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Vanity Fair (A Penguin Classics Hardcover) Hardcover – August 27, 2013
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"Vanity Fair" centers on the exploits of two British women, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, beginning roughly at the time of the Battle of Waterloo and ending at some time in the 1830's. The two women are polar opposites: Becky is a conniving, domineering, sometimes insensate woman who constantly attempts to secure a position in high society. Amelia is a rather plain, simple girl who trusts people too often and ends up getting her heart stomped on repeatedly. The two women are ostensibly friends, spending their youth together at a finishing school and occasionally running into each other throughout their lives. Thackeray often likes to place the two in opposition to one another: when Amelia falls into a crisis, Becky is moving in the highest circles of society. When Amelia comes into luck, Becky's fortunes plummet. This see-sawing action helps move the novel through a series of intricately detailed scenes showing off Thackeray's sense of humor, his caustic critiques of English society, and his insightful commentary into the human condition.
Arrayed around these two figures is a veritable constellation of major and minor characters, all with their own foibles that Thackeray exposes in minute detail. There is Joseph Sedley, Amelia's obese and selfish brother who nearly marries Becky in the beginning of the book. George Osborne appears through part of the book as Amelia's fiancée and eventual husband, a vain man with an eye for the ladies and a spendthrift attitude. George's friend William Dobbin also figures prominently in the story. Dobbin is an admirable man, marred by his inability to come to terms with the feelings he has for Amelia. Other characters appear and disappear rapidly, too many to outline here. It is sufficient to say that Thackeray does not worry about overburdening the reader with too many cast members, and with nearly 900 pages in the book, he definitely has the time to adequately describe numerous scenes and people.
I do not know much about literary tags, but I will say that Thackeray must certainly fall into the category of a realist writer. His goal with "Vanity Fair" was to write a story that went against the romantic hero/heroine novels of his day. The subtitle to this book, "A Novel Without a Hero," clearly outlines the author's intentions to oppose unrealistic, feel good literature that failed to properly reflect genuine life. In this respect, Thackeray succeeds admirably by creating characters that exhibit both good and bad traits during their lives. For example, Becky steals and schemes her way through life but performs an amazingly beautiful service for Amelia at the end of the book. Does this make Becky a heroine? Hardly, as Becky does not change her ways after this event. Thackeray constantly sets us up to see a heroic act, only to dash our hopes a few pages later.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel is Thackeray's acidulous wit. Everyone comes in for a drubbing here, from the aristocracy to the common man. Names often reflect the author's scorn: nobles carry such embarrassing monikers as Lord Binkie, Lady Bareacres, and Lord Steyne. Sharp is an effective name for Becky, exposing her character and incisive wit. "Vanity Fair" is full of backstabbing, lying, adultery, stealing, pride and general rowdiness, and no one is above these base behaviors.
A slight problem with the story concerns the numerous narrative digressions that wax philosophic about relationships, women and their roles in society, and bad behavior. These insertions do become taxing at times even though they often help move the story along. Thackeray wants to make sure you know what he is trying to accomplish; he wants you to see yourself and your friends and family in these character sketches.
A bigger problem for me concerned this particular edition of the story. There were no footnotes or endnotes in the Everyman's Library version to help explain the jargon or place names of Thackeray's England. While the author's use of language never approaches the level of Walter Scott's Scottish vernacular, to cite an extreme example, it is still a problem at times. I recommend picking up the Penguin Classics version of "Vanity Fair," since Penguin editions usually employ explanatory notes.
"Vanity Fair" is a long yet worthwhile read. The book is hardly unreadable, an unfair label often attached to this agreeable story. If you enjoy reading 18th century English literature, you must read "Vanity Fair."
(Note: Buy this edition of Vanity Fair. The illustrations which Thackery drew for this novel greatly enhance the text, and the Norton edition reproduces all of them. In addition, the criticisms which are included make for a thought-provoking read and may help clarify your opinion of the novel).
Readers who've found the novel too long are, I suspect, not regular readers of Victorian novels, which were traditionally published in newspapers, bit by bit. They're always long--that's their distinction from modern novels. More than most however, Vanity Fair opens with a bang, and from the first page on through more than 800, I found it hard to put down.
Through the cast of characters we see for ourselves the pervasive greed and hypocrisy of the 19th century British Empire. Jos Sedley, the Ex-collecter of Bogley Walla, the unfortunate Rawdon Crawley, George Osborne and the immoral, resourceful Becky Sharpe are some of the most vivid characters in English writing. The narrator's voice is perfect--though hardly appealing. It's not sentimental. The "objectivity" of a journalist's timidly expressed irony feeds into the reader's need to feel smug -- so that when shocking moments come (and they sure do) we are stunned. The narrator's voice here is much more inventive than one realizes immediately. In this and many other ways Thackeray's story-telling isn't typical of Victorian novelists--Eliot or Dickens for example. In the works of those authors we always know just what moral position the narrator has. (I should mention that I also finished re-reading Middlemarch before re-reading Vanity Fair.) Comparing the grand stateliness of George Eliot with Thackeray's voice made me see just what a tricky work of art Vanity Fair is. But Thackeray, too, makes his story come to life. The description of the Battle of Waterloo is one of the most brilliant things I've ever read. It's hard to believe that he wasn't there.
In the edition I read I found that C.L.R. James, the left-wing Trinidadian author and historian--an author I admire and enjoy reading, began reading Vanity Fair at the age of eight, and re-read it regularly throughout his long life. He claims to have learned more about the minds of white colonial empire-builders from this original and epic work than any history he read. Interesting...