Although William Makepeace Thackeray‘s 1848 novel Vanity Fair is set in England during the Napoleonic wars, the novel was written in the Victorian era and some of the customs of the age seem to have been retained in the general atmosphere of the novel. This is especially evident in the writing style, which lack the eloquent loftiness of Regency writings and instead takes on a moral and somewhat matter-of-fact nature. Indeed, while reading the opening chapters of Vanity Fair I felt myself unconvinced by both the story and the claim that the novel represents ‘Thackeray’s best’, fearing that the story would be just another hum-drum Victorian morality tale (as I so often have come to expect of Dickens). As the story progressed I was however pleasantly surprised and Thackeray came to resemble more of a cynical Dickens: as the first chapters had come to a close and the general storyline had been set up, the writing style became less rigid and the author’s comments became less frequent (and often more amusingly cynical), allowing the story to mature and stand on its own without Thackeray’s voice becoming overbearing. In part, this is a legacy of the novel initially having been published in serial form.
Vanity Fair is a story about society; about people and about customs. Foremost, it is however a story about life – and in particular life as it stands set upon a stage, as a play wherein all have parts to play. The story greatly benefits from being written from the point of view of the audience; by someone who has seen the play performed and therefore can take an analytical view of its contents. As such, the novel is a cynical commentary on society – and life therein: wherein money is the only valid currency and where flattery and ego are the sole investments wherefrom a profit is to be made. In Thackeray’s view of life success therefore becomes the property of those who know how to play the game – and in doing so, break the rules for their own benefit.
“[W]e may abuse a man as much as we like, and call him the greatest rascal unhung — but do we wish to hang him therefore? No. We shake hands when we meet. If his cook is good we forgive him, and go and dine with him; and we expect he will do the same by us. […] [A]ll the delights of life, I say — would go to the deuce, if people did but act upon their silly principles, and avoid those whom they dislike and abuse. […] Every man’s hand would be against his neighbour in this case, my dear sir, and the benefits of civilization would be done away with. We should be quarrelling, abusing, avoiding one another. Our houses would become caverns: and we should go in rags because we cared for nobody. Rents would go down. Parties wouldn’t be given any more. All the tradesmen of the town would be bankrupt.” Excerpted from Chapter 51: ‘A Charade is Acted’.
Image from Victorian Web. Scanned by Gerald Ajam.
The novel describes itself as a ‘Novel without a Hero’. Although there are two female protagonists (Rebecca and Amelia) that serve as makeshift heroines, Thackeray is correct in that neither is deserving of the title in the traditional sense – both being very far removed from the strength and virtues that characterise classical heroines such as Elizabeth Bennett of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Rather, both Rebecca and Amelia are strongly flawed: Rebecca being callous and manipulative, and Amelia being meek and subordinate. Still, the characters being flawed does not mean that either is hard to sympathise with. Although I took a disliking to Amelia, I understood her point of view, and as I have felt similar pains as the ones she struggles with throughout the course of the book, I thought her actions to be perfectly in character – and, as a result, found her character well-written. (And in general I found Thackeray’s portrayals of his characters, and comments on their actions, as evidence that he must have been an exceptional student of human nature.) Rebecca, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Amelia, and I found myself rooting for her – as she understood the rules of the game of Vanity Fair: making up for in wits what she lacks in virtue, using her beauty and charm to realise her ambitions and make her way to the very top of fine society.
Rebecca strongly reminded me of Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country, and it therefore seems appropriate to combine these two reviews – as both books allude to the power and allure of money; economical success being the only means by which ambition can be realised in this capital world. Although Rebecca is Undine’s superior in terms of wits, they are evenly matched in their ambition and ruthlessness, both leaving a trail of broken lives in their wake as they make their way to yet-greener pastures. The similarities between Vanity Fair and The Custom of the Country are so strong that I suspect Thackeray’s work served as an inspiration for Wharton’s later novel. Even so, I found Wharton’s story to be the superior of the two: her writing style being clearer and her plots more cynical (and therefore also more realistic). Indeed, it is the ending that makes a novel, and comparing the way both Vanity Fair and the Custom of the Country come to a close, the latter story is the one that emotionally stays with the reader even after the books themselves have been closed.
Like with all good novels, both Vanity Fair and the Custom of the Country bear appropriate titles that serve as both descriptors and metaphors of the tales therein: both referring to the unwritten rules of society and the way in which these can be manipulated for personal gain by those who understand the rules of the game. As such, I feel that the books rather benefit from being read in conjunction, as it allows the stories to be juxtaposed and their similarities and differences to be compared. Rather than undermining the enjoyment of either book, this approach strengthens them by allowing the reader to focus on the common themes and relate these to the dexterous manoeuvres that still are performed, every day, by the inhabitants of any human world: where lies and deception are the glue that holds any human social arrangement together.
The Custom of the Country has a strong focus on a single plotline – that of Undine Spragg’s rise to the apex of society (and hence, the world) – but it also allows some of the weaker voices to be heard and so that their side of the story also can be told. In contrast, Thackeray divides almost equal time to two separate plotlines. Although these plotlines intercept one another at regular intervals as the characters interact, the stories around which each one revolves are qualitatively different: whereas one focusses on Rebecca’s transformation from a penniless orphan to a woman of society, the other focusses on a complicated, triangular relationship between Amelia and two young men of the military. Although this kind of plot has been done with various degrees of success (in practically all novels written to date?) it presents no problem for Thackeray’s cynicism. Indeed, I would like to argue that Vanity Fair presents the best-plotted love triangle of any novel that I have read to date. Admittedly it does reek of naivety and Victorian idealism, but what it lacks in realism it makes up for in its philosophical implications: having finished the book the question I found myself pondering was whether we love people for who they are – or whether we love people for who we think they are.
It is questions like that – that invite the reader to think and philosophise for a long time after the books has been returned to the shelf – that makes a story a classic – regardless of how emotionally satisfying they are. And seen in that light, Vanity Fair is one of those books that rightly deserve the distinction of being considered a ‘classic’, alongside with Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
-William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II:II.