Saturday, 24 November 2012

Vanity Fair

I want to start by mentioning the recently released Penguin English Library books which are absolutely beautiful. Unlike most penguin books which sport black spines, the new books are brightly coloured and feature a different design and colour for each book. The collection is basically 100 of the best novels written in the English language and lots of relatively unknown books are included which is great because I find these are often quite difficult to get hold of. 
But, Vanity Fair. Where to start? My initial reaction to Thackeray's 1840s novel was that it was terrible. Absolutely awful. Any story line he tried to include fell flat, soon withered away into nothing and was quickly forgotten about - never good with such a large book (it's about 900 pages long), but that was my lasting memory when I finished the book. I would give an overview of the plot but it doesn't really exist so I'll just type up the blurb: Becky Sharp is sly, cunning and will do anything for money and power, while her friend Amelia Sedley is good-natured but naive. In this scandalous tale of murder  wealth and social climbing, the two women's fortunes cross as they search for love and success across nineteenth-century Europe in the Napoleonic Wars.
"A novel without a hero"
With most books I think it helps if you actually like the characters but with Vanity Fair it was made almost impossible. I do think this was Thackeray's intention with the majority of the characters though, with the exception of Dobbin perhaps. Dobbin, it is made clear, cannot be a part of Vanity Fair (an invention of Thackeray's meant to reflect the upper-class circles) due to the large size of his feet, and so really lives in a different world to the other characters - although by the end even social-climbing rat Becky Sharp admits that she would consider Dobbin a worthy husband, despite his feet. It is clear that Dobbin's character is supposed to be likable and a mockery of society, I think Thackeray was trying to show Victorian people what they should be like because in comparison to the other characters he's described like some kind of God-like hero, and to begin with I did see him like this and I respected him, wanting him to make the best of situations and succeed by the end of the novel. But, to be honest, by the end I was just exasperated with him and his infatuation with the wimpy and unrealistic Amelia (also known as Emmy), although I did come to like him a bit more when he finally stood up for himself against Amelia's using of his love for her. I've read in quite a few places that other readers believe Amelia to have been Thackeray's favourite character, and its quite possible considering she was supposedly based on his wife, however, she is often presented as weak and annoying and to be honest I think Thackeray's real opinion of her is shown in his last words about her; he calls her a "parasite". I think that's a pretty accurate description to be honest since she can't survive without the love of a man and spends her whole life mourning her loathsome husband who was obviously cheating on his wife with Emmy's 'best friend', Becky Sharp.  Of course this little bit of action and intrigue made me anticipate some action - finally!! (at this point I was only about 350 pages through and already despairing) but no poor little Emmy just cried in Becky's arms. Thackeray has to be kidding right?? But no, the book goes on in this way for a full 800 pages before a tiny bit of action in the last 100, although using the word action is probably being a little generous. Even the murder mentioned on the back cover, the thought of which had kept me reading for 750 pages before, was only alluded to in a couple of paragraphs a few pages from the end. The ending is just a little rushed, to say the least.
Becky Sharp "living from nothing"
Although it probably doesn't sound like it, I hate to only look at the bad points of a book and Vanity Fair appears to be well loved so there must be some positives, right? So the other day I was thinking about it and decided that Thackeray's odd way of including major, life changing events and then almost skimming over them to make it appear like nothing happened must have some purpose. I see Vanity Fair as more of a social commentary than a conventional novel, so it's possible the glossing over of events was intended as a reflection of society covering up all the scandal that went on and was intended to make a mockery of this. The book also reminded me strongly of The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde (it was actually quite helpful to draw similarities between the two since I'm currently studying the play for my A-level course work) and the book is supposed to be satirical, only I found that I had to physically be looking for funny moments in order to notice them and, even then, only a few caused a wry smile - although I suppose it does take a lot for a book to make a laugh - but I think this was emphasised because the book is a bit outdated now.
Also, it is true that Vanity Fair would have been revolutionary in the Victorian era, for Becky Sharp - no matter how evil and utterly unlikable she was - to be in control of her husband and able to social climb from being the daughter of an artist and french dancer (very much frowned upon), to achieve being in the company of royals would have been a completely new idea. Everything Thackeray included can be linked back to making a mockery of society, so at the time I'm sure it was hilarious - that or absolutely shocking, although I suppose it was probably considered to be both. 
So in the end I would say that the problem I had with Vanity Fair was that it hasn't stood the test of time. To make fun of society is all very well and good, but I don't think this allows the book to apply to future generations - there are probably many moments that were hilarious at the time that completely went over my head. I must say, though, the book is very well written and Thackeray refreshingly uses the old style of addressing the reader which I liked, it almost makes you feel like you're a part of all the action - or in this case lack of it. But, to be honest, I don't think this is a book I will be reading again in a hurry, although 'never say never'.

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