I’m vain. Let’s face it. I always have been. I like to look nice, and when I’m done making myself look nice, I like to admire myself in the mirror. As a young teenager, I swore that if I ever needed glasses, I would skip straight to contacts and never let anybody know that I needed corrective eye wear. Well, guess who wears glasses full time now? Yes, me. Contacts don’t agree with me. They make my eyes feel dry, tired, and itchy after only an hour or so. But on the bright side, my glasses make me look smarter. (See, there’s that cursed vanity again.)
Because of this character flaw, you would think that I would have devoured and enjoyed William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48). But, no. It took three years to read, and I am relieved to report that I finally finished it! Woo hoo! Hurray for me. And if you’ve ever read it, you know what a celebration this is. It is a dense novel, one that I do not recommend. There were times when I did not want to finish it, but because it is number 79 on the BBC book list I felt compelled to.
Not only is the novel dense, but it is bad storytelling. Thackeray is like that annoying friend you have who wants to tell you every detail of his or her day, from the minute their feet first hit the floor to the actual moment of an exciting event. Then, when they get to that event, it isn’t that compelling. Thackeray and his characters are needy. They need too much attention and too many pages. He claims to be writing a biography of Rebecca Sharpe, which he does, but I suppose then that there could have been less focus on the details (and on Amelia Sedley’s life) and more focus on the conniving events which transpire to make Vanity Fair. The movie, starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky, is a nice abridgment of the novel that results in more entertainment. I highly recommend watching it if you are interested in this novel at all. It helped me to want to keep reading and to make sense of all the plot twists and turns. I should say that this novel appeared first in a serialized form, which may account for its lengthiness and dryness.
The title fits the book, for it is about vanity. Rebecca, fondly known as Becky, is one who “make[s] a great show with very little means” (499). She ends up using her feminine charms to get money, behind her husband’s back, from Lord Steyne. When Rawdon Crawley, the abused husband, finds Becky in a compromising positing with Lord Steyne, he blows up and gives up on the marriage. It has become too much to put up with her conniving ways. Of her fall from polite society, Thackeray muses, “What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not; but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips; or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? All her lies and her schemes, all her selfishness and her wiles, all her wit and genius had come to this bankruptcy” (526). She may have prospered momentarily from her game playing and manipulating, but ultimately she ends up alone and bereft. Selfishness comes back to hurt her, the person she was most concerned about to being with. Karma’s interesting, isn’t it?
Amelia’s brother, Jos Sedley, is a train wreck of a character. He, too, is vain, and in that, he and Becky are jovial companions in the end. He’s fat, lazy, and rich. In one scene, “Amelia was reading a book, [and] Jos was in an arbour placidly dipping strawberries into wine” (604). This really sealed my dislike for Jos, but mostly because I was jealous. I can’t remember the last time I laid under an arbor and dipped strawberries languidly into anything. This eating of his is constant throughout the book. He is a glutton who “sipped, or rather sucked” his meat and potatoes (614).
The novel also moralizes about lying. Thackeray writes, “But that is the misfortune of beginning with this kind of forgery. When one fib becomes due as it were, you must forge another to take up the old acceptance; and so the stock of your lies in circulation inevitably multiplies, and the danger of detection increases every day” (652). I don’t know what else to say, other than that these are wise words. It is always better to tell the truth. I don’t know anybody who has ever had a good experience from lying. If you have, please share.
Becky does redeem herself, somewhat, in the end. However, it seems like too little, too late. Throughout the novel, she causes problems for everybody whom she comes in contact with (do you know anybody like this? I do. It isn’t pleasant to be around that person!). Yet, when it matters most she helps her friend Amelia to improve her life. Amelia’s husband dies in the middle of the novel, and Amelia spends years mourning this loss and ignoring romantic advances from William Dobbin. She prefers to be loyal to the dead George Osborne. But Becky shatters Amelia’s illusion of the loving husband when she reveals to her friend that George had asked Becky to run away with him before his death. I read this scene and wanted to rip Becky’s eyes out. How dare she ruin her friend’s life and then top it off by stealing her illusions of happiness! Yet, Becky’s truth turns into a good deed, for it allows Amelia to face reality, give up her years of mourning, and accept William Dobbin as her husband, for he truly loves her. Earlier in the novel, Dobbin gives Amelia a piano, which she mistakenly thinks is from her husband George. Dobbin allows her to think this, but once Amelia realizes her mistake, she is ashamed, regretful, and falls right into Dobbin’s arms. I can’t say I blame her. Buying a girl a piano is a pretty sexy move.
Although I did not like the novel, I had a good time reading the chapter titles. Here is a sampling of a few of the more interesting ones:
Chapter XII: Quite a Sentimental Chapter
Chapter XIII: Sentimental and Otherwise
Chapter IV: In Which Rebecca’s Husband Appears for a Short Time
Chapter XVIII: Who Played on the Piano Captain Dobbin Brought?
XX: In Which Captain Dobbin Acts as the Messenger of Hymen
XXXIV: James Crawley’s Pipe is Put Out (Do you see what I mean about minutiae?)
XXXVI: How to Live Well on Nothing a Year
XLIX: In Which We Enjoy Three Courses and a Dessert
L: Contains a Vulgar Incident (hmm.)
Chapter LI: In Which a Charade Is Acted Which May or May Not Puzzle the Reader
LXI: In Which Two Lights Are Put Out (There he goes with the ridiculous details again!)
I hated this book. Let’s just be honest. And it even has illustrations. It is practically a picture book! Don’t ever read it. Well, unless of course you need help falling asleep at night. It’s a fantastic cure for insomnia.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003. Print.