As soon as the weather gets colder I begin to crave everything that is comfy and cosy. Thick woolly jumpers, warm stodgy food, and of course, a truly cosy read. For me personally a cosy read is usually something dark and Gothic (a bit strange I know), or a classic novel that I can get completely lost in. As it’s not quite cold enough yet I wasn’t completely in the mood for a darker read, but I was most definitely eager to tick another classic off my TBR. With the recent TV adaptation of Vanity Fair my choice seemed fairly easy!
Vanity Fair is of course written by the famous William Makepeace Thackeray, and in all honesty it is an absolute beast of a book! I read the Penguin English Library edition which came in at just under 900 pages, so this is definitely not one for the faint hearted!
Set against the backdrop of nineteenth century Europe and the Napoleonic War, Vanity Fair focuses primarily on the character of two school friends as they make their way into society. Firstly we have Amelia Sedley, a friendly if somewhat naive young woman with all of the advantages which her father’s wealth can bring. The novel then contrasts with the figure of Becky Sharp, a cunning and ambitious woman with no wealthy relatives to aid her progression in society. Across the novel we follow both of these women and the friends they make as they work their way through society, with everything from love, betrayal scandal and social climbing to contest with.
One of the first things you notice when reading this book, and one of the things which I think makes it such an enjoyable read, is the narrative structure. The story is actually first framed as a puppet play, with our narrator acting as a character himself and telling us the events as they unfold. Our narrator, although overseeing everything from different perspectives, clearly has an opinion, and is proved several times to be potentially unreliable. There is this sarcastic and humorous quality to his narration which is never openly criticising anyone or anything, but which is described in such a way that you can’t help but understand his true meanings. This makes for a really enjoyable read as this style of narration really makes you feel part of the story. You can quickly feel yourself being pulled in alongside the narrators own thoughts and feelings.
Quite frankly even without the narrator I found this novel to be completely hilarious in all of the right places, giving life to what could otherwise have been a massively stodgy novel. Even from the first few pages, where Becky and Amelia are finishing school, we see Becky defiantly throwing the dictionary which has been begrudgingly bestowed upon her into the mud, much to the horror of her teachers. Not only does this set the tone for Becky’s, and likewise Amelia’s character, it also shows you that the author is capable of writing these comedic moments very naturally. They are woven into the novel expertly, with the caricatures of certain characters and the way we come to know them all helping to build a subtle yet truly funny story.
This element of humour also walks hand in hand with the author’s ability to poke fun at society, making this a very clear ‘Novel of Manners’. Our ever present narrator is not afraid to slash through the hypocrices of society, highlighting very keenly the false hierarchies in play and the general ugliness which often walks hand in hand with those who reside in the upper classes. The wealthy elite are shown as reluctant to take someone as lowly as Becky, still being reminded of her true background even as she is seemingly accepted on the surface by those around her. The ways in which our narrator draws these moments out also provide humorous moments in the book. Likewise, just like the humour elsewhere in the book, this social critique does not need to be obvious to work so effectively. Part of its brilliance is that it is so subtle in places that you can’t help but feel like you have shared an inside joke with our narrator, forming ever more of a bond to the novel as a whole.
Another device which I really enjoyed in the novel was the contrasting use of Becky and Amelia as characters. They are both young women of a similar age yet they both have different background and family life. Whereas one seems to have all of the advantages of life, the other must work hard at it to try and improve her situation. In a way they almost play off each other, producing a sort of good angel and bad angel opposition. What’s even more interesting is that these roles should often be quite clear cut, but there are times where they seem to merge and often overlap with each other, confusing out opinions on these characters and proving not everything is as black and white as you might first perceive.
Indeed, there were many times when Thackeray’s writing reminded me very much not only in plot but also in quality to that of Jane Austen. Just as we see similar themes in Pride and Prejudice, Becky is from a low social standing, and the majority of men should be quite out of her league where marriage is concerned. This provides a really interesting element to the novel, as with no parents to arrange matters for her, Becky must make her own agency and do it herself. In many ways she can be seen as a feminist of sorts; she does not need a man to pick her up and protect her and she is capable of doing this herself. This really reminded me of an inversion of Elizabeth Bennett. Even though Elizabeth does has a mother, she is overbearing and is actually the downfall at times of her family, revealing their lower social standing. Elizabeth is unconcerned by her mother’s wishes, preferring to do things her way even at the expense of her mother’s wishes. Although Becky and Elizabeth are remarkably different in character, they are both confident and capable women in the face of the social hierarchy.
I won’t lie; I am a bit of sucker (a lot), for a good love story. In Vanity Fair we not only get this, but also an abundance of other kinds of love. There is of course romantic love, and the flirtations which come with this, but there is also the deeply unrequited love, the familial love and deep love within friendships. We also examine what people are willingly to overlook for love, how it can blind you and also jade you, as well as the deep seated anger it can produce. The author also gives brilliant satires around love and the ways in which it can be altered by the idea of wealth, notably in Becky’s character, but also in the senior Mr Osborne. What this also produces is a brilliantly rich novel with a wealth of ideas and realities to encounter.
Lastly, I couldn’t write about this book without commenting on the brilliant characterisation throughout it. Well conceived and well executed characters are probably the thing I look for most in a book and Thackeray really did not disappoint here. Each person is entirely vivid and distinct from the others, with their own nuances and personalities to explore. It’s because of this brilliant characterisation that we feel such a part of this novel, actively wanting to help and even in some cases abuse the characters. From the way we champion Dobbin in his self sacrificing love, to the ways we often want to shake Amelia to make her see clearly. Even Becky, whom is arguably the central character in this novel, elicits a range of emotion within us, from hate for her sly ways and cunningness, to grudging respect for her efficiency. However you view the characters, you cannot argue that they make you feel something!
As you can probably tell this was a world class novel for me and as close to perfection as you can get. I’m actually quite gutted that I waited so long to delve into this epic tale, but also devastated that the read is finally over!
Thackeray writes with a wealth of knowledge surrounding the intricacies of society. His book is full of humour and sarcasm which is all the more effective for it’s subtlety, letting the reader in on a secret which we thrive on. I dare anyone to read this book and not to become animated at the actions of the characters. Whether you love or hate them, admire or revolt against them, this truly is an epic narrative of humankind.
Publisher: Penguin English Library