“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)


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

  1. I’m really fond of Vanity Fair and absolutely revelled in it as a teenager. I agree Becky is by far the most compelling character, a more modern and cleverer Moll Flanders. She is harsh with servants and unloving with children though, but in that I suspect she was not unlike many richer women of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray | Rose Reads Novels

  3. Despite Becky’s heartless morals, I much preferred her to Amelia. Which isn’t fair, since Amelia was kind, and good and selfless, but her constant crying and hero-worship of her worthless husband drove me almost to tears of frustration! I couldn’t understand why so many of the men in the story liked Amelia best!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I totally agree! Although I didn’t like Becky, she was far more compelling than Amelia. Emmy’s faithfulness to the memory of her terrible husband was just infuriating! And her awful child, yuck. You just knew he was going to turn out exactly like his father.

      Liked by 3 people

      • George junior probably wouldn’t have been so horrible if Amelia had been a better mother. She might have doted on him and given up material things for him, but she set him on a pedestal and that is never good for anyone! George senior was brought up the same way.
        I didn’t realise while I was reading VF that Amelia was in her own way a bad parent, although Becky was of course considered a worse parent.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Becky is one of the most interesting, complex characters I’ve come across in literature, and so modern. I think your phrase about morals being a privilege of the comfortably off is spot on. Too easy for those of us who can afford them to become judgemental.

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  6. Haha, I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who found young Georgy revolting! He’s a great argument for contraception. I’m usually wary of satire because I hate the sneering tone it often has, but Thackeray’s warmth towards his characters made this a real joy, but with plenty of substance. I love your quotes – the unfortunate thing about audiobooks is that I really haven’t worked out a system for finding quotes, and it was a pity here since, as you’ve proved, it’s immensely quotable! So far we’ve all enjoyed it – thank goodness! 900 pages of misery would not have been fun… 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Georgy is really unbearable! Horrid child.

      Yes, satire can often leave a bad taste but I agree Thackeray’s approach was great, so warm while still pointing out all the foibles.

      I can see quotes would be difficult with audiiobooks! I’m yet to give them a try but I’m definitely tempted. Your reviews of Hugh Fraser reading Poirot are enticing 🙂

      I don’t think I would have made it through so many pages of misery – the book would have been lobbed across the room!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: Review-Along! Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray – FictionFan's Book Reviews

  8. Good old Becky Sharp – she certainly delivers as a character. It has been a long time since I’ve read the book (I recall being obsessed by it as a teen – I must have borrowed it from the library because in my final year of school I won a book prize in Biology and chose a very lovely edition of Vanity Fair (probably not what the Science Department had in mind!).
    Since reading it, I have watched more than one screen version of the story. When I did a quick search to identify which one, I realise I have seen the tv series made in 1987, 1998 and 2018 and seen the 2004 film version. Can’t say which was the best, although the 1998 BBC version is the one that stands out in my memory (so I must have enjoyed it).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s brilliant that you chose VF as your biology prize – similarly I used my English Lit prize for a book on Renoir 😀

      I’m really interested to hear that the 1998 adaptation is the one that stands out for you, because for some reason that’s the one I’m most aware of, despite not having seen any. I remembered that it was BBC and that Natasha Little played Becky. I’m tempted to give it a watch now!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I suppose the men like Emmy because she’ll just fit in and not cause them any problems? What a great review, I really enjoyed it and completely agree with everything! Becky is such a complex character, but you’re right that Thackeray seemed to be enjoying his characters so much and maybe that’s what makes it such a fun read instead of a worthy tome. The part where he talks about how to live on nothing reminded me so much of influencers etc. There is so much to say, and I was left thinking about the backgrounds of several characters as well and slavery but that’s a whole different read and review!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is one that I had on my shelves for years, finally read on a series of long commutes, and enjoyed more than I expected, particularly the second half, although I’m no longer sure why! On the same topic, Dionne Brand’s An Autobiography of The Autobiography of a Reader (from U of Alberta Press, which has a series of literary lectures/essays annually), which I just read this weekend, considers VF in some detail, particularly in terms of the backdrop of slavery and colonial wealth and how the female characters are presented as models. Only 50 pages, but I bet it would be even more interesting with Thackeray fresh in mind (although she does have quotations for the rest of us)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read War & Peace on my long commute – much as I hated the journey it was quite useful for these chunkster reads!

      The Brand essay sounds fascinating – there are so many layers to VF it really does lend itself to study.


  11. I love how you’ve compared certain aspects of this novel to the work of Jean Rhys. That’s very much a selling point for me, as are the social commentary and humour. You’re making a very strong case for reading VF…a very strong case indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know Jean Rhys is not the most obvious comparison – the society they write about couldn’t be more different – but once it had occurred to me I couldn’t not see it! I really think there’s a lot of common ground there around morality, privilege and the choices available to women.

      I hope you enjoy VF if you get to it Jacqui, I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂


  12. D’you know, I missed that this was happening which is a great shame, because this is one of those classics I’ve never read and really should. And the satire sounds wonderful – isn’t it intriguing how we always find ourselves drawn to the livelier characters, however amoral they are. Certainly Becky sounds much more interesting to read about than her sappy friend… ;D

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great review! I also found Becky much more compelling than Emmy, though I must say her callousness and cruelty towards her son was really difficult to read – I like the way it’s contrasted with Rawdon’s softheartedness and affection. It’s very interesting to me that the best parent in the book is easily Rawdon, who’s introduced as someone selfish and weak. Emmy turns little George into an appalling tyrant even before he goes off to live in the lap of luxury, and of course the older generation of parents are all pretty terrible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yes, the parents in the book are all fairly appalling aren’t they? It’s Rawdon’s redeeming feature that he loves his son. Thackeray certainly challenges the authority of parents by showing how deeply flawed they are and how damaging they can be.

      Liked by 2 people

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  16. Pingback: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” (James Baldwin) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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