Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray

Like many Victorian novels Vanity Fair was first issued in monthly
parts, from January 1847 to July 1848. It was also issued in book form in 1848 but the edition which I read was one that I bought from the local second-hand book shop and is the revised 1864 edition with a whopping 878 pages.

Vanity Fair is a social satire which Thackeray wrote in the middle of his writing career. The action begins in London with Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp about to leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for young girls, the wealthy Amelia for a life of comfort and the penniless Rebecca as a governess.

Rebecca has no intention of staying poor and immediately ‘sets her cap’ at Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother. George Osborne, Amelia’s fiance, can’t bear the thought of being related by marriage to someone like Rebecca and scuppers her plans.

Undaunted, Beccy secretly marries her employer’s son Rawdon Crawley whilst Amelia marries George Osborne, the upshot of which is that both young men are disinherited by their fathers.

Thackeray’s writing is much more comical than I had expected it to be :

In a word George had thrown the great cast. He was going to be married. Hence his pallor and nervousness – his sleepless night and agitation in the morning. I have heard people who have gone through the same thing own to the same emotion. After three or four ceremonies you get accustomed to it, no doubt; but the first dip, everybody allows, is awful.

Well, it is funny until you remember that some men in particular could easily have got through three or four wives with so many women dying in childbirth.

As George and Rawdon are in the army they take part in the Battle of Waterloo, 1815.

Thackeray wasn’t born until 1811, he must have done a good deal of talking to men who were actually at the battle. I think that anyone studying this period would benefit from reading the book, even if they can only manage the run up to the battle and the aftermath.

At school I studied Waterloo to the Great Exhibition, 1815 – 1851, a very busy time in British history and I wish I had read the book as a schoolgirl.

As human nature never seems to change the characters are all recognizable and still with us today. Beccy and her husband Rawdon sail through life happy to live at other people’s expense with no thought to the harm which they inflict on others. Chapter 36 is entitled -How to Live Well on Nothing a Year-

As always seems to happen in books published first in periodical form, the story does drag at times as the author pads out the story at whatever the payment per word was in those days. But I thoroughly enjoyed the book even although the characters are nearly all very flawed human beings. I think that they all have their moments when they know how ghastly their behaviour has been.

I suppose ‘society’ has always been full of social climbers but I couldn’t help thinking that Beccy Sharp reminded me of Emma, Lady Hamilton, who behaved in very much the same way.

Although according to a very interesting book (if you are into that era) which I read a few years ago, Nelson’s Women by the historian Tom Pocock, Emma Hamilton had almost certainly been a very lowly prostitute before her climb up into high society and many people at the time couldn’t understand Nelson’s fascination with her.

I digress. Don’t be put off by the 878 pages of Vanity Fair. It’s definitely worth ploughing through.