Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Before we begin…


29094474_2047241348882955_7690873150967382016_nYesterday was my 4 year old daughter’s last day of dance class at our local community center. On the last day, parents are invited into the classroom to watch a little “recital” – which sounds like a level of cuteness rivaled only by videos of sea otters holding hands (or paws, if you insist on accuracy). All seemed lost when my son woke up with a cold and had to stay home. My husband, hero to the rescue, worked from home so we could make it to the recital. Perhaps it was doomed from the get-go. We arrived at the community center, but the teacher did not.

You can probably picture the perturbed parents (many of whom had taken time off work for the occasion). One extremely thoughtful mom had brought a bouquet of roses, and handed a stem to each dancer on their way out the door. My daughter weathered her disappointment with an attitude worthy of a benevolent character from a 19th century novel. We came home with a rose as a consolation prize, which does feature nicely in the picture for today’s review of Vanity Fair.

And now, the book…


Have you read Vanity Fair? Though I geek out on literature from this era (Austen, Dickens and Brontë) I’d never read this novel. If you’re not into novels from that time period, this book is definitely not for you. Even if you like books from that time, Vanity Fair is quite long. More verbose than this post, if you can believe it.

Vanity Fair recounts the lives of two women, Rebecca and Amelia, who start out as childhood friends. At the start of the novel we see these two characters leaving finishing school together. After that point, like many a great 19th century novel, things don’t go well for the main characters for much of the story. Rebecca, born without money or class, is ambitious and cunning. She stops at nearly nothing to ascend society, even at the risk of scandalizing herself. Amelia, born genteel and comfortable, falls into poverty when her father loses all the family wealth. She bores each sad occurrence in her life with a flood of tears, followed by an overarching grace befitting of a lady of her day.

The whole story is framed by the narrator essentially gossiping to the reader, which makes this novel unique (at least, for its time). In fact, there are portions of the story the narrator claims to have received second-hand. Occasionally, the narrator goes so far as to suggest certain information may be biased and inaccurate:

“…as I have no doubt that the greater part of the story was false and dictated by interested malevolence, it shall not be repeated here”.

Or, the narrator might start a juicy tidbit of gossip, only to refuse to tell-all:

“…and here she named the name of a great leader of fashion that I would die rather than reveal”.

In this way, the plot reveals itself through hearsay, in a rather rambling pace. The beauty of the ramble is that it reads in an easy, almost contemporary way. I could imagine a similar tone coming out of the mouth of a gossipy friend over brunch. Did you hear about so-and-so? You are not going to believe it. Let me pull up Instagram so you can see for yourself.

As you might suspect of a book of this era and place, people of color are depicted in offensive, unflattering ways. If you are able to read past that, considering it a snapshot of the times, you may enjoy this book quite a bit. It is replete with love stories, scandal, tragedy and redemption. It is a commentary on social hierarchy and, of course, personal vanities. In many ways, I felt that Vanity Fair might translate nicely to a modern day retelling.

A little gossip about William Makepeace Thackeray…


Are you interested in a little gossip I overheard from Wikipedia, a source well-known for its veracity? Apparently he was born in India. Thackeray’s father and maternal grandfather were both secretaries for the East India Company. When Thackeray’s father died, his mom sent him to England (without her! when he was only 4 years old!). When he turned 21, he received his inheritance. However, he wasn’t great with financial matters. He gambled and made poor investments. Sounds a bit like the two characters Rebecca and Amelia marry in Vanity Fair. Thackeray apparently got his act together when he married. He and his wife, Isabella, had three children. Sadly, Isabella suffered from post-partem depression. She threw herself into the ocean while sailing to Ireland. Fortunately, she was rescued. Unfortunately, she suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life, and spent some time in asylums, and most of her life in private care. Wikipedia notes that Thackeray “desperately sought cures for her”. Though, that didn’t stop him from becoming a bit of a bedswerver. Despite personal losses, Thackeray experienced a great deal of success as a writer. In his lifetime, he was nearly as popular as Dickens. In his later years, he was in ill-health, ate gluttonously, and eventually died of a stroke at the age of 52.

And on that happy note, I bid you adieu.

Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray