Review – Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

I was soooooooooooooooo disappointed by this. The preponderance of ‘o’s is completely justified, by the way, because I was enormously looking forward to reading it. It ticked all the boxes, for me – Victorian fiction, strong heroine, doorstop of a novel, grand themes of love and war.

Well. I’m going to try my hardest to be fair. I mean, it wasn’t terrible. Things I liked about it:

  • Thackeray’s sense of humour. You’d think I would have learned by now, but I’m always surprised at how darn funny the great Victorian novelists are. There were points in this at which I laughed out loud, mainly at his tongue-in-cheek observations about the crassness of humanity (whenever they’re on the right side of a sneer, anyway). Becky’s son, calling her out on her shamelessly hypocritical behaviour, is a particular highlight: ‘For Rebecca, seeing that tenderness was the fashion, called Rawdon to her one evening and stooped down and kissed him in the presence of all the ladies. He looked her full in the face after the operation, trembling and turning very red, as his wont was when moved. “You never kiss me at home, Mamma,” he said, at which there was a general silence and consternation and a by no means pleasant look in Becky’s eyes.’
  • The rather post-modern self-awareness of his form also felt like a private joke, but one in which the reader is included – you can’t help but feel that he is poking fun at himself and at our expectations, for example when he notes that ‘The causes which had led to the deplorable illness of Miss Crawley, and her departure from her brother’s house in the country, were of such an unromantic nature that they are hardly fit to be explained in this genteel and sentimental novel.’ There’s also a very short chapter, near the beginning, which I’m fairly confident was written at the last minute before that week’s deadline (this, like so many of the massive Victorian novels, was written for serialisation), and quite possible in the throes of a hangover.
  • Contemporary(ish) commentary. Although written some 50 years later, the novel is set at and around the time of the Battle of Waterloo (indeed, the battle itself provides a major plot point which I’ll try not to give away), and occasionally gems like this are dropped in: ‘”That was the most beautiful part of dear Lord Nelson’s character,” Miss Crawley said. “He went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that.”‘ Superb.
  • The comparative lack of ‘battlefield analysis’. Although this is a novel of the Napoleonic Wars, it dwells very little on actual warfare (‘We do not claim to rank among the military novelists,’ says Thackeray; ‘Our place is with the non-combatants’.). It may sound odd to like a novel for a distinct lack of something (and I’ll leave it to you to determine whether I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here), but I’m currently reading War and Peace and – although it’s kicking Thackeray’s a$$ in all other respects – the ‘war’ chapters do have their moments.

So, yes, very funny, very clever, a great achievement, etc. BUT. Oh. my. Goodness. Can we please talk for a moment about how badly Thackeray treats his characters?

Let’s start with poor Becky Sharp. I mean that literally, by the way. Here is a girl without money or family, and with only her wits (and one or two other attributes) to rely on. Vanity Fair is famously subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Hero’, and so I assumed – perhaps foolishly – that it would be full of heroines, instead. Nope, not allowed. Thackeray HATES women. They are all presented as either grasping harridans, or slavish nincompoops (see: Amelia’s devotion to George; ‘it was only when George was spoken of that she listened, and when he was not mentioned, she thought about him.’ Yuck.). I don’t think Thackeray has much time for men either, but he seems to reserve special ire for poor Becky. And I know, we’re not really supposed to sympathise with her; she does dreadful things, uses people and then throws them away, even flirting with the husband of her best friend for no apparent reason other than for sport. And she is an appalling parent. But she’s smart, and a born survivor, and almost everything she does is – rightly or wrongly (OK, OK, it’s wrongly) – in the name of necessity, an attempt to support herself and her family. As she herself says, ‘”I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.”‘

I sort of knew most of that about Becky before I started. But I think I was expecting Thackeray to present her, warts and all, with a kind of amused complicity – maybe even a grudging respect. There are flashes of that, particularly towards the beginning; but for most of the novel, if it’s there, it’s buried pretty deep.

Thackeray’s contempt isn’t limited to his main character, though; and this is another thing which I found more and more wearing as the novel rumbled on. His snide asides, sprinkled through the chapters, about ‘vanity fair’ (a near-synonym for civilised society) and how badly-behaved we all are, start out as caustically funny, but by the end are mildly-and-increasingly uncomfortable – like the elderly uncle who sits in the corner and says inappropriate things at Christmas. Like this misogynistic trio:

  • ‘Who has not seen how women bully women? What tortures have men to endure, comparable to those daily repeated shafts of scorn and cruelty with which poor women are riddled by the tyrants of their sex?’
  • ‘Women only know how to wound so. there is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon.’
  • ‘Oh, those women! They nurse and cuddle their presentiments, and make darlings of their ugliest thoughts, as they do of their deformed children.’

Really? Really, though? I don’t even think these are the worst. I only know that by the end, every time I came across one of these, I involuntarily muttered nasty things at the narrator. Since a lot of my reading happens on public transport, I suspect this came across as frankly antisocial.

I think in the end that was my problem with this. I’ve read novels with unlikeable characters, and loved them (the novels, I mean. And actually sometimes the characters as well). A good novel with no likeable characters is harder, but I think they do exist. A novel where the narrator sneers at the characters, and by extension the rest of us, all the way through….900 pages is a long, long time to be in the presence of a voice so out of love with the world. Too long, for me.

**

Review – The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, and Sweet Caress by William Boyd

I’ve said elsewhere that I really liked The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant. I read it on holiday, and liked it enough to go to Barnes and Noble and seek out – although not, in the end, buy (luggage allowance) – a couple of her other titles.

Superficially, it reminded me a lot of Sweet Caress by William Boyd. Both purport to tell the story of a woman, born more or less at the turn of the last century, and trying to navigate her way through the twentieth century and whatever that meant. The fact that the two novels are really nothing alike is a testament to both the century and the writers; as Boyd has his main character note, however full a life one lives these days, the world is so complex that we’re always going to feel as if ‘the century was galloping away without us’. However, one of these novels surprised me in a good way and one disappointed me, so I thought I’d deal with them together to soften the blow.

Let’s deal with the problem child first. I liked ‘Any Human Heart’ (I read it before the miniseries, thank you very much), and I also liked Boyd’s lesser-known but similar-format ‘The New Confessions’. ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ was better than OK, as was ‘A Good Man in Africa’, and I more-than-liked ‘Restless’, the only attempt of Boyd’s that I’ve read where he writes a female protagonist. Reading the blurb for Sweet Caress, then, I got very excited about Boyd’s century-charting story of Amory Clay.

Oh dear. It was…it was fine. There were great bits; Boyd is, on the whole, a fantastic writer; the moment when Amory comes into contact with British fascists, in particular, haunted me. And he prods Amory to get on her soapbox about some really important issues (euthanasia, war, the power of the state to shape individual lives), and to be very eloquent in her views of them.

But the thing as a whole just left me cold. I wasn’t convinced by her voice. In particular, her habit of describing in detail the penis of every man she slept with irritated me; it felt very, very male. (He never did this in ‘Restless’, which contains one of the best female-point-of-view first-kiss moments I’ve ever read.) In the end, it just annoyed me too much for me to be able to give Sweet Caress more than three stars, however much I wanted to.

The Boston Girl, on the other hand, was a delight. Charting the life of Addie, the first in her family to be born in the United States, it captivated me completely. There was an unbleak, but unflinching, portrait of growing up in poverty in early twentieth-century Boston; there was a lot about culture clash among first-generation immigrants. There was a constant thread about the redemptive power of art. An early ‘men-are-b*stards’ theme was successfully reined in and counteracted later on. And the ending, coincidentally in the same year as Sweet Caress, was charming, and full of hope.

At bottom, I think Sweet Caress is very British, and The Boston Girl very American. That is a sweeping generalisation for which I have very little evidence or justification, but here goes: The former deals with the years more evenly, and in particular has the big 20th century wars as defining events, but most particularly seems to subscribe to the theory that everything is getting just a little bit worse. (I won’t give away the plot. But read it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The latter is skewed very heavily towards adolescence, and the immigrant experience, a part of the American story still written so large in the nation’s history that – to an outsider, at least – it almost eclipses everything else. The later years are dealt with in comparatively few pages, but the narrative is explicit – very explicit, and down to its closing sentence – in its message that things are getting better, not worse.

Thing is, I prefer the American message. And Diamant wrote her Addie far more convincingly, to my mind, than Boyd his Avery. If there was a cage fight between these two novels, then for me, the American wins hands-down.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd – ***
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – ****

Review – Election Notebook by Nick Robinson, and Live From Downing Street by Nick Robinson

I became borderline obsessed with this year’s UK General Election. Politics interests me at the worst of times and, in terms of interest at least, this certainly wasn’t the worst of times. We were just coming out of the first full-term coalition in living memory; the Prime Minister was either (depending on your view) competent but uninspiring, or bordering on the devil incarnate; the leader of the opposition was rapidly moving from punchline to heartthrob (I still don’t get it, but Google ‘Milifandom’ if you’re not familiar with the concept – it’s truly disturbing). On top of all that, a new political force was rewriting the electoral map north of the border; support for the Lib Dems, the long-time third party of British politics, was collapsing; and the UK Independence Party seemed, somehow, to be blundering into the limelight, dragging along voters from Left and Right alike.

Small wonder, then, that almost nobody predicted the result. I was in Zurich the night of the election. I remember the shock of the first exit poll, announced at 10pm UK time, predicting the Conservatives would be the largest party; I remember that shock being echoed on every news outlet. I made some of my American colleagues stay in the bar with me till 6am, until the result was beyond doubt. I went to sleep for two hours; when I woke up, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, had lost his seat. It was easily the most interesting election of my lifetime.

Nick Robinson was the BBC’s Political Editor for ten years, up to and including the election. I picked up his Election Notebook, a diary of the year leading up to polling day, expecting it to be gossipy and full of insider knowledge. I wasn’t disappointed. I thought I remembered a lot of the events he describes – most notably perhaps the Scottish referendum – but reading descriptions from someone who had a front-row seat was a real eye-opener. An awful lot of stuff gets cut from the news, and this – around 350 pages on one of the most seminal years in recent political history – was just the ticket to remind me of all the things I didn’t know. (As an aside, I consider myself reasonably politically aware – I watch the Sunday morning political shows, read the websites of the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian, as well as some of the American papers when I have the chance – and the gaps in my knowledge reading this made me despair a little. Honestly, where does anyone find the time?)

Anyway. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite parts were the light-hearted anecdotes about the politicians who try to come across as anything but, including this gem – for me, the highlight of the whole book – ‘The other revelation of the night is that Ed and Yvette and the kids went inter-railing this summer, taking in a Sound of Music bike tour in costumes made by the Balls-Coopers themselves from curtain material on the train to Salzburg – lederhosen for the boys, headscarves and neckerchiefs for the girls.’ Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper are the Labour Party’s power couple; both MPs, he is the former Shadow Chancellor, she the former Shadow Home Secretary and recent (unsuccessful) Labour leadership candidate. That is just one of the things which makes that story so delightful. So there’s really something for everybody – if you have only a tangential interest in modern British politics, then you’ll learn a lot; if you are a political nut already, then you’ll learn at least a little, and have some fun, too. (‘Everybody’ might be overstating it. If you have no interest in British politics at all, then, well, it’s probably not for you. But you’d probably figured that much out and stopped reading already.)

I started Live from Downing Street, Robinson’s earlier book, expecting more of the same. It’s not, really. The first half is a history of the BBC and its reporting of British politics, and, well, if that sounds a little dry, then I agree with you. I learned some interesting things, about the independence of the BBC and the opinions about the free press that were held by some of our most famous statesmen (and, latterly, stateswomen), but it felt a bit like a university lecture – improving, but – apart from in isolated places – not a lot of fun. Literary fibre, if you will. There are those who would say that I’d brought this upon myself, picking up a book called ‘Live from Downing Street’, but even with my slightly unusual ways of getting my kicks, I found it hard going.

The second half started to move into territory that was more familiar to me from the Election Notebook – it became more personal, covering the time of Robinson’s tenure at the BBC, and including anecdotes such as this rather charming comment from (then) President Sarkozy of France to (then) Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

‘Even President Sarkozy of France, who’d threatened to boycott the summit, was impressed. Some weeks later, at a dinner at the Elysee Palace, he stunned the British prime minister and his closest aides with the candour of his assessment: ‘You know, Gordon, I should not like you. You are Scottish, we have nothing in common and you are an economist…’ Diplomats and civil servants were, I’m told, fidgeting nervously at this point, wondering where the president’s remarks might be leading. They need not have worried. ‘…but somehow, Gordon, I love you.’ This expression of Gallic ardour so unsettled the Scot known for never showing his emotions that Sarkozy added hastily, if perhaps unnecessarily, ‘But not in a sexual way’.’

Frankly, having that story in my life was worth persevering through the first half of the book. But if you only want to read one book by a former BBC Political Editor about modern British politics this year (and frankly, if you want to read even that many, then I applaud you), then the Election Notebook is the one.

Nick Robinson’s Election Notebook *****
Live from Downing Street ***

Review – Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

This was released on Tuesday. I actually downloaded it on Monday, because I’m currently in the US and so eight hours behind London time, and because my Kindle is still hooked up to Amazon UK, and because I’m really just that much of a fan of anything written by JK Rowling or her alter ego, Robert Galbraith.

This was great. I think it was the best yet of the Robert Galbraith novels, which I put off reading for ages because – well, hype – but which I finally succumbed to at the beginning of this year. For those of you not yet converted, these are written by JK Rowling under a pen name, but they are Not. For. Kids. Seriously. Although they are easy to race through, because of the quality of the writing, subject-matter-wise they are reasonably heavy crime fiction (this one starts with the delivery of a severed leg).

The novels follow the – adventures, except that’s really too benign a word – of Cormoran Strike, private investigator, one-legged Afghanistan veteran, and love child of a rock star and a ‘super-groupie’, and his assistant-cum-work-partner-definitely-just-a-work-partner-nothing-more, green but sharp-as-a-razor Robin Ellacott. Reading about the developing relationship between these two is enormous fun – the characterisation is well-rounded and generally superb, which won’t be a surprise to anybody who’s read Harry Potter.

‘Fun’ is actually an important word here. In the acknowledgements, JK Rowling says she’s never enjoyed writing a novel more than she did this one. She notes that that’s strange, given the subject matter, which is pretty grim. But I sort of get it. It was certainly great fun to read. (I finished it on Wednesday night – reading it in two days of pretty heavy travel, getting out my Kindle whenever my travelling companions did anything like get their phones out, or go to the bathroom.)

This isn’t going to be one of those reviews full of words of the author; it’s not a novel that’s full of quotable quotes. But it’s got a cracking plot that keeps you guessing almost right to the end, a fantastic sense of place (I’ve been in California for two weeks, and it almost made me miss London), and you can’t help but care about the characters. If you need a good old-fashioned crime novel, to read on holiday or on the Tube or really anywhere, then this series is a damn good bet.

****

Review – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I am pretty embarrassed that I got to thirty years old without ever reading this book. I’m also a little annoyed that it was so good. I thought, after university, that Dickens and I had parted ways forever – and I was pretty happy at that. I’d read David Copperfield and not got much out of it (I found David to be a bit of a sentimental sap; in my eighteen-year-old way, I was more interested in twentieth century grit and postcolonial fiction), and I’d struggled through Little Dorrit, which I still think is a ridiculous text to set as part of a university course. I read A Christmas Carol a couple of years ago, mainly because I couldn’t find my DVD of the Muppet version, but A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that you know so well, it’s impossible to judge objectively.

So, I thought I’d managed to excise a good ten books from the cannon, which was frankly a bit of a relief because that still left plenty that I hadn’t read. However, swayed by the views of Susan Hill and Nick Hornby, both of whom have written a favourite ‘book about books’ (Howard’s End is on the Landing and The Complete Polysyllabic Spree), I decided to give Dickens another go.

I started slowly. I had downloaded Great Expectations onto my Kindle, for times when I didn’t want to tote around the Penguin paperback, and it took me a good week to get to 9%. (This is unlike me.) Then, one Sunday morning, I took the paperback into the bath with me. I was very, very wrinkly by the time I could bring myself to get out. From that moment on, I was hooked.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about Dickens. I won’t talk about how well he creates characters (although he does), managing to find pathos even in caricatures, because it’s been said before. (Miss Havisham is awesome, by the way. Despite, or maybe because of, her flaws – all of which seem to come from a bottomless well of heartbreak.)

I won’t spend a lot of time on his portrait of obsessive, unselfish love, although from experience I think it’s pretty much spot on:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to displace with your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.’

And I won’t talk about that ending, because I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it was gorgeously complex, even in the revised form which Dickens was pressured into writing.

I will talk a little bit about the thing that held me and surprised me the most, which was how funny the book is. I always found people who laughed at old novels a bit pretentious; with the possible exception of Jane Austen, I never found humour to translate that well across the centuries. But the ridiculousness of Pumblechook, the high jinks of Pip and his friends, and some of the scenes with the Aged P are comedy gold. And that’s before you even get to the inherent funniness of the child narrator. Dickens pitches young Pip perfectly, an earnest reporter of exactly what is said, and leaving the hypocrisy of those around him unsaid but obvious.

Don’t get me wrong. Pretty much everything I’ve ever read about Dickens points out and apologises for his flaws – sentimentality, verbosity, a tendency to caricature – and they’re all here, although I think they’re maybe less obvious than in some of the longer novels. But overall, I loved Great Expectations, and I really wasn’t expecting to.

Which is, as I said, kind of annoying, because it puts the rest of Dickens back on the table. But I’ll forgive Pip and friends for that. Just.

*****