Introduction and Background
I think it’s safe to say that every bookworm has a very long list of books they’d like to read one day. I also think it’s safe to assume that on this list there will be a fair few books that are constantly appearing on the types of “books to read before you die” lists that you find in newspapers, magazines, and blog sites. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray will probably feature on these lists of books to read before you die, and it was certainly on my own personal list of novels I’d really like to get around to reading one day. I’ll be honest though, it was Charlotte Brontë who first brought Vanity Fair to my attention. I didn’t grow up with the Brontës, I discovered them as a teenager, starting with Jane Eyre (quite possibly my favourite novel of all time), and Charlotte’s curious dedication to W.M. Thackeray in the second edition caught my attention. After discovering Jane and Rochester, I wanted to know more about their creator, and one of the first things I ever learnt about Charlotte was her admiration of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863). Thackeray was one of the most successful authors of the 19th century and was famous for his satirical works. Despite his success, his legacy is not the same as some of his contemporaries including Charles Dickens and, of course, Charlotte Brontë. Unfortunately, despite their mutual admiration for one another’s works, Charlotte and Thackeray did not get along with one another when they met, and despite Charlotte’s good intentions, she accidentally dedicated her book containing a madwoman confined by her husband to a man who had confined his own “mad” wife to an asylum.
Vanity Fair was originally published as a monthly serial in nineteen parts from 1847-48, and as Jane Eyre was published in 1847, it wasn’t Vanity Fair that was responsible for Charlotte’s admiration of Thackeray, but his earlier works. However, Vanity Fair is Thackeray’s most famous work and is considered a classic of English Literature even in the 21st century. It’s also a momentous volume and I like big big books and I cannot lie. It seemed like a challenge, not a Tristram Shandy type of challenge, but a challenge nevertheless, and who doesn’t enjoy challenging aspects of reading? Just me then? Several years ago I found a cheap second hand copy of Vanity Fair in a charity shop and bought it with the intention of getting stuck in. The book was brand new and came with a DVD of the 2004 film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp. However, it was left gathering dust at the top of my wardrobe a.k.a. the place where I confine the books that I can’t fit on my shelf. I’ll blame juggling an MA literature course with a zero hour but often full time job for my neglect of Thackeray’s book. I just couldn’t find the time to pick it up. Somehow it managed to survive my annual book purges where I banish the titles I didn’t enjoy or those that had been sat, unread and unloved, at the top of the wardrobe or on my bookshelf for years. I was determined to read Vanity Fair. If I could find the time for the likes of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the aforementioned The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (utterly bonkers, utterly brilliant), then why was I neglecting Thackeray’s book? Charlotte Brontë adored Thackeray, so why couldn’t I give him a chance?
Even after graduation I didn’t pick it up despite having time and freedom to read whatever I wanted. It was only when I learned of a new TV adaptation of Vanity Fair earlier this year that I began to think seriously about tackling it again. I procrastinated yet again though, reasoning that I had months to start it before the new version aired. I eventually picked the book up mere days before the TV premiere and finally managed to finish it a few days ago. It wasn’t as much of a challenge as I’d imagined in terms of the language and Thackeray’s style so my guess is that it’s the length of the text that tends to deter people from picking it up (my own version is 767 pages long). However, if that’s the case then it’s a shame because Vanity Fair is joy and a gem of English Literature. It’s not perfect but I now know why it appears on lists of books to read before you die, and I’d certainly recommended it. Below are my thoughts on the text, but before I go into more detail let me provide a summary of the narrative.
Let me be honest, I went into Vanity Fair thinking that it was the story of Becky Sharp. It’s not, and the novel is all the better for it because I’ll say it now, I can’t stand Becky, but more about that later. Thackeray warns the reader from the beginning that this is a novel without a hero but I do believe there is one character in there who is, but again, more about that later. Reader, there are spoilers ahead. Read on if you dare.
The novel spans over a decade and is partly set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel follows a whole host of characters including Becky Sharp, her school friend Amelia (Emmy) Sedley, and their respective families, lovers, and friends. Although there are so many supporting characters, the novel is really the tale of two friends and ostensibly, two very different types of women. The narrative opens at Miss Pinkerton’s school where Becky and Amelia are leaving for the final time with Amelia returning home to her wealthy family and George Osborne, to whom she is betrothed. Becky is destined to be a governess to Sir Pitt Crawley’s daughters but first accompanies Amelia home before her duties begin. Unwilling to become a governess, Becky attempts to win the heart of Amelia’s gluttonous and vain brother, Jos, in order to escape her future position, but is foiled by George who dislikes her.
Becky is taken to Sir Pitt Crawley’s where she manages to charm everyone around her, including Sir Pitt’s son, Rawdon Crawley, a favourite of his ageing aunt and who is destined to inherit her fortune one day. Becky and Rawdon marry in haste and lose their chance of Miss Crawley’s fortune whilst Amelia’s father is financially ruined before she can marry George. However, George’s school friend, William Dobbin, a man devoted to Amelia’s happiness, persuades him to do the honourable thing and marry the woman he has been betrothed to, and who loves him dearly. George is disinherited as a result of his marriage and goes away to battle in Brussels at war with his own father. Rawdon Crawley is also stationed in Brussels and Amelia and Becky come together once more, with the former more wary of her friend and her husband’s sudden attraction to her.
The military campaign opens and George is killed in the Battle of Waterloo and the last we see of him is when he is lying on the battlefield with a bullet through the heart (well done Thackeray). Amelia and Becky go their separate ways once more, one a widow of an unfaithful husband, the the other married to a man who loves her more than anybody realises, but one she would ideally like to be rid of. William Dobbin steps up and provides financial and emotional support to Amelia and her son, Georgy Osborne whilst Becky and Rawdon have their own son (Rawdon Jr.) and spend their time racking up all sorts of debt whilst living the high life in Europe. Dobbin leaves Amelia and goes to India with his regiment as he knows his love is unrequited, however, he continues to support her financially.
Becky schemes and schemes some more, using those around her to gain the place in high society she believes she deserves, taking little notice of her husband, and none of her son who is eventually sent to school. Amelia is forced to part with her son due to her financial struggles stemming from her father’s disastrous plans and schemes to make his fortune again. Georgy is sent to live with his grandfather who treats him like a gentleman. However, following the deaths of both of his grandfathers (Sedley and Osborne), and the return of Dobbin who has rushed back from India after hearing of Amelia’s impending marriage to a local vicar, Georgy is returned to his mother. Dobbin is mistaken and he travels with Amelia, Jos, and Georgy to Europe where they holiday and bump into a ruined Becky whose reputation has been tarnished by her questionable relationship with the wealthy Lord Steyne, and who has been abandoned by Rawdon who has taken up a post on Coventry Island (arranged by Steyne to cover up the scandal). Financially crippled, she sees an opportunity to snare Jos despite the fact she is still married to Rawdon.
Becky bewitches Jos again and blindsides Amelia with talk of the precious son who was snatched away from her but who is living happily with Rawdon’s older brother and his wife, Lady Jane. Dobbin is not fooled and walks away from Amelia, who has used him just as Becky has used other men, for the final time, stating that she is not worthy of his love. Go Dobbin, the true hero of Vanity Fair. Confused and upset, Amelia cannot forget Dobbin and Becky sees through her friend’s masked emotions, urging her to marry Dobbin and confirming George’s unfaithfulness and attraction to her many years previously. Freed from the shackles of her dead husband, Amelia reconciles with Dobbin and moves back to England with him and Georgy, marrying and starting a family in the same village where Rawdon Jr. resides at Queen’s Crawley. Becky ruins Jos, who eventually dies in mysterious circumstances, after which Becky flees with the life insurance money and attempts a respectable life once more.
Vanity Fair is utterly spectacular, and I really would recommended it. Even reading a summary of the novel’s events does not give the reader a true flavour of Thackeray’s text and wonderful characters. The one character I absolutely couldn’t stand though was Becky. I’ll admit I cheered when she throws the dictionary away after leaving Miss Pinkerton’s, and I initially admired her determination to secure a better future for herself, but then I really lost patience with her. I don’t find her charming or wonderful or interesting despite Thackeray’s insistence that she is, and the strange influence she has over the other characters. I groaned every time the narrative returned to her plots and schemes because that’s all she is and all she has. My biggest problem is that Becky doesn’t grow, change, or develop as the novel progresses; she really is the viper Thackeray mentions several times in the text. Amelia also frustrated me and tried my patience, especially the parts she spends moping after her good-for-nothing husband’s memory. She does at least grow and develop, and (eventually) see the error of her ways. I felt for her as she tended her ailing parents as they turned against her, and her patience in the face of her struggles is something to admire. Her treatment of Dobbin however, is not, and I’ll admit I cheered when he finally saw what she really was, and Amelia realised exactly what she had become: Becky 2.0. Yes, Dobbin is the hero of the novel despite Thackeray’s insistence there isn’t one. Faithful, honest, true, and good-natured, Dobbin does all he can to protect those he loves; he’s the underdog and dog’s body who finally gets his happy ending. Hurrah!
Good riddance to George Osborne and kudos for Thackeray for having the guts to kill off one of his major characters so quickly. He was almost as odious as Becky with little development, although the night before he goes to battle he does display a shred of humanity. Too little too late though. The one character I felt really grew and developed the most though was Rawdon Crawley. He’s a surprisingly complex and deep character, and is far from the big oaf Becky perceives him to be. Thankfully, he was usually around in the Becky segments to make them worth reading. He’s likeable enough to begin with, but as stated, he really develops into a deeper character and he gets a bad deal, being used and ruined by Becky when he just wanted to be a better man following his marriage. His interactions with Rawdon Jr. are particularly poignant. Sir Pitt the elder is a fabulous character, and I was surprised to see so little of him after his introduction. He’s a rowdy old thing and great fun. Sir Pitt the younger also didn’t annoy me as much as I think Thackeray intended him to and I absolutely loved the part where his meek little wife Lady Jane explodes and airs her true feelings about Becky. In theory Jos should be abhorrent but he’s so vain and pompous, and yet not mean spirited that it’s difficult not to like him. I suppose it was fitting that the novel came full circle and ended up with Becky getting her claws into him, but I’m glad he made it to the final pages.
In general the characters are a fantastic mix, some strangely human, and others more surreal, but you really have to read Thackeray’s words to get a sense of their true nature, to marvel at their triumphs, lament their tragedies, and shake your fists at the many injustices suffered by so many. You won’t find characters quite like these anywhere. Not even Becky but I think that’s a good thing.
Despite the characters, the flow of the narrative, the ease of reading, and the great fun to be had, Thackeray’s text isn’t perfect. I’ll be blunt and say it could really benefit from a decent editor. Thackeray has a tendency to waffle on for too long about things completely irrelevant to the plot, and sometimes presents anecdotes with only a distant connection to his characters, leaving the reader confused and often frustrated. There are also occasional hints that Thackeray has himself lost track of his enormous novel such as the mystery surrounding the number of Dobbin’s siblings, facts about Amelia’s beloved piano, and times when he seems to get characters’ names confused. This is also a novel where everybody seems to be named after somebody and therefore a lot of characters share names, which gets quite confusing, and I think probably confused Thackeray himself.
As I stated earlier, Vanity Fair is spectacular. It’s a novel that needs to be read to be truly experienced. So even if you’ve seen TV and film adaptations (the less said about the 2018 ITV version the better although Jos and Dobbin were perfect) and perused summaries, you haven’t read this one until you’ve read it. Do it now. Thank you Thackeray, thank you Charlotte.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights, or on my Brontë Babe Blog Facebook page. Look me up on Goodreads too. I also have a side project where I blog about my love of Classic Crime Fiction over at The Classic Crime Chonicle. I’d love it if you joined me there.
I’d also love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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