Trying to write about William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair without mentioning how long it is would be like trying to write about ice cream without mentioning that it’s cold: you could discuss a lot of your opinions about it, but you’d be missing out one of its key features. It took me over two months to read, though in my defence I had one dying parent, two jobs, four Oxford interviews and two other books to read during that time. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which trying to write a concise review of a tome that defies brevity at nearly every turn is a fantastically difficult task as well as an ironic one.
(It’s a shame too because in an ideal world I would have used the first paragraph to talk about the subheading of the book: “A Novel Without A Hero”. I am a sucker for a subheading – it’s like a handy hint from the author, a small nudge saying “as you read it, try looking at it from this perspective”. I had a wonderful chat with an Oxford tutor about it, actually, and it really focuses the readers attentions on the characters and their individual traits and arcs in the story, which I shall discuss on more detail below.)
Quick warning: I will be mentioning major plot details in order to discuss the book properly. I would’ve enjoyed the book far less if some of these things had not been such shocking narrative revelations, so if you haven’t read the book yet but plan to, this is your spoiler warning (for a book that’s over 150 years old but you never know!) My basic sentiment for the novel revolves around a curious debate in my head – can you consider a book to have merit if it has serious shortcomings in some areas that you’re willing to overlook if other areas of the writing are completely fantastic and/or commendable due to artistic bravery?
One significant positive is the style of narration Thackeray employs throughout the book. Almost from the first page you’re hooked by his direct address, nods and winks towards the characters and situations, his blatant foreshadowing and teasing of the reader, and his occasional lapses into explicitly didactic monologues. He often asserts the factual nature of the events he is relaying to the reader (a nice touch by the way – loved it in Fargo and I loved it here too) which makes the reader more willing to give themselves over to the reality that Thackeray is conjuring for them. However, as the book progresses there are a few passages where you wish Thackeray would stop going off on tangents and get to the point already because he’s waffled for half a page about this and that and none of it really seems to matter all that much to the story he’s supposedly trying to relate.
One way area where this really becomes manifest is in his world-building. Have you ever watched a film where the first 20 minutes is basically a bunch of characters spouting as many character and place names and events as they possibly can to catch the viewer up to speed on the history of that universe so they can start the story? Imagine that, but sustained over the length of about 800 of a book’s 950 pages. There are at least two chapters, most notably the chapter where Becky first moves to the Crawley household, that are just character names and backstory and dense exposition that has to be crammed in before the story can progress, and it’s exhausting to read – especially when characters that share surnames have crucial character traits stated within paragraphs of each other. The multitude of barely-mentioned character names and situations pile up as the novel progresses, and whilst it’s very sweet of Thackeray to have so much faith in my reading abilities to track of all those threads, it does get a little silly. But then again, it can easily be argued that it all helps make the world of Vanity Fair richly textured, as if the world extends far beyond the scope of the story Thackeray is telling.
Thematically, Thackeray tackles everything from love’s position in high society to the dangers of social aspiration with real vigour, clearly having lots of ideas he wants to get down on a broad range of topics. Even at his most blatantly preachy, Thackeray still manages to make even the weightiest themes really entertaining to read. I am, however, growing weary of “who does/doesn’t have money” being such a crucial plot device in so much Victorian fiction…I recognise it was an important feature of society at the time, but it’s incredibly boring to me because it bears little relation to what makes the characters interesting: the way they think and feel, the things they do or say, how they relate to and conduct themselves around their fellow characters. That said, one fascinating portion of the book details how Becky and Rawdon manage to live comfortably on “nothing a year”, and the effects this has on those around them who end up, in one way or another, footing the bill. Thackeray somehow manages to make this interesting through writing that is so fantastic, it goes a long way to pushing the novel towards greatness in my eyes.
Coming back to that subtitle, though; “A Novel Without A Hero” is actually a pretty bold claim for Thackeray to make, especially seen as he’s written a novel with not one but two key protagonists, as well as a host of supporting characters – but it seems to me that Thackeray has pulled it off. To fully explain why, I’ll focus on the two protagonists, who are so rich, complex and well-written that they deserve a paragraph each (sidenote – how often do you get to say that about a book with even one female lead character, let alone two?).
At the outset the two protagonists appear at more or less the same time, but it is Becky who steals the show as the more likeable character – she’s clearly an underdog, fun and quick-witted, sassy but risky, and as a reader you find yourself curious to see what journey of progress she charts over the ensuing 900 pages. Perhaps the greatest stroke of brilliance Thackeray displays in this novel is to get you on her side so quickly in those opening pages, and then to toy with those allegiances through the novel as Becky’s moral corruption worsens through her actions. Thackeray does a wonderful job of making her actions seem reasonable to her and many characters around her, and showing her due sympathy when things go wrong for her, while also condemning her actions through narrative retribution (eventually) and other characters disreputable opinions of her (more immediately). I think the turning point for me in my opinion of her character was her treatment of her son – everything up until then was fun and games to me, but as soon as innocent people started to suffer I realised Thackeray’s genius in writing her character. His constant reference to her as the “little woman” shows how petty and pitiful all her scheming really is. Her husband’s character arc is almost the obverse of her own – he starts off pretty repulsive, but you end up feeling fantastically sorry for him, even though he also receives a great deal of narrative retribution. His character development also strengthens the development of Becky’s character, given how she brings about his dramatic shifts in character.
By contrast, Amelia is, to the casual eye, completely blameless in all of this. Her simple, kind nature and devotedness to her loved ones makes her quite lovely in the eyes of the reader and of her fellow characters, especially in contrast to Becky’s “artless” and often devious behaviour. Furthermore, the way she endures times of trial so stoically threatens to turn her into a heroine, which would be a cardinal sin against the subtitle of the book! But Amelia is more complex than that – as the novel progresses, Thackeray becomes quite open in condemning Amelia’s simple nature. He damns her lack of thoughtfulness for wider consequences by mocking her undying, unthinking devotion to her son and her husband, making neither of them worthy of the adoration and servitude she bestows on them. She is quick to idolise and slow to catch on which, although annoying, wouldn’t quite be enough to keep her from attaining heroine status in and of itself. But her true nature when it’s revealed at the end of the novel is actually rather a shock, but the best kind of shock: it makes you see much of the novel in a very different light, and even allows for Becky’s character to be reevaluated a little (say what you want about Becky and her actions, but at least she is honest enough to herself to realise how and why she schemes as she does).
The places where her storyline intersects with Amelia’s confuse me, though. I don’t think it had any more impact that it was Becky who corrupted George and Amelia’s marriage than if it had happened some other way, although it feels like it should. I like how their storylines contrast, but Thackeray does little to smooth out the transition when he swaps between storylines, often seeming to forget major characters for long stretches of the book. This is especially evident towards the end of the novel, when the story focusses on Amelia to the almost total exclusion of Becky, and you’re sort of left wondering why she hasn’t turned up in a while.
While writing this review, I’ve realised that there is a great deal to like about this novel, and yet for some reason I don’t like it overall. I think this is due to the structure of the story: yes, the selfsame structure that makes the novel great just wasn’t that fun or interesting to me as I read it. This is quite clearly a novel of two halves: the first half is very funny and lighthearted (I laughed out loud many times, people in public judged me), and then the death of a major character almost exactly midway through the novel ushers in a second half of despair and bleakness, of comeuppances and unpleasantries, with much more heavy handed moral instruction coming to the fore. The weight of the sheer volume of characters, of villains and almost-heroes, of plot mechanics and sermons, of beautiful prose and horrible exposition, eventually weighs the book down so that, in my view, Thackeray threatens to undo all the good that came before that halfway stage. I would be lying if I said the final 20 pages didn’t excite me, but on reflection that excitement was fleeting, and false, and unearned by the characters that the author had woven throughout his narrative. Even Lemony Snicket knew that his job as an author was “not to weave happy endings where they do not occur”, and I think Thackeray could have benefitted from such sage advice. But even Thackeray himself recognises the artifice of his story, closing as he does on the following line:
…come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.