Sunday, February 22, 2015

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

When I was in high school I saw a drawing of a beautiful young girl looking innocently out at the viewer.  The sub title read, "Rebecca of Vanity Fair with her claws sheathed."  That little comment kept me from reading Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray for the next thirty years.  I thought, "Oh, another story about some femme fatale who leaves a score of victims in her wake.  Blah."

The photo of Rebecca that accompanied the article that discouraged me from reading Thackeray

So why did I pick up the book now?  I was at a book fair and a copy of the book was available for a quarter.  It wasn't just the cheap price, although that always carries a seductive charm for me, it was something even less profound:  the book cover and the shape and feel of the book.  I cannot explain why I am tempted to buy books solely for their looks and texture but I am.  Usually I can successfully overcome the urge- especially if the book is by an unknown.  But I did know about Thackeray and something in me said, it is time to read this book.

I do believe that we read types of books in different seasons.  Probably I would not have understood or enjoyed Thackeray as a teenager.  I do now.

Vanity Fair is Thackeray's social commentary on British society.  He's not the only British author to do so.  The British upper class is a common theme among many if not most writers of the United Kingdom, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  What is interesting is how each good writer is able to stamp the same theme with their own imprint.

Thackeray achieves this.  Rebecca isn't much different than Lizzy Eustace in Trollope's novel, The Eustace Diamonds.  But yet the stories and the characters are still very different.  The only commonality is the stories' foundation.

In Vanity Fair, two young girls, Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp leave school to begin their lives as adult women.  For Amelia this is to return to the home of her well- to- do parents and wait for her fiance, George Osbourne-also from a wealthy family- to marry her.  For Rebecca, who is the daughter of a poor artist and French dance hall girl-both now dead, it is to become a governess to a family of aristocrats.

Before heading off to her job as a governess, Amelia insists that "her dear friend" stay for a while with her and her family.  Rebecca agrees to this and while there sets herself to the task of seducing Amelia's older brother and marrying him before her time to leave.

She almost succeeds because Amelia's brother, Joseph, home from India is a chubby buffoon with very little sense.  What saves him is Amelia's fiance, George Osbourne, who makes it clear that Joseph can't marry a girl, no matter how pretty and charming, who is low class.

So eventually Rebecca moves on to her aristocratic family, the Crawleys.  Here she absolutely charms everyone and succeeds in getting a nephew, Rawden Crawley, to marry her.

It's interesting because, on the one hand, everyone seems to be at Rebecca's mercy.  She's so mean and nasty and cunning and yet is able to win everyone over, often through backstabbing the others.  Yet she also fails so miserably because as much as the rich people enjoy her company, they never  forget that she is beneath them socially.

For instance, all the Crawleys spend a great deal of energy fawning and pandering to an elderly spinister aunt because she has all the money and they don't. Another point of interest:  being an aristocrat doesn't mean you have any money.

Rebecca completely ingratiates herself to this aunt who keeps her as a constant companion.  Rebecca amuses her by mocking all the other members of the Crawley family, whom the aunt detests. She only loves Rawdon Crawley, a hedonistic young soldier because he is a hedonist, and she plans to bequeath all her money to him.

This Rebecca knows, so she wins Rawdon over and they marry in secret.  Rebecca hopes to keep this a secret but is unable to when an elderly decrepit  Crawley, Sir Pitt, proposes to her after the death of his wife.  As much as the aunt enjoyed Rebecca's company she is outraged that she would presume to marry into her family and disinherits Rawdon.

And that is pretty much how the whole story goes.  Rebecca flirts and charms and seduces men, usually married men, of rank and importance, falls, gets back up and continues on.  On the one hand you'd like to see her get her just desserts, but on the other hand, one figures she's punished enough by having to live with herself.  There's nothing about Rebecca that would induce anyone to envy her.  Her whole life is consumed with being the center of attention, getting money, and hurting other women.

Thackery shows human weakness on every level but he is not devoid of humor or compassion which saves the plot from becoming drab.  Rebecca never changes, she never repents, who knows what'll happen when she grows too old to attract anyone.  Probably she'll have to settle on being a Madam at a house of ill repute.

The other characters that surround Rebecca, however, do change.  And they change for the better.  Rebecca seems to be the refining fire that burns off the slough.

Amelia turns from being a simple-minded naive girl to one who finally understands true love and devotion.  But not through her husband who gambled away his fortune plus lost it after his father disinherited him for marrying Amelia.  

What, you say?  Wasn't Amelia part of the privileged class?  She most certainly was, until her father lost his money through a series of bad investments.  Amelia's family lost their wealth, their social standing, their friends, everyone.  

George's father was in favor of the marriage until Amelia became poor.  The sad part is that Mr. Osbourne's investments caused Mr. Sedley's misfortune. This is doubly sad as Mr. Osbourne's wealth is due to Amelia's father's initial financial help.  Because Mr. Osbourne knows this, he runs from his guilt  by demonizing Amelia's father.

The story shows how fickle life is when one's identity is wrapped up in how much money you make or your aristocratic name.  There are many other plots of this nature throughout the novel.

The biggest change comes from Rawdon who, after being falsely imprisoned by the Marquis Steyne, is able to free himself and return home to find Rebecca dancing and flirting with the Marquis.  His eyes are finally opened and he leaves and returns home to his family.  Rebecca is left with nothing.  No money, because she and Rawdon had none.  They were living on credit, much to the disadvantage of their creditors, which cause at least two of them to go bankrupt.

That was another interesting point.  How, if one has a name,  can one live as a rich person without any money?  Who gets the shaft?  The people renting to you, supplying you with groceries, and everyone else you hire.

Rebecca finds herself alone, penniless, in a house owned by someone she financially destroyed.  The house servants now mock her and refuse to help her.  Why should they?  She owes them over a years' salary.

Rebecca disappears for awhile from the story and we get to witness the transformation of the other characters who all have fairly happy endings.

Except for Joseph, Amelia's brother.  He ends up on the continent where he discovers Rebecca again.  This time he is completely seduced, financially destroyed and possibly even murdered by her through poison.

I have not mentioned our hero, William Dobbin (even though Thackeray insists there is no hero).  He is the backbone to the whole story.  He is the strength, the moral hero, the one man who always sees through Rebecca, the only man not tempted by her.  The one who truly loves Amelia and cares for her and her son after George is killed in the war.  

It would take too long to portray him.  Know that he weaves in and out of the whole story and touches each character in a way that causes them to rise above themselves.  I won't call him a Christ character, but certainly one with Christ like attributes.

At 753 pages, Vanity Fair is not a short read, but definitely a worthwhile one.  I can only sum up the story line.  I can't imitate Thackeray's wit and insight.  You have to read his story for that.  I especially enjoyed how Thackeray would insert himself into the story.  His characters are so strong that they become real from the first page.  You forget that they are fictitious.  Thackeray knows this so he playfully makes little comments throughout the novel to remind you that he is only making the story up ("For novelists have the great privilege of knowing everything.")

And Thackeray is very playful and funny.  My outline makes it look a pathetic story indeed and one really can't help hating Rebecca, but Thackeray takes a light-hearted approach while making serious observations about a society that can be merciless to its citizens. This allows the reader to enjoy the book without becoming depressed.

I'll end with the final words on page 753:

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.


  1. Wonderful commentary on this Sharon.

    I have been meaning to read this for years. I really should do so soon.

    Your comment on Trollope's character made me think. These nineteenth century English novelists seemed to work with such limited settings and social structure yet managed to produce such worthwhile and different books.

    1. Hi Brian. You're right. It's sort of a theme and variations on the class divisions and their separate cultures. I think what makes their stories successful is how interesting and clever the dialogue is, how the develop the storyline and how colorful they make their characters. Have a good week!

  2. Wow, what a great review! And I had to laugh when you mentioned "seasons" because I read this novel when I was not far from a teenager I felt rather indifferent about it, but when I read it a couple of years ago, I LOVED it. I particularly felt sorry for Rawdon Crawley; even though he probably deserved what he got from the choices he made, he was rather dim in a charming sort of way and loyal too. I see him as kind of a dumb hero in a book with not many of them. Dobbin was wonderful! Long-suffering, loyal, constant ..... a true hero certainly!

  3. Hi Ceopatra! I agree with you. I started out not liking Rawdon at all, just a shallow hedonistic kind of a guy. Later, as he saw how his wife was making a fool of him, he wised up and became a decent man. And I really liked how Dobbin finally called Amelia out on how she was treating him and turned her around. Take care!

  4. This is such a good review :) I've read Vanity Fair but I didn't like it, but because it was one of the first classics I ever read perhaps it's time to revisit it.

    1. o: There's a lot of books that I wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole ten years ago but I am finally learning to appreciate them. Hope you'll get to read Vanity Fair soon! :)


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.