Monday, May 11, 2009

Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackery

It took me a while (three weeks!) to get through all 680 pages of this one. When all is said and done, I'm rather ambivalent about the whole thing, but that may have been the very reaction Thackery would have wanted from his readers.

Set in the early to mid-19th century, Vanity Fair traces the adult lives of two very different school chums, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky is the worldly-wise orphan who makes her way in society by her charm and wit. Amelia is a sweet, guileless, and naive girl who spends most of her life wishing for and then mourning her idealized vision of love. A full cast of supporting characters round out the novel's depiction of various levels of British society, but in spite of its breadth and scope, the story seems vastly empty and rather tedious. I suppose it might have been most effective in its original serial publication, as I expect I might have found it more interesting to read the next installment every few weeks or so. As a self-contained novel, however, I thought that it lacked a compelling plot aside from Becky's scheming and Amelia's tragedy.

The subtitle, "A novel without a hero," is very telling, for it is difficult to relate to and even to like most of the characters. I don't think this is simply a matter of distance from the time period. The few characters with whom one can sympathize eventually reveal themselves to be just as shallow and foolish as the rest. Thackery occasionally reveals his intent through the voice of his narrator. Even if it is ironic or tongue in cheek, there is surely an element of truth when he states, "This, dear friends and companions, is my amiable object - to walk with you through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there ; and that we should all come home after the flare, and the noise, and the gaiety, and be perfectly miserable in private." (182) If that's his aim, then it's not surprising that I found the book pointless and empty!

If Thackery intended this as a social commentary or an ironic satire, he very well could have drawn his contemporaries into the intrigues of the characters only to show them all - characters and readers alike - to be fools. In fact, he concludes, "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" (680) If nothing else, this novel reveals the emptiness of pursuing one's own desires and interests. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer any alternative. There is no redemption and no solution to the never-ending cycle of desire and disappointment. I do not regret having read this classic, for it is a telling commentary on its time. But I didn't find it as interesting or enjoyable as other classics, and for moral instruction, the book of Ecclesiastes comes to the point much more quickly.

Don't let my criticisms overshadow the fact that there is a lot of truth in this novel. The truth, at times, is hard to swallow, and in this case Thackery didn't gloss over the selfishness of human nature to make that truth more palatable to his readers, as you'll see in some of the quotations below:

"She was quite a different person from the haughty, shy, dissatisfied little girl whom we have known previously, and this change of temper proved great prudence, a sincere desire of amendment, or at any rate great moral courage on her part. Whether it was the heart which dictated this new system of complaisance and humility adopted by our Rebecca, is to be proved by her after-history. A system of hypocrisy, which lasts through whole years, is one seldom satisfactorily practised by a person of one-and-twenty..." (90)

"Picture to yourself, O fair young reader, a worldly selfish, graceless, thankless religionless old woman, writhing in pain and fear, and without her wig. Picture her to yourself, and ere you be old, learn to love and pray!" (132)

"Amelia had. . .pledged her love irretrievably; confessed her heart away, and got back nothing - only a brittle promise which was snapped and worthless in a moment. A long engagement is a partnership which one party is free to keep or to break, but which involves all the capital of the other." (174)

"She. . .fell to thinking over the past week, and the life beyond it. Already to be looking sadly and vaguely back: always to be pining for something which, when obtained, brought doubt and sadness rather than pleasure: here was the lot of our poor little creature. . ." (251)

"She went and knelt down by the bedside; and there this wounded and timorous, but gentle and loving soul, sought for consolation, where as yet, it must be owned, our little girl had but seldom looked for it. Love had been her faith hitherto; and the sad, bleeding, disappointed heart began to feel the want of another consoler. . . our young lady came downstairs a great deal more cheerful; that she did not despond, or deplore her fate. . .as she had been wont to do of late." (252)

"As long as we have a man's body, we play our Vanities upon it, surrounding it with humbug and ceremonies, laying it in state, and packing it up in gilt nails and velvet; and we finish our duty by placing over it a stone, written all over with lies." (412)

"'It isn't difficult to be a country gentleman's wife,' Rebecca thought. 'I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. . .And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations - an that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? . . .Becky consoled herself by so balancing the chances and equalizing the distribution of good and evil in the world." (414)

"And let us, my brethren. . .console ourselves by thinking comfortably how miserable our betters may be, and that Damocles, who sits on satin cushions, and is served on gold plate, has an awful sword hanging over his head in the shape of a bailiff, or an hereditary disease, or a family secret, which peep out every now and then. . ." (459)

"And in the midst of all these solitary resignations and unseen sacrifices, she did not respect herself any more than the world respected her; but I believe thought in her heart that she was a poor-spirited, despicable little creature, whose luck in life was only too good for her merits. O you poor women! O you poor secret martyrs and victims. . ." (562)

"A new world of love and beauty broke upon her when she was introduced to those divine compositions: this lady had the keenest and finest sensibility, and how could she be indifferent when she heard Mozart?" (613)

"'The child, my child? Oh, yes, my agonies were frightful,' Becky owned, not perhaps without a twinge of conscience. It jarred upon her, to be obliged to commence instantly to tell lies in reply to so much confidence and simplicity. But that is the misfortune of beginning with this kind of forgery. When one fib becomes due as it were, you must forge another to take up the old acceptance; and so the stock of lies in circulation inevitably multiplies, and the danger of detection increases every day." (652)

Worth reading? Yes. Will I reread it someday? Probably not.


Calon Lan said...

Thanks for the review! This is one I haven't yet read and have been putting off for some time. I'm not sure I'll jump into it any time soon, but I'll definitely try to read it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment - I was glad to have read it, but probably won't be up for a re-read anytime soon. Your review reminded me that I wanted to watch the film version and see how they adapted it.

Page Turner said...

Calon Lan, I probaby would have read it later rather than sooner, but I had purchased it when it was on our book club's schedule for movie night.

Carrie, I was wondering about a movie adaptation, too. Our book club was going to watch the recent version with Reese Witherspoon, I think. But they changed the schedule and read/watched Rebecca by du Maurier instead.

Slow Reader said...

Maybe you need to read/think about Vanity Fair with Pilgrim's Progress in mind. It's been a while, but I think I had read PP shortly before reading VF and experienced a thrill of recognition. Go back and read the Vanity Fair portions of PP.

Also, another reason I think I liked VF was that I had heard another book by Thackery read in serial fashion on the radio. This was years ago, on WUOM. It was a treat. I probably, thus, had the reader's voice in my head. Thackery is wordy, but rich. It puts you in another time when people enjoyed the sound of words and the impact of precision.

Reading some of the quotes you cited makes me want to urge you to read Moll Flanders (Daniel Dafoe) and House of Mirth (Edith Wharton) ASAP.

hopeinbrazil said...

I prefer books that are nourishing to the soul so I felt a bit empty after finishing VF. But, like you, I was glad I had read it. Thackery wrote well and had insights into human character, but what a pessimist! (I wonder what his other books are like.)