William Makepeace Thackeray
Lately I’ve been trying to balance my reading with some of the classics I haven’t read. (See my Classic TBR list here). I was between books a few weeks ago and decided to read Vanity Fair. It’s been waiting patiently on my Kindle for years, one of those free, public domain books that are so easy to download. Until I started, I didn’t realize how substantial the book was. It’s a whopping 834 pages! For me, the only way to get through a book this long was to put the rest of my blogging and social media to the side. Reading Vanity Fair was definitely work, but well worth the effort!
The book is a satire about 19th century British society and takes place during and after the Napoleonic Wars. It follows the lives of about a dozen characters from various stations in society. The main story is about the naïve and sheltered Amelia Sedley, raised in riches and betrothed to George Osborne, spoiled son of the wealthy Mr. Osborne. Rebecca Sharp is Amelia’s orphan friend, a manipulator and social climber. And then there’s George’s awkward friend, William Dobbin, an honorable captain in the British army. Dobbin is secretly in love with Amelia and vows to protect her, even if he can’t win her heart. The second story is about Sir Pitt Crawley, his lineage and all the players who are positioning themselves to inherit a great sum from the Baronet’s half-sister. Captain Rawdon Crawley is the favorite nephew, and when Aunt Matilda’s health begins to fail, the dirty business of money begins.
Thackeray’s seemingly upper class characters, in an effort to match the truly wealthy and titled, live extravagant lives, traveling, gambling, and hosting lavish parties, but paying no bills. They skillfully avert their creditors by playing one off the other and sometimes leaving the country. Some of his characters change for the better during the period’s booms and the busts, but others do not. Of course, there’s also the war, which changes some lives, but doesn’t stop the posturing. Among all classes, there is no guarantee of happiness.
Thackeray also shows the timeless appeal of a story about two people who are meant to be together, but miss their chance and make other decisions that force their separation. Who doesn’t want to see how that works out?
Something should be said about the often forgotten appeal of a very long book. When you read a story in which characters come together and then are apart for many pages, you have time to think about them while other things happen. You can’t get that in a shorter book. Vanity Fair and other long books are big picture stories, showing how all the pieces eventually come together, over lots of pages. I like that.
I enjoyed Vanity Fair very much, but it was hard work to read. Thackeray’s sentences are long and convoluted and there are many, many characters to keep track of. For me, it was impossible to whip through and hard to read more than 50 – 75 pages a day without feeling wiped out.
Vanity Fair was first published as a 19-volume monthly serial from 1847 – 1848 and was originally titled, Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society and included Thackeray’s original illustrations. The title comes from the 1678 Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyon, and refers to the pilgrim’s stop at a town called Vanity where there is a never-ending fair.
Have you read this classic? Have you seen the 2004 movie starring Reese Witherspoon? I’m going to watch that soon!
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