There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing, and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folks are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is VANITY FAIR: not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy.
Nic's Tales from Spain, part the, um, seventh: yes, am still catching up with the books I read in August. After the four Hugo Award shortlisters, Don Quixote, Bridge of Birds and a pair of substantial histories (Gulag by Anne Applebaum and Anglo-Saxon England by Frank Stenton), it was clearly time for another doorstop of a book to round off my month in Alcala de Henares. Thus, Vanity Fair (serialised, 1847-8) by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63).
[ I know: if I'd put half as much effort into my research while I was there as I did into my extracurricular reading or my beveraging, the PhD would probably be finished by now. Shhh. ]
Unlike with Don Quixote, I came to Vanity Fair without any preconceptions. I found that to be an excellent way to read it, in fact, and not just because I wasn't intimidated by its size; having begun its existence as a serialised tale, Vanity Fair abounds in end-of-chapter plot twists. So I'm going to keep the plot details to a minimum to avoid spoiling it. :-)
Set in England, France, Belgium and India during and after the period of the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair is, in Thackeray's own phrasing, a novel without a hero. Arguably, he was wrong on the latter score, or at any rate disingenuous; but we'll come to that in a moment. For even if it doesn't have a hero, it does have a magnificent anti-heroine, in the form of fiery, fiercely-intelligent Becky Sharp - scheming social-climber extraordinaire.
She is our introduction to and guide through the greed- and envy-ruled milieu Thackeray satirises as "Vanity Fair" (in some ways, she is the personification of what is required to rise within it). It is the precarious path of her social advancement that leads us through the fortunes and failures, the loves and betrayals, the lavish parties and family-destroying feuds, of every other character in the novel. Her brilliance lies in her ability to play the rules of this rigidly-stratified and deeply-hypocritical society against itself. Orphaned at a young age and left to such charity as existed in the London of her time, she learns early the rules of exchange and engagement that structure this society - of using and being used, of deference and condenscension and the all-pervasive hierarchy of social class.
With, we are told, the "dismal precocity of poverty", Becky views the world with a clear-eyed and utterly ruthless gaze, and views (almost) everyone she encounters in terms of what she might gain from them. She plays to the needs and prejudices of her various patrons and friends - acting the charming, meek or alluring woman, as required - until she has what she wants. Then, often with relish, she steps on them on her way up the ladder. Upon leaving her position as a French teacher in an exclusive girls' school, where she has been exploited and despised for years, she has no compunction about letting her contempt for the woman in charge be known:
"I have never seen the individual who has dared in my own house to question my authority. I have nourished a viper in my bosom."
"A viper - a fiddlestick," said Miss Sharp to the old lady. "You took me because I was useful. There is no question of gratitude between us."
This taste for revenge is Becky's weakness, of course, and one which frequently comes back to bite her; that, and her misguided conviction that one can rise up the ladder. For, ultimately, early nineteenth-century England is no meritocracy (scheme-ocracy?), and she meets with contempt of her own however high she rises. However influential her patrons and her in-laws, she can never overcome the fact of her own low birth: a mortal sin in a society that still cannot abide anyone who labours to attain their fortune, whether that be by trade and industry or - in Becky's case - tireless self-abasement for the cultivation of stepping stones along the way. Time and again, she meets with the same implicit (and sometimes explicit) message: people should know their place, and remain in it. As George Osborne comments when he sees Joseph Sedley (brother of his fiancee, Amelia) paying unusual attention to the vivacious Becky:
"Hang it, the family is low enough already without her. A governess is all very well, but I'd rather have a lady for my sister-in-law. I'm a liberal man; but I've proper pride, and know my own station: let her know hers."
Our omniscient (but hardly uninvolved) narrator follows the triumphs and vicissitudes of her life - from her childhood as the daughter of a starving artist, to flirtatious fixture of high society, and beyond - with a tone that veers between scandalised censure and gleeful fascination. Thackeray, it seems, can neither entirely condemn nor quite reconcile himself to his heroine. His stern morality leads him to judge her harshly, despite the fact that the judgement is barely borne out by his own narrative:
All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.
Even as he garnishes her manipulative self-seeking with all the wit, daring and clever put-downs any femme fatale could wish for, and shows through her how the ethics of the time might collapse in the face of poverty's imperatives, he cannot seem to help making attempts to present her in a definitively poor light - sometimes clumsily, like the clear moralistic ploy of her rather laissez-faire approach to motherhood. He cannot even let her leave the novel on a generous, selfless note; after her active role in the narrative is done, he slyly provides one final, reported episode of vicious scheming. (An episode which, I notice, the fun-but-breathlessly-condensed recent film version skipped blithely over). By this stage, however, the reader - or at least this reader - can only cheer the final example of classic Becky...
The other characters - most of the main ones coming from the three families with whom Becky spends the most time, namely the Osbornes, the Sedleys, and, on a slightly higher social level, the Crawleys - begin as foils for Becky. But they swiftly develop complex lives of their own, and most demonstrate plenty of psychological development as they go along - for all Thackeray's engagingly supercilious approach to his initial pen-portraits of them, such as that of Rawdon Crawley, blustering in the face of Becky's charms:
[He said] "Jove - aw - Gad - aw - it's the finest segaw I ever smoked in the world - aw," for his intellect and conversation were alike brilliant and becoming to a heavy dragoon.
Amelia, whose story is told in parallel with Becky's, is the closest we have to a heroine - kind, generous, humble, and self-effacing to a fault:
But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (and the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileness and good-natured a person. As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person.
Of course, neither Thackeray's narrative world nor, I suspect, the dictates of fiction-writing in this period can allow Amelia to get away with being quite so good, unscathed. She duly suffers for much of the novel, while being worshipped from afar by the noble Captain Dobbin. Dobbin, if anyone, is the hero of the novel, at least in the sense of being the most idealistic and least reprehensible of the bunch. He is also, it is thought, an analogue of Thackeray, who himself spent many years torn by his love for another man's wife.
Although the novel is written with a backdrop of war and sweeping change, Thackeray's characters are never lost amid the noise; indeed, they are consistently foregrounded at the expense of the war. Thackeray once said that he considered patriotism "the faith of dullards". Thus, when in the course of his story war comes once again to Europe, he is much more interested in the shadow it casts over his characters' lives (many of whom, including George, Rawdon, and Dobbin, are in the military). Thackeray ignores the battle entirely, and stays with its human cost, justifying himself with disarming frankness:
We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly. We should only be in the way of the manoeuvres that the gallant fellows are performing overhead.
Again, one of the major themes that comes through the characters and their various stories is a critique of the choking restrictiveness of a social morality based on class. A related aspect, which Becky's story alone could not have explored, is the issue of family life. Familial ties in Vanity Fair are nearly always destructive and bitter, ruled by self-interest, reputation and money, and marked by a vast gulf of understanding and affection between the generations. Relations between parents and children are authoritarian and predatory, with the older generation forcing their offspring to live (and love) in the manner of their choosing, and the offspring marking time until their parents exist only in the form of their will. This affects nearly all our characters: marriages, in particular, are a field of conflict, and several find themselves completely cut off from their families for daring to make a choice unacceptable to their fathers. Everyone sucks everyone else dry, essentially, until Becky seems fortunate in her orphanhood.
Since this post is in danger of getting to be as long as the novel, I shall finish with a few notes on Thackeray's prose style. As mentioned above, there is a lighthearted and often satirical note in his narration. Some of this is applied to characters; of snobbish Maria Osborne, for example:
"She's engaged to my brother George; there's not much in her, but she's the best-natured and most unaffected young creature; at home we're all so fond of her."
Dear girl! who can calculate the depth of affection expressed in that enthusiastic "so"?
In other places, Thackeray turns it upon himself and his own role as narrator:
Being an invalid, Joseph Sedley contented himself with a bottle of claret besides his Madeira at dinner [...] and certainly (for novelists have the privilege of knowing everything), he thought a great deal about the girl upstairs.
He is also quite open about the demands of writing a serialised novel, and his efforts to keep his readers' attention. Chapters get headings such as "A Very Sentimental Chapter", and contain asides like,
I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one (although there are some terrific chapters coming presently), and must beg the good-natured reader to remember, that we are only discoursing at present about a stockbroker's family in Russell Square.
Between Becky Sharp's machinations and Thackeray's self-awareness, then, there's more than enough enjoyment to leaven even the worst excesses of life's Vanity Fair - and make the pages skim by.
Another summer reading success, then. Maybe I should go to Spain more often...
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? - Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.