In an article in The Times Literary Supplement, John Sutherland takes a close look at Edward Said's "only close reference to Vanity Fair in Culture and Imperialism " — a single sentence, which begins with the "sweeping proposition" that "Nearly everywhere in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British and French culture we find allusions to the facts of empire, but perhaps nowhere with more regularity and frequency than in the British novel." Here's is Said's comically inept example from Thackeray:

Thackeray's Joseph Sedley in Vanity Fair is an Indian nabob whose rambunctious behaviour and excessive (perhaps undeserved) wealth is counterpointed with Becky's finally unacceptable deviousness, which in turn is contrasted with Amelia's propriety, suitably rewarded in the end; Joseph Dobbin is seen at the end of the novel engaged serenely writing a history of the Punjab.

As Sutherland points out, "It would be hard to pack more error into a sentence" (my emphasis). First of all, he points out that "Joseph Sedley is not a 'nabob' (that is, a merchant, enriched by commercial rapine)" but a minor, poorly paid government official, who after almost three decades of service in India moves into a fairly downmarket house near "'Moira Place' (Fitzroy Square, the centre of London's 'Anglo-Indian district')," and

"Jos's position in life", the narrative explains, "was not grand enough to entitle him to a house in Moira Place, where none can live but Members of Council, and partners of Indian firms. . . . he engaged a comfortable house of a second or third-rate order in Gillespie Street. . . . It was a modest establishment". When, a ruined man, Jos dies in poor lodgings in Brussels (poisoned, the narrative suggests, by Becky), all he has to leave his murderous inheritrix is a meagre life insurance payment. So much for excessive wealth.

Furthermore, "'Rambunctious,'" as Sutherland points out, hardly applies to Jos, "who is described as being 'as shy as a girl' and a 'milksop.'" With a final twist of the knife, Sutherland shows the slovenliness of Said's scholarship: he cannot even get right the name of one of the novel's main characters — William Dobbins! Clearly, however interesting and seminal Said might be as a literary theorist, his astonishing carelessness with details means that his comments on individual texts simply cannot be trusted.


Sutherland, John. "Some Nabob: The Sometimes Useful Errors of Edward Said." Times Literary Supplement. (18 March 2005): 12.

Last modified 24 March 2005