The House of Gaunt: Is it from ‘Vanity Fair’?

This morning I received a note from Mr. Jerry Bowyer, a long time correspondent on Harry Potter subjects. Mr. Bowyer is a remarkable man, who, at the height of the Witchcraft Controversy, said publicly and without hedge in his newspaper columns and television and radio shows that Ms. Rowling’s books were the gateway to English Literature rather than to the occult. This took no little prescience and courage when his readers and listeners were those least disposed at the time to hear that sort of thing.

He wrote today on another matter but mentioned in an aside that “Susan and I just had an interesting conversation about ‘the dark mark’ which is found in the Gaunt family in William Thackerey’s Vanity Fair.” I am not a Thackeray reader, alas, but thought HogPro readers might be as interested as I was in this potential hat-tip and key to the Gaunt family cryptonym as well as a pointer to the ‘Dark Mark’ of Voldemort.

[If you know nothing about Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero or William Makepeace Thackeray, satirist, click on either for the Wikipedia short course. The Gaunts and ‘memento mori’ which apparently are a commonplace in the book aren’t mentioned there but the introductory articles will bring you up to speed.]

From Chapter XII of Vanity Fair, ‘Gaunt House:’

The marriage at first was a happy and prosperous one. My Lord George Gaunt could not only read, but write pretty correctly. He spoke French with considerable fluency; and was one of the finest waltzers in Europe. With these talents, and his interest at home, there was little doubt that his lordship would rise to the highest dignities in his profession. The lady, his wife, felt that courts were her sphere; and her wealth enabled her to receive splendidly in those continental towns whither her husband’s diplomatic duties led him. There was talk of appointing him minister, and bets were laid at the Travellers’ that he would be ambassador ere long, when of a sudden, rumours arrived of the secretary’s extraordinary behaviour. At a grand diplomatic dinner given by his chief, he had started up, and declared that a pâté de foie gras was poisoned. He went to a ball at the hotel of the Bavarian envoy, the Count de Springbock-Hohenlaufen, with his head shaved, and dressed as a Capuchin friar. It was not a masked ball, as some folks wanted to persuade you. It was something queer, people whispered. His grandfather was so. It was in the family. 13

His wife and family returned to this country, and took up their abode at Gaunt House. Lord George gave up his post on the European continent, and was gazetted to Brazil. But people knew better; he never returned from that Brazil expedition—never died there—never lived there—never was there at all. He was nowhere: he was gone out altogether. “Brazil,” said one gossip to another, with a grin—“Brazil is St. John’s Wood. Rio Janeiro is a cottage surrounded by four walls; and George Gaunt is accredited to a keeper, who has invested him with the order of the Strait-Waistcoat.” These are the kinds of epitaphs which men pass over one another in Vanity Fair. 14

Twice or thrice in a week, in the earliest morning, the poor mother went for her sins and saw the poor invalid. Sometimes he laughed at her (and his laughter was more pitiful than to hear him cry); sometimes she found the brilliant dandy diplomatist of the Congress of Vienna dragging about a child’s toy, or nursing the keeper’s baby’s doll. Sometimes he knew her and Father Mole, her director and companion: oftener he forgot her, as he had done wife, children, love, ambition, vanity. But he remembered his dinner-hour, and used to cry if his wine-and-water was not strong enough. 15

It was the mysterious taint of the blood: the poor mother had brought it from her own ancient race. The evil had broken out once or twice in the father’s family, long before Lady Steyne’s sins had begun, or her fasts and tears and penances had been offered in their expiation. The pride of the race was struck down as the firstborn of Pharaoh. The dark mark of fate and doom was on the threshold,—the tall old threshold surmounted by coronets and carved heraldry. 16

The absent lord’s children meanwhile prattled and grew on quite unconscious that the doom was over them too. First they talked of their father, and devised plans against his return. Then the name of the living dead man was less frequently in their mouth—then not mentioned at all. But the stricken old grandmother trembled to think that these too were the inheritors of their father’s shame as well as of his honours: and watched sickening for the day when the awful ancestral curse should come down on them.

I think this catch by the Bowyer’s is an important one in at least three respects and ask for Thackeray readers and those new to Vanity Fair to offer their thoughts.

(1) We have a picture of the ‘Noble House of Gaunt’ in its prime. The absurd pretension and self-importance of Voldemort’s ancestral family when we meet them in the Half-Blood Prince Pensieve makes much more sense. They have not just grown thin (“gaunt”) but they have fallen from a height of respectability and social importance, albeit a fall more than a century past. Meeting the Gaunt’s in Thackeray’s London and seeing they are doomed by a “mysterious taint of the blood” and name of the patriarch, a “living dead man,” was something of a taboo highlight the Voldemort curse and story wonderfully.

(2) Thackeray is a satirist of the first order, whose manners and morals fiction takes the tack opposite to Jane Austen’s. Her novels give us the very best exemplars of behavior with a few cads, morons, and ambitious women to highlight the virtuous men and women we are meant to admire and imitate. Vanity Fair is subtitled A Novel That Has No Hero for a reason. It is subversive, unrelenting satire of risible manners and mores, the absence of morals beyond advantage, in London society. There are no good guys. Ms. Rowling is more Austen than Thackeray, but she is Austen with the Cruikshankian satirist‘s eye and edge.

(3) The Dark Mark of Voldemort may or may not have its origin here (not the image itself but the idea). The possibility is intriguing, of course, because of the irony of the ‘Pure Blood’ Death Eaters taking the memento mori of a family whose blood is cursed is rich indeed. Having Voldemort descend from a family featured in a novel taking its title from Bunyan‘s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Everyman adventure, the distractions and demands of Vanity Fair, the city, murder Faith, is also a treat. That Harry’s doppelganger dark side, the self anointed Lord who is the great obstacle in Harry’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, is in effect the offspring of failed social ambitions makes Merope Gaunt’s story even more tragic.

My hat is off to Susan Bowyer for this find. Your comments and corrections are, as always, coveted.


  1. Thanks for the quote froom Thackery, John. I’ve heard of him, and of Vanity Fair, of course, but never actually read anything by him. He writes like an angel.

    Speaking of which, I’m a little confused by the reference to the Egyptians in this context:

    The pride of the race was struck down as the firstborn of Pharaoh. The dark mark of fate and doom was on the threshold

    I checked, and it was the dark mark on the threshold (actually the blood of a sacrificial lamb) which saved the Israelites from the Angel of Death who took the firstborns of the Egyptians. So the dark mark was a goodthing. Not having it was the bad thing.

    Aside from that, I think that the function of the dark mark is different enough in HP that if JKR did borrow the idea, she borrowed the words only, and not the symbolism.

  2. Thanks, John for your very kind words about my wife and I. You gave us the framework to understand these wonderful novels, all we needed to do was to silence our inner pharisees long enough to hear what you were saying.

    More on Vanity Fair: yes, it’s a reference to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but of course Bunyan got it from Solomon: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the preacher (Ecclesiastes). The vanity particularly held here is racial/breeding. The house of Gaunt in VF is the degenerate effect of multi-generational in breeding, as is the case with Voldemort’s maternal line. Ironic, by the way, that only mating with a muggle reinvigorates the family and leads to the ‘greatness’ of Voldemort. Back to the point: that resolves Red Rocker’s reference. Thackaray is taking a satircal hit on primogeniture. Egyptian, like British, nobility passes primarily through the firstborn son. The firsborn keeps the house of Gaunt and the house of Pharoah in continuity with previous generations. Pride of lineage is a firstborn thing. When God struck down the firstborn’s of Egypt, he struck down their dynasties. The dark mark in this case is not a direct reference to the passover blood, but an inversion of it. John, you would call it a doppelganger (sp?). Rowling does alot of this. The scene in the Goblet where Voldemort is brough back is an inversion of baptism and the eucharist. Voldie’s momento mori is an inversion of the traditional ones. His represents not the inevitabilty of death like a traditional momento mori (with it’s laruel crowns or swift wings), but the escape from it. The serpent emerges from the skull, cheats death, a perfect emblem of the deatheater’s delusion of immortality. Isn’t that, btw, what pride of breeding is in the end anyway? Preservation of dynasties is an attempt at immortality. For someone realistic enough to be aware of their actual mortality, but too weak to trust to the resurection, all that is left is preservation of the name.

  3. Arabella Figg says

    I found this very interesting!

    In looking up memento mori, I found ” Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, stanza XXXV: ‘…”While you live, / “Drink!—for, once dead, you never shall return.”‘ This made me think of LV desperately drinking Unicorn blood to maintain the bare essence of life remaining after unsuccessfully AK-ing Harry.

    Also, while I’ve always seen LV as a psychopath, it didn’t really connect that his was an inherited madness through his mother and her family. (Really, I should have known better, having dealt with mental illness in my family and reading a great deal about it). Seeing LV’s madness (and certainly his rationality decreased throughout the books) as congenital certainly casts more light upon him.

    You could say he was *born* with a dark mark, although Rowling makes clear he was rational enough to make choices that would have saved him and WizWorld much suffering. (Not all mentally-ill people are so equipped.)

    This family madness also illuminates the Gaunts’ isolationism, living in darkness (their hovel and paranoia) and grandiosity despite it–“we keep separate because we’re superior, not because we’re forgotten outcasts.” Ah, the tragedy of madness.

    Thanks so much for this great addition to Potter understanding.

    Kitties may act crazy at times, but they’re the savviest creatures I know…

  4. austen_n_burney says

    This is a great connection to think about. I have only read Thackarey once and it was not Vanity Fair, but will have to put this on my reading list now. I too must agree with Arabella that the inherited madness should have been more obvious. But I would tend to view this more in light that we are all born with particular weakness and we have choices to overcome these weaknesses or let them guide the pattern of our life. Obviously LV’s neglect as a young child also had a huge influence on his life, but Rowling is quick to point out that again we all have choices. Harry’s life as a young child was very similar, yet he chose to not let this rule his perception of humanity. I wonder if the idea of inherited genetic madness also plays out in other characters in this world. The Blacks, Lestranges, Malfoys, etc. could also run this particular risk. The Blacks especially overcome this weakness.

  5. Arabella Figg says

    Looking at Tom’s and Harry’s childhoods, one can see this: their paths were set from early on. Harry longed for and attempted friendship (quashed by Dudley); Tom drove away and frightened others by tormenting them.

    Once released, at the same age, to Hogwarts, Harry reaches out and is often isolated by others. Tom only further isolates himself within, while living a facade of normalcy that serves him well in acceptance at school. Harry seeks to preserve others; Tom seeks to preserve only himself (did you really think he’d share Horcruxing with the DEs?).

    Some mental illnesses are so overarching that people truly are victims. But this is not so in Tom’s case (he did have a Muggle father), and JKR makes that clear: Tom had choices and was given many opportunities to change direction. He rejected these choices.

    Rowling, in the books (particularly in OotP) hinted at inherited genetic madness in other characters (such as you mention), due to inbreeding. Sirius was somewhat of a sport; Regulus a reluctant convert.

    Their “overcoming,” however, was limited. Though young Sirius had friendship to support him as family traitor, his Azkaban experience and obsessions left him rather unstable, clearly shown in OotP (playing out the family madness in his own way). It was only betrayal and revulsion that drove Regulus away from Voldemort and toward quick martyrdom; we don’t know he rejected pureblood views.

    I think Draco overcame to an extent the Malfoy madness because of his terrible experiences; the true “family dance” deviant would be Scorpio who, with Rose and Albus, help create a new order.

    There seems to be no madness shown in the Weasley family, perhaps beause of their more healthy views (and didn’t they intermarry with Muggles?).

    I would agree with you, Austen, we are all born with weaknesses to work on and overcome, and the books reflect this.

    You want to see madness? Try 28 cats in zoom-mode…

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