I finished reading this more than a month ago, well ahead of the review-along date. Plenty of time. Then I went away for a week – all planned – and totally forgot that the review was due to be posted the very day I got home. Not a word written. Ah well. A little preamble then, to explain that this has been written in haste and may turn out to be a very short review of a very long book. (Or a rather long review which doesn’t say much.)
Such a long book, in fact, that I doubt I would ever have read it without the review-along, so thank you, fellow reviewers. I can at least cross this doorstopper off the list. What I can’t do is say whether I enjoyed it. I didn’t dislike it certainly, but neither did I soak it up. It’s easy to read and made me laugh occasionally but there was nothing in all its 800+ pages which really made me feel it was worth the how-ever-many hours it took to read. That said, I’m glad to have read it.
(Now to come clean and say that after I’d written my own review but before publishing it I foolishly read the marvellous reviews of everyone else! Hence a disclaimer: everyone else loved it and saw all the humour and characterisation and produced marvellous, insightful reviews which I urge you to read for yourselves. In contrast – after all, one can have too much of a good thing – I have produced a dreary, holier-than-thou, damp squib of a review which I’d quite like to screw up and toss in the bin. But that would be cowardly. So here it is, gripes and all!)
There are some factors which stand out as putting Thackeray’s opus at a disadvantage with me from the off. I’m not a fan of satire which is exactly what Vanity Fair is. The title was first used in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Thackeray uses the phrase in a slightly different guise. In Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ he argues that everyone seeks the approval of their fellows and as many rewards as they can grasp, generally in the forms of success, status and wealth. This sounds depressingly familiar. Society now seems even more in the grip of Vanity Fair than it was then. Have we learned nothing? If little has changed in the 170-odd years since the novel was published, can I still dare to hope that one day humans will as a species become kinder? I’ll try. (When I’ve finished polishing my halo…)
I shouldn’t have been surprised really, that most of the characters were unpleasant. To be expected I suppose, in a satire. Those who weren’t conniving and merrily trampling over their fellows appeared as weak and spineless, nice but powerless pawns in the scurrilous game of life. Although it’s fair to say that the nice ones did get a few rewards eventually, no one lived happily ever after and I found them almost more irritating than the villains of the piece. While I’m still on my soapbox, I was genuinely angered by the racist references. Normally I’m able to acknowledge what was acceptable language for its time. On this occasion it got to me, tangled up perhaps with that sense that too little has changed since Thackeray was writing. I accept, it is only a book. I know – I’m taking it all too seriously…
In a nutshell, Thackeray introduces us to two young women as they leave school: wealthy Amelia – sweet, innocent and virtuous, and Becky Sharp – penniless, alone in the world and ruthless in her desire to acquire wealth and status. Their lives weave together and drift apart throughout the course of the book which opens a few years before the Battle of Waterloo and continues for several decades beyond. Along the way there is a huge array of characters, all trying to make their way and advance in the world, usually at the expense of someone else. I enjoyed the first half of the novel more than the second. By the second half I was bored of Becky’s shenanigans and disliked her heartily. But also by then I disliked Amelia too, for being so pathetic.
And yet, I did keep reading and not entirely because of the review-along. There is no denying that Thackeray made me laugh at times. Even I was amused at the outrageous names bestowed on his unfortunate nobility and several set pieces had me snorting aloud.
“After which kind of speeches, in which fashion and the main chance were blended together, and after a kiss, which was like the contact of an oyster – Mrs Frederick Bullock would gather her starched nurslings and simper back into her carriage.”
And as Becky begins, yet again, to worm her way back into the hapless Jos’s favour:
“And she began, forthwith, to tell her story – a tale so neat, simple, and artless that it was quite evident from hearing her that if ever there was a white-robed angel escaped from heaven to be subject to the infernal machinations and villainy of fiends here below, that spotless being – that miserable, unsullied martyr, was present on the bed before Jos – on the bed, sitting on the brandy bottle.”
I think Jos – Joseph Sedley, lifelong bachelor, lover of fine wine and fine waistcoats, larger than life brother of Amelia – is my favourite character. Pompous and inflated by cowardly bravado yet appealingly ingenuous in a cast of so many scheming characters. I was always on his side, hoping he might escape the traps laid for him. And his attempts at speaking French were very funny indeed.
Which leads me to Dickens. I find it impossible not to think of Dickens when I think of Thackeray and in my view, Dickens is by far the better writer not least because he can transcribe dialects and accents and quirks of voice in a way which is easy for the reader to absorb. I had to work much harder with Thackeray’s efforts.
And that leads me to the role of the narrator in Vanity Fair. Thackeray frames Vanity Fair as a puppet show, looking back at events from some decades earlier. But at times the narrator takes on a gossipy tone, relaying information second or third hand and occasionally appearing in the story himself. I wasn’t bothered by this and given that he was writing in instalments under deadlines, I can forgive him. In fact, I quite liked it. But for me, Dickens has a surer grip on his narrators.
Dickens is far from perfect of course and it is refreshing to find a variety of female characters in Vanity Fair who are not simperingly lovely in face, weak and passive in heart. I wondered if Thackeray had Dickens in mind when he wrote this:
“Sick-bed homilies and pious reflections are, to be sure, out of place in mere story-books, and we are not going (after the fashion of some novelists of the present day) to cajole the public into a sermon, when it is only a comedy that the reader pays his money to witness.”
I would like to think that Thackeray was writing a comedy with the intention of making people laugh. (And in this he succeeded for me at least.) Certainly in his letters he apparently stressed that it was not his intention to preach. But he also claimed, in response to critics who (like me) were disappointed at Thackeray’s dark portrayal of human nature, that he mostly saw people as “abominably foolish and selfish”. A black comedy indeed in that case, with little sign of redemption for us poor humans.
Maybe I’m just too serious? Maybe I need to get a life!
The reviews are listed below and are well worth reading. Thanks to all of them for nudging me into reading this worthy tome!
Fiction Fan’s review (which also includes insightful comments from Alyson & Christine who join the review-alongs but don’t have blogs of their own)