Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair With my love of Victorian novels, I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Vanity Fair. I think, without really knowing anything about it, I thought it sounded dry and hard going; Lisa’s review changed my mind and I added it to my Classics Club list, but I was still slow to actually pick it up and start reading. I finally got round to it this month and am pleased to say that although there were certainly times when I found the book dry and times when I found it hard going, overall I enjoyed it.

The first thing I found on beginning Vanity Fair is that Thackeray, like Anthony Trollope and other Victorian authors, likes to talk directly to the reader, commenting on his characters and giving praise or criticism where necessary:

“And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.”

He never lets us forget that we are reading a novel and that the characters are puppets under the author’s control – but at the same time, I found them all very real and human. There are a few examples in Vanity Fair of people being ‘good and kindly’, but many more of them being silly and heartless. In a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” (which is debatable), it’s not surprising that the characters are flawed and imperfect. The most flawed of all is Becky Sharp, ruthless schemer and ambitious social-climber. From the moment Becky throws her dictionary through the carriage window as she drives out of the school gates to go and make her own way in the world, I knew she was going to be an interesting character!

Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley, is her exact opposite: quiet and gentle, sweet and obliging…and from a wealthy family. I liked Amelia – although she could be infuriating – but there’s no doubt that it’s Becky who makes things happen and keeps the story moving forward. Early in the novel, she sets her sights on marrying Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, and when this plan fails, it becomes clear that there is nothing Becky won’t do to get what she wants and to advance another step up the social ladder.

This is not just Becky’s story, though. Vanity Fair has a very large cast of characters, drawn from a variety of backgrounds: noblemen and army officers, merchants and servants. Most of them belong to, or are in some way connected with, the novel’s three central families – the Sedleys, the Osbornes and the Crawleys – and with plenty of subplots involving these three families, the story quickly becomes quite complex. Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was originally published as a serial and as a result feels longer than it maybe needed to be, but everything that happens has its place in the plot, as Thackeray explains:

“…my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history?”

‘Vauxhall’, of course, is a reference to the famous London pleasure gardens so popular during the Regency – and this will be a good place for me to mention that despite being a Victorian novel first published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair is actually set several decades earlier, in the Regency period. The Napoleonic Wars are always in the background, with some of the characters being present at the Battle of Waterloo.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic – I thought at first that it might, but in the end there were too many moments when I felt the story was starting to drag and too many times when I found my attention starting to wander. I did like it, though, and am glad I hadn’t put off reading it any longer!

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26 thoughts on “Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

  1. Ocean Bream says:

    OH my gosh I was hyperventilating when I saw this post in my reader!!! Lol, I read Vanity Fair when I was eleven and have periodically read it over and over, over the years. I turn to this book when I need solace from the world. It is one of my favourite books! I was actually writing a post about Thackeray 🙂 I am glad you liked it, but am afraid I can’t see how your attention started to wander, as I am always mesmerised by Thackeray’s use of language, but I suppose different things do appeal to different people. Also, I despise Becky with all my being 😮

    • Helen says:

      I’m sorry I didn’t love this book as much as you do. I did really enjoy the first half and found it much more entertaining than I’d expected; it was only towards the end that I found it less interesting. Although it’s not a book that I would want to read over and over, I’m sure I would get more out of it if I did read it again.

  2. piningforthewest says:

    It took me years to get around to reading Vanity Fair too. I enjoyed it and until I read it I hadn’t realised that people actually went to battles to see what was going on for themselves. Battleground tourism – crazy.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I love Vanity Fair – Becky is one of my top literary characters. I know what you mean about serialisation stretching things out though. If you’ve never seen it, I thoroughly recommend the BBC adaptation starring Natasha Little as Becky – great casting, brilliantly adapted and with some of the best incidental music I’ve come across…

  4. Lark says:

    This book isn’t one of my favorites either. I’m very glad that I read it, and there are a few things I like about it…but it’s not one that I’ll be rereading any time soon.

  5. Yvonne says:

    Vanity Fair is the only Thackeray novel I’ve read. I agree that it is a bit dry and hard going at times, but what a wonderful cast of characters to love and/or hate!

  6. Lisa says:

    I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed this! I don’t remember finding any of it dull – and of the three Thackerays I’ve read, it’s the only one I can recommend. Henry Esmond – now there’s a dull book!

  7. whatmeread says:

    I love Vanity Fair! I haven’t read it for a while, and it is on my Classics Club list because I want to reread it. I honestly don’t remember it being dry, but as I said, it’s been years since I read it last.

  8. Judy Krueger says:

    Hats off to you for getting through this. I opted for the movie which I enjoyed a great deal. Having recently finished Crime and Punishment I am taking a break from long winded novels from earlier centuries written by men and containing scads of characters. Maybe someday!

  9. J.E. Fountain says:

    I’m due for a reread of this, probably early next year. I liked it very much the first time. Yes, Becky kept things interesting, I like an ambiguous character…villain? heroine? Have to wait until the end…and even then. Nice review.

  10. Alex says:

    I was actually surprised by how much I loved VF. It became one of my favorite classics but I really can’t point out why. I remember thinking at several points “man, this guy can write!”. And the whole Amelia and Dobbin love story got me as well.

  11. Mellie974 says:

    Vanity Fair is one of my all time favorite books. I read it many years ago for summer reading for school and I try to do a reread every couple years. What I think many people miss is the dry victorian humor in this book. So many times reading a passage I have just busted out laughing, especially when he’s giving commentary to the reader.

    I’m always happy to read a review when someone likes this book.

    • Helen says:

      I did like this book, even though it hasn’t become a favourite, and I agree that it was very funny in places! I love Victorian novels and the habit so many authors had of talking directly to the reader.
      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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