With my love of Victorian novels, I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Vanity Fair. I think, without really knowing anything about it, I thought it sounded dry and hard going; Lisa’s review changed my mind and I added it to my Classics Club list, but I was still slow to actually pick it up and start reading. I finally got round to it this month and am pleased to say that although there were certainly times when I found the book dry and times when I found it hard going, overall I enjoyed it.
The first thing I found on beginning Vanity Fair is that Thackeray, like Anthony Trollope and other Victorian authors, likes to talk directly to the reader, commenting on his characters and giving praise or criticism where necessary:
“And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.”
He never lets us forget that we are reading a novel and that the characters are puppets under the author’s control – but at the same time, I found them all very real and human. There are a few examples in Vanity Fair of people being ‘good and kindly’, but many more of them being silly and heartless. In a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” (which is debatable), it’s not surprising that the characters are flawed and imperfect. The most flawed of all is Becky Sharp, ruthless schemer and ambitious social-climber. From the moment Becky throws her dictionary through the carriage window as she drives out of the school gates to go and make her own way in the world, I knew she was going to be an interesting character!
Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley, is her exact opposite: quiet and gentle, sweet and obliging…and from a wealthy family. I liked Amelia – although she could be infuriating – but there’s no doubt that it’s Becky who makes things happen and keeps the story moving forward. Early in the novel, she sets her sights on marrying Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, and when this plan fails, it becomes clear that there is nothing Becky won’t do to get what she wants and to advance another step up the social ladder.
This is not just Becky’s story, though. Vanity Fair has a very large cast of characters, drawn from a variety of backgrounds: noblemen and army officers, merchants and servants. Most of them belong to, or are in some way connected with, the novel’s three central families – the Sedleys, the Osbornes and the Crawleys – and with plenty of subplots involving these three families, the story quickly becomes quite complex. Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was originally published as a serial and as a result feels longer than it maybe needed to be, but everything that happens has its place in the plot, as Thackeray explains:
“…my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history?”
‘Vauxhall’, of course, is a reference to the famous London pleasure gardens so popular during the Regency – and this will be a good place for me to mention that despite being a Victorian novel first published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair is actually set several decades earlier, in the Regency period. The Napoleonic Wars are always in the background, with some of the characters being present at the Battle of Waterloo.
This hasn’t become a favourite classic – I thought at first that it might, but in the end there were too many moments when I felt the story was starting to drag and too many times when I found my attention starting to wander. I did like it, though, and am glad I hadn’t put off reading it any longer!