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.

**

Random bookish thoughts – 21 September

I was going to catch up on all of my reviews tonight, but instead it’s 9pm and I’m still at the office (lovely), so instead I thought I’d take ten minutes to share a few random thoughts that have occurred to me over the weekend.

Man Booker Prize shortlist

I am pretty pleased with this. There was a story in the Guardian asking whether it was the most diverse shortlist in the history of the prize; I’m not learned enough to opine, but it feels pretty diverse to me. It also includes four of my top six, and five of my top seven. Only A Spool of Blue Thread felt – to me – like it wasn’t quite special enough to earn its place. I would have preferred to have seen one of the other family sagas – Did You Ever Have A Family or The Green Road – but it’s a minor quibble. For the first time in a long time, I’d be happy with any of the others as the winner. (There’s also an argument that A Spool of Blue Thread – which I’ve seen described as ‘Anne Tyler’s twentieth and possibly last book’ – is nominated more as a sort of lifetime achievement award than anything else; in which case, fair enough, really.)

On communing with books through food

On Saturday night, I went to a Jamaican restaurant (Turtle Bay, in Bristol) with a couple of friends. I think it may have been the first time I’ve eaten Jamaican food. (It was delicious – jerk prawns, duck rolls, and an explosively hot goat curry with rice and peas.) Turtle Bay is decorated like its walls are made out of shipping containers, and I was thinking about A Brief History of Seven Killings throughout. Yum. (Both the book and the food.)

Contemporary literature fatigue

Towards the end of my Booker experiment, I found I was trending towards giving lower marks to the novels I was reading. Other than a comprehensive re-reading do-over (which – to be clear – I’m not committed enough to do), I have no way of knowing whether it was the books themselves, or a touch of literary malnutrition after reading 13 contemporary novels in a row. Actually, fourteen, as I took a break in the middle and read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls (which oddly enough was longlisted for last year’s prize, and had been sitting on my Kindle for months). The novels themselves were very different to each other, and for the most part they were great, but I was starting to feel the need for something different – non-fiction, maybe, or a big Victorian novel that I could sink into like a hot bath. Which brought me to…

My current read

I am about 650 pages into Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace What-a-great-middle-name Thackeray. It was exactly what I needed – sprawling, historical, and oddly familiar. Parts of it are slightly hard going; like much of Dickens, it was serialised, and in places the padding is not just visible but predominant. But I am very much enjoying watching (well, reading about) Becky Sharp twisting Victorian society around her little finger.