Eat the Peach: A Defense of Vanity Fair

becky sharpe

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847

Dear readers, you might as well know the truth: I love Vanity Fair. That’s right. I love it. I have read this book three times. Three! And I thoroughly enjoyed it each time. Well worth the triple read.

Poor William Makepeace gets a bad rap. People complain that he makes his authorial presence known too frequently in Vanity Fair. He does have a Henry Fielding-like tendency to explain why he is skipping forward in his timeline. However, most of the time he does this briefly and with some humor. Also, I don’t see why people should be so affronted by the author mentioning himself in a book. When Vonnegut does it we call him a post-modern genius. I guess some readers are upset that Thackeray “breaks the fourth wall” or whatever. But should sophisticated readers be bothered by that?  If you are old enough to read Vanity Fair, your enjoyment of a novel shouldn’t be centered on pretending that the characters really exist and the events really took place. You should always think about the author and wonder why he or she skipped forward in the timeline, started following a different character, made Becky so evil, didn’t describe the conversation at one dinner table, but did describe the conversation at another and so forth. Sometimes Thackeray explains his authorial decisions to his reader. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you have a problem with it, you’re in the wrong. Quit hating, haters.

As to the lengthiness of Vanity Fair, yes it is long, but the plot-to-word ratio is just fine.  I disliked almost every 18th century book that I read, because the style at the time was to use an excess of words to describe a bare bones plot. The author keeps writing while the plot sits still. Thackeray does not do that to you. Find me a chapter in Vanity Fair where you learn nothing new about a character and the plot does not move forward. Go ahead, I dare you.

The book is epic in scale. We follow Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley from the cusp of womanhood to middle age, stopping off at the Napoleonic Wars on the way. Which brings me my favorite thing about Vanity Fair. This is the first book on the list in which the characters get married and the plot keeps going. To be fair, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published at about the same time and it also follows characters beyond their wedding day. However, every other author before Anne Bronte and Thackeray consider the process of deciding whom to marry to be the only interesting part of a woman’s life. That’s all that the heroines of other novels accomplish.

Thackeray knew better. He knew that marriage vows are only the beginning of a marriage story and women’s characters continue to develop even after they have joined themselves to a man. That bit of wisdom, in and of itself, would be enough to bring me back to Vanity Fair for a reread, but it has even more wonderful qualities. Thackeray’s style is richly detailed (in a good way), bitingly satirical, misanthropic and funny. It might sound odd to refer to a 500 page novel as “refreshing,” but when you’re knee deep in Charlotte and Anne Bronte’s self-sacrificing, sanctimonious, pious women, Thackeray’s scathing portrayal of the self-serving vanity of human nature comes as a wonderful relief.

The subtitle of Vanity Fair is A Novel without a Hero. Becky Sharp is definitely the main character, but she’s too immoral to be considered the hero; Amelia Sedley is too weak; George Osborne too vain, and Rawdon Crawley too gullible. Some say Major Dobbin is also too flawed to deserve the title of hero, but I don’t see it. No one’s perfect. To me he’s the only character who behaves intelligently and unselfishly throughout the novel, and any idiosyncrasies in his personality can be forgiven. Becky is a conniving, crafty villain which makes her a delight to follow, until her actions hurt the sympathetic characters and you get pissed off at her.

becky sharpe 3

I do kind of wish that Thackeray had made a hero out of Becky. Her dominant character trait is ambition. I want to like a woman who doesn’t just accept her place in rigid Regency Society. Becky is not content to remain a poor artist’s daughter. She constantly strives for a higher station in life. In my opinion her ambition is admirable. She’s more intelligent than the aristocrats she encounters; she deserves comfort as much as anyone. However, I get the feeling that Thackeray censures Becky for her “unnatural” desire to break out of the station that was assigned to her at birth.

Thackeray sets up a dichotomy between Amelia and Becky. Amelia is weak and trampled by the world, but more admirable than Becky, because more kind. Becky is strong, but less admirable, because more self-serving. I would have liked to have seen an ambitious female character who has the moral fiber to not trample over anyone in her path. Why does female ambition have to be linked to a complete lack of love for other human beings, Thackeray? Why?

You might like Vanity Fair if:

  • you like War and Peace
  • you are interested in books that detail women’s lives after marriage
  • you like satire

You might not like Vanity Fair if:

  • Hey, if you’re looking for reasons to not read Vanity Fair, ask literally everyone else. People who haven’t even read the book have plenty of trash to talk about it, I’ve found. I personally think it’s a gem of Victorian literature.

Final Thoughts:

Vanity Fair is like a peach. Juicy, delicious literary accomplishment wrapped around a hard, bitter kernel of misanthropy. Eat the peach, y’all. Eat the peach.

becky sharpe 5

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