The Performance of Privacy: Dandyism in W.M. Thackeray's Pendennis


  • Alice Crossley (University of Leeds) University of Leeds



This article draws on Thackeray's appropriation of the apparatus of theatrical culture in order to examine the complex negotiation of public performance and private life engendered by the practices of dandyism in the period. In Pendennis“, the figure of the dandy appears inherently artificial in its reliance upon spectacle and display, yet it also enables self-creation and the maintenance of privacy. Different types of the dandy are isolated in the novel as forms of masculine performance to be variously emulated or rejected in the formation of individual identity.

While Thackeray is often considered to be sceptical of dandyism, his sustained employment of dandiacal personas in this novel suggests that his view of such performative practices was more ambivalent. Costume here offers the allure of display to both fictional characters and actual readers, while retaining a potentially impenetrable barrier between self and society. In a society that seems at once to foster a culture of surveillance and spectacle, and to retreat from such theatrical practice as inauthentic and artificial, such close attention to dress may be considered as simultaneously suspiciously vulgar or effeminate, and cautious or protective. In the novel examined here, Thackeray charts the development of his hero with an emphasis on the role of costume in the experience of masculine identity. In doing so, this article suggests, the text engages in an exploration of performance as privacy.