Great Novel No. 12: “Vanity Fair”

Vanity Fair: A Novel Without A Hero

by William Makepeace Thackeray


William Makepeace Thackeray is, I read on the internet, best remembered for this novel, a satirical attack on Victorian society’s obsession with status, wealth, and reputation. But for the last few weeks as I carried the hefty tome around with me, and people would ask what I was reading, they didn’t seem to recognize the title. One even said after I explained, “I knew it couldn’t have been the magazine.”

Published serially from 1847 to 1848, Vanity Fair uses its title to allude to the first item on my 100 Great Novels list, with Thackeray constantly using the moniker to refer to the world as we have made it. The world where a person’s class matters more than their character. Where if people are poor they at least have each other; but if they are rich they have nothing but enemies.

It is subtitled “A Novel Without A Hero”, and though there are several characters who earn our sympathy, none of them truly earn our respect. The sympathetic are also presented as being a little naive, and the odious have few if any redeeming qualities, not counting their cunning and guile.

Two girls leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. One is Amelia Sedley: kindhearted, good-natured, but a bit simple. The other is Rebecca (Becky) Sharp: resentful, selfish, but determined to make her way despite her social disadvantages. The plot of the novel charts the course of these two girls’ lives, as one makes her calculated rise to the very highest levels of society while the other manages only to survive as best she can. They each marry, though with different aims. They are each strong in their own way. Which one is more satisfied in the fruit of their lives? The novel leaves the answer for us to supply.

Becky Sharp is certainly hailed by literary critics as one of the best creations of Victorian literature. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced of that. There is a certain schadenfreude in seeing her deceits practiced successfully on others, and seeing how she wriggles out of difficult situations. But Thackeray takes an interesting approach to Becky — and really to all the characters — which results in never getting to know just who she is. Very few passages actually get into people’s heads; the author instead only hints at their real motivations with nudges and winks, rarely revealing the inner thoughts behind their actions. The effect is to see everything people do, to suspect that what we see may be performance, and to never know for sure if we have seen the true state of affairs.

About halfway through the book, there comes a chapter where a certain character dies. The body is kept in a room at the end of a hall, and Thackeray tells how the children of the house run past the corridor, never daring to dart a glance in its direction, falling silent in their play — avoiding the awful truth. Thackeray does much the same when it comes to revealing character. He calls his story a “puppet show” a couple of times and likens his characters to figures out of a box. This seems to belie the usual assessment of him as a writer in the realist vein (especially when set against Dickens who writes sentimentally and more colourfully).

Also, with this novel I began to think about a curious feature of Victorian literature. Perhaps it’s nothing, but I find it interesting how much of it is set before the Victorian era. We analyze Thackeray’s work as satire of the society in which he lived, but much of the action takes place decades earlier during the Napoleonic wars. Other Victorian novels often do the same, especially ones which style themselves as Bildungsroman (novels that trace the growth of a main character from childhood to maturity) and thus act as a kind of fictional biography which ends in the novel’s contemporary time. There are usually explanations for this as well; we learn late in Vanity Fair that Thackeray-as-narrator “met” some of the characters in the novel and heard their history, deciding to write it down and publish it. Or the story is carried forward by letters and diary entries, written in the past and now collected into a narrative.

Vanity Fair ultimately left me liking it, though not loving it. Never once for its 800 pages did I consider putting it aside, and it certainly proved to be a page-turner at times. I probably won’t be reading it again very soon, but I’ll never say never. My one regret: that I didn’t read an edition containing Thackeray’s own illustrations for the original publication, whatever people may say about their quality.

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