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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Vanity Fair

Early last year, not long after I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath (which I really liked) or possibly just after I finished Ivanhoe (which was pretty good) as I don't recall the order in which I read them, I began to re-read Vanity Fair. Yesterday I finished my re-read.

This re-read took the better part of (or more than; I don't remember the timeline well) a year for one very simple reason: I felt that I was too busy to read the book. You might recall that I had this to say in Why I Won't Take Five Courses Again (which was written towards the end of the semester):
This semester, though, has been insane. I have felt like a pebble in a can that’s been kicked down the stairs. Each time I stop working on something, I am immediately working on something else. Stage III just wants more in some unidentifiable sense and Stage III definitely needs more.
And months before that I had written in the comments of a Minding the Campus post:
I’ve been re-reading Vanity Fair (having recently finished Ivanhoe and The Grapes of Wrath for the first time), and I have to say, the time thing is a really big problem given that I have probably have close to or more than a hundred pages of course readings a week and my continued attempts to sustain an expansive television habit. Consequentially, even I who has far fewer time commitments than the vast majority of students resorted to the old “all night essay” trick.
I mention all this because it's important to recognise, as I attempt a spoiler-filled review of Vanity Fair, that my rereading of the book was accompanied by a massive layoff (a winter break, if you will) where I read lots of other things (almost all chapters here and there as part of history courses, but at the start of this year I also reread 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a short introduction to biological anthropology) but not Vanity Fair. I have also recently re-read the TV Tropes page for the novel and the Great Writer's magazine series' bit about it (this magazine, incidentally, was the only reason why I initially read it sometime prior to the end of 2011).

Is it any Good?

The simple answer is: yes. The longer answer is that the fifth seventh or so of what is a very long book (my edition runs to damn near 600 pages or something) drags a bit because that's where the story gets bogged down in a world that doesn't exist any more. Well, that's okay in the sense that the whole book was then and is now historical fiction (it was written some decades after it was set), but where the "Am Rhein" stuff at the end represents a Germany very different to our Germany (or, indeed, that of 1980 which was also an era of multiple Germanies) and that is no problem, in the fifth seventh things work differently.

One of the things that drew my teen-aged self to Vanity Fair was its description as satire. And, it is true, Vanity Fair is satirical and it probably shows the potential of satire to say so much more about human life than any metaphorical symbol-fest ever can just as clearly as, say, Discworld. The issue is that in the fifth seventh, the satirical nature of the text leads to very intricate descriptions of a type of lifestyle which now looks and behaves very differently. That is to say, unlike the original audience, we don't recognise the major players in the book's actors and everything is analogous. In other words, I found this section much harder to get through than the rest. It is also illustrates well why I chucked in the word probably just now... I fear it very easy to mistake Vanity Fair for an historical novel, rather than something that still has something to say now.

However, my year eleven self, as I recall things, was disappointed with Vanity Fair. As I was reading it recently I recall thinking "Why was I disappointed?" In fact, it got to the point where I was wondering whether or not I should take another crack at my (pre-2011) abandoned read of Moby-Dick. Now I think it's because I allowed the fifth seventh to dominate. Or, maybe, if I read it again in another six years I'd find the fifth seventh just as absorbing as the earlier parts.

So, What is it About?

In a simple sense, it's about Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and her progression through Vanity Fair (i.e. it has a central metaphor). In a more complicated sense, as was noted in one of those two aforementioned sources, it is also about Amelia Sedley. Neither character, we are assured, is a hero or a heroine. Becky must surely be an ancestor of Francis Urquhart and Amelia is dull, poor judge of character obsessed with an imagined portrait of her husband... Becky's would-be lover (although, at the time, Becky was also married). There are, of course other characters.

When we think about William Dobbin we are confronted with a character who shows us that the reason Vanity Fair has no hero is simply because Thackeray had very high standards. Amelia's great flaw is that she doesn't recognise what is about other people and, consequently, has an unhealthy relationship with herself. Dobbin, of course, is physically flawed but more importantly his great flaw is a life-long pursuit of Amelia... not in the sense that this was dishonourable, indeed, he was hardly "in-pursuit" and did more than any other person to ensure Amelia married George (his best friend, but his motives were all about Amelia's fragile emotional state). The issue with Dobbin is, like Amelia and like Rawdon, intellectual. He knows, somewhere, that Emmy is flawed but does not recognise this. Thus, Dobbin, too, ends up with an unhealthy self-relationship.

Rawdon Crawley is an interesting character but, like Dobbin, essentially disappears from the novel as a character when he takes up a post as a colonial governor (in a poor, inhospitable, climate). In fact, this disappearance is far more extreme than Dobbin's vanishing act when he was in India (as a soldier)... all we know for sure is that he sends over money to his wife (Becky). But Rawdon is stupid. Not in the way that Amelia is stupid, she doesn't, in truth, seem to fit in anywhere, but in the sense that Rawdon is fine in the company of a certain kind of man... men like him, basically. He gambles, too, and duels. But, like Dobbin, is essentially honourable... although far more pragmatic (things don't sit well with him, but they persist in sitting; Dobbin's greater discipline avoids Rawdon's gift for poor situations). And, like Dobbin, both are much closer to their children (one apiece) than they are to their wives... although Becky makes for a terrible mother. Unlike, Dobbin, however, Rawdon is intimate with Vanity Fair until his governorship. That is to say, he participates actively in the world of the Image... this being made easier by having quit the army not long after Waterloo. (But Image, that is Vanity Fair, has its form in the regiments, too, but Dobbin ignores this.)

The only other real contender for a hero would be Joseph (Jos) Sedley... Amelia's brother. However, our fat friend is prone to exaggeration and cowardice. Thus it is that Waterloo Sedley exists... although the man fled Brussels (unlike the original George Osborne, Amelia's husband, or Dobbin or Rawdon... i.e. all the other men of his generation and approximate standing in the novel... he was not even a soldier, let alone a participant in the battle; George, of course, died there). It must also be said that Jos shares his sister's ability to judge characters... which is why the novel ends with the implication that Becky arranged his demise. But even if we were to accept that our standards of heroes are quite different, Jos really does spend the majority of his time at work... which is to say, in India. At least when he is around, Jos plays the game... he was a man obsessed with Image.

What about Themes?

Well, I have no idea what the "experts" say but I would argue that the major theme is Image and What People Do To Have It. Hence, people "cut" each other by not acknowledging acquaintances (generally for fear of association) and attempt to live well on nothing a year (this involves debt... and now I think about it, Rawdon's selective honour... but with the right Image people don't follow up). And, of course, marriage is an important thing. Marrying the right people matters and marrying the wrong people can lead to even dead war heroes being estranged from their fathers (death does not fix your problems). But this pursuit of Image is, I feel, shown as a vanity (well, duh). Which probably explains this definition of Vanity Fair:
The world regarded as a place of frivolity and idle amusement (originally with reference to Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress").
There are other ideas, of course. They'e often related.

For instance, Old Osborne (Amelia's father-in-law) totally refuses to help about Old Sedley (Amelia's father) when his fortune turns. In year eleven I interpreted this as being something along the lines of forgetting where you come from. But, of course, to aid Old Sedley would be to compromise one's own Image. It is, naturally, fine to buy his wine at the creditor's auction of Sedley's former possessions... but not fine to reveal the origin of this wine when you get round to drinking it a decade later.

The flaws of all the various characters let us think about what it means to be a gentleman, for example. What are the qualities of goodness and decency, do we think, that Thackeray posits? It is clear that physical fitness and courage matter... but it is equally important to be intelligent and honourable as it is to look right. Poor parenting is not cool and fatherly affection important. From Dobbin's example we conclude that gossip is rank bad form, but it is decent to privately harbour feelings for people. Yet, he is flawed, like Old Sedley, for not knowing when it is time to, by analogy, type "gg" (for Good Game) and resign. Or, maybe, this is what I think... for doesn't the Great Writer's magazine describe Thackeray as a describer rather than a moraliser? He put down Truth and left the meaning to the reader. Or something like that.

I think, when we consider the Marquis of Steyne and the general appeal of Becky, that it is entirely possible that Thackeray also had something to say about position in Vanity Fair. I suggest here that we are invited to think that the reason Becky had her periods of success in Vanity Fair (the metaphor and the book) is that she had qualities that people desired but which were lacking among those of Image. And at the end, one hears of George Osborne the younger being paired with his neighbour... who preferred her cousin (Rawdon Crawley the younger).

Comparisons

I already alluded to House of Cards, but in truth that's a fairly superficial comparison in the sense that it simply takes two characters who know what they want and how to get it and notes that they share these features. I feel like a comparison should be a bit more meaningful, but, in truth, I feel like we could spend all day talking about various organised crime leaders looking for that respectability they lack, but that's all I can think about.

On a meta level, definitely compare and contrast Discword. Not only are they both satirical works but they both have narrators with known voices. Ivanhoe does too, actually. And Jane the Virgin's narrator definitely fits in the "I will not disfigure my characters" mould.

Conclusion

Should you read Vanity Fair? Yes. Do you need to read it? No. In fact, there are only three things you need to read to understand the gamut of humanity... and I hope to write that up later on.

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