Vanity Fair, like North and South, is a book I loved when I was a teenager but haven’t picked up in at least 15 years. I was thus very excited at the prospect of a review-along hosted by FictionFan. My edition is 690 pages (with small font), so I can’t possibly cover it all in a single review and won’t try. Spoilers abound in this post! Vanity Fair starts out in the early years of the 19th century, with central characters Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley just leaving their boarding school for the last time, setting out on the rest of their lives as young women. Amelia is shrinking and sweet and inoffensive, a very typical Victorian heroine, and wealthy (albeit with “new” money). Becky, in contrast, is poor, clever, wildly ambitious, and self-centred. She is an orphan with questionable antecedents – her father was a painter and her mother was a French dancing girl – and has been working at the school to pay for her room and board.
This is an absolutely marvellous satire on everything about genteel early 19th century society. For me, the best thing about it is Thackeray’s narrative voice. The omniscient narrator really is a character within the novel, sardonic and wry and deliciously funny. He comments constantly on the behaviour of each character in the book, about their decisions – one moment poking fun at them (all of them pretty well equally), and the next turning the question on the reader. Though Thackeray is mostly just making sport of his characters, there were times when he seemed eager to make the point that his reader might, in the same circumstances, behave similarly. This is really the best type of satire, so rare in fiction – both genuinely funny and genuinely insightful. This is perhaps best exemplified in his handling of Amelia. Amelia – poor, pathetic, ridiculous Amelia – makes a bad marriage relatively early on in the book, promptly loses her husband at Waterloo, and spends about 80% of the novel snivelling about it (on which, more below). Both narrator and reader are completely fed up with this by the end – but Thackeray never loses sight of the way in which she was constrained by her circumstances. He would make fun of her and draw out the reader’s empathy for her in almost the same breath, which I find extremely impressive.
Of all the books I’ve read and loved, this is one the one that most strongly contradicts my position that I need to have someone I can root for in a book. Amelia is pathetic. The best thing to happen to her in the book is her husband George’s death, but she stubbornly refuses to see what an awful man he was despite ample proof. She’s weak and pining, and no-one has ever cried that much since the beginning of human history. She spoils her son and clings to him and generally makes him into a tyrant before he’s ten. Her faithful but deluded suitor Dobbin, who initially seems quite promising, makes an idol out of her and grovels at her undeserving feet. I love this passage about the way he sees her:
Very likely Amelia was not like the portrait the Major had formed of her. There was a figure in a book of fashions which his sisters had in England, and with which William had made away privately, pasting it into the lid of his desk, and fancying he saw some resemblance to Mrs Osbourne in the print; whereas I have seen it, and can vouch that it is but the picture of a highwaisted gown with an impossible doll’s face simpering over it; and perhaps Mr Dobbin’s sentimental Amelia was no more like the real one than this absurd little print which he cherished.
There are several times in the novel where the narrator comments drily on the way men view women, but that is perhaps my favourite. Dobbin comes to realise his folly only very late in the book: he gives her her marching orders at last, upon realising she’s no more substantial than that bit of paper. Rather frustratingly, he comes crawling back the minute she asks him to. He should have married Glorvina O’Dowd, who at least had a sense of humour and would have made his life a lot more interesting than Amelia did. Still, I love him despite the fact that he’s an idiot, so I’m glad he got a hobby (writing Travels in the Punjab) and a much-loved daughter out of the deal, even if Amelia herself was a prize not much worth winning.
A lot of people really love Becky, which I understand. She merrily uses, abuses, and manipulates her way through the book, determined to get as much pleasure out of life as she can. I just couldn’t get over her cruelty – not to her primary victims, because Lord Steyne deserved it and Jos’s life was probably better because of her, but to the secondary victims of her selfishness – Mr Raggles, who had to pull his children out of school and sell his house because Becky and husband Rawdon never paid their rent (useless but well-meaning Rawdon made to pay it once or twice in the book, and Becky diverted the money to a more selfish aim); the assorted wives of the men Becky seduces for financial gain; all the innocents about whom she cares not a fig. Like weak Dobbin, I’m also fond of weak Rawdon, this time for the way that he nurtured and loved little Rawdon. This brings me to other main issue with Becky, which is that I simply can’t get past how unkind she is to her son. Still, it’s fascinating to watch her. She is a much more engaging character than Amelia. She’s such a wonderful antidote to the simpering, tedious heroines of the era. Probably my favourite scene in the book is the one where Becky shows Amelia the proof that George had wanted to elope with the former a fortnight after his marriage to the latter – which is the only selfless thing that she ever does, and it’s the better for six hundred pages of backstory to the contrary. Lest we think that Becky has had a moment of lasting repentence, though, very shortly afterwards it is implied that she bumps off Jos Sedley for the life insurance money. Becky is Becky to the very last page.
Although this reread did bump Vanity Fair off my favourite novels list, it’s not because it isn’t fantastic. It’s just that ineffable quality of being extremely fond of a book. This is a wonderful novel and absolutely one of the best books of the era (that I have read). The narrator, in particular, is a real highlight, and I kind of love the way that it doesn’t end happily for anyone. Perhaps in another mood, I would more thoroughly enjoy reading about Becky’s adventures, and wouldn’t trouble myself unduly about the Raggleses and Rawdons and Briggses of this world. On this occasion, I winced more than I laughed and that meant it wasn’t destined to be a favourite this time around – but I will certainly be rereading this, probably many times over my life, and I’m sure I will get something new out of it every time. Isn’t that one of the hallmarks of a great book?
I’ve linked to FictionFan’s review above (check out the comments as well, as they have a lot of interesting discussion) – I’ll add the others here as people post them! It has been a lot of fun reading along and discussing this with everyone.