Monday, January 04, 2010

Thoughts on Vanity Fair

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.

I finished this 1847 masterpiece today and now am motivated to read about the book. I listened to an audio version, and so promptly pulled my paperback copy off my shelf and read the introduction and learned that Thackeray had illustrated it himself. The drawings are simply marvelous and I had completely forgotten about them.

Here's a particularly good one from the collection at the Victorian Web, which was scanned by Gerald Ajam, with the caption by Tiaw Kay Siang and Sabrina Lim.

I also learned that Thackeray's handwritten manuscript of Vanity Fair is owned by the Morgan Library in New York City...yes, the same one that is now offering the Jane Austen exhibition. Since I am Twitter friends with the Morgan, I asked whether Vanity Fair is currently on display. I am planning to visit the Austen exhibit later this month and thought I might get to see Vanity Fair as well. Alas, no, the tweet came back, it is not on display at this time. That would have just been too serendipitous.

Now on to the forewarned, here lurk spoilers for both VF and Gone With the Wind.

Vanity Fair may be subtitled A Novel Without a Hero, but no one disputes the fact that Becky Sharp is the main character by sheer force of personality, despite being out of the action for chapters on end while the other characters' stories are told. As I was listening to the VF, I kept on thinking how much like Scarlett O'Hara Becky is, from her green eyes to her charm and wiles and single-minded ruthlessness to her relationship with Melanie/Amelia to her relationship to Rawdon Crawley. I figured I couldn't be alone in this observation, so I Googled and discovered that Margaret Mitchell vehemently denied having modeled Scarlett on Becky and denied having even read Vanity Fair before writing Gone With the Wind. Methinks she doth protest too much. Back in the day when I was GWTW obsessed, I read a bio of Mitchell and I recall the impression that she was defensive about a lot of things. I probably read about the Becky/Scarlett brouhaha then and just forgot about it until now.

However, I did find some other connections between VF and GWTW, some more significant than others.

Both contain the idiom that someone "wouldn't say boo to a goose" several times. I remember thinking when I read that phrase in GWTW how odd it was--not an expression that I've ever heard anyone actually use--so it jumped off the page when I encountered it twice in VF. If Becky had said "God's nightgown!" there would have been no question from whence Mitchell got that expression of Scarlett's.

I also thought it was really interesting how Dobbin ultimately left Amelia, saying that his constant devotion, unrequited for so long, had finally burned out his love for her and that he wasn't willing to hang around anymore. This is precisely what Rhett Butler tells Scarlett when he leaves her after Melanie dies. Of course, we get to see Dobbin return to Amelia's side, and GWTW ends with Rhett walking out on Scarlett, but the parallel is there.

Further, Becky seeks to marry Amelia's brother, Jos Sedley, and definitely makes him infatuated with her and ultimately ruins him. Scarlett charms the socks off Melanie's brother, Charles Hamilton, and marries him, though he dies of illness at the start of the Civil War before she can make his life a living hell.

The one critical area that is missing from the Scarlett-is-Becky scenario is that of the "long-suffering" Ashley Wilkes. There is no parallel in VF for this part of the GWTW story. We never see Becky in love, ever. In this regard, she brings to mind someone who might be her model, Austen's Lady Susan. I know Thackeray read Austen's novels. I wonder whether he read this epistolary novella as well. Got to look up when it finally made it to print.

Enough with GWTW.

I also thought a lot about the narrator. Considering a couple of other masterpieces also published in 1847, namely Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, I was very aware of how dated Thackeray's obtrusive narrator felt. More like a Fielding narrator, than a Bronte first-person, framed story narrator who is striving for realism, Thackeray's narrator continually reminds the reader that this a is made-up story with dolls and puppets enacting the morality play, except near the end when he inserts himself into the story by saying he was at a dinner party where he heard Becky's and Amelia's histories recounted. I sort of wish he hadn't done that, actually. I liked him better as puppeteer.

I blush to say that I learned more about the Battle of Waterloo from reading this book than I ever learned in school and I'm eager to find out what Brussels was really like on the eve of the battle. Anyone have a book to recommend?

Richard Gilmore from the TV show The Gilmore Girls once quoted someone who said that all great books should be read at least three times. I'm happy to have at least one more reading of Vanity Fair in my future.

Now it's off to start disc 2 of the Andrew Davies mini-series of Vanity Fair. I am loving it, btw. Spot on!


  1. I haven't read Gone with the Wind but now I'm very intrigued to read both of them!!

  2. One of my favorite things about this book was the fact that Thackery didn't end the book with Becky finally having learned her lesson and ending up happily ever after.

  3. One of my friends just finished reading GWTW and when she asked me for another classic to read afterwards, I couldn't help but recommend VF because of the Becky/Scarlett similarities! I didn't realize Davies did a VF. Now I want to watch and compare to the hollywood version that came out a few years ago.

  4. OMG, Jane! I've just learnt that ... I have to read GWTW ( I only saw the movie), I have to re-read VF at least twice more and I have to get and watch Andrew Davies's VF (I've only got the newer version with Romola Garai as Amelia and Reese Whitherspoon as Becky Sharp). It is too dangerous to read your posts ... They are so interesting that I start wishing reading/watching what you write about! But, for instance, tomorrow I'll start working again, back to school and my spare time ... Anyway, just joking! Go on like this, Jane. I love your posts!

  5. I love comparison between Scarlett and Becky - two of the most intriguing woman in literature. What is it about a bad girl that is so enthralling? I've failed to find the audio of Vanity Fair in the local library and am seriously considering actually breaking down and buying it (a thing I almost never do) because of your excellent reviews. The Andrew Davies film is wonderful, far better than the Reese Witherspoon version. I love the mischievous glint in Natasha Little's eyes - a perfect Becky! I am inspired to reread both Vanity Fair and Gone With the Wind this year: wouldn't this be fun to do as an online discussion?!

  6. I noticed the GWTW/Vanity Fair similarities as well, so much so that I wrote a whole paper about that in college! They are two of my favorite books, and I adore Becky and Scarlett even though they really aren't that likeable.

  7. I read Vanity Fair a long, long time ago. I remember enjoying it quite a bit. I may have to re-read it as I am spending more time on the classics this year.

  8. Jane - Please check your junk folder in your email. I've tried to email you a few times this week to get your address for your copy of True Compass. My email is laarlt78(at)hotmail(dot)com.

    I LOVE Vanity Fair. I've read it two times and I think your review is fantastic. I read Gone With the Wind again a year or two ago and the introduction actually had a comparison with Scarlett and Becky. It was interesting!

  9. How cool that the Morgan Library has this manuscript! Too bad it isn't on display now (I'm going there on Saturday!), but surely it will be at some point in the future, and then it would be fun to see. Apparently I have two more readings of Vanity Fair, and I'm looking forward to them :)

  10. Fascinating commparison which makes me want to go to the books. You mention Brussels and am afraid don't have any NF suggestions but perhaps fiction - An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer - might fit. As you would expect the genre is romantic fiction but she was very good on historical research and this covers both before the battle and the battle itself and is considered to be very accurate. Although it is eons since I read it I seem to remember a reference list of books at the back.

  11. Joy - I have picked up and thumbed through An Infamous Army three times now at the used bookstore I frequent, and put it down each time thinking I didn't want another fictional account...but if it's as historically accurate as you say, maybe I should splurge so that I have it on hand when the mood strikes.

  12. Excellent post, as always. I've read both Vanity Fair and GWTW, both are wonderfully satisfying reads. 'Wouldn't say boo to a goose' is one of my mother's expressions. It means the person is shy or timid with not much to say about themselves - defintely not like Scarlet or Becky! You have reminded me that I have the Reece Witherspoon version of Vanity Fair on DVD, which I have watched only once and that was ages ago. A few weeks ago, a tune kept spinning round and round in my head and I couldn't remember where it had come from. All I knew was that it contained the line 'she walks in beauty like the night'. Googled it and found it was a poem by Byron - the tune which is beautiful is from this adaptaion of Vanity Fair. I will be watching this again.

  13. Becky also said "fiddledee-dee!" about something in Vanity Fair, and that was one of Scarlett's most common expressions in GWTW. Furthermore, I find it interesting that MM would say that she never read Vanity Fair when an early scene in the book features Ashley and Melanie discussing their opinions of the authors Dickens and Thackeray.

    1. I find it so odd that MM couldn't bring herself to acknowledge her debt to the authors who inspired her. There's no shame in being inspired.