I always forget, when not reading the classics, that the reason they are classics is because they are very, very good. Yes, they take a little more energy to engage with, but it’s absolutely worth it.
I read Vanity Fair because I’d been meaning to for years, and finally mustered the enthusiasm. Then I read it voraciously and rapidly, because once I was past the initial reluctance, I was hooked. This happens every time I pick up something highly regarded but ostensibly dull, and I really should learn from this.
Vanity Fair is a novel about society, about the social whirl and dull practicalities, about hypocrisy and sincerity. It’s got a large scope. To discuss these issues, the author uses the continuing allegory of society as a fair (hence the title) and displays to the reader the lives of two women. Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley are the major characters (though Miss Sharp tends to take top billing when people talk about the book, which is a little unfair). Through showing the alternating falls and rises in their fortunes, Thackeray gets to satirise 19th Century society and its pretensions.
Amelia is sweet and wealthy and not too bright. Becky is hard and poor and very intelligent. You could, if you wanted to over-simplify it, see one of them as embodying everything that 19th Century society said it should be, and the other as everything it actually was. Amelia clings to sentiment long past the point of practicality, and Becky discarded sentiment long ago.
It’s a really good book. It deserves to be a classic. It’s very long and detailed, and yet it still manages to be endlessly engrossing. I found myself going through the full gamut of human emotions as I went through it, having expectations confounded at every turn.
The general pattern of Victorian fiction is clear. Most of the time, you can call from the first few chapters exactly who is going to succeed and who is going to die of T.B. Faithless women are going to die, probably immediately after confessing their sins to innocent children. Grave young men who did the right thing will get the girl, who will have a stainless character despite the privations she has suffered through. It’s formulaic and moralising and I love it.
Vanity Fair is totally aware of this formula, and totally happy to subvert it. The world, Thackeray suggests, is mostly unfair, and your own virtues have little to do with your eventual fortunes. It’s shocking and refreshing to read an author who is so deliberately discarding the moralising veneer and showing a society that pretends to civility and grace but is actually just politely cut-throat.
One thing in fiction that I am a huge fan of is an intrusive narrator. I understand that they aren’t fashionable any more, but I don’t care. Properly done, such a narrator only adds to a book – the action remains undiminished, but you get a second viewpoint on anything. Thackeray uses his narrator to great effect, elaborating on or obscuring details where appropriate, and adding satirical stings that really hit home. It’s one of the only books I’ve read in recent years that made me regularly laugh aloud.
It’s not just funny though. The author has a real talent for sharply bringing reality back in. There will be a chapter filled entirely with laughing at the social pretensions of the nouveau riche, or the creative accounting of the glamorous poor. It’s ridiculous and amusing and enjoyable. And then a single sentence hits like a hammer blow, ripping your guts out and dragging you back to reality. Vanity Fair is not a comedy, it is satire, and it will make you ashamed of your faults and your callousness.
Again, it’s very good. It’s enjoyable and affecting in turns, and absolutely worth reading.
Buy it here. Or get it free on Kindle, because it’s out of copyright.