Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
I have spent the last couple of weeks in Vanity Fair. How have I never read this book before? I bought a copy years ago, probably under some resolution to read more classics, and it has been sitting on the TBR stacks ever since (I've moved it at least twice to new apartments). I knew nothing about Thackeray at the time I bought it. I really became aware of him through Anthony Trollope. Early in his Autobiography Trollope writes,
I had already made up my mind that Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the English language, - a palm which I only partially withdrew after a second reading of Ivanhoe, and did not completely bestow elsewhere till [Henry] Esmond was written.
I had never heard of Henry Esmond, nor did I know it is one of Thackeray's books. I take leave to doubt it is better than Pride and Prejudice (and I'd never rate Ivanhoe that highly), but I'm curious to read it, to see what Trollope might have seen in it. Later in his autobiography, he rates Thackeray first among the "English novelists of the present day" in the chapter of that title, discussing him at some length and noting faults as well as strengths (by the time he wrote, Thackeray had been dead for many years). From reading about Trollope I know that he loved and admired Thackeray, though their relationship had its difficulties.
Even more than Trollope, though, it was John Bunyan who led me finally to read Thackeray, because in The Pilgrim's Progress I found the original Vanity Fair. It is a city on the pilgrims' road, a terrible place of vice and temptation and trial, where Christian's companion Faithful is martyred. Louisa May Alcott uses it as a title for the chapter in Little Women where Meg spends a week with the worldly Moffats, whose luxurious and idle lives make her dissatisfied with her own hard-working one. Unlike Bunyan, Thackeray is not writing a spiritual work, though like Alcott he is a moralist.
When I sat down with Thackeray's Vanity Fair, I knew that it was about Becky Sharp, who is something of an adventuress, and I was expecting a book along the lines of a Victorian Moll Flanders. This book was nothing that I expected, and I was constantly surprised and delighted by it. I think the surprise and sense of discovery came in part because I had never read Thackeray before; with a new author, you don't know what he might do, how far you can trust her. Will he play fair? Is she the kind who will kill off a major character, just when you've gotten attached to her?
My first surprise was that, as entertaining as Becky Sharp's story is, this isn't just her story. Thackeray has a large cast of characters, and like Trollope he moves back and forth between them, following different plot lines. His cast spans all levels of society, including the rising merchant class, the army, and many servants. According to the introduction of my Penguin edition, he is considered a pioneer in the "Realism" school (to which Trollope also belongs), in part because of his inclusiveness. Thackeray explores the place of women in Victorian society, particularly through Becky Sharp and the other main female character, her friend Amelia Sedley, but also through others like the rich and unmarried Miss Crawley and her impoverished companion Miss Briggs. Ambition and greed condemn some women to unhappy marriages, yet he also shows the difficulties unmarried women face, particularly those without financial resources of their own.
The subtitle of this book is "A Novel Without a Hero," which is patently false. There is no mistaking the hero of this novel, even if he is presented unheroically, as ugly and ungainly, always tripping over his own large feet, afflicted with a lisp (I kept picturing Abraham Lincoln). Thackeray laughs at his hero, but then none of his characters is safe from his satirical eye. All of them are flawed, in very human ways, and their flaws are mercilessly exposed, from highest to lowest. Early in the book, he writes,
And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader's sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.
Certainly he "steps down from the platform," he comments freely on his characters and laughs up his sleeve at them, inviting our laughter in turn. Even more than Trollope, his narrative voice is warm and confidential, and he frequently stops the action to address the reader (as in the quote above). Unlike Trollope, though, he has only one character that I think is truly "good and kindly"; the rest are presented as silly at best, if not wicked and heartless. They aren't monsters, I thought them very real and very human, but with a couple of exceptions all are motivated primarily by self-interest. Thackeray doesn't seem to care for his characters as Trollope does, and so while I was interested in them, and concerned about what happened to them, I didn't feel the same connection that I sometimes do, with Trollope.
My second surprise was the setting and scope of this book, including its large and varied cast. I was expecting a Victorian story, but Vanity Fair opens during the Regency, its action spanning fifteen years. I found myself thinking of Georgette Heyer, particularly in a chapter set at Vauxhall. Through two families of merchants, the Osbournes and the Sedleys, Thackeray tracks economic changes, including the India trade. He is also very interested in how people of limited means maintain themselves, particuarly those in the upper levels of society (or who aspire to those levels). Two of the main characters are in the Army, and eventually the story takes us to Belgium and the Battle of Waterloo. Thackeray proclaims that he is not a military historian, so we stay behind, in Brussels, watching the great events unfold amidst the crowd of British civilians who followed the army to Belgium. (According to the Penguin introduction, this section of the book had a major influence on Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.) Later, several characters take an extended tour of Europe, spending some time in the German Duchy of Pumpernickel - an affectionate tribute to Weimar, where Thackeray himself lived for several months. While he of course presents a comic portrait of English expatriates, it is also an interesting picture of life in Germany, before the tensions that later arose between the two countries.
From the little I have read about Thackeray, there seems to be a consensus that Vanity Fair is by far the best of his novels (Trollope may be alone in his appreciation of Henry Esmond). If that's so, I can't be sorry that I started with the best, and I am looking forward to reading more of his work.