Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

The novel opens with Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Amelia is the kindest of souls, with her tearful promises to write to her numerous bosom school friends, while Becky is determined to overcome her humble birth. The stately Miss Pinkerton deems Becky too lowly to receive the copy of Dr Johnson’s dictionary presented to all young ladies on their graduation from her establishment. When a copy is smuggled to her, Becky doesn’t want it and throws it out of the carriage taking the two girls away, much to Amelia’s genteel horror!

Amelia is headed back to her father’s house in Russell Square, to await marriage to her long-term beau George Osborne. Becky stays with the Sedleys en route to a position as governess at Sir Pitt Crawley’s country house Queens Crawley. While at Russell Square, Becky sets about wooing Amelia’s brother Joseph (an hilariously self-centred dandy). Luckily for the reader, Becky doesn’t ensnare Jos Sedley, allowing her to continue on her journey to scale the social heights by heading to Queen Crawley.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. It was originally serialised so Thackeray used lots of tricks to keep the reader hooked. There’s a wide range of characters from right across the social spectrum, from humble servants to aristocrats (and even occasional glimpses of the King). There are secret marriages. There are scheming relations vying with each other for their maiden aunt’s sizeable fortune. There is a bankruptcy. People flee to Paris to avoid their debtors. Waterloo carries most of the sizeable cast of characters to Brussels.

I’ve been meaning to read Vanity Fair for years, and I was very curious to know what I’d make of Becky Sharp. She’s one of those characters with a life of its own (and I’ve not even seen any of the screen adaptations of the book!). She’s certainly the brains of the operation, skilfully handling not just the men but most of the women too. She contrasts brilliantly with the rather insipid Amelia, to the point where at times I wished for less Amelia and more Becky. She also shows how frustrating life was for women, who were effectively powerless and reliant on fathers, brothers, husbands and patrons to survive.

But William Dobbin was a revelation for me. I wasn’t expecting him at all, and he was undoubtedly the beating heart of the novel. He physically unappealing, being lanky and squeaky voiced, but his heart is good and he’s a true friend. His emotional depth compensates for the weaknesses in other characters. The contrast between William Osborne and George Osborne counter balances the contracts between Becky and Amelia perfectly.

John Carey, who introduced this novel (or wrote the afterword in my case, as I obeyed his exhortation to only read his introduction after reading the entire novel!) in the Penguin Classics edition I read made some interesting comparisons with War & Peace. I hadn’t known of Thackeray’s influence on Tolstoy and since War & Peace is also a challenge read for me this year I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares.


Mark Thwaite said...

William Makepeace's influence on ol' Leo ... interesting. Vanity Fair was published 20-odd years before War & Peace so, yup, could be I suppose! I'm interested to read Carey's introduction myself now ... (Is he the only academic who will write these Intros these days!?)

Anonymous said...

Oh, what a detailed review! I have yet to read Vanity Fair, but you certainly make it a worthwhile venture. I'm particularly interested in Becky Sharp and William Dobbin after reading your revelations. I hope I get to this sometime this year.

Eva said...

I love Dobbin! I thought the last third of the book dragged a bit, but I still enjoyed it. :) I don't remember it well enough (I read it three years ago) to compare it in detail to W&P. I've also seen the Reese Witherspoon adaptation, and it was a lot of fun!

verbivore said...

This review makes me want to read Vanity Fair right away. I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing this text for myself but you make it sound like a great read. I'll put it on my Classics list for later this spring!

Logophile said...

Mark, these intros do seem to be Carey's main output these days. I nearly bought the OUP edition of Justified Sinner just to read his intro...

Orcidus, I do hope you get to Vanity Fair! It's long, but satisfying.

Eva, it was in the last third that I was wishing for more Becky, less Amelia so I kind of agree ;)

Verbivore, classics in spring - what a perfect season/book combo!