful and intimate conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables.” Here, we see the Vauxhall described in the history books. It is all cold chicken, high spirits, indulgence, and excess.
Unfortunately, Jos orders a bowl of punch—“everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall”—and the whole evening begins to unravel. No one drinks the punch but Jos himself and he gets so inebriated that he begins to sing. He is heckled by bystanders outside of their box and almost begins to brawl with the crowd of men. He then clasps Becky around the waist in a scandalous manner and calls her "my dearest diddle-diddle-darling." In short, he horrifies and humiliates the rest of the party. The illustration above shows how Jos is “uncommon wild” in his drunkenness. Worst of all for Becky, he never manages to propose.
After the ladies and Jos are packed off in separate carriages by George Osborne and Mr. Dobbin, Becky tells herself that Jos will come and propose to her in the morning. The narrator soon dashes these hopes with the truth about Vauxhall punch: “Oh, ignorant young creatures! How little do you know the effect of rack punch! What is the rack in the punch, at night, to the rack in the head of a morning? To this truth I can vouch as a man; there is no headache in the world like that caused by Vauxhall punch. Through the lapse of twenty years, I can remember the consequence of two glasses! two wine-glasses! but two, upon the honour of a gentleman; and Joseph Sedley, who had a liver complaint, had swallowed at least a quart of the abominable mixture. The next morning, which Rebecca thought was to dawn upon her fortune, found Sedley groaning in agonies which the pen refuses to describe.” Instead of an experience fit for a refined gourmand or youths yearning for an exciting flight into fancy, Thackeray presents Vauxhall—and its punch—as a mistake that everyone makes at least once.
Dobbin also earns the Vauxhall-specific sympathy of the narrator. The fifth wheel of the coach in this quintet, Dobbin arrives at Vauxhall to dine with the couples, but realizes that he is unwanted. “I should only be de trop,” he tells himself, “I’d best go and talk to the hermit,” and he heads off “out of the hum of men, and noise, and clatter of the banquet, into the dark walk, at the end of which lived that well-known pasteboard Solitary.” The narrator concludes: “It wasn’t very good fun for Dobbin—and, indeed, to be alone at Vauxhall, I have found, from my own experience, to be one of the most dismal sports ever entered into by a bachelor.”
And, here, it seems that Thackeray and contemporary historical romance writers agree. Vauxhall is a place where characters roll the dice on their attraction and hope not to come up empty handed—and it seems that to strike out at Vauxhall hurts just a little bit more than anywhere else. In the end, Vauxhall is for lovers.