I read Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (first published 1848) over the course of four months, and then I’ve been delaying writing my thoughts about it for more than two weeks. My hesitation to post about it now is related to the fact that this master tome of Victorian literature is well deserving of a series of posts and deeper reflection. I am comforted by the fact that I’m certain to reread Vanity Fair at some point, and I hope I do so at a time when I am better able to reflect upon on it via this blog.
Vanity Fair is at any moment both serious and silly, a satire of early Victorian society’s obsession with appearance, wealth, and comfort. Although Becky Sharp, the Crawleys, the Osbournes, and the Sedleys provide a microcosm of sorts of Victorian society, the satire feels like a universal one, and frequently I found myself smiling at the ways I saw modern society in the midst of the story.
The title comes from John Bunyan’s 1600s Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, the town of the same name being a representation of the people who live in sin because they’ve succumbed to the temptations of vanity. In Thackeray’s novel, Becky Sharp represents the social mover who understands the system. She is an orphan determined to rise above her lower class upbringing, yet all the while scandalizing society by her own expectations for herself. In some respects, she lacks any sense of right or wrong: she uses the vanities of everyone to get what she wants. Her friend Amelia Sedley is almost annoyingly innocent of anyone’s true character, and faces the opposite issues: she cannot understand how to meet her needs in the midst of society. As the girls grow from 18 years old to middle aged, they face similar issues in very different ways.
I’ll keep this brief because there is no way I can capture in one single post the plot of this nearly 1000 page novel, the overarching feelings that come from submersing one’s self in the world of the characters over months, or both the frustrations and delight that comes from reading of the successes and failures of the characters. In some respects Vanity Fair is full of characters that I didn’t like at all. And yet, as I read of their vanities and delights, frustrations and successes, I couldn’t help seeing all of the rest of us in them.
Thackeray’s sarcastic narration and occasional opinions of the situations gave the book additional depth and humor. I cannot help reflecting that yes, Vanity Fair is well deserving of the designation as one of the best Victorian novels there is. It certainly is a perfect example of satire, and the complexities in character and plot make it a true delight to read.
I cannot wait to reread it some day!
P.S. Don’t watch the Reese Witherspoon movie! It completely misses the point in character, and lacks the biting satire that the novel provides. A big disappointment.