Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A couple of months ago I joined an imaginary book club through a friend. I say ‘imaginary’ as we have never met to discuss the book; in fact I’ve not met the other participants - I begin to suspect Marie made them all up. Too late! As, in hope of some literary discussion over tea and biscuits, I have ploughed my way through a hefty tome: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Thackeray was a contemporary of Dickens and, like Dickens, he first made his name as a journalist before becoming a famous novelist. In their own time Thackeray was second only to Dickens in popularity. However he is much less read these days, and is known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair. The book is undeniably intimidating in size - my copy has just under a thousand pages. In comparison to other similar novels though, I do not think it is too complicated. It helps that it has a smaller cast than many. While it takes place over a period of many years, including the Napoleonic wars, history is only a backdrop, requiring no in depth historical knowledge to make sense of it.

What makes this book so successful is one of its main characters: Becky Sharp, the orphaned daughter of an artist, determined to claw her way up through English society. The novel has the subtitle ‘A Novel Without A Hero’ as, over the course of the story, every main character is shown to be flawed. At the start of the novel Becky is with her friend Amelia Sedley, another main character. While Becky can be spiteful and artful, her feelings for the naïve Amelia, at least, appear to be somewhat genuine. Becky’s scheming eventually lands her with a husband, a buffoonish soldier with aspirations to wealth. Amelia marries her childhood sweetheart, but soon finds herself widowed, pregnant and impoverished. From here the two women go their separate ways. Amelia becomes ever more insipid, wasting away, caring only for her son and unable to recognise the love offered to her by her late husbands friend, Captain Dobbin. While Dobbin seems an admirable enough character he too becomes a slightly pathetic figure by the end of the novel, as he is unable to get out from under Amelia’s thumb.

In contrast Becky and her husband Rawdon Crawley are enjoying life, living in style in London with no real income. Their portion of the book is where Thackeray’s satire and wit shine. Two particularly witty chapters concerning these two are entitled ’How to Live on Nothing a Year’ and ’The Subject Continued’ in which Thackeray details how by relying on a good family name one can exist entirely off credit. The creditors, for fear that the meagre payments might stop, continue to furnish you with goods, until they themselves are declared bankrupt, while you continue merrily with your lavish, unpaid for lifestyle. It is amusing, but also not entirely inaccurate - young men of the time were continuously in extravagant debt, and the higher your income, well, the more you could borrow. So Rawdon and Becky get by on nothing, presenting whichever face to whoever most suits their purpose. Becky is demure and gracious to Rawdon’s family; meanwhile she is prostituting herself to a rich landowner (not in so many words though, it is after all a Victorian novel). Like any good thing, it’s great while it lasts, but inevitably Becky’s duplicity gets the better of her, and she finds herself in difficulty.

Thackeray’s critique of high society is really quite savage, particularly his treatment of the marriage market. As awful as Becky’s behaviour can be, it all stems from the way society treated women. Not content to be poor, Becky must marry well, as she has no means to make her own money. When that doesn’t quite work out, well, there are other ways. Men too come in for their fair share of Thackeray’s contempt. Money and respectability reign supreme, friends are cast aside when down on their luck, and anything can be ignored as long as it is behind closed doors. Sir Pitt Crawley is a wonderful character: disgusting and miserly to the extreme, he alone refuses to play by society’s rules. His real transgression though is not his behaviour, it is the transparency of it. Ultimately this novel is about the veneer society paints over itself.

Thackeray is a knowing writer; his omniscient narrator directly addresses, and challenges, the reader a number of times.
a polite public will no more bear to read an authentic description of vice than a truly refined English or American female will permit the word “breeches” to be pronounced in her chaste hearing. And yet, Madam, both are walking the world before our faces everyday, without much shocking us. If you were to blush every time they went by, what complexions you would have!
Thackeray is merciless in his exposure of society; all within the confines of what could be acceptably published. Perhaps this is part of why the book hasn’t dated badly: what was shocking then, isn’t so shocking now. By not lecturing us on morality Thackeray gives the book a universality and timelessness - although society has changed since this book was published we all know people like Becky Sharp and Captain Dobbin. The characters are vivid and realistic, breathing life into this classic novel.

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