Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

vanity fairVanity Fair has one of those titles which just seemed to make me think that it was going to be a really good, really fun book. I don’t know if it’s because there’s also a magazine called Vanity Fair, that you think might be inspired by this novel, or whether it’s the playful nature of the title, but I had high hopes.

Sadly, for me, the novel just didn’t live up to expectations. It’s a satirical novel, about observations of fictional characters in 19th century London. As satire, obviously it is designed to poke fun at the characters and their actions, as well as at the general workings of society in this era, and for the most part, it does this very well. However, it’s not that easy to read – the language is very much that of the Regency period which is sometimes a bit inaccessible. Lots of the jokes and humour do come through, but some of it just didn’t really work with me – it was a bit… over the top in parts.

The story centres around two women who were educated at the same school but who hail from very different backgrounds, and follows their path in society after finishing school. Rebecca Sharp is the resourceful, sassy, determined daughter of an artist and a dancer who ended up at Miss Pinkerton’s academy really through chance, whereas her friend Amelia Sedley is the good-natured, kind-hearted and rather wet daughter of a City gentleman. The two women face various changes in their fortunes as they seek to find husbands and deal with the circumstances that the Napoleonic wars send their way.

Good points about this book are: it is really funny in places. Thackeray clearly had a great time creating these ridiculous characters, and you can almost hear the author laughing to himself as he describes some of the particularly ludicrous aspects of them, and really enjoying ridiculing the people he’s created.

Another good point is that there is some great characterisation; each protagonist has their own individual traits that create instantly distinct characters. The descriptions are so thorough that it’s very easy for the reader to imagine exactly what these men & women look like and how they act – it’s taken right to the point of parody with the creation of elaborate caricatures rather than real people.

However, the problem with the characters is that none of them is especially likeable at all. I think this is done on purpose by Thackeray, but it stops you from really caring about any of these people and what happens to them. There are characters that are supposed to be more dislikable than others, but even Major Dobbin, the closest thing to a hero that this book has, is not someone you’re always rooting for – he’s a bit of a wet blanket at times. You might sympathise with Amelia at times, but she’s incredibly irritating, always mooning over her cad of a fiancé and failing to see what’s staring her right in the face. Becky Sharp, arguably the most ‘villainous’ of the characters in the book, is at least interesting, even if she is frustratingly callous and obsessed with social climbing. The other men are either caricatures that you can’t take seriously, or cold-hearted or gambling addicts – not the best selection. I know it’s sort of the point that you don’t like any of the characters – the book has been dubbed ‘The Story without a Hero’, but it didn’t really work for me.

It’s also pretty long for a book where, to be honest, not a lot really happens. I was really flagging mid way through and had to read a Wikipedia summary of what actually happened in the story through till the end so that I could give myself some momentum to finish! It’s not often that I do that, and it’s not a great sign of a gripping read! I would definitely recommend skipping over some of the longer passages where unnecessary family histories of bit part characters are explained – you don’t miss anything and it’ll help get you back to the more interesting main narrative.

So, to summarise, if you’re into period satire and you like quirky characters, it’s worth giving it a go – there are good things to it (it’s a classic, after all), but I wouldn’t personally read it again. There are funny bits and and some interesting bits, but so much of it made me frustrated or bored, which isn’t the way I like to spend my time!

Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

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