a few words on Vanity Fair

Although it gets a bit baggy for about 150 pages in the middle (which is not much when you consider the overall length of this novel), Vanity Fair is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. What I find so remarkable about this is that the characters in and of themselves are not especially funny. In fact, most of them are pathetic or cantankerous or pious or frail. The story isn’t all that funny either, a bit too much of a silly marathon to be truly funny. But the narrator, the wonderful narrator is downright, laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Reading Vanity Fair feels like having a snarky conversation over a delicious glass of wine with a most amusing, most dashing friend with an incredible gift for dramatic representation. The kind of person who has so much fun relating the particulars of a given event that it is impossible not to laugh and snigger at the poor fools who were in this person’s vicinity when he or she chose to pay attention.

The narrator is what makes the book complete. Without this snide voice describing the events and making up detailed portraits of each character’s foibles, the story would actually be quite sad. Nice people get taken advantage of and made into pathetic jokes while clever, naughty people have all the fun. Well, at least until page 631 where I’m wondering if the tide is about to change.

Don’t tell me, any of you who have read this already, but I’m incredibly curious whether the narrator will be able to skewer his beloved Rebecca in the end. Until now, she’s gotten off each and every time for her dastardly behavior and it’s clear he loves her more than any of his other inventions. (I’m now freely taking the narrator for Thackeray himself. And if this is the case, if Thackeray was as wonderfully sarcastic and funny as the narrator of Vanity Fair, I’m very sad not to have had the chance to meet him or hear him speak in person).

I can just picture Thackeray laughing over his manuscript, chuckling proudly at each scene and line of dialogue. Becky Sharpe is a fantastic heroine. Thackeray makes her so quick and witty, such a bald-faced liar and opportunist; it’s hard not to want to see her get away with it all. If only to keep the narrator in such jovial spirits:

It is all vanity to be sure: but who will not own to liking a little of it? I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because it is transitory, dislikes roast beef? That is a vanity; but may every man who reads this have a wholesome portion of it through life, I beg: aye, though my readers were five hundred thousand. Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horse-radish as you like it – don’t spare it. Another glass of wine, Jones, my boy – a little bit of the Sunday side. Yet, let us eat our fill of the vain thing, and be thankful therefor. And let us make the best of Becky’s aristocratic pleasures likewise – for these too, like all other mortal delights, were but transitory.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

14 thoughts on “a few words on Vanity Fair”

  1. Isn’t it a fun book? Becky’s nerve to do what she does is astounding. I frequently found myself shaking my head or muttering, no way! or How can they believe her? Have fun reading the last part of the book!

  2. I’ve never read it. I am going to put it on my list now. Let us know if the end is satisfying. I’m a slow reader and if I’m going to read over 631 pages I want to put it down pleased.

  3. Well, the narrator is “Thackeray,” right, not the actual Thackeray? It’s a performance. You might be interested in the letter at the bottom of this post, as well, a performance with a different tone. I don’t know which is real, or if either is real.

    In a way, this marvelous novel is an angry book. And, yes, definitely sad.

    So many people read this novel and seem to ignore the narrator, not even notice him. I am not sure how that’s possible, but it’s true. The novel’s reputation also went through a period where it was attacked for having an “intrusive narrator,” which we all know is a Bad Thing and Against the Rules. Nuts.

  4. You’ve made me want to become reacquainted with the aptly named Miss Becky Sharpe. This time (whenever it will be) I will pay more attention to the narrator. Thank you!

  5. This was one of my mother’s favourite books. She was read it while she was at school back in the 1920s in a tiny village in Yorkshire (14 pupils from 5-14) and she never forgot it. By the time she was 14 and left to go into service, she also knew all of Dickens and the Brontes, but interestingly, no Austen. The teacher must not have been a Janite.

  6. I’ve started this book 2 or 3 times in the past, and while I always love the beginning and find it uproariously funny, I must always be hitting those “baggy 150 pages” and losing steam, because I always put it down and forget about it! But I do want to read it properly and fully at some point because even if Becky Sharpe is awful, I find her really funny.

    One thing that might interest you is that Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds was inspired by this novel, and while I’ve not read it, I did skim the first few pages at the library one day and it was funny in a very similar way… I intend to read that one too!

  7. You make me want to read this! And you remind me of that funny line ‘if you’ve got nothing nice to say… come here and sit by me’. I read so little in the 19th century but one day I will make time for this!

  8. I read this a while back and liked it but would like to read it again. I bet I’d pay more attention to the narrator on a second time through. I wasn’t blogging when I read it the first time, and so don’t remember well what my response to that narrator was — too bad! But I love that intrusive narrator-type; that’s one of the reasons I enjoy Henry Fielding’s novels so much — the narrator is so entertaining. Oh, and that’s another book I’d like to reread — Tom Jones.

  9. Stefanie – The ending is quite fun, I agree. And I think satisfactory as well…I was curious how he would end things and whether I would enjoy it or disaprove.

    Lilian – Hmm, I certainly enjoyed the ending. And accept for a short bit in the middle that gets somewhat long, I think the book manages to keep its momentum for 800 pages. The characters are a lot of fun, and the narrator keeps the whole thing moving along. I’d be interested to know what you think.

    Amateur REader – Thank you for the links, I do see what you mean about a performance. That seems like the perfect way to describe the narrator. And I also like how you call it an angry book, in that sense the satire hits its mark. The narrator was the very best part of this novel for me, he made the book.

    Guilherme – I’d love to know what you think if you get a chance to read it. Quite fun!

  10. ds – Becky Sharpe was such a clever character wasn’t she. And I thought it was fun to see how much the narrator adored her. She was the only truly intelligent woman in the book – now there is a subject for much discussion!

    Ann – I think it’s interesting your mother would have had this book as part of her inner literary world from such a young age. That just wouldn’t happen nowadays, I don’t think. Not from school anyway, perhaps within a family…

    Steph – Thank you for the tip on the Trollope novel, I’ve never read anything by him but if The Eustache Diamonds are inspired by Vanity Fair, I will have to give it a try.

    Litlove – You’ve picked the perfect line to describe the narrator. Exactly!

    Dorothy – I’ve got Tom Jones on my list for the 10 year reading plan this year. It’s another huge novel, so I hope I have time to get to it before the end of the year.

  11. I was kind of apathetic with “Vanity Fair”. I mean, yes, it amused me and Thackeray’s interjections here and there made the book pretty witty etc., but I felt that it was a tad too long and that middle dull part seemed to stretch on for me for far more than 150 pages…

    On the whole, it is kind of fun but I was just disappointed by how easily it lost steam and how it didn’t really pick up nicely afterwards. But it’s true; the characters help make this an interesting story to read, whether it’s Becky and her evilness… er, her wit, or Thackeray’s sneaky laughter.

  12. “…though my readers were 500 thousand…” Very amusing that he imagined so many readers, but has probably actually had millions.

    You have inspired a great notion: if I read Vanity Fair, I will surely do it while drinking wine (and perhaps tasting some cheese) and imagine myself chatting with the narrator. Thank you.

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