Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Devouring Books: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

"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?!

21 comments:

  1. I love your notion that if there's a "bad girl" in this far ago texts at least the author is allowing the woman to DO SOMETHING. So true. It must have been horribly claustrophobic in these times. I think in part the reason why Anna K infuriates me so much is because I see **some** of myself in her. Perhaps not the whiny jealous her (okay, maaaybee when I was young and just beginning the dating regime) but definitely the following her heart at whatever selfish costs. Hmmm...must examine this!

    Hope all is going well with you. Miss our earlier chats. Just know that you're always in my thoughts with your crazy world. <3

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    1. Well, I'm glad you've worked out what your next post on Anna Karenina is going to be about! Definitely horribly claustrophobic and baad, and I feel like Thackeray gets that, at least a bit. Which is nice!

      And also, awwww, sweetest bit of a comment ever! I'm always up for twitter chatting my dear :) xx

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  2. Ooooo this sounds so fun! And it's one my shelf, of course, and I haven't even picked it up yet. I love that quote at the end there, because it still has a lot of relevance today. I feel like I should start banning myself from fun sci-fi and whatnot books to read more classics, cause for some reason this year I have just not been meeting much success with them.

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    1. Duuude, I can't even tell you how long Vanity Fair was on my shelf! I'd look at it, and be like 'errrm... Nahhhh.' and read something else! I'm definitely in favour of slightly forcing yourself to read classics, because I'm ALWAYS like 'mleurgh, that's going to be difficult' and it usually IS, but it's usually really worth it too- and this DEFINITELY is :)

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    2. P.S. You can read The Grapes of Wrath in October when I make people readalong it! Go onnnnn :)

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  3. DID YOU KNOW CHARLOTTE BRONTE LOVED WM THACKERAY SO MUCH SHE DEDICATED JANE EYRE TO HIM AND THEN PEOPLE THOUGHT THE BOOK WAS KIND OF ABOUT HIM BECAUSE HE HAD A CRAZY WIFE?

    So there's that.

    SIGHHHHHH I love this book. I've only gone all the way through it once, but I did a partial re-read a few years ago and SOOOO GOOD. He's just hilarious, and the whole without-a-hero thing, I think you're right that he doesn't hate humanity; he just knows that no one is wholly good. Each character does at least one thing that makes you go "Hey now, wait a sec." Even DOBBIN, for goodness' sake. So great. Love it.

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    1. I knew that she dedicated Jane Eyre to him (because I've only read it about 8000 times) but I didn't know about the wife thing! Although I did know his wife was crazy because I read the timeline thingy in Vanity Fair, although not the introduction because what am I, some kind of genius?

      I'm really really excited to re-read this already because I KNOW there are things that I missed and I read bits when I was sleepy so there's going to be SO MUCH that I've missed and yet the bits I did read properly! Amazing! I did eventually decide that he doesn't really hate people, but he sure seems to! But then even Becky has a kind of redeeming thing at the end (you know?) and so it's all just like 'we're all terrible, but let's move on from that and be friends!' Or something.

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  4. I've always had the impression that this book is stuffy but you make it sound like anything but! For some reason it's never been on the list of classics I want to read but I'm starting to change my mind now...

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    1. I tooootally thought this book was stuffy, and that's why I didn't read it for like years and years (and why I love reading challenges!) but it is SO GOOD. I was shocked by how good it was, frankly! Read it, read it!! :)

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  5. Even reading your review and Alice's love of it, I'm still having trouble getting past the idea that this is a stuffy book. It's this idea I have about it even though I know NOTHING about the book. But I LOVE cynical things (which is probably the wrong way to approach the cynical...)

    I dunno if I could tackle this myself. Maybe some day, down the road, as a readalong (hint, hint).

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    1. You CAN do it Alley! Really! THERE IS NO STUFFY! Just awful people who Thackeray say snarky things about. Like the 19th century internet!

      This would totally be an awesome readalong book though. Seriously. Obviously I can't read it for about 20 years (not cause it sucks, but because SO MANY BOOKS) but yeah! Readalong some day!

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  6. Okay. So. I saw the movie version of the book, the one with Reese Witherspoon, and I was so put off and annoyed at her character that I cannot bring myself to read this. I have the same problem with Gone with the Wind. I think I need to get over it, but it's just so hard!

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    1. I can imagine that the movie sucks- Like... I'm not sure if movies are clever enough to fully like express this book. And I know that basically all costume dramas are not. And also, OMG YOU DIDN'T LIKE GONE WITH THE WIND?! That's like my favourite thing! Ever! Also the book is awesome, so there's that. I recommend both Vanity Fair and Gone With the Wind, if you're ever feeling brave enough to try them!

      Also, thanks for commenting cause you led me to your blog which I LOVE so hi! :)

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  7. Oh yeah, this one has been on the shelf FOREVER. Your review may have been the one to finally get me to read it. It sounds so fun! And who doesn't love cynicism?!

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    1. Yaaaaay! Oooh, I hope it is. And that you tell everyone that I was your inspiration haha! It honestly is SO fun! I mean, obviously it's still more work than a non-classic (MASSIVE generalisation there, but let's go with it) but it's SO awesome. :)

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  8. Well, now I have to go out and spend money on a pretty hardcover copy of this... THANKS A LOT LAURA.

    Great review! I definitely had a poor impression of Vanity Fair from the movie adaptation I saw a while back, but since you loved it, I will definitely give it a try sometime.

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    1. Yay! Clearly everything I think about everything is right, so I'm glad you've recognised that and are now going to read this! It is seriously SO GOOD though, so you're welcome in advance :)

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  9. Wow, I took away pretty much the exact opposite from Vanity Fair than you did. I loathed it, and had to force my way through it. I could also go on for days about it, but refrained from doing so as it was mostly negative (and I really just wanted to forget the entire book had happened).

    Didn't it annoy you how often he wrote 'Vanity Fair' in the book? No, it'll be a long while before I pick up another book by WMT.

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    1. Awww, I'm sorry you didn't like it! Um, I didn't really get too annoyed by him always going 'ah, a typical day in Vanity Fair' or anything, because I think of it as a kind of accurate way to describe London at that time, and also because I kind of stopped noticing it after a while because SO MANY AWESOME THINGS! I mean, obviously not to you, but you know. Awesome things to me hehe.

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  10. I tried to read Vanity Fair last year. I was interested enough not to give up but wasn't really enjoying it, but then my water bottle leaked in my bag and made the book unreadable. I was a little relieved to be honest. Maybe I should try it again though.

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    1. Oh maaan, I feel like if you're relieved that you don't have to read a book anymore, that's never a good sign for the book! I really did love it, but I've read so many reviews where people didn't too, so I would never say force yourself to read it just in case it gets better for you! (Well, I would to a certain point, but not struggling through the WHOLE book or anything!)

      But I would recommend trying it again in like a year or something because it is the funniest everrrr ;)

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