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"Backgrounds and Contexts" is arranged under three headings. "Composition and Publication History" combines modern scholarship with contemporary materials to elucidate the novel's composition and publication history and present different aspects of Thackeray's life and work. "Reception" reprints ten contemporary reviews, both published and unpublished, that suggest the tone of Vanity Fair's initial reception. "Contexts" includes materials relating to governesses, historical novels, the Battle of Waterloo and the military, bankruptcy, regency fashions, and the London landscape, all of which figure prominently in the novel.
"Criticism" is a collection of nine essays written between 1900 and 1990 that reveal the developing response to Vanity Fair. William C. Brownell, David Cecil, G. Armour Craig, John Loofbourow, Peter K. Garrett, Richard Barickman, Susan MacDonald, Myra Stark, Ina Ferris, Catherine Peters, and James Phelan provide varied perspectives.
A Chronology and Selected Bibliography are also included.