This has taken me so long to read that I can hardly remember a time before Vanity Fair, and while there were certainly some ups and downs, when I finished, it wasn’t with a feeling of relief but with huge satisfaction at having read a really brilliant book.
First published as a complete text in 1848, Thackeray tells the story of school friends Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, their families and friends in the first half of the 19th century with London society, the Napoleonic wars and colonisation in India forming the backdrop. The scheming manipulative Becky is a perfect foil to the humble simplicity of Emmy. As they both negotiate marriage, in laws and motherhood they also negotiate the slippery pole of social success and acceptability.
A brilliant master of the theatre he has created, Thackeray manages to keep all the characters spinning while in turn he gives each of their stories his full concentration before bringing it all together. His authorial voice was perhaps the thing I enjoyed the most. Supremely confident, chatty and ebullient he often stepped outside of the story with wry observation or satirical asides, using his sardonic humour to convey truths that are just as real today.
‘Who was the blundering idiot who said that ‘fine words butter no parsnips? Half the parsnips of society are served and rendered palatable with no other sauce.’
It begins with Emmy and Becky at school and as they grow up their lives mirror each other, they both marrying men who lose their inheritance by defying their families wishes, both become mothers to sons who bear their father’s names and both give up their sons, one for selfish reasons the other for love. Becky, the daughter of a dancer and an artist, understands society and is determined to succeed as she climbs the social ladder at any cost while Amelia slips down it when her comfortable family is bankrupted.
I loved the structure here. first we are absorbed in Becky’s life. She’s clever, conniving and witty, literally ‘sharp’, everyone is to be used for financial gain. Men are her targets, she might be swindling them but they are completely unable to see through her. There are enough red coats and officers here to keep Lydia Bennet happy, and I thought sometimes it was a bit like peeking behind the curtains of Jane Austen! Her irritability towards her husband, Rawdon Crawley is perhaps expected, she quickly tires of him and he’s in her way, but from the moment her son Rawdon is born, her coldness towards him shows that she has no moral scruples.
But when Thackeray has completely wrapped us up in her heartless world and shown us what a monster she is he leaves her and takes a bit of a break from the plot to tell us what he thinks of contemporary women’s lives, basically that they’re unpaid servants who are expected to tend to everyone around them. This before he moves on to Emmy, now a widow living in genteel poverty. Ceaselessly caring for parents who are becoming more and more peevish Emmy has developed an unhealthy devotion to her son who is the centre of her world and to the memory of her husband, George Osborne,. ‘How noble it was of him to marry me. . . ‘ she worries.
Thackeray has perfectly balanced the two lives – as if he’s showing us Becky’s alternative. Between the two extremes I think he does give a middle ground with Lady Jane Crawley, Becky’s sister-in-law. She sees through Becky and stands up to her husband (who’s been caught in Becky’s trap) but also provides a loving home for her own children and Becky’s child. There’s food for thought not just shock and judgement.
They’re an interesting set of characters, the darkness of Becky, the lightness of Emmy, the dimness of most of the men. William Dobbin has been mooning around after Amelia from the beginning. even encouraging George to marry Emmy who loves him, (because her happiness is his greatest concern). So that after about 600 pages I started to think maybe he wasn’t quite the romantic hero I thought, actually just a bit daft; and Emmy as good and kind as can be but really is she too soppy? And then Thackeray saves them. A short telling paragraph describes Emmy’s treatment of faithful Dobbin:
‘This woman had a way of tyranizing over Major Dobbin (for the weakest of all people will domineer over somebody), and she ordered him about, and patted him, and made him fetch and carry just as if he was a great Newfoundland dog. He liked, so to speak, to jump into the water if she said ;High, Dobbin!’ and to trot behind her with her reticule in his mouth. The history has been written to very little purpose if the reader has not perceived that the Major was a spooney.’
ah so Amelia, you are human after all! And then the spooney is so disgusted by Amelia’s behaviour in being taken in by Becky that he gives her up once and for all and (to me) rescues his character from spoonydom.
And there’s also some small turning point for Becky. Reaching her lowest point, abandoned by her husband and living in Europe as a demimondaine, she meets up again with Dobbin, Amelia and her brother Jos. I think Dobbin is the only man she respects because she has never had any currency for him, and maybe there is a tiny bit of conscience towards Emmy because of their early friendship so that these two are worthy of her one good dead that will ensure a happy ending for them and us.
Thackeray’s quip about fine words I think is at the centre of Vanity Fair – there are so many characters who are blind to the behaviour right in front of them. Why can’t Amelia see through her husband George? Why can’t Dobbin see through George? How is Jos, a successful Nabob hoodwinked by Becky twice? How can Miss Crawley play all her relatives against each other for her fortune? I think because they are all ‘parsnips’ buttered with fine words who see and hear what they want to,
The trouble with trying to review a book like Vanity Fair is that there is so much to say, there are so many stories. and characters. And while I’ve talked about Becky and Emmy, one of the relationships I found really poignant was George Osborne’s towards his son, Captain George Osborne. A self made man, all his hopes lie with his golden son. He’s an appalling ogre but his feelings of broken pride and disappointment when George defies him to marry the now poor Amelia is told with such emotion that I might not agree with him but I could certainly understand him. And that’s what makes a truly satisfying read for me. Brilliant characters that involve you whether you like them or not and told with wit and wisdom .
Thank you Fiction-Fan for including me in this review-a-long, it was good to have a deadline and the nudge to get reading!