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 😊
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)