"A woman may possess the wisdom and chastity of Minerva, and we give no heed to her, if she has a plain face. What folly will not a pair of bright eyes make pardonable? What dullness may not red lips and sweet accents render pleasant? And so, with their usual sense of justice, ladies argue that because a woman is handsome, therefore she is a fool. O ladies, ladies! There are some of you who are neither handsome nor wise!"
There is really TOO much to say about Vanity Fair for just one blog post (or at least one post that won't bore everyone silly, not that I've ever worried about that before, huh? Huh?) but I'll give it my very best shot. I mean, even now, about a week after finishing it, I'm fairly sure that I'll need to read it about 80 more times to grasp all of its little nuances and quips and awesomeness. And I'm also pretty sure that won't be a hardship.
Let's see. When I first started reading Vanity Fair, I was slightly irritated by the authorial voice and its constant cutting in, (and when I ranted about it on twitter, Alice told me off, because, as she quite rightly said, it's a book without a hero, and when did that ever happen in those days?) but it was surprising how quickly I got used to it, or rather just didn't mind it anymore because the book was SO AWESOME. It's just... it's so sharp and cutting and funny and just so completely representative of a particular time and place but also pretty relevant to todays people. I bought the above copy of the book (after I'd read it... basically, the writing in my copy was too small, so I read a library book version, and now I have a pretty one! With good sized words!) and on the back it says:
"While Vanity Fair was criticised on publication as being a cynical view of mankind, Thackeray's epic adventure is a searing portrayal of men and women at their most vulnerable."To which I say: this is literally the most cynical book I've ever read. And I think we live in a pretty cynical age, but this just tops everything else with its pulling apart of its characters motives and in basically not having a good word to say about anyone. I can't even tell you how many reviews of this I've read where people have gone 'Well, I hated all the characters so I didn't really like this book' and now I'm like 'You're SUPPOSED to hate all the characters! Thackeray hates all the characters, and possibly all the people ever to have lived in the world!'
Except. Well. I don't really think he does. Sure there were points where I definitely thought he was just this giant misanthrope, but there are at least a few characters he really cares for. Poor old Dobbin who can pretty much never catch a break is treated with a gentle mocking, but he's also a relatively successful character, and Emmy, who is constantly chided for being too silly and over-emotional and obsessed with her husband, but is still treated by the narrator with a certain amount of sympathy. I mean, I'm not saying he's nice about them, exactly, but he's probably the least harsh with them than anyone else, probably because they're the least involved with, and obsessed with, the ups and downs of Vanity Fair.
Who he really hates, though, is Becky Sharp, the social climbing, good-marriage obsessed harpy who will literally do anything for attention but won't tuck her child in at night. I mean, really- she's a pretty dreadful person (I mean, character... obviously...) and Thackeray makes sure that we know that. With his cynical and awesome ways, of course. But this isn't all as bad and attacky as it all sounds, because Vanity Fair is really really funny. And a lot of that does of course come from the cynicism, but some of it also just comes from the ridiculous idiosyncrasies of people, not always expressed in a cruel way, but just in a wholly accurate way that I think even people of our times (like, you know, me) can understand and appreciate, and, you know, laugh about. Which is always good!
Here's what I will tell you about Vanity Fair which seems to be the thing that nobody tells you about Vanity Fair: it's really epic. And the marriages happen about 100 pages in, which surprised the hell out of me because I assumed the story was heading for 'how the evil Becky Sharp found contentment with a good man', but nope! The marriages are almost immediate, and then the fun can really begin! It's funny because, at that point, Vanity Fair kind of started reminding me of Anna Karenina (just, in its scope and its being outside of like domestic issues and things) and I was like 'hmm, I wonder if Thackeray was inspired by Tolstoy' but our good friend Wikipedia informed me that Vanity Fair was written a good 30 years before Anna Karenina, so... I guess, if anything, it was the other way around. Or nobody was inspired by anybody and I'm just crazy.
This is my last point and then I'm done, I promise, but here's a thought. Vanity Fair seems to be fairly kind of sympathetic, or if not sympathetic than just sort of progressive in its attitude towards women. I mean, sure, the good woman is the one who takes care of her child and does all the things for her husband, while the bad woman is the one who does not, but there is a sense in which women are seen as equal, or maybe even superior beings, especially when it comes to social matters. Also, I'm always sort of grateful when there is a 'bad girl' character anyway, because at least they're letting the woman do something instead of just sitting there as a kind of ornament, you know? I'm not saying that Vanity Fair exactly challenged gender stereotypes or the patriarchy or anything (nor would I really expect it to) but it is kind of respectful of women and the things they do and the way they are treated in return. Sort of. I mean, there's this passage, which doesn't exactly say 'women should be allowed to do more things!' but just sort of appreciates and validates their own personal struggles, and shows a great deal of understanding of the trials they face:
"What do men know of women's martyrdoms? We should go mad had we to endure the hundredth part of those daily pains which are meekly borne by many women. Ceaseless slavery meeting with no reward; constant gentleness and kindness met by cruelty as constant; love, labour, patience, watchfulness, without even so much as acknowledgement of a good word; all this, how many of them have to bear in quiet, and appear abroad with cheerful faces, as if they felt nothing."So. Possibly slightly mid-19th century feministy (i.e. not feministy at all, but sympathetic to women), but definitely hilarious, and cynical, and hilariously cynical. I honestly can't say enough nice things about Vanity Fair, but it wouldn't really be in the spirit of things to be nice about it- I should probably just be cynical. But I can't because it's too awesome, and you should read it RIGHT NOW and then tell me how much you love Jos Sedley because, well, who doesn't?!