My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins undoubtedly took the longest. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was one hell of a trudge.
Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.
See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening (George Osbourne is dead! Fuck!).
By the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.
Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were mad jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book just sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without even taking her clothes off. This is the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!
Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.
The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can fuck anything else up. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily after than the rest of them.
So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog (albeit one where the author is getting paid by the word).
The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.
Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).
My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:
- “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
- “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
- “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry