Two friends leave school. Becky Sharp is, indeed, acute, intelligent, pert, challenging, and an orphan who must make her own way in the world. She goes to be a governess in a dreadful old country house but immediately casts her spell over the menfolk. She will clearly advance by marrying ‘above herself’. Amelia is dull, daughter of a stockbroker, destined to wed the boy next door, the officer son of a banker. But what seems substantial in Vanity Fair is often illusory. The book follows this mis-matched pair through the swings and roundabouts of often outrageous fortune.Will Becky’s intelligence overcome the forces of respectability? Will Amelia’s goodness bring her a happy ending? We will discover the answer many, many pages later.
Is it any good?
There are moments of high drama (such as the Battle of Waterloo in which three major characters are engaged on the field and three are nearby in a threatened and panicking Brussels) and moments when the novelist surprises us: the classic example is at the end of chapter 14 which was, for me, a completely unforeseen bolt from the blue. But there are also long periods when the author is more concerned with satirising and moralising than with getting on with the story. These sections dragged.
But the novelist can be witty and he does have some profound things to say about life (although the Vanity Fair metaphor was rather beaten to death). He certainly knew people and their foibles.
- “Revenge may be wicked but it’s natural.” (C2)
- “All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” (C2)
- “Which of the dead are most tenderly and passionately deplored? Those who love the survivors least, I believe. The death of a child occasions a passion of grief and frantic tears such as your end, brother reader, will never inspire. The death of an infant which scarce knew you, which a week's absence would have caused to forget you, will strike you down more than the loss of your closest friend.” (C 61)
- “Which ... is the better lot - to die prosperous and famous, or poor and disappointed? To have, and to be forced to yield; or to sink out of life, having played and lost the game? That must be a strange feeling when a day of our life comes, and we say, ‘Tomorrow, success or failure won't matter much; and the sun will rise, and all the myriads of mankind go to their work or their pleasure as usual, but I shall be out of the turmoil’.” (C 61)
- “She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love.” (C 66)
- “When you and your brother are friends, his doings are indifferent to you. When you have quarreled, all his outgoings and incomings you know, as if you were his spy.” (C 11)
- “If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!” (C 16)
- “When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime.” (C 18)
- “Who has not remarked the readiness with which the closest of friends and honestest of men suspect and accuse each other of cheating when they fall out on money matters? Everybody does it. Everybody is right, I suppose, and the world is a rogue.” (C 18)
- “A long engagement is a partnership which one party is free to keep or to break, but which involves all the capital of the other.” (C 18)
- “If a person is too poor to keep a servant, though ever so elegant, he must sweep his own rooms.” (C 4)
Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction discusses Vanity Fair (and other Thackeray novels) in Chapter 7. He suggests that VF is essentially two stories, Becky’s and Amelia’s, which occasionally interact; he points out that one could tell Becky's story with Amelia as a fringe character and vice versa although I think he fails to see that the essential link for a moralising Victorian novelist was the possibility of redemption offered to Becky when, having been discovered by Josh in the spa town, she has an interview with Amelia. Furthermore much of the point of the novel lies in the contrasting fortunes of the two girls: the rich-born who becomes poor and the poor adventurer who, at the same time, enjoys the trappings of wealth. Both of these girls make marriages which lead to the expectations of their husbands being dashed; their different responses to adversity reflect their very different characters. This is surely a prolonged comment on social mobility in pre-Victorian London.
Thackeray's strengths and weaknesses
Lubbock (op cit) suggests that plot is not Thackeray's interest, he is primarily concerned with the big picture: "broad expanses, stretches of territory, to be surveyed from edge to edge with a sweeping glance ... populated by a swarm of people.” This is his strength and it can also be his downfall because he is commensurately weak at theatrically dramatic scenes such as the famous scene of Becky's downfall which, says Lubbock, “has an artificial look, by comparison with the flowing spontaneity of all that has gone before” because Thackeray failed to prepare for it which he could have done had he gone into more detail for the “great scene of Becky's triumph”, creating a contrast and thus bypassing the "necessity for the sudden heightening of the pitch, the thickening of the colour, the incongruous and theatrical tone.”
What makes this book different?
- Thackeray claims in his subtitle that this is “A Novel Without a Hero”. It isn’t. I recognise in Captain William Dobbin the classic hero, despite his over-large feet and his shy, retiring ways. Thackeray was dissembling.
- Presumably what he meant was that this novel has a heroine, Becky Sharp. She is portrayed in contrast to her schoolfriend Amelia Sedley, a quiet, rather dull, not very astute woman of unbreakable virtue. Becky is quite the opposite. She is formidably intelligent, she is pert, she is showy, and her virtue is always questionable although she defends its reputation to the end. But surely Jane Austen’s novels often involved a pair of women, one far more exciting than the other. Becky is new by virtue of being poor, scheming as opposed to principled, and utterly unrespectable.
- As Thackeray himself points out, “as his hero and heroine pass the matrimonial barrier, the novelist generally drops the curtain, as if the drama were over then, the doubts and struggles of life ended.” (C 26) The bulk of the action in VF takes place after its two heroines have married. That was quite innovative in British romantic comedies of the time.
Thackeray claims to be criticising a world in which “Everybody is striving for what is not worth having.” (C48) But the message I read in this substantial book was that a person needs to know their place. The heroine, the irrepressible Becky Sharp, is a poor girl schooled through charity who wants to be a part of the upper echelons of society but despite her cleverness she is repeatedly frustrated because of her low birth.
In some ways, Thackeray is a radical. He is heavily critical of people of rank who are penniless and live on credit, persuading honest tradespeople to fund their extravagant lifestyles in the hope of one day being paid. Many of these parasites avoid the consequences of bankruptcy by fleeing and setting up elsewhere while those who have supported them are ruined. “When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house, and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself buy fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronises and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed; as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither.” (C 37) I suppose the equivalent in our day would be the rich businessmen who sail off into the sunset in yachts while their empires collapse taking the pension funds with them. But these are soft targets, the unacceptable faces of capitalism. How deep does Thackeray’s radicalism go?
Ostensibly, Thackeray’s world is filled with social mobility. Amelia’s dad is a stockbroker, George’s dad a banker, Dobbin’s dad a merchant. These people have risen from nothing. On the other hand, second son of a landed baronet Rawdon has nothing but his expectations and an allowance and survives mostly on credit. Thackeray knows that the rich exploit the poor. Even Miss Crawley, who espouses French revolutionary politics, exploits the poor. “Like many wealthy people, it was Miss Crawley's habit to accept as much service as she could get from her inferiors; and good-naturedly to take leave of them when she no longer found them useful. Gratitude among certain rich folks is scarcely natural, or to be thought of. They take needy people's service as they due.” (C14) And Thackeray recognises that the accidents of birth that predestine so many lives is a lottery: “There must be classes - there must be rich and poor ... Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is - that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen, and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters.” (C 57)
Nevertheless, Thackeray is mesmerised by rank. “If you and I were to find ourselves this evening in a society of greengrocers, let us say, it is probable that our conversation would not be brilliant; if, on the other hand, they greengrocer should find himself at your refined and polite tea-table, where everybody was saying witty things, and everybody of fashion and repute tearing her friends to pieces in the most delightful manner, it is possible that the stranger would not be very talkative, and by no means interesting or interested.” (C 62) Time and again Becky, the orphan girl, is repudiated by polite society because her (French) mother was a dancer in an opera house and her father a painter. And while it can be argued that Thackeray means to satirise this attitude, the moral of this fable suggests the opposite. In the end virtue, represented by the norms of the established order, be they never so appalling in their personal habits, triumphs. I suspect that Thackeray regarded the outcome as just.
Like many books of its time, Vanity Fair is, seemingly unconsciously racist. George refuses to marry the West Indian heiress, Miss Swartz, because she is 'too black'; she doesn't have hair but wool. The 'natives' in India are described in very patronising and stereotypical terms. There is a great deal of anti-semitism based on the identification of Jews with money-lenders in which context they are rich but coarse and slovenly. However the bankers, such as Mr Osborne and his son-in-law, are not 'Hebrews'. This inbuilt racism is a blemish on the book.
Quotes I enjoyed:
- “And presently the voices of the two speakers were hushed, or were replaced by the gentle but unromantic music of the nose.” (C 4)
- “The affection of young ladies is of as rapid growth as Jack’s beanstalk, and reaches up to the sky in a night.” (C 4) Is this meant to be as suggestive as it sounds?
- “I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one ( although there are some terrific chapters coming presently).” (C 6)
- “A tempest in a slop-basin is absurd.” (C 8) A storm in a teacup!
- “The truth may surely be borne in mind, that's the bustle, and triumph, and laughter, and gaiety which Vanity Fair exhibits in public, do not always pursue the performer into private life, and that the most dreary depression of spirits and dismal repentance sometimes overcome him.” (C 19)
- “He was going to be married. Hence his pallor and nervousness - his sleepless night and agitation in the morning. I have heard people who have gone through the same thing own to the same emotion. After three or four ceremonies you get accustomed to it, no doubt; but the first dip, everybody allows, is awful.” (C 22)
- "A telegraphic communication of eyes passed between the other three ladies.” (C 13)
- “Those who know the English colonies abroad know that we carry with us our pride, pills, prejudices, Harvey sauces, cayenne peppers, and other Lares, making a little Britain wherever we settle down.” (C 64)
A classic novel ... but it would benefit from some editing. September 2018; 657 pages