“All is vanity, nothing is fair.” (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Despite the fact that Fiction Fan announced today’s Vanity Fair review-a-long back in June, I have of course ended up writing this right up to the wire. Ah well, ‘twas ever such. Or certainly has been for the last few years on my faltering blog…

It’s probably a good thing though, as my usual verbose, stream-of-barely-conscious style is likely to have been even worse as I try to work out what on earth I could say about this enormous tome, such a well-known classic novel that despite having not read it before or seen any adaptations, I already knew the plot and lead characters.

So I’ve decided to focus just on one element of the novel: satire. Although published in 1847-8, Thackeray set Vanity Fair earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars, enabling him to point out to society how appalling and self-serving everyone is, without alienating his readers. Clever Thackeray.

Thackeray proclaims that Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, and by the end of the novel, he has so thoroughly painted a picture of a materialist, corrupt, self-serving and shallow society, that heroism seems nigh on impossible. What we do have is the main protagonist of Becky Sharp:

“Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.”

But if all this is sounding pretty grim, it really isn’t. I enjoy satire, particularly that of the century preceding Vanity Fair, but it can often leave rather a bitter taste. Thackeray largely avoids this because firstly, he seems to quite enjoy his characters, and secondly, he doesn’t aim for the moralistic teaching of some satirists. He never suggests there is a way for this world to be other than it is. Which is bleak, but also stops the tone being too heavy.

He also doesn’t make the reader feel too implicated. Regency England is even further removed from us than the original readers, and in setting it amongst the upper classes, he skewers a stratum of society very few inhabit.

“The whole baronetage, peerage, commonage of England, did not contain a more cunning, mean, selfish, foolish, disreputable old man. That blood-red hand of Sir Pitt Crawley’s would be in anybody’s pocket except his own; and it is with grief and pain, that, as admirers of the British aristocracy, we find ourselves obliged to admit the existence of so many ill qualities in a person whose name is in Debrett.”

So while amoral Becky climbs from very humble origins, as the daughter of an opera singer and a artist, by any means necessary with no concern for anyone other than herself, we can sit back feeling pretty smug, yes? Well, no. Thackeray positions the reader very cleverly by making Becky the most entertaining and compelling character. I certainly felt the novel was pointing out very clearly what it meant that I would rather hear about Becky and all her conniving, that about simple, kind Amelia (Emmy) or upright Captain Dobbin.

I didn’t like Becky, but I enjoyed her. While she could be spiteful and a bully to Amelia:

Women only know how to wound so. There is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon. Our poor Emmy, who had never hated, never sneered all her life, was powerless in the hands of her remorseless little enemy.

She also used all the vanities and weaknesses of not very pleasant people against them, was clever and entertaining, and was out to ensure her position and security in a world where everything was stacked against her. I would far rather hear about Becky than Emmy, who spent her time simpering over her repulsive husband, spoiling her revolting child, and crying whenever she wasn’t otherwise engaged.

“In two days he has adopted a slightly imperious air and patronizing manner. He was born to command, his mother thinks, as his father was before him.”

I’m not sure we’re supposed to think Emmy particularly misguided here. Thackeray is pretty scathing about those in charge. Those with privilege are those who lead, and there is nothing in their personal qualities to suggest this is wise. Sadly this has not dated.

Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?

Thackeray exposes how these weaknesses of the ruling classes are indulged in a way that poorer members of society are not:

When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house—and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can’t get his money for powdering the footmen’s heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed.”

Certainly along with the bullying, it was the financial exploitation of her staff that made Becky most problematic and unlikeable for me. However,  it’s very clear that Becky’s options, and Amelia’s, are limited and I thought Thackeray was surprisingly sympathetic to the position of women in society.

Although frequently compared to War and Peace, the writer Vanity Fair most put me in mind of was Jean Rhys. I think both she and Thackeray agree that morals are a privilege of the comfortably off, and those with choices (mainly men).

“And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations—and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so.”

I really enjoyed the humour and social commentary of Vanity Fair and I’m so glad today’s reviewathon prompted me to finally take it off the shelf. For those of you thinking about giving it a go, I should warn you that there are racist portrayals of some characters and countries primarily at the beginning, but these are thankfully short-lived and Thackeray doesn’t seem to be asserting that whites hold any kind of moral authority.

Frankness and kindness like Amelia’s were likely to touch even such a hardened little reprobate as Becky. She returned Emmy’s caresses and kind speeches with something very like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine. 

I’m not sure who else is taking part but I’ll add links to the other bloggers posting today as I find them 😊

Fiction Fan’s review

Rose Reads Novels

Jane at Just Reading a Book


Sandra at A Corner of Cornwall

To end, for some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about Stevie Nicks lately. So I’ve decided to shoehorn her into this post by claiming that at the start of Vanity Fair, Becky and Amelia are almost definitely – ahem – on the edge of seventeen… (#sorrynotsorry)

“I got a brand new combine harvester.” (The Wurzels, 1976)

My blogging is still decidedly patchy but I really enjoy Kaggsy and Simon’s Club weeks, so I was determined to take part in this week’s 1976 Club. So far it’s shaping up to be another excellent selection so do head over to their blogs to see all links to reviews 😊

I decided to go with two authors I’m very fond of, but who perhaps don’t provide the sharpest contrast… these are two short, spiky novels, darkly humorous and incisive in their portrayals of ordinary lives.

Firstly, A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge. The cover of my edition has a quote from Hilary Mantel calling it ‘one of the funniest books I have ever read’, which tells me that Hilary Mantel and I have very different senses of humour. There are definitely funny moments in A Quiet Life but, like a lot of Bainbridge’s writing, I found it pretty bleak too.

Set just after the end of the Second World War, it tells the story of a family from the point of view of the eldest son Alan. Living in a coastal town near Liverpool (probably Formby, where Beryl grew up), his parents are very much unhappily married.

Once well-off, they now live in straightened circumstances. His mother expected more, going to a finishing school abroad and marrying a self-made man, who now unfortunately, has lost all he made. Theirs is a house of loaded silences, resentments, bickering, secrets and frustration.

“The marble statue of Adam and Eve, recently brought down from the landing, was shaky on its pedestal. Even the row of decorative plates, painted with roses and hunting scenes, might roll on their shelf above the door and bounce upon the red carpet. Madge said it was like walking through a minefield.”

Bainbridge captures perfectly the constant repressed tensions of living in such a situation. There is no honesty here, just lives of quiet desperation as his mother reads romantic fiction and his father struggles in isolation.

“Though the war was over, Father was still caught in a cross-fire, harassed by battles, by phantom cities tumbling about his ears. This moment – as then – he could be slumped over the driving wheel, hands raised in an abject gesture of surrender.”

Meanwhile their two children muddle through. Depressingly, Alan sees his future playing out just like his parents. This doesn’t particularly bother him, despite the fact that:

“He always did as he was told and he resented that no-one noticed.”

Meanwhile, Madge his sister runs wild, doing exactly what she likes and knowing how to manipulate her way out of any repercussions. She isn’t remotely vicious, she just knows what will enable her to do what she wants.

“She didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past marshalling the reasons for his parents behaviour […] All he wanted was for Madge to stay indoors at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.”

The dejection and anxiety of all their lives – except possibly Madge, who seems determined to carve out something more – is brilliantly captured by Bainbridge in small, telling details. In a world where no-one says very much and very little happens, she manages to build the tension to breaking point, to an ordinary, sadly predictable tragedy.

‘We had a garden when your father and I were first married, big enough for a game of tennis. We had a maid called Matty. We had so much space…You have no idea what it was like.’ She stood by the hearth, one foot resting on the cracked tiles.

‘We’ve got space now,’ said Madge from the floor. ‘You won’t let us use it.’

Alan thought suddenly it was why Madge went out so much, why he did himself. There wasn’t room for them. If he had his way he’d light a fire every day in the lounge and lie full-length upon the good-as-new sofa.”

Secondly, Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden. The titular woman is Penelope, ironically named as she herself observes, as she is not a faithful wife but plans to leave her husband Eddie and her two daughters for her lover, after she has finished her afternoon’s work as a Justice of the Peace.

“Will they blame me? I hope not. I have taught them to be tolerant as I have taught them regular habits and sound ethical principles. The only thing I have failed to teach them, I sometimes think guiltily, is how not to be boring.”

The afternoon she spends in court sees her reflect on her life so far, her choices and attitudes. It is not only her major life-altering decision that is prompting this introspection:

“Someone has sent me twenty aspirins in a brown envelope, and that anonymous accusation rumbles on in the depths of my mind like a monotonous menacing drum, sharpening my sympathies with all accused persons, alerting my memory, forcing me to examine my own failures, seek out my own guilt.”

This unnerving situation adds a sense of foreboding, or even slight menace, to the day. Yet there is insidious violence throughout Penelope’s experiences, which gradually emerge.

Penelope sees herself at the more liberal end of society’s views:

“ ‘Do you think old, respectable aunts should not be listened to?’ The Judge smiles politely. He knows about compassionate lady magistrates, that smile says; all their soft-hearted arguments.

I am stung. Does he think I am not worth listening to?”

Yet some of her views expressed in this novel are deeply disturbing: “Some women invite [flashers] behaviour”; “Girls often pretend to be more upset than they are. It’s expected of them.”

As well as her internalised misogyny, Penelope has to manage the daily sexism of a 1970s workplace, a mix of being patronised and/or lusted after. The condescending Judge invites her to a lunch that is clearly more than a meal…

As she reflects on her relationship with her step-brother Steve, step-sister April’s violent marriage, and her step-mother Eve’s mental ill health, I think Penelope is supposed to be callow and unthinking, certainly in terms of how she viewed April’s violent marriage when she was younger. However, Penelope is not wholly unlikable, mainly because she doesn’t cut herself much slack and she does try to help people, however misguidedly. She doesn’t justify what she’s doing or try to make it better than it is. She simply explains how she reached that point:

“My life, my active, happy, purposeful life suddenly seemed empty to me, dreary and useless. The speed with which this had happened was terrifying. One minute I was walking calmly along, feet on firm ground, the next I had tumbled into this frightening black chasm. How had it happened? Why did I feel like this? It was more than unhappiness.”

Afternoon of a Good Woman feels like a snapshot in time, not only of Penelope’s life but also of 1970s attitudes to women, violence, crime, sexual behaviour (Eddie’s preferences are detailed and Penelope’s affair is a somewhat contentious relationship, even without the betrayal), sexual assault, work and family, public versus private personas. For a short novel it covers a lot of ground, and manages to do so with ease. I’m really glad I read it for the 1976 Club as it felt very much of it’s time.

“And indeed, to be fair to myself (and if I can’t be fair to myself, how can I be trusted to be fair to others?), in the magistrates court, where I sit almost weekly, the margin of error that puts me on the side of the judges and not of the judged sometimes seems very narrow.”

To end, of course the 1970s give me an opportunity to indulge my love of David Bowie. In 1976 he starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth: