Vanity Fair – William Thackeray

Vanity Fair

Finally, I’ve carved out some time to write a blog post again. Working full time and writing a non-fiction book in my spare time is starting to take its toll on my sanity. My fiction writing has ground almost to a halt, although I still find a couple of hours a week to work on the fifth and last draft (for now) of my novel.

Vanity Fair has been lying around like a brick in my book pile for ages and finally I got around to reading it. I haven’t tackled a classic in a while and its really interesting to see how fiction has changed. Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair in third person omniscient point of view – something that is very much out of fashion these days and consequently felt refreshingly different to 99 percent of what I read. He speaks to the reader directly, which feels very odd to a modern reader.

Vanity Fair is set during the Napoleonic wars and follows the life of Becky Sharp, daughter of a painter who has been educated at the respectable Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies in London, with the daughters of ‘city men’. Becky is expected, and does, land a good job as a governess. She goes to work for Sir Pitt Crawley, who owns a country estate but is anything but refined. But Becky has got other ideas for her life, and soon manoeuvres herself into favourable situations mainly through a sparky personality, clever manipulation and courage. She’s completely incorrigible but hard not to like.

Vanity Fair is a satire on the harsh snobbishness of Regency England and the ruthlessness with which society treated those who had either not been born into privilege or had fallen on hard times. Its assumed that Thackeray, who published it about 50 years after the time in which it was set, also intended the message for readers of his own time. At times the attitude of the author towards women is hard to take but I always think there’s no point in taking 21st century views to historical classics.

The thing that always strikes me about these classics is the strength of characterisation. Each character is so consistent and so recognisable and none ever sound the same. Just about every character in this story behaves badly but its still enjoyable to read about them, if only to see if they get their comeuppance. Amelia Smedley is one of the few characters who behave honourably but her devotion to her dead husband, who doesn’t deserve it, just made me hate her, and also Dobbin, who devotes his life to idolising her. But I did cheer for him when he told her he’d finally had enough:

‘No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you,’ he says, in what must surely be one of the great slighted lovers speeches in the classics.

One of the things I enjoy the most about these books is decoding the double-speak the authors used to describe something that wasn’t considered polite and would not have been published in such prudish times. There’s one scene where two men are discussing why the man who marries Becky Sharp has made a mistake. They describe Becky as:

“Green eyes, fair skin, pretty figure, famous frontal development,’

which really made me laugh out loud. It could be taken as a reference to her breast size, or perhaps not. Towards the end when Becky really starts to fall on hard times, its hard to decipher just exactly what she’s doing to get money and throughout, Thackeray is as coy as you’d expect about sex.

At 671 pages, reading Vanity Fair is a marathon and its easier to appreciate its length when you know it was first published as a serial over about 18 months as were many novels of that time. Its a long read, but not a difficult one and this rollicking story is the best examples I’ve read from which to learn what strong characterisation really is about.