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