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 – 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.