by William Makepeace Thackeray
ISBN 978 0 141 43983 9, first published between 1847 and 1848, buy it from Waterstones.
To be perfectly honest I’m really not sure where to start with this review. I think that this is predominantly to do with the sheer scope of Vanity Fair itself. It’s a massive book, including notes and the introduction at the beginning of the book that I dutifully read after I finished the main body.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) has been likened to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) by both academics and critics (it’s even mentioned in the introduction to the book). There are many similarities that can be drawn between the two novels, and it has been suggested that Tolstoy used Vanity Fair for inspiration. Although I haven’t read War and Peace yet, I would say it is extremely popular, but more on that to follow.
The book was originally published by Punch in twenty monthly parts between January 1847 and July 1848. The edition that I read indicated when each segment ended by three asterisks. I quite liked this, I would often stop reading here as a natural pause (although the amount of time I spent away from the book would only be a day or two). This allowed me to feel what it would have been like as a contemporary reader of the novel, as well as to enjoy the suspense and cliff-hangers that the story would often stop at.
We are first greeted by the ‘Manager’ or narrator of the novel. Here we are introduced to the ‘Vanity Fair’ an exhibition of ‘a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing, and fiddling…’ Vanity Fair is ‘not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the faces of the actors and buffoons when they come off from their business…’ (5) This beginning chapter sets the tone for the entirety of the novel: satire, realism, humour, etc. The next chapter introduces us to the objects of the Vanity Fair which we will follow throughout their lives: the characters.
The first two main characters of our ‘novel without a hero’ that we encounter are Miss Amelia Sedley who ‘won the love of everybody who came near her,’ and was the daughter of a wealthy London merchant (10) and Rebecca ‘Becky’ Sharp, the daughter of a deceased, impoverished painter, who was witty, intelligent, rebellious and possessed the ‘precocity of poverty,’ (18). Immediately the contrast between the two characters can be seen when leaving Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies. Amelia is forlorn and in tears, surrounded by her friends, she promises (as do they) to write every day. In comparison, Becky is excited, she has often been ill-used at the school, had only Amelia as a friend and throws the gift given to her from the school out of her carriage and screams ‘Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur! Vive Bonaparte!’(16) for all to hear.
We then meet Jos Sedley and George Osbourne, two middle-class dandies (men obsessed with their appearance). Jos is Amelia’s overweight, shy and (from what I understood) flamboyant older brother. George Osbourne is her fiancé, they have been promised to each other since they were children and he is Amelia’s only interest, although the same could not be said for him. William Dobbin, George’s faithful friend, is also introduced at this point. He is hopelessly in love with Amelia and cautious of Becky. He is, in fact, the only man throughout the novel who does not fall for Becky’s charms. Let’s just say Dobbin is universally liked and appreciated, and the one constant throughout the novel.
It is hard to discuss more of the characters without revealing too much of the story line so I will mention a few more important names and leave it there: first we have Rawdon Crawley, then Sir Pitt Crawley, Miss Crawley, and finally Lord Steyne.
I have to admit, Rawdon Crawley as a character was extremely appealing to me. I think possibly, because he is the only one that changes throughout the novel. Whether his transformation be a good or bad thing is up to the reader, and not for me to say, but I liked him, I am also dissatisfied at how his story ended, but I suppose Thackeray had his reasons.
For modern readers, and especially for those who don’t enjoy classical literature, it can be hard to resonate with the characters and understand the time in which they are living in, as well as fully comprehend the story due to the different style of English. Although it was not too long ago historically speaking; culture at the time held strict beliefs about gender norms, social mobility, and one’s bloodline was extremely important.
There were two chapters in particular, for me however, that both shocked and made me feel genuine sympathy with the characters in the novel. This could quite possibly be due to the length of the book or simply because I began to see and feel them as friends or companions, or it is probably because they were so perfectly written. I remember putting the book down after one chapter and declaring that its entirety was perfect. Not just a couple of sentences within it, or a paragraph but the entire chapter. I hadn’t thought that was achievable but clearly, I was wrong.
The book can be divided into two parts, pre- and post- Waterloo. This is the battle (1815) that changes everything for our characters. Initially, I enjoyed reading about Becky, I found her intriguing and was constantly at an ends – did I like her? Was she an awful person or just the product of circumstances? Was she wrong to want what she strived for? Did I admire her drive and passion? Amelia, on the other hand, I found dull. I bored of her easily, her attachment to George I didn’t understand; but then again, that says a lot about me and my outlook on life and love.
Three quarters of my way through the book, however, I found myself being fed up with Becky and her scheming and much preferring to read about Amelia although she too, continued to annoy me. It was more the male characters that I preferred to read about.
Thackeray’s realism in Vanity Fair is what, quite possibly, makes it such an excellent piece of fiction. Writing in 1949 R. P. Cuff wrote that ‘the characterization within this novel is amazingly lifelike and that the numerous contrasts in personality are quite interesting.’ (The Permanent Values of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Peabody Journal of Education Vol. 27, No. 2, p96) The characters are true to life: they are imperfect, neither good or bad, or both.
I could probably continue to write more about this book but no matter how much I write I will never do it, or its creator, justice. Instead, I am going to state that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It wasn’t a love story, or a comedy, or a piece of historical fiction: it was a novel about life.
Finally, returning to the Vanity Fair and War and Peace analogy: why is it that the latter has received much attention recently with the BBC’s mini-series starring Paul Dano and Lily James and the names of Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova becoming well known? But those of Amelia Sedley, Rebecca Sharp, Rawdon Crawly, and William Dobbin remaining subject to the pages of a book and a rushed 2004 film containing shallow representations of characters and the glazing over of storylines? If I was to walk down the street and ask random strangers which book they were most familiar with what do you think they would say?
Is it not time that Vanity Fair too was honestly, and carefully depicted and shown in all of its glory to a modern audience?