“Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.”
Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ draws its name from ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. It was published in nineteen monthly instalments, and as with many Victorian novels shows some evidence of padding – the scenes in continental Europe at the end of the novel in particular were quite obvious word-count filling.
Thackeray uses a distancing technique to allow him to present the story as a fair-ground puppet show. This allows him to present what would on some circumstances be seen as shocking or unrealistic behaviour – “it’s only a story” – but for almost all the novel the central characters are very real and present, and treated by the narrator as being genuine characters rather than archetypes.
The novel tells of the adventures of two school friends, Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”) a strong-willed but poor young orphan, determined to prosper in the world of society, and Amelia Sedley (“Emmy”), a good-natured young woman from a wealthy family. We are quickly introduced to further characters to provide romantic interest – dashing but narcissistic Captain George Osborne, family friend of the Sedley’s, Amelia’s brother Jos, a civil servant home from the East, and Osborne’s friend Captain Dobbin who loves Amelia, although she is promised from childhood to Osborne.
After a brief but unsuccessful attempt to entice Jos, Becky takes a post as a governess to the daughters of Baronet Sir Pitt Crawley. Although he proposes to her when his second wife dies, (before the funeral), she has already secretly married his second son, Captain Rawdon. This is the first of Becky’s many tactical missteps – marrying a second son, who is promptly disinherited by his aunt who had previously favoured him, and promised him a legacy. Becky’s Machiavellian character is never in any doubt, but her success as a schemer falls well short of her aspirations. Amelia marries George, and conceives a son, but the two husbands are hurriedly recalled to their companies when war breaks out again.
At the heart of the narrative is the battle of Waterloo. Thackeray bravely portrays the battle from the perspective of those left behind in Brussels:
“No more firing was heard at Brussels—the pursuit rolled miles away. The darkness came down on the field and city, and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.” (Chapter 32).
While this may be the novel’s narrative heart, its climax is far less noble. At the summit of their social success, Rawdon is arrested for debt. Rawdon’s appeal for help is spurned by his wife, but released with the help of his sister-in-law he returns home to find Becky with Lord Steyne. Rawdon believes they are having an affair, and beats him to the ground. The affair is hushed up but marks the end of Becky’s marriage, and her brief period at the top of society. Becky is nothing if not a survivor, and she is eventually restored to a modest place in society at the end of the novel. The parallel and interwoven story of Emmy and Dobbin ends in financial prosperity and marriage, although it is a long time coming, with lots of setbacks, financial and romantic, along the way.
I think any appreciation or consideration of ‘Vanity Fair’ starts and ends with the character of Becky Sharp. She is a very carefully drawn portrait. Thackeray drops several heavy hints that she is unfaithful to her husband, and uses her sexuality to get money, presents, and favours from her gentlemen friends. George nears as much confesses to Dobbin on the eve of Waterloo that he has been unfaithful to his wife with Becky, as we find out much later (Chapter 66)
“It was on the morning of Waterloo, as the young men stood together in front of their line, surveying the black masses of Frenchmen who crowned the opposite heights, and as the rain was coming down, “I have been mixing in a foolish intrigue with a woman”, George said, “I am glad we were marched away. If I drop, I hope Emmy will never know of that business. I wish to God it had never been begun”.
Steyne’s astonished and indignant reaction on being confronted by Rawdon clearly derives from his understanding that his financial help for the Crawley’s was the purchase price for sex with Becky, with Rawdon’s tacit understanding and complicit agreement. Amelia by contrast is bland and colourless beside this anti-heroine. Becky is an appalling mother, even worse wife, but captivates others (mainly it has to be said, men) effortlessly. She sabotages herself throughout the novel, when a little care would be secured her place in society. I think this is partly out of boredom – while she shows great reserves of patience in the opening sections of the novel, when caring for the monstrous Sir Pitt Crawley for example, but the end she actually enjoys her itinerant, hand to mouth existence.
The satirical impact of ‘Vanity Fair’ has inevitably faded over the years, but I can imagine that on publication it pricked the pretentions of upper-class society quite ruthlessly – the powerful are corrupt, marriage is a financial transaction, heiresses a product to be bought and sold, love an indulgence for fools, and the death of every rich man avidly awaited by his family and heirs. Here is Thackeray on the perception of women’s value in the eyes of society:
“A woman may possess the wisdom and chastity of Minerva, and we give no heed to her, if she has a plain face. What folly will not a pair of bright eyes make pardonable? What dullness may not red lips are sweet accents render pleasant?”
And here on the fickleness of friendship and affection:
“Take a bundle of your dear friend’s of ten years back—your dear friend whom you hate now…! How you clung to each other till you quarrelled about the twenty-pound legacy! Get down the round-hand scrawls of your son who has half broken your heart with selfish undutifulness since; or a parcel of your own, breathing endless ardour and love eternal, which were sent back by your mistress when she married… Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude; how queerly they read after a while!. “
And as a final example, here on the extent to which riches can be a substitute for the positive qualities we claim to admire:
“Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read–who had the habits and the cunning of a boor: whose aim in life was pettifogging: who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue.”
The cynicism in the novel is persistent, but rarely developed – Thackeray seems to accept the inherent flawed nature of man as inevitable, but never looks to any possible remedies for the situation.
I suspect I may have enjoyed this novel more had I read it in monthly instalments, as originally published, but where would this blog be then?