Thursday, 4 August 2005

Vanity Fair

Listening to:

Bach, partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828.

Just read:

W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair.

This is a nineteenth century classic, and sufficiently good that I’ve now come back to it for a second time. It centres on two young women characters: Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky is an opportunistic woman of dubious parentage, with a real desire to get ahead. Amelia is more bourgeois in background, and much less worldly-wise than her friend. The contrasts between the two characters mean that there’s lots of interesting variety in how we see scenes and other characters. I’d say Thackeray was much fonder of Becky: her cynicism matches that of the narrator quite often, while Amelia comes across as a tedious sap rather too often.

To steal a line from Blackadder, this is a real roller-coaster of a novel, with lots of neat twists and turns, and piles of interesting minor characters. In comparison with novels by Dickens, Vanity Fair doesn’t seem as carefully plotted, and some of it seems a bit episodic rather than clearly moving the plot along. On the other hand, Thackeray definitely wins over Dickens because none of his characters are perfect. Amelia’s sappiness is something that Thackeray is perfectly aware of and comments on. The nearest thing to a saint is Captain Dobbin, but even he comes across as a bit dim at times.

In form, Vanity Fair is ultimately a romance: loving hearts are united, and all that, though Thackeray gets lots of twists out of this, and lots of opportunity for that amusing cynicism. In addition, Becky has to better herself too, and her attitude to romance is more that a man is a route to power and money rather than love and happiness. In this way, Thackeray manages to combine two sorts of stories at once. His novel is perhaps too long, with a slightly unsatisfying ending, but there’s lots to admire and enjoy on the way. (The drama leading up to and around the Battle of Waterloo is particularly effective.)