Vanity FairVanity FairWhile the present century was in its teens, and on one sun-shiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachmen in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour.

I found Vanity Fair really hilarious. It’s a novel without a hero, but  one of the main characters is Becky Sharp: pretty, sharp, smart, and ruthlessly determined. She is an orphan, and her father was a poor artist, so she must make the best of things. The story starts when she leaves the hated academy for young ladies with her sentimental companion Amelia Sedley, and arrives to stay at Russell Square for a little bit. There, we meet Amelia’s wealthy brother Joseph, who Becky is determined to marry, and two other men: George and Dobbin, both of whom love Amelia in their own way. “As the two heroines make their way through the tawdry glamour of Regency society, battles – military and domestic – are fought, fortunes made and lost. The one steadfast and honourable figure in this corrupt world is Dobbin, devoted to Amelia, bring pathos and depth to Thackeray’s gloriously satirical epic of love and social adventure.”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Vanity Fair. The Regency England portrayed in Thackeray’s novel is very different from the society in Austen’s books, though they are set in the same time period. Vanity Fair is clearly a satire; everything about it screams satire. The author interrupts with little side notes and witty comments, playfully mocking everything he talks about. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 6, “I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one (although there are some terrific chapters coming presently), and must beg the good-natured reader to remember, that we are only discoursing at present about a stockbroker’s family in Russell Square, who are taking walks, or luncheon, or dinner, or talking and making love as people do in common life without a single passionate and wonderful incident to mark the progress of their loves…We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner. Suppose we had laid the scene in Grosvenor Square, with the very same adventures – would not some people have listened? Suppose we had shown how Lord Joseph Sedley fell in love, and the Marquis of Osborne became attached to Lady Amelia, with the full consent of the duke…or instead of the supremely genteel, suppose we had resorted to the entirely low, and described what was going on in Mr. Sedley’s kitchen – how black Sambo was in love with the cook (as indeed he was), and how he fought a battle with the coachman in her behalf…such incidents might be made to provoke much delightful laughter, and be supposed to represent scenes of ‘life’. Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible and made the lover of the new femme de chambre a professional burglar who bursts into the house with his band, slaughters black Sambo at the feet of his master, and carries Amelia off in her night-dress, not to be let loose again till the third volume, we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting.” (pgs. 59-60). This part really amused me. Thackeray manages to make fun of all of the different types of novels of the time. Then, later in the chapter, “It is to be understood, as a matter of course, that our young people, being in parties of two and two, made the most solemn promises to keep together during the evening, and separated in ten minutes afterwards.” (pg. 63).

There were a lot of Regency references, and thus a lot of footnotes, which was kind of annoying. I don’t like it when a classic makes so much reference to long defunct things that no one knows about anymore. However, even if the reader skips the footnotes, the general gist of the book can still be understood. The names are also a bit confusing, but overall, Vanity Fair was very entertaining.

I was expecting Vanity Fair to be very overwritten because of its length and when it was written, but it actually wasn’t. The writing was very compelling and charming in its own way. It was also very slyly funny. It is kind of a vulgar book, as you can see from the cover. In Jane Austen’s books, the mothers of the heroines generally try and get them married. But Rebecca Sharp is an orphan, so she has to take matters into her own hands, and try and marry herself off to someone wealthy. This makes the whole character of the novel very different. It also takes place in many different locations: London, Brighton, other parts of the English countryside, and Brussels.

There were a lot of twists in Vanity Fair that I really wasn’t expecting. Much like Anna Karenina, before 200 pages had gone by, so much had happened, and I wasn’t quite sure how the next 600 pages could be filled with an interesting story and not be bogged down. But I was kept absorbed by this engrossing novel.

Vanity Fair is also like Anna Karenina in the respect that there are two different stories that occupy the novel; in this case, the story of Amelia and the story of Becky. These two are almost opposites. Amelia is perhaps not the smartest of women (she reminded me of Dora from David Copperfield a bit), but she is kind, sweet, and gentle. Rebecca is very street-smart, and everything she does has a purpose. She’s good at fending for herself. But both of these characters are really compelling.

Thackeray makes reference to “Vanity Fair” a lot in the book, which was interesting, but definitely a good satirical touch. I loved Vanity Fair, and would highly recommend it.

Read Vanity Fair:

  • if you like William Makepeace Thackeray
  • if you like satire
  • if you like British literature

809 pages.

Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!