Vanity Fair, published in 1847, follows the adult lives of two women opposite in breeding, personality, ambition, hair color, and pretty much everything else. Becky Sharp is a 19th-century Mean Girl, unleashing her inner sociopath at every opportunity, while Amelia Sedley is a naïve wallflower who barely provokes an opinion of any kind. I, for one, can’t imagine why the plot of Vanity Fair hasn’t already been given a makeover as a high school dramedy, à la Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You; it’s brimming with scandals so delicious, they would send Shakespeare’s eyebrows miles up his infinite forehead. Between forbidden romances, wartime valor (and cowardice), secret admirers, social climbing, social free-falling, and one very suspicious “accidental” death, Vanity Fair reads like the script of an addictive Victorian soap opera.
William Makepeace Thackeray, for his part, seems like a lot of fun (despite the micro-glasses). His social criticism is flagrant and unapologetic (“Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil’s code of honour”), and he invented the modern word/concept of “snob.” Thackeray was also, apparently, in love with his friend’s wife, Jane Brookfield. Ready, set, AWKWARD.
Here are five standout moments from the novel:
1. Becky’s scheme to marry Jos Sedley, Amelia’s very wealthy—not that his wealth is AT ALL RELEVANT— brother, is foiled when Jos gets drunk on punch at a
frat party festival and is too embarrassed to face her afterwards:
“The young ladies did not drink it; Osborne did not like it; and the consequence was that Jos, that fat gourmand, drank up the whole contents of the bowl; and the consequence of his drinking up the whole contents of the bowl was a liveliness which at first was astonishing, and then became almost painful; for he talked and laughed so loud as to bring scores of listeners round the box, much to the confusion of the innocent party within it; and, volunteering to sing a song (which he did in that maudlin high key peculiar to gentlemen in an inebriated state), he almost drew away the audience who were gathered round the musicians in the gilt scollop-shell, and received from his hearers a great deal of applause.”
2. The vivid and beautiful build-up to the death of George Osborne, Amelia’s husband. There’s a lot of talk of English bravery in the face of Napoleon’s army, and then:
“No more firing was heard at Brussels—the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.”
We don’t actually like George Osborne very much, so this moment was doubly satisfying.
3. Becky’s husband, Rawdon Crawley, is arrested for their debts and spends the night in jail. Jail for gentlemen is an extremely hospitable place, complete with comfortable beds, wine and champagne, a silver shaving kit, and cigars. If that was jail, I wonder what hotels were like in the early 1800s. On a side note, Becky’s affectionate nickname for Rawdon is monstre, French for “monster.” I had to mention this somewhere, because it’s marvelous.
4. This random interjection from Thackeray:
“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.”
5. At the end of the novel, Becky ends up (deservedly?) penniless, haggard, and generally repellent, yet still manages to seduce pompous-but-insecure Jos Sedley all over again. And then, just after signing over his life insurance to Becky, he abruptly dies. A CRIME SO PERFECT NANCY DREW WOULD RETIRE. I don’t care if Thackeray accused anyone who enjoyed reading Vanity Fair of being “of a lazy, or a benevolent, or a sarcastic mood.” This book is sensational.
“Don’t break her heart, Jos, you rascal,” said another.
“Don’t trifle with her affections, you Don Juan!”
“Get away,” said Jos Sedley, quite pleased, and leering up at the maid-servant in question with a most killing ogle.
Time out of mind strength and courage have been the theme of bards and romances; and from the story of Troy down to today, poetry has always chosen a soldier for a hero.
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
A writer, reader, and traveler, Jamie Leigh writes a literature review blog at http://the100greatestbookschallenge.wordpress.com/ and won the Purdue University Kneale Literary Award in 2008.
Carousel image: “Vanity Fair D029” by Unknown – Vanity Fair – A novel without a hero, 1848. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vanity_Fair_D029.png#mediaviewer/File:Vanity_Fair_D029.png