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Vanity Fair (Penguin Classics) Mass Market Paperback – February 1, 2002
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About the Author
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) born and educated to be a gentleman but gambled away much of his fortune while at Cambridge. He then trained as a lawyer before turning to journalism. He was a regular contributor to periodicals and magazines and 'Vanity Fair' was serialised in Punch in 1847-8. His other novels include 'The Luck of Barry Lyndon' and 'The History of Henry Esmond. John Carey is Professor of English at Oxford University. He has written on Dickens and Thackeray.
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I first read the book almost sixty years ago, when I was an innocent myself. Of the two young ladies seen leaving school when the novel opens, I fell for the gentle Amelia Sedley and could not stand her companion, Becky Sharp, orphan daughter of an English painter and a French singer. I was in agonies as I watched Amelia marry a man not worthy of her and ignore the devotion of the one who truly loves her, the modest Captain Dobbin. The novel went into eclipse as the Sedley family suffered misfortune after misfortune. Yet all this while the morally despicable Becky was riding high, married to a scoundrel of her own dye, and propelled by her beauty, her brains, and her talent for falsehood. At that time, you see, I was a Dobbin myself, distantly in love with my unattainable Amelia; I had not met any Beckies and was frightened of the forces of disorder that such women could unleash around them.
And now? Not so innocent, in literary terms at least. I still feel for Amelia, but there are long passages of the book where she either disappears from view or is a bit of a bore in her long-suffering purity. Becky, by contrast, is always interesting: when she is onstage, the temperature rises; when she is absent, you wait impatiently for her return. Adventuress or not, she is the book's true heroine. And in a book subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero," you surely need one. For Thackeray means it; with the exception of the phlegmatic Dobbin, there is not a single male character in the book who is wholly admirable, and the women are not much better. Becky Sharp at least is, well, sharp!
I am no longer the innocent reader in another sense: I am now much more aware of the history of the English novel than I was at 19; all the time I was rereading it, I was trying to work out where VANITY FAIR fits into the canon. It was published in 1847, the same year as JANE EYRE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, yet this is a cooler book, lacking the Brontës' immediacy and passion. Though written thirty years after Jane Austen's last novel, PERSUASION, it very much shares her humor, her focus on the domestic lives of the genteel classes, and her concern with money -- though with Thackeray, money is everything; with her, it is merely a subtext. Dickens had been writing for ten years, similarly large novels with huge casts; I would say that Thackeray was his equal at this stage, though he does not have Dickens' extraordinary social range or, more importantly, his sympathy with his characters. No, if you are to find parallels for Vanity Fair you would have to look back to the 18th-century picaresque novel such as MOLL FLANDERS or TOM JONES or forward to Trollope and THE WAY WE LIVE NOW.
For Thackeray is above all a satirist. He describes himself as a carnival barker, the manager of a puppet show, whose purpose is to amuse and perhaps to instruct. His voice is constantly in our ears, and it can be a charming one. Chapter 6, for example, starts thus:
I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one (although
there are some terrific chapters coming presently), and must
beg the good-natured reader to remember, that we are only
discoursing at present about a stockbroker's family in Russell
Square, who are taking walks, or luncheon, or dinner, or talking
and making love as people do in common life, and without a
single passionate and wonderful incident to mark the progress of
Satire, on the whole, deals with everyday life and avoids the "wonderful incident." It is concerned with the hypocrisy of people buttering up a rich relative, or the little fibs that a lazy person tells to recast himself as a dashing hero. Yet the novel proceeds pretty rapidly for over 200 pages, leading up to a major incident indeed, the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. This alone distinguishes Thackeray from most of his contemporaries, who rarely brought world events onto the stage of their novels. Even Thackeray prefers to watch from the wings; disclaiming any claims to be a military novelist, he concerns himself with "the brilliant train of camp-followers [that] hung round the Duke of Wellington's army […] and led it dancing and feasting, as it were, up to the very brink of battle." The three main male characters in the novel are army officers; they are followed to Brussels by Becky and Amelia and Amelia's fat and indolent brother Jos, who will eventually flee in terror. Brussels becomes like Brighton or Bath at the height of the season; in describing the grand ball on the eve of Waterloo, Thackeray is developing Byron's famous passage from CHILDE HAROLD, "There was a sound of revelry by night." And in dwelling on the historical irony of the situation, he can for once forget his own cynicism, and reach considerable heights:
The sun was just rising as the march began -- it was a gallant sight
-- the band led the column playing the regimental march -- then came
the major in command, riding upon Pyramus, his stout charger -- then
marched the grenadiers, their captain at their head; in the centre
were the colours, borne by the senior and junior Ensigns -- then
George came marching at the head of his company. He looked up, and
smiled at Amelia, and passed on; and even the sound of the music
But the underlying problem is that a satire without sympathetic characters cannot be sustained indefinitely. Waterloo is won on page 266 of my edition; there are still 300 pages to come. And with them, VANITY FAIR becomes a different, more diluted novel. From day-by-day activities, we now observe the passage of months or years. From a contained middle-class world, we now move down to a life of genteel poverty with one heroine and up into aristocratic circles with the other. From author-as-storyteller, we move too often to author-as-moralist, with chapters such as "How to live well on Nothing a Year," commenting on life at large rather than advancing his story. Until I learned to speed-read the moralizing and concentrate on the action involving the main characters, it was heavy going. Though just as I was about to give up, Thackeray would snap back into cracking form, as with Chapter 41, "In which Becky revisits the Halls of Her Ancestors," and its successors -- nothing involving Becky Sharp can ever be dull. And he pulls it all together brilliantly at the end, with two chapters that contain as many plot twists as the previous two hundred pages. A happy ending? That would be telling. If innocence triumphs, it is innocence tempered by bitter experience.
One last point. Satire cannot work on the innocent reader; it needs one who recognizes the portrait with an "Ouch!" Thackeray's Vanity Fair is thus a very topical book; it depends on knowledge of the setting, of the life styles, of the language. I read this in the text-only hardback I bought in 1960. Even with my knowledge of London, Victorian literature, and some history, there was still a lot to look up. So be sure to get an edition with copious notes. And preferably with the illustrations that Thackeray drew himself. As works of art, they may not be very good, but they do perfectly capture the satirical mood in which he observes his characters from the outside -- though rarely inhabiting them from within.
Above all of its qualities, two things stand out about Vanity Fair: Becky Sharp, one of the most compelling characters in English literature, and the ironic narrative tone in which the tale is told.
First, Becky: If you were to catalog her sins, Thackeray's "little adventuress," would rank with some of fiction's worst villains, nearly on a par with Shakespeare's Iago or Dickens's Uriah Heep. Why, then, does the reader find himself rooting for her? Because Becky is resourceful, cynically self-aware and always in the middle of the action. Also because Becky is a lot like ... not like us, of course, but a lot like certain people we know: willing to cut an ethical corner or undercut a friend if it will work to their advantage and there's a decent chance they won't get caught. Part of Becky's fascination is that despite her relentlessly me-first attitude, she is the farthest thing from a narcissist. While a narcissist can only see what's in the mirror, Becky is a gifted observer of others, which makes her a brilliant mimic and con artist, able to locate the hidden soft spots where her victims are vulnerable to flattery or more elaborate forms of deceit.
Second, the tone: The genius of Vanity Fair's comedy is the pretense that the reader is in the hands of a reporter who has no axe to grind and no particular preference for one character over another. In fact, the narrator is loading the dice at every throw and humorously signaling when he should be taken at face value and when he means exactly the opposite of what he's saying. Vanity Fair is a long book, in the tradition of the three-volume novel then in vogue. What helps make the book glide by is that the narrator is such urbane good company. He's a bit like the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, who used to sign off from his 1950s crime-and-suspense show by noting, in a nod to American TV's then-prevailing morality standards, that the criminal in today's episode ultimately was brought to justice. He would deliver this news with a face so sour and a tone so arch that the viewer fully understood that Hitchcock's sympathies lay more with the wily villains than with their insipid victims.
An extra bonus is some of the greatest character names this side of Dickens: Lady Jane Sheepshanks, Fanny de Butterbrod, Lord Tapeworm, Lady Bareacres, Ensign Stubble and the Rev. Beilby Binny, to name a few.