Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Sparrow: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair
by William Makepeace Thackeray
(Penguin Books, 2004)

I am currently re-reading Vanity Fair. It is one of those sprawling 19th century British novels that reminds you that many novels of that era used to be serialized in magazines -- and that the longer they could keep a story going, the more the authors got paid. Ol' Bill Thackeray must have made bank on this one -- my edition runs more than 800 pages. You might think this is a bad thing; but, that would only mean that you have not yet read Vanity Fair.

Scheming orphan, Becky Sharp, is one of the truly great creations in all of British Lit. She jumps off the page -- ungrateful, wicked, amoral, conniving, without conscience or qualms. Sounds lovely, right? But she is so vividly real, that her manipulative charms work on the reader (who, as Thackeray constantly reminds us, really ought to know better) just as they work on the hapless, feckless fools who surround Becky. Ah, Becky . . .

I was struck when I first read Vanity Fair with the idea that "Becky Sharp" could only work as a 19th century Briton. Transfer her to America, and she becomes irredeemably reprehensible. You see, Becky is smarter, quicker, more clever than anyone else; but, just because she was born into the lower class and is without any money, she is expected to lower her expectations in life and accept a working class marriage and life of respectable poverty. I guess that I am thoroughly American in my outlook, because I can see Becky's point of view. She would thrive in a culture that values initiative and promotes social mobility. Thwarted by birth from her due, Becky turns dark. She gets emeshed in a desperate dance to expand and improve her social circle -- but, for this reader at least, she never becomes completely unsympathetic. Or, as Becky herself muses at one point, with a sufficient income even she could have been respectable.

So, I confess, I like Becky Sharp. I do not love her, as I love Elizabeth Bennet. I would not trust her, as I trust Fanny Price. I can not approve of her, as I approve of Flora Poste. But, I sure as heck find her entertaining and charming.

The rest of the book is masterly as well. Thackeray clips along at a steady, energetic pace. Characters pop in and out -- some developed with the intricacy of Becky, many serving only to push along the plot. He writes mostly dialogue and pithy, satirical observations on the human scene -- without any of the tedious raptures of nature or philosophy that bog down far too many novels. You really cannot imagine 800 pages passing more smoothly or pleasantly than this.

I am only in the first chapters of this current re-read of VF. I imagine that, further in, I will have more to say. I shall post on this book again at a later date.

No comments: