Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair - W.M. Thackeray

Right from the beginning of this book, an 'introduction' by the 'Manager of the Performance' Thackeray involves us in a conspiracy of humour. I know a wink is as little use as a nod to a blind man but even the blind must feel the tremors from the furious nodding and winking which the author indulges in. On one level this is a realist novel with a huge cast of characters which spans a relatively long period of time. On another it archly acknowledges its fictionality as the author addresses us directly:  "He is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire. The famous little Becky Puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints and lively on the wire: the Amelia Doll though it has a smaller circle of admirers, has yet been carved and dressed with the greatest care by the artist: the Dobbin Figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys' Dance has been liked by some; and please to remark the Wicked Nobleman, on whom no expense has been spared, and which Old Nick will fetch away at the end of this singular performance."

Thackeray is constantly pointing out the tension between reality and morality, and how the morality practiced by one kind of person may be very contingent upon their circumstances. The wealthy aristocracy may look down upon mere merchants, who are vulgar enough to have to make their money from trade : "'Hullo, Dobbin,' one wag would say, 'here's good news in the paper. Sugar is ris', my boy.' Another would set a sum: 'If a pound of mutton-candles cost sevenpence-halfpenny, how much must Dobbin cost?' and a roar would follow from all the circle of young knaves, usher and all, who rightly considered that the selling of goods by retail is a shameful and infamous practice, meriting the contempt and scorn of all real gentlemen." However, many impoverished members of the aristocracy will desperately seek out a woman who brings with her a dowry from her rich merchant father.

Dobbin of the schoolyard taunts above is as close to a hero as we get in this 'novel without a hero'. He is a faithful friend and brave, even if he doesn't have great taste in friends of love interests. As the book progresses each character is raised and lowered in our estimation numerous times. No-one damns with faint praise quite like Thackeray. Goodness is often seen as simple passivity or as a breastplate in a suit of social armour.

The two main female characters, the "tender little parasite" Amelia Sedley and the "flexible" Becky Sharp are polar opposites. Amelia is passive, having been brought up in a wealthy, protected environment where even her future husband (The insufferably arrogant, narcissistic George Osbourne) was known to her from an early age and chosen by her parents. Becky, on the other hand, a poor orphan, is prepared to do whatever she needs to survive and, it is suggested, has already done much as a child that would horrify most adults. She doesn't possess the luxury of waiting for things to fall into place. "If a person is too poor to keep a servant, though ever so elegant, he must sweep his own rooms. If a dear girl has no dear mamma to settle matters with the young man, she must do it for herself."

At the start of the novel Becky and Amelia are finishing school and Becky visits Amelia's home before setting out into 'service'. As they spend more time together than they did at school they become firm friends,"For the affection of young ladies is of as rapid growth as Jack's beanstalk, and reaches up to the sky in a night." It is Becky's wish that they become related as well as she sets her sights on the vain, corpulent dandy Jos Sedley, a collector in a remote region of India, a job which makes him a wealthy man. But this is not to be, which is good, or else the world would not have Vanity Fair: "Joseph Sedley, who was fond of music, and soft-hearted, was in a state of ravishment during the performance of the song, and profoundly touched at its conclusion. If he had had the courage; if George and Miss Sedley had remained according to the former's proposal, in the farther room, Joseph Sedley's bachelorhood would have been at an end, and this work would never have been written."

Strict morality is all well and good but in Vanity Fair it commits the cardinal sin of being boring and often comes encumbered with a weighty ballast of self-righteousness. This is something that Thackeray doesn't have much time for and as he takes the characters up and down through all the vagaries of social class, financial security and ruin he also makes us look at our own opinions and asks are they not largely a result of social and financial circumstance, rather than some infallible compass which points towards right and away from wrong.

This book is both prefiguring modernism with its contingent morality and the relativity of perspectives but also looks back to precursors such as Sterne and Smollet who punctured convention in every way they could. It also harks back to the medieval view of life as a wheel of fortune. As you rise you are really just gathering the impetus for your next fall.

It would be difficult to list all the targets of Tahckeray's ire but chief among them is the treatment of children: "If people would but leave children to themselves; if teachers would cease to bully them; if parents would not insist on upon directing their thoughts, and dominating their feelings.." Indeed, Becky's immorality is seen to arise from her childhood; as does George Osbourne's narcissism and Amelia's passivity.

The subservient position of women is also highlighted. Women are often trapped by their position in life, particularly by their reliance on a husband or father  for their income, in a world which had no safety net. If you fell, you could very well hit the ground hard. This gives rise to scenes of genuine pathos, such as this featuring George Osbourne's unmarried sister, locked in servitude to her own father, financially comfortable but emotionally parched. "The great glass over the mantle-piece, faced by the other great console glass at the opposite end of the room, increased and multiplied between them the brown Holland bag in which the chandelier hung; until you saw these brown Holland bags fading away in endless perspectives, and this apartment of Miss Osbourne's seemed the centre of a system of drawing rooms. When she removed the cordovan leather from the grand piano, and ventured to play a few notes on it, it sounded with a mournful sadness, startling the dismal echoes of the house."

If there is a weakness in this book it might be the fact that the characterization of the Irish and German in particular veers towards using stereotypes for cheap laughs but this is held in check somewhat by the fact that the Irish O'Dowds are actually presented as among the warmest and most likable families in the book.

Vanity Fair's greatest strength is in its forensic dissection of the society of the time, from top to bottom, cutting deep through the flesh to show the sinews connecting the different levels of society. Servants and Masters; Merchants and Aristocrats; Fathers and Sons; Eldest sons and their younger brothers; etc etc.. He catches the world emerging from feudalism but some distance from democracy and the idea of a Welfare State. I haven't even mentioned a small fraction of the characters who make this picture of society come alive, the book is full of artfully drawn representatives of all classes. And he makes us laugh at it all, and at ourselves. Join in. If you haven't read it, do.


  1. A great book this one, and one which I love for the narrator's tongue-in-cheek control of the story. Thackeray also influenced Trollope greatly, for which I am eternally grateful :) As I recall, my review of this was a little tongue-in-cheek too...


    1. Love your review. I must try Trollope next. Where should I start?

  2. The voice of the book was the great shock for me. I guess I more or less knew about Becky Sharp before I read the book, had I had no idea how much of the "forensic dissection" comes from that sly narrator. A landmark book.

    1. I agree - I thought I knew this book by some sort of cultural osmosis but I was wrong.