Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero – William Makepeace Thackeray (1847 – 48)

What a journey this book was. I would liken it to other epic books (length-wise) such as Don Quixote and perhaps The Count of Monte Cristo, except this time with a female anti-hero. Becky Crawden (nee Sharp) is a stereotypical “bad” Victorian woman: out for money even if it means losing scruples (and other things along the way) although there is a suitable come-uppance at the end (although not full redemption as mentioned later.)

Becky is actually, despite being quite despicable at times, rather to be admired in some ways. She certainly doesn’t follow the rules of the time (when it was fatal to your society role if you didn’t), she did what she wanted to do and she focused on that. I think in today’s society, there were definitely parts of Becky that would be admired: the ambition, the tenacity, the focus… However, I thoroughly doubt that other wives would be as understanding if she swiped their hubbies/partners, even if it is the twenty-first century. (And yes, I recognize that multiple parties are guilty in such an incident and it’s not just one person’s fault.)

The character of Becky was supposedly based on Thackeray’s maternal grandmother who abandoned her husband and children for an army officer, and who, when he died, went to marry another army officer. Thackeray lived with her at various points in his life.

This is rather a dark satire of the grubby materialism that was prominent during the mid-1800’s in England (and elsewhere). It’s comparable, I think, in some ways to the shallowness of the later Gilded Age in the US, when money was everything, the be-all and end-all, especially what it bought you in terms of power and prestige. Quite fascinating if you think about it and compare it to some of the crass reality shows of today where they showcase idle rich people doing idle rich things. (The more things change…) However, I am not one to judge and who is to say (although I would hope not) that I wouldn’t have ended up in the same way if I had been in that family dynamic?

John Bunyan, author of “Pilgrim’s Progress”

So – the title Vanity Fair is taken from Pilgrim’s Progress, a huge long allegorical story written by religious writer John Bunyan (who grew up very close to where l was born and lived in Bedford and was put into jail where he wrote this story). (Slightly irrelevant but slightly interesting at the same time.) Now, even though I lived a large part of my life in Bedford and walked over the plaque on the pavement which marks the Very Spot where Bunyan’s cell was located, I have never quite got around to reading Pilgrim’s Progress (mainly because it looks very boring and preachy and bossy.) So – I don’t actually know if this link to PP is actually there as I am not familiar with any of it. (I could show you the cell plaque though if you and I happen to be in Bedford one day.)

According to Wiki (I know…), Vanity Fair is a stop along the pilgrim’s progress, a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity which is meant to represent all human’s “sinful attachment” to worldly things. This theme is obvious throughout as Thackeray is not light-handed about this at all. However, as satire, this works assuredly well and just adds to the overall sumptuous over-the-top feel to everything. It’s satire after all.

It also stands out from other Victorian novels of the time in that there is no redemption for the characters. Yes, they make poor choices but they have to live with those for the remainder of their lives. There is no “learning from mistakes and getting a good life after all.” No one is really suffering at the end, but it’s a middling sort of misery for all. No one is really that happy.

Since it was published in a long series over a year or two, it was released every month or so with a bright yellow cover so readers would know when there was a new edition out. (Dickens did the same thing with his serialized novels but had a green cover.) This ongoing publication schedule is also reflected in the long, rambling and sometimes confusing plot. I am not 100% convinced that Thackeray knew where he was going for quite a few chapters and just wrote to publish and make his rent. This was his first success after having written for some years under various pseudonyms so I imagine that he was under some pressure here.

The book is about five million pages (hooray for hyperbole!) which would usually freak me out somewhat (being as gun-shy as I am of long books). However, I read it mostly on Project Gutenberg (thanks to someone who typed it) and so I didn’t have to realize how reaaaaally long it was in real life. However, as mentioned above, this book didn’t seem that long for the majority of the reading. Yes, there were some parts that went on and on and on, but generally speaking, the story carried itself. (Besides, it was Victorian times. They were not known for brevity.)

London in the early Industrial Revolution

The plot follows several families but mainly the Segleys and the Crawleys who start off being friends and end up being a bit like the Hatfields and the McCoys due to financial mismanagement and unapproved marital choices. It’s clear that Thackeray is being a bit heavy handed here in his imagery: yes, money doesn’t always lead to happiness; yes, being selfish is a bad life for you; yes, being a good person is good. However, if you keep in mind that this is satire (and Victorian satire at that), then it works.

It was the Industrial Revolution, a lot of money being made by quite a few people and a transition in society from the old influential families (due to lineage) to the new rich industrialist. Money was everywhere, it was quite easy to get (if you worked hard and had some luck) and you wouldn’t run out unless you were immoral and/or stupid. (Sort of idea.)

Not only was the plot intricate in and of itself, but there were loads of characters who kept intermingling so I had to take notes to keep it all straight at first. But once I settled into the book, I could keep who was who straight. This is not a book I recommend to pick up and put down. Sink into it. Embrace its complexity and enjoy the ride.

Overall, a good read that pulled me in as a reader. Glad I have read it. Not sure that I would read it again.


4 thoughts on “Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero – William Makepeace Thackeray (1847 – 48)

  1. Glad I’m not the only one who had to take notes at the beginning and for the same reason. A first for me in a novel. It’s been a couple of years since I read it, but I remember enjoying it very much. I appreciate your thoughts on the book too. Thanks 🙂

  2. Love your review!
    I finished Vanity Fair, just last night, and am writing a review myself on Goodreads, just now, and was looking around. I agree with most of what you said and learned some things from you too, 🙂
    but sensing that I am the only one who doesn’t think that the ending was all that bleak.

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