The good cheer of beauty

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Along the Rhine. (UNESCO World Heritage Collection)

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, was published as a serial novel of 20 monthly parts in issues of Punch magazine from January 1847 to July 1848. So next month will be the 170th anniversary of its appearance in print. It was printed as a book in 1848 with the subtitle “A Novel without a Hero.” Thackeray did not depict much architectural beauty in the novel, except for the mansions of its several generally unheroic families, described in states of greater or lesser dilapidation, depending on how life treats the mansions (or the families) over the decade and a half or so of the novel’s plot line. Becky Sharp is the novel’s most memorable character but the actual heroine is Amelia Sedley (very much, ahem, like my wife Victoria). Toward the novel’s end, she, her lazy, vain brother Jos, her son Georgy and their friend Major Dobbin are vacationing on the Rhine, in the duchy of “Pumpernickel,” where the joy of beauty in landscape and music is described by Thackeray:

Mr Jos did not much engage in the afternoon excursions of his fellow-travellers. He slept a good deal after dinner, or basked in the arbours of the pleasant inn-gardens. Pleasant Rhine gardens! Fair scenes of peace and sunshine – noble purple mountains, whose crests are reflected in the magnificent stream – who has ever seen you, that has not had a grateful memory of those scenes of friendly repose and beauty? To lay down the pen, and even to think of that beautiful Rhineland makes one happy. At this time of summer evening, the cows are trooping down from the hills, lowing, and with their bells tinkling, to the old town, with its old moats, and grates, and spires, and chestnut-trees, with long blue shadows stretching over the grass; the sky and the river below flame in crimson and gold; and the moon is already out, looking pale towards the sunset. The sun sinks behind the great castle-crested mountains, the night falls suddenly, the river grows darker and darker, lights quiver in it from the windows in the old ramparts, and twinkle peacefully in the villages under the hills on the opposite shore.

My brother Tony and I once took a train ride along the Rhine just under those mountain crests and the villages seemed to creep up the walls of the valley like vines. For mile after mile along the Rhine the beauty was breathtaking. And then, toward the end, we saw down below in a village square a BP gas station with its apparently mandated big flat harsh green roof. It was the only out-of-character thing that we saw. That was in, I think, something like 2003. I wonder what it is like today.

Here is a passage about Mozart and his music’s effect on Amelia, and on those watching her at a performance, in Pumpernickel, of the opera:

Here it was that Emmy found her delight, and was introduced for the first time to the wonders of Mozart and Cimarosa. The Major’s musical taste has been before alluded to, and his performances on the flute commended. But perhaps the chief pleasure he had in these operas was in watching Emmy’s rapture while listening to them. A new world of love and beauty broke upon her when she was introduced to those divine compositions: this lady had the keenest and finest sensibility, and how could she be indifferent when she heard Mozart? The tender parts of ‘Don Juan’ awakened in her raptures so exquisite that she would ask herself when she went to say her prayers of a night, whether it was not wicked to feel so much delight as that with which ‘Vedrai Carino’ and ‘Batti Btti’ filled her gentle little bosom? But the Major, whom she consulted upon this head, as her theological adviser (and who himself had a pious and reverent soul), said that, for his part, every beauty of art or nature made him thankful as well as happy; and that the pleasure to be had in listening to fine music, as in looking at the stars in the sky, or at a beautiful landscape or picture, was a benefit for which we might thank Heaven as sincerely as for any other worldly blessing. …

During the astonishing Chorus of the Prisoners, over which the delightful voice of the actress rose and soared in the most ravishing harmony, the English lady’s face wore such an expression of wonder and delight that it struck even little Fipps, the blasé attaché, who drawled out as he fixed his glass upon her, ‘Gayd, it really does one good to see a woman caypable of that stayte of excaytement.’

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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