Vanity Fair

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!

Fiction-Fan’s Review
Rose’s Review
Madame B’s Review
Sandra’s Review

27 thoughts on “Vanity Fair

  1. I completely agree Jane – there’s so much to say about Vanity Fair it could be written about forever! I hadn’t thought about Jane Crawley being the middle ground but you are right, she shows there is another way. All the characterisation throughout is wonderful.

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    1. We could go on forever couldn’t we – none of us have mentioned the Crawleys, but they’re hilarious and disgusting and pompous and rogues, I thought all the characters were brilliant and as you said, Thackeray is just enjoying them so much and pages and pages could be written about Becky!

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  2. Ooh, you come close to being on #TeamEmmy! I do agree that Becky has her faults(!), but I love her – she’s so human and that’s such a contrast to all these angelic Victorian heroines who are really too good for this world! It really is impossible to cover the whole book in a review – it would take a book rather than a blog post to do it justice. I’d read it before long ago and remembered the story but I had forgotten about all of his asides and how he talks directly to the reader. Brilliant, and there were very few of the characters I didn’t feel some sympathy for, no matter how badly they behaved. So glad we all seem to have loved it! πŸ˜€

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    1. Close but no cigar! I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see through George, he was disgusting from the beginning but I think Thackeray had to give us polar opposites to really show up the choices for women instead of droning on and getting heavy handed. Becky in Europe is particularly brilliant I thought, reinvented and still laughing – I could go on and on!

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      1. I loved the whole European section – the way he made fun of all the little principalities and their customs! It wouldn’t have worked so well if he hadn’t been making fun of his own society too. And Jos! The typical Englishman abroad… πŸ˜‰

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    1. Oh I’m sorry Karen, I suppose after the initial post in June it did go quiet until yesterday. Maybe you and Jacqui can have a reviewathon?! I’d love to know what you think – I don’t think I got the fun across, it really is a light (but not frothy) read!

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  3. Wow, Jane, this is a great review!
    I love your point about Lady Jane Crawley being the middle ground, the idea that this novel is a behind the curtains Jane Austen, and that the buttering of parsnips is behind everything that happens in the book.
    Vanity Fair was a satisfying read. I’m glad you said that because I felt it too. I didn’t recognise the feeling but think it an important point.
    May we all read many more satisfying stories!

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      1. I would read a VF sequel! I’ll be on the lookout for something else by this author, though, since a sequel was never written.
        I always compare overly long emails etc to War and Peace but have never read it. One day… when I’ve retired and have time. At least you have that sense of satisfaction from having finished it.

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  4. I’ve only skimmed this (as I hope to read VF in the not too distant future) but much of what you describe I find familiar from the TV adaptation. I agree that one post isn’t enough to do this blockbuster justice — though you’ve done well! — so I hope you write a few more!

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    1. Well that’s interesting because I was trying not to describe the plot to much, so I probably have talked about the basic scenario which is covered in the tv adaptations, but the juicy details of course are in the writing! I haven’t seen a tv adaptation and am only slightly tempted, may be when the reading isn’t quite as fresh I’ll look one out. Hope you enjoy it, it’s a brilliant read!

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  5. Wonderful review! I’m glad you talked about Lady Jane – I really loved the way she was written. She’s so kind, but not in the weak, snivelling way that Emmy tries to be. I think she’s really important for the story, actually – it ends with hope that little Rawdon will grow up to be a kinder and better man than his parents, and that’s partly because Lady Jane has been good to him and acted as his champion (as well as the support of his father).

    As for Dobbin, I agree that the moment when he stands up to Amelia is the saving grace of his character, though I somewhat wish that he hadn’t come rushing back when she called him! I do like him despite the fact that he’s a bit pathetic, and so I’m glad he gets a somewhat happy home life at the end of the book, even if it’s not everything he dreamt of while worshipping Emmy from afar.

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