Book reviews

My re-read of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was a delight from start to finish.

Thackeray was a writer who knew what made people tick. The characters in Vanity Fair had hopes and dreams and ambitions, they loved and hated without reason, sometimes they were foolish and at other times wise, some were known for their kind hearts and generosity while others were renowned for their greed and selfish behaviour. They took their revenge on those who slighted them, cheated each other without remorse and every single one of them wanted more than what they had, be it affection, money or a higher position in society.

The subtitle of Vanity Fair is A Novel Without a Hero, but Becky Sharp is the character I most associate with the book which made her the book’s hero for me. When the narrator wasn’t observing and commenting on what Becky was up to the story followed Becky’s fellow characters, including the pretty but sappy Amelia Sedley and her philandering husband George Osborne, faithful Captain William Dobbin, Becky’s handsome but dopey husband Rawdon Crawley or various other minor characters, but regardless of whose story was being told at any particular time I was always wondering what Becky was up to.

Another way to look at the novel’s subtitle is to focus on the word hero, which is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

A hero is a real person or a main fictional character who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength.

By this definition, all of the main characters could be considered to be a hero.

Amelia loved her husband George with a heroic strength, despite him not being worthy of her faith in him. After George’s death Amelia sacrificed herself to do the best for their son and for her parents, who had been ruined financially and socially by George’s father.

George, despite asking Becky to run away with him just six weeks into his marriage, died heroically on the battlefield at Waterloo.

Captain Dobbin secretly provided financially for Amelia and her son despite his love for her not being returned and he was a brave soldier and a good man, in other words; an unsung hero.

Becky’s husband and partner in crime Rawdon Crawley was also a brave soldier, who found the courage to separate from his wife when he realised she would never put his or their son’s interests before her own.

And then we come to Becky, who always did what she needed to do to survive and better herself. When it came to achieving her goals for herself, Becky was ingenious, courageous and strong, all of the traits the dictionary said made someone a hero. The flip-side of these characteristics was that Becky was also grasping, self-serving and cruel.

The story began with Amelia and Becky finishing and leaving school together. Amelia was pretty, rich and a friend to all, but Becky, as the orphaned daughter of the school’s art teacher and a French dancer was a charity case, and despised for her sly ways and sharp tongue by everyone except Amelia, who always believed the best of everyone.

Initially Becky was only to spend a few weeks with Amelia and her family before becoming a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley and his family, but it didn’t take long for Becky to recognise an opportunity and try to form a connection with Amelia’s older brother, Joseph Sedley. Through no fault of her own, Becky couldn’t quite manage to get Joseph to propose to her.

I was amused when Mr Sedley’s recognised and commented on Becky’s intentions towards Joseph and by Mrs Sedley’s motherly outrage in anyone thinking themselves good enough for her son. I was less amused by Mr Sedley telling his wife that Becky would be more acceptable to him as a daughter-in-law than a black woman, which he thought might happen if Joseph wasn’t caught by Becky, but I also recognise that these opinions were typical of the times when the book was written. For readers who are outraged by racism, there is plenty of it in Vanity Fair. I would also like to point out though, that Thackeray at least included black people in his books. Most other writers of this time didn’t.

After failing to snare Joseph, Becky left the Sedley household under a cloud and travelled to Queen’s Crawley where she became governess to two little girls, and invaluable to the elderly, cantankerous and wealthy Sir Pitt Crawley, despite his wife’s presence.

The only time Becky cried real tears in this entire story was after Lady Crawley died and she had to refuse Sir Pitt’s offer of marriage because she had just secretly married Sit Pitt’s second son Rawdon, who was expected to inherit a fortune from his fabulously rich aunt after her death.

Unfortunately for Becky and Rawdon, Rawdon was disinherited by his aunt when she learned of their secret marriage. Their straightened circumstances led the newly-weds into a life of constantly striving to keep up socially without any financial means.

The story then moved to Brussels with the British Army, where Becky and Rawdon met up with George Osborne and his bride of six weeks, Amelia. George and Amelia had married even though George’s father had financially ruined Amelia’s father and forbidden his son to marry Amelia, even though their parents had planned their wedding in George and Amelia’s childhood. Amelia’s whole heart belonged to her husband, but George’s heart only belonged to the image he saw reflected in his mirror. I found it hard to understand why Amelia loved George, but that’s the thing about love, sometimes who loves who just doesn’t make sense.

The Osborne’s constant companion was Captain William Dobbin, who had been George’s friend and protector since they were in school together.

When George died in the Battle of Waterloo before he and his father were reconciled, Amelia was left penniless to bring up their young son alone and take care of her destitute parents. Amelia’s only true friend was William Dobbin, although she didn’t know it or value him as she should have.

Meanwhile, Becky and Rawdon returned to London to live the high life on credit. As a team they were successful, Becky enticed gullible men into their circle for Rawdon to fleece at cards. In due course Becky rose to the top of London’s society by virtue of her good looks, her wit and her charm, and with the help of an influential admirer.

Eventually though, Becky pushed her luck too far and the whole house of cards fell down.

I loved the narrator’s voice throughout this whole story. He saw everything; was both judgmental and admiring of his characters, who he described as his marionettes. His voice was heard on every page of the story. He was often particularly hard on Becky but if I could argue with him, I’d say that in her defence, she did what she had to do to survive and improve on her situation.

While the story was a re-read for me it has been around thirty-five years since I’ve read Vanity Fair. I was surprised by how much of the story and the characters that I remembered. My definition of a classic is a story that is remembered long after it has been read and think this would have been true of this story the day it was written.

My copy isn’t the edition with the beautiful cover that I’ve used to head this post, but an old copy that I bought at a second-hand bookshop in a small country town on the south coast of NSW many years ago. During my lunch break in my first job I often went across the road to this bookshop to spend my pay packet on books.

I read Vanity Fair as part of a review-along with FictionFan and a number of other bloggers. I’ll post links to their reviews below as they are posted.

FictionFan:

Madamebibliophile:

Jane, Just Reading a Book:

LouLouReads:

Sandra from A Corner of Cornwall:

Vanity Fair was book thirty two in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2022.

Comments on: "Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray" (25)

  1. Haha, great review and I’m so glad you’re in Team Becky too! I’ve argued that none of the men are heroes but you make an excellent point that they all have some heroic qualities – hmm, I may have to apologise to them all. I must say I’ve always had a sneaking liking for Rawdon too. He was kind to their son, and was brave both in battle and in standing up to Lord Steyne. I always wish he’d had a happier ending. And Jos! I’d kind of forgotten what happened to Jos! But the real heroine is definitely Becky – she’s one of the most wonderful females in all classic fiction! Looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say – wonder if anyone will be on Team Emmy… πŸ˜€

    • Do you think anyone is actually Team Amelia? I’m excited to find out…
      Rawdon was my favourite of the men, too. Probably because he was loyal to Becky, at least until he got to the point where he’d had enough!
      Jos was forgettable, only there to be used much like Miss Briggs.

      • Jane seems to be kinder about Emmy than we were! We’ll talk her out of it though… πŸ˜‰ Miss Briggs was the one I felt sorriest for. Being a companion must have been the worst job in the world.

        • I think Miss Briggs had a trade-off that she was happy with. She was close to the razzle-dazzle with Becky and Rawdon.
          But poor Mr Raggles! He lost everything.

        • haha!! I just think she was the perfect foil and I was thinking as well (after reading FF’s review) that Thackeray might have been having a bit of fun with heroines of the time – Dora Copperfield etc. and the whole Angel in the parlour thing. Her mooning around George’s portrait was very annoying, I don’t know why Dobbin hung around, and her treatment towards her son was absolutely ghastly. I think Lady Jane saves the day by having all the children around her in the countryside with plenty of books and fresh air!

          • I don’t understand why so many of the men adored Amelia, either! When I cry I get red and blotchy. Amelia must be able to ‘cry pretty.’

          • But remember Lady Jane helped Sir Pitt to persuade Miss Crawley to leave him all the money that had been promised to Rawdon. If it wasn’t for Jane, Becky might have been rich and then she could have afforded to be good too… πŸ˜‰

          • Yes, the idea of being good when you can afford to be is funny, not much has changed since then I wouldn’t think!

  2. I see you’re in agreement with Fiction Fan. Becky wins the day!

    • Becky is such a great contrast to Amelia, who cries and waits to be rescued. I love that Becky rescues herself, even though she hurts others in the process.
      Thanks for commenting! We’re waiting to see if other readers are Team Becky or Team Emmy πŸ™‚

  3. Great review – I’m so impressed you gave an overview of the plot – I didn’t even attempt it, given the size of the novel! I totally agree about the authorial voice, he clearly really enjoys his characters even as he sits in judgement on them. How lovely that you still have your copy from all those years ago.

    • I missed so much out! And reading everyone else’s review makes me see all the points I missed, but I think we’ve all agreed that the narrator’s voice has been a highlight.
      My poor old copy is falling apart, but I’m glad to have it πŸ™‚

      • I love your old copy too and your story of buying it, brilliant! I couldn’t reply to FF above about Lady Jane so have to put it here – I had forgotten that she helped persuade Miss Crawley but there we go a women of her time! It is so true about being able to afford to be good, wise words!

        • Thank you! What I didn’t spend on books back then I spent on clothes, but all this time later I still have the books πŸ™‚
          The funny thing about being rich and good is that I think it would be easier to be rich and bad, you’d have more opportunities!

  4. […] Fiction-Fan’s reviewRose’s review […]

  5. Well I am team Becky and team Rawdon and I wonder if Becky actually wishes she hadn’t dumped him as I think she has some respect for him after he rages against Lord Steyn, it’s his passive nature that bores her. I loved your review Rose, a good idea to look at ‘hero’ and you do argue a case for them all! A really brilliant book that I’m so glad I’ve read at last

    • I think Becky’s pride must have been hurt by Rawdon dumping her. She should have bailed him out in the first place, he was always there for her even though he had probably taken her as far as he could go. Probably a lucky escape for him though, as he could have ended up being ‘helped’ to his death like Jos was, so she could move on to Lord Steyne.
      I think we’ve all enjoyed Vanity Fair πŸ™‚

  6. I am (as ever) late to the party but my review will be up tomorrow and I’m slightly scared! Yours is a great review, Rose, and I like how you’ve identified the hero in many characters. I also picked out the racist references. They don’t normally bother me when reading a book with references that are appropriate for their time but I found the many references in VF got me quite cross! The reason I’m scared? I didn’t react as everyone else has – Thackeray’s society is so nasty and I really, I just want everyone to be nice! πŸ˜‚ Though she certainly annoyed me, I think I’m more Emmy than Becky. Emmy & I have feebleness in common I think!

    • I’m so looking forward to your review, Sandra. I’m not surprised you’re Team Emmy, you’re reviews are always thought-provoking and well-reasoned.
      I didn’t think about the society being nasty, but you’re right, it was. Perhaps I didn’t recognise that because the reader feels as if they are on the same side as the narrator, so are on the ‘right’ side.
      I doubt that you’re feeble in any way! Emmy was kind and you’re probably relating to that (although I do think she was gullible).

  7. Great review! I love the way that you’ve looked at different elements of heroism in the different characters. I think one of the strongest elements of the book is that there is no character who is all bad (with the possible exceptions of Osbourne senior and Lord Steyne), and certainly no character who is all good. I’m a bit less forgiving of Becky than you, though I agree that her options were very limited, and I like the way that Thackeray really drew attention to that.

    • You’re right, none of the characters were all good or all bad. Osborne snr was more bad than good, but he loved his son and grandson. Lord Steyne bailed out Miss Briggs, so he had some good in him.
      Perhaps if I’d re-read this more recently (as you had) the nastiness and unkindness might have struck me more than it did, but I was so busy being entertained that I didn’t judge the poorer behaviour the way I hope I would if it occurred in real life.

  8. […] Rose’s review […]

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