I am so, so glad I’m done with this. I’ve been reading this book for weeks. That isn’t to say it’s a bad book, it’s not necessarily, but it really wore on me. I’m going to have to give this a double-review of sorts: my personal enjoyment factor and the importance of the book outside of enjoyment.
I’ll start with the (main) characters. It’s easier to lay out the book that way. Warning – there will be spoilers all throughout this review, however, the book is less about plot and more about social satire, so they don’t matter as much as other books. [Another warning – this review is long.]
Rebecca Sharp Crawley: One of the two main anti-heroines, Becky is a smart, witty, malicious, manipulative, greedy orphan. All she wants in life is lots of money and status. When she fails to get Joseph Sedley (see below) to propose to her, she goes to work for a hick-ish gentleman, Sir Pitt Crawley, as a governess. Almost everyone in the family loves her, but they all turn on her once she secretly marries Sir Pitt’s second son, Rawdon. Rawdon’s aunt (who has all the money in the family) disinherits her nephew and his governess-wife, and Becky spends the rest of their marriage manipulating the people around her in order to get by on nothing, while running around in better and better circles. More on Becky later.
Amelia Sedley Osborne: The other main anti-heroine, Amelia went to school with Becky and is her complete opposite in personality: quiet, loving, self-sacrificing, humble, soft-spoken, and passive. She marries George Osborne, to whom she’s been betrothed since childhood, despite the break her family has recently had with his. George’s father disowns him, leaving George, Amelia, and their son Georgy in poverty, which gets worse when George dies in battle only six weeks after his marriage. Amelia gives everything up for her son and parents, and stays in mourning nearly 20 years for her husband. More on Amelia later.
Rawdon Crawley: The younger son of Sir Pitt Crawley, the favorite of his aunt, Rawdon is careless, carefree, and not the brightest. He’s good at gambling, gets money from his aunt whenever he wants, owes a lot of money, and in general is a layabout. However, he’s devoted to Becky once they marry, and tenderly loves their son, Rawdon Jr. As he gets older, he becomes calmer, gambles less, tries to pay back his debts, and in general becomes a much more likable guy. Eventually, he separates from his wife because he catches her in the web of her manipulations. He’s one of the only characters in the book I grew to like.
George Osborne: The husband of Amelia, whose character is not very well defined (see notes on serial structure below). Sometimes he’s devoted, sometimes he’s too self-assured and neglects Amelia, sometimes he’s a lot like Rawdon and gambles (only is bad at it). After marriage, he pines after Becky, and is planning to run away with her before he has to go to battle, where he’s killed. He exists mostly in this book as a memory, glossed over and perfected through time.
William Dobbin: The best friend of George Osborne, protector of Amelia and her son, Dobbin is a bumbling but kind fool. He cherishes a secret love for Amelia that he only makes known to her near the end of the book. Amelia takes him for granted, and Dobbin allows himself to be a doormat to her. By the end of the book, he’s the only other character I liked.
Joseph Sedley: The fat, pompous, ridiculously shy brother of Amelia, who almost gets engaged to Becky at the beginning of the book, and who is ensnared by her at the end. He’s often used for comic relief.
The stories all intertwine, with a fabulous amount of subplots and sideplots, over the course of 800+ pages. For years, Becky and Rawdon are separated from Amelia/George/Dobbin/Joseph, only to come back together again eventually.
There’s a lot I could talk about in the way of social satire, but the thing that stood out to me the most was the contrast of Becky to Amelia, and how neither is better than the other. It seems obvious, from reading about their characters, that Amelia should be the heroine while Becky the villain. Not so. Thackeray is every bit as biting and cynical about Amelia’s character. For example, at one point he describes her in the following way:
She was voted…rather a pleasing young person – not much in her, but pleasing, and that sort of thing.
It’s the amount of casual indifference in the tone, in the “and that sort of thing,” that really cuts here. She’s worthless. Forgettable. Practically non-existent. Amelia is purity defined, and yet, all that innocent sweetness is not a good thing. At first, it seems fine. Then, it becomes so sweet almost as to be unbearable. By midbook, I wanted to scream at her. Maybe Becky was a manipulative witch but at least she was doing something. Amelia refused to take charge of her life. She swayed with the wind, wherever it chanced to blow her, and never, ever spoke up for herself. She was a doormat, plain and simple, and a doormat is never a hero. And yet she persists in her weakness, crying every few pages, pining for nearly 20 years after the picture of a husband who wasn’t even faithful to her. And in the end? Thackeray shows she’s every bit as selfish and awful as Becky. She knows Dobbin loves her, she knows he’s provided for her for years, and yet, she won’t marry him.
He had placed himself at her feet so long that the poor little woman had been accustomed to trample upon him. She didn’t wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all.
Personally, I prefer Becky’s selfishness. In all her dishonesty, at least she was honest with herself about what she wanted. Amelia kept her selfishness masked under a veil of piety. To me, that’s the worst sort of behavior. Thackeray seems to reserve his most biting and caustic remarks for her. After Amelia refuses Dobbin for the last time and the poor guy finally leaves, the author has only this to say:
As for Emmy, had she not done her duty? She had her picture of George for a consolation.
He’s not terrible polite about Becky, either, but Becky’s horrible path is so blatant that it requires a lot less satire to bring it to light. She works her way up by ingratiating herself to people. She enchants the men, unfortunately making enemies of their wives, and wheedles money out of them in ingenious ways. As soon as she makes acquaintances in a higher circle, she drops the old ones, making more enemies. In the Crawley family, she could have kept her good name, except for her awful treatment of Rawdon Jr. Here’s my favorite quote regarding him, probably because they revamped it for The Crow:
Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of little children; and here was one who was worshipping a stone!
Yes, if it had not been for her awful treatment of Rawdon, perhaps Rebecca could have gone on longer in her game. Of course, such games generally fail, in the end, and Becky crashes as spectacularly as she rose. It reminds me of “On Your Way Down” by Stabbing Westward, actually. It’s kind of fun to have high school songs come back to you when you’re reading.
Thackeray published this book over the course of 20 serials. While I love what he did with the book, and I enjoy social satire in general, I think it was the format that gave me problems. I didn’t feel like Thackeray had thought out his plot and characters well enough. As I said above, George flipflops and seems to be a whole multitude of different people. The footnotes point out inconsistencies in Dobbin’s family makeup, saying that Thackeray’s ideas about the Dobbin family were “slow to develop.” I felt like this would have been much better had it all been planned and ordered ahead of time. When you come up with an idea about where a plot should go, you can’t go back and change what’s already been published. Instead, you end up manipulating characters in ways that don’t always make sense, and that’s how I felt for at least the first half of the book.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy Vanity Fair very much. There were times when it was very funny, and when I loved the writing, but it desperately needed to be thinned. Besides the inconsistencies mentioned above, there was just a lot of pointless meandering that I attribute to the publishing format. I got irritated after awhile with the negativity. I know it’s a satire and it’s supposed to be negative, and I wouldn’t have minded at all had it stuck with the characters the whole time, but when Thackeray would go off talking about people who mattered little (if at all) to the book with the same condescending tone, it got old. Perhaps it would have been better in 20 separate installments. I was also irritated by the all-too-frequent repetition of the term “Vanity Fair.” I understand that that’s the title, and that we’re referring back to Pilgrim’s Progress, but a handful of repetitions would have done just fine. You don’t need 100 or more. Please.
Altogether, I do feel like it’s a book worth reading. I’m glad I read it. I do wish it could have been edited, polished, and put together a little better. Then I could say I enjoyed it as well as feeling it was worthwhile.