Review-Along! Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Novel Without a Hero, but…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(Spoiler-filled from beginning to end – you have been warned!)

As two young girls leave school together for the last time, their prospects couldn’t be more different. Sweet little Amelia – Emmy – pretty but brainless, is the pampered daughter of a wealthy man and has her future mapped out for her, including marriage to the son of her father’s friend, the handsome and dashing George Osborne. Becky Sharp – ah, Becky! Left like an unwanted parcel at the school years before by her feckless, drunken father, she has no fortune and no family, and she will have to make her own future in a world where matrimony is a woman’s only route to success – at least, respectable success. Fortunately Becky is fairly flexible about her definition of respectability…

This massive satire on every aspect of the English gentility in the years during and after the Napoleonic Wars is one of those very rare beasts – a satire that is actually funny. While Thackeray is brutal to all of the poor puppets in his play, his clear affection for them keeps the tone light even during the darkest parts of the story. There are really only two of the main characters to whom I felt he didn’t give much in the way of redemptive qualities – Emmy’s lover and later husband, George Osborne, and George’s father, who plays the role of villain. All the rest are variously flawed, weak, fickle, vain, but they are too recognisably people we might know (or be!) to be wholly unsympathetic. Thackeray, in his role as omniscient narrator, isn’t afraid to remind his readers frequently that they share the flaws of his characters and that theirs is the society he is mocking.

By the time Thackeray was publishing this in serial form in 1847-8, the Victorian reader had been treated to a variety of Dickens’ heroines, mostly drooping, pretty, tiny, passive, saccharin nonentities and therefore worthy of the love of the novel’s hero. I wonder if Victorian girls felt as nauseated by Dora Copperfield as any modern reader is almost bound to be? If so, what fun to meet Becky Sharp only a year or so later! All those girls who couldn’t be sweet all the time – who didn’t want to be sweet all the time – must have loved Becky from the moment she threw Dr Johnson’s Dictionary out of the coach as she drove away from school! As Emmy dripped and sighed over her worthless lover, and forgave him and forgave him, and wept, and wept, and wept, were the Victorian girls as relieved as I to turn to Becky, to see her demand her own share of the pleasures and vanities of life? Did they feel, as I did, that it was worth the inevitable crash and burn to have had a few years of excitement and fun? Did they laugh heartlessly, as I did and as Thackeray did, at poor Emmy’s years of pathetic fidelity to her long-dead and unlamentable husband? I bet they did!

Sir Pitt the Elder proposes

Of course, Becky is not a good person. But that’s her charm! She is a terrible mother who doesn’t see why having a child should turn a woman into a stay-at-home domestic goddess, giving up her own life to bring up a child who will doubtless turn into a brat like all the men around him, and end up being horridly condescending to his doting mamma (like Emmy’s revolting sprog Georgy). All the unmaternal Victorian girls must have been secretly cheering her on as she left her husband to the drudgery of child-rearing while she went off to parties, bedecked in silks and diamonds she couldn’t afford but managed to acquire anyway. OK, she stole poor Miss Briggs’ small fortune, but does anyone really think that Briggs would have had more fun in a tiny, bare room in a boarding house all alone, eating gruel and darning her stockings, than hobnobbing with the risqué but dazzling guests in Becky’s drawing room? And whether Becky killed her faithful swain Jos deliberately or simply accidentally by allowing him to over-indulge, be honest – wouldn’t his life have been empty and dull indeed if she had not fanned the flames of his passion? Were not his proudest moments when she allowed him to strut along the street as the favoured beau of the most scandalous woman in town?

1855 daguerreotype of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst

Meantime Amelia lives the life of the perfect Victorian heroine, doting on her child, acting as nurse to her elderly and rather selfish parents, steadfastly faithful to the memory of the man whose fidelity to her lasted no longer than about two weeks after the wedding. The only good thing that happens to Emmy is George’s death, but could she see it? No, she weeps and wails and wails and weeps, until even Dickens might have been tempted to tell her to put a sock in it. I’m sure every Victorian girl who had been told repeatedly that she should be more womanly – i.e., weep more and swoon occasionally – must have loved Thackeray’s delicious torturing of poor Emmy’s over-active tear-ducts. Becky may have been a devil and Emmy an angel, but there’s no doubt which one Thackeray liked best. Who among us didn’t cheer when Dobbin, faithful old Dobbin, finally told Emmy she was a worthless, brain-dead, whimpering doll not fit to be his wife? (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) And was I the only one who was a bit disappointed when he came running back to her after all? The last we see of Emmy is her sighing over the fact that Dobbin loves their daughter more than her – no doubt she had a good weep over it when they got home…

Guess which one is Emmy?

There’s far too much in this book to write a real review in any kind of reasonable length for a blog post, so as you can see I haven’t tried. Instead I’ve been inspired by Thackeray’s choice of subtitle. He may rightly have called it “A Novel Without a Hero” – poor Dobbin is too pathetic, poor Rawdon is too weak, poor Jos is too silly, poor Sir Pitt the Younger is too righteous, poor Sir Pitt the Elder is too vulgar and Lord Steyne is too evil (but not poor). But I contend it is “A Novel With a Heroine” – not snivelling Emmy with her perpetually damp handkerchiefs, but our Becky Sharp, leading the way for women everywhere to behave as badly as men and have just as much fun as they do! Go, Becky!

(PS I enjoyed Georgina Sutton’s narration very much, although because of my own slowness at listening to audiobooks I swapped over to a Kindle version in the second half.)

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

* * * * *

Several of us have been reading Vanity Fair as a Review-Along, and I’ll put links to the other posts here as they appear. Please also come back and check the comments below, where our non-blogging buddies Christine and Alyson will be sharing their opinions. I do hope everyone had as much fun reading this one as I had. Thanks to Rose for suggesting it!

Rose’s Review

Madame Bibilophile’s Review

Jane’s Review

Loulou’s review

Sandra’s review

63 thoughts on “Review-Along! Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

  1. Yes, faithful Dobbin is fonder of his Travels in the Punjab than he is of Emmy *sigh*…. You know, I always liked Becky better, too, FictionFan. She has such a practical turn of mind, and she knows full well how that the dice are loaded when it comes to her future. You really can’t blame her for mapping out her own path. And I’ve always liked her intelligence and wit. And yet, I (perhaps it’s just I) wouldn’t call her cruel. She’s looking out for herself at a time when that was not easy for a woman to do. So glad you liked this as well as you did!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, I wouldn’t call her cruel either, except perhaps to her son. But mostly she made the people she was using happy – both Miss Briggs and Jos had their lives brightened considerably while she was diddling them out of their fortunes! I loved that Thackeray made her so likeable despite it all, and didn’t totally destroy her in the end. Dickens would have killed her or sent her to the poorhouse… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Thackeray was rather in love with Becky himself and she certainly is a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t clocked somehow that Amelia is probably written as a sweet Dickensian heroine (satire), but you’re right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think he was and I think he had great fun exaggerating poor Emmy’s weeping to the point where it became impossible not to laugh every time she reached for the hanky! I’d love to know what Dickens though of it – I understand there was a bit of a rivalry between them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review FF! It really made me laugh, especially ‘until even Dickens might have been tempted to tell her to put a sock in it.’ 😀 I also opted for a non-review today, as you say, it’s too big to write about properly. Thanks for organising the reviewalong so I finally got this off the TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you! Poor Emmy – could you tell my sympathy had worn thin by that stage? 😉 Impossible to review a book with so much in it, but it’s been fun seeing all the different approaches people have taken. And unanimously loving it, which is impressive! Glad you enjoyed it – we’ll see if we can tempt you to join in another one sometime… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, FictionFan, this is a terrific review (non-review)!
    Amelia’s constant crying drove me crazy. She and Becky are such opposites to each other that it is no wonder we prefer Becky, who doesn’t care so much for her reputation as she does her prospects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you! Poor Emmy – Thackeray really treated her so badly (but she deserved it!). I thought it was hilarious that by the end he was making fun of her weeping himself. Becky has her faults(!), but at least she has a sense of fun! Great choice for a review-along – thanks for suggesting it! Everybody seems to have loved it… 😀

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      • The narrator was wonderful, wasn’t he? I can’t help but think Thackeray himself was the narrator and looking at his picture to try to match his appearance with the narrator’s voice.
        Vanity Fair has been unique in that I can’t think of another book that everyone seems to love. I’m really enjoying reading the other reviews, too.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, he looks terribly serious in his picture, doesn’t he? Not really how I imagined him! I’ve loved reading all the other reviews too – even though we all loved it, everybody’s come up with a different approach which has been fun. A little bird tells me Sandra may not have enjoyed it quite so much, though – her review should be along tomorrow… 😱

          Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you, though I might have been a bit mean to poor Emmy… 😉 I love that adaptation – it’s one of my top three of all time, with the 1995 P&P and the Bleak House one with Gillian Anderson and Anna Maxwell Martin.

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  5. A satire which is actually funny: I completely agree. It is not a style I tend to gravitate towards, as I often find it too cinical for my taste, but the fact Thackeray had some affection for the characters and society he was poking fun at enabled the over all tone of the piece to remain fairly light. It also avoided monotony, as there were so many characters and sub-plots. It worked well as a portrayal of too oposits, as Thackeray wasn’t in any way playing Becky and Emmy against each other. While Becky was certainly the heroine, and a far more interesting character, there was never the suggestion from the author that she was superior to Emmy, as we were given the opportunity to criticise and laugh at her on ocasion, which was probably quite a radical treatment of heroines at the time. Come to think of it, Becky was actually quite a revolutionary character, as she may have been the first Victorian heroine who’s main characteristics were extreme selfishness, and an ability to scheme in order to get ahead. Calling Thackeray a proto-feminist would be pushing it I think, but through Becky, he did seem to be expressing a degree of understanding and empathy for the lack of options faced by women in his society, and the fact this was done without any sentamentality was very refreshing. As for poor Emmy, I think it might be a toss up between her and Dickens’ Florence Dombey for the most tearful heroine in Victorian fiction, maybe even fiction full stop. Even thinking about the pair of them together is giving me a serious hed ache, as reading about women who cry constantly is emotionally exhausting. Yet as with Becky, Thackeray allowed his readers the chance to feel some contempt and frustration for such a silly woman, which Dickens would certainly never have done. As for the men, I would agree they probably weren’t up to much, I kind of lost sympathy for Dobbin in the end, as I wondered why he was continuing to care about such a drip, yet the marriage between him and Emmy was ultimately not particularly happy, so it just highlights that he was ultimately a fool. I also thought Rawdan had a crumb of decency, but not enough to make him a hero. Like you, I feel I am just rambling rather than reviewing, but as it is such a classic, everything has probably already been said. I’m glad you liked the part of the recording you listened to, I thought Sutton had the right tone, and as with many victorian novels, it sounded good being read out loud. It looks like we have all enjoyed this so far, even though it has been a re-read for most of us. Thanks as always for hosting this reviewalong, and I look forward to the next one.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Usually I’m not keen on satire because it tends to have a sneering tone, but Thackeray clearly enjoyed his characters just as much as we all did, and he really did have sympathy for both the women and their restricted opportunities. He was much tougher on the men, I thought – none of them really came out of it well. Totally agree about Dobbin – the longer he hung around worthless Emmy the more annoyed at him I got. He should have married Glorvina! I wondered of Thackeray had been deliberately satirising Dickens’ soppy heroines with Emmy. I came across an article online that said Thackeray and Dickens had a kind of rivalry and didn’t really get on, so it’s possible. I’d love to know what Dickens though of this one! Haha, I’m going to be re-reading Dombey over Christmas – can I cope with another weeper?? I know I’m going to laugh every time she cries…! I once tried to listen to an abridged dramatisation of Anna Karenina, and she has to be up there as one of the world’s great weepers too, and being a dramatisation the actress sobbed and wailed all the way through. Ugh! I’ve never been so glad to hear the sound of a train approaching… 😉

      Yes, it seems everyone has loved this – great choice for a review-along! What next? I think it must be your and Christine’s turn to put forward some choices… 😀

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  6. I knew you would write a brilliant review of this and you have! I certainly was cheering when Dobbin finally gave her up – and as for Emmy’s mooning around George’s portrait, urghh!! But I do think Thackeray was being sympathetic towards women as you say and that’s probably why he enjoyed Becky so much. I do think old George was given some sympathy though, because Thackeray spent quite a lot of time on his coming into riches and his pride in his boy, which made me at least try and see his behaviour from his point of view, while young George was just left as a lecherous brat. Such a brilliant book!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, thank you! Poor old Dobbin really irritated me in the end – she wasn’t good enough for him. He should have married Glorvina! I did think Thackeray was sympathetic to nearly all his characters and it was that that made it fun – they were all likeable even though they were all pretty awful! I see what you mean about George Senior, and you reminded me that he did go over to see the grave. But he behaved so badly to poor Emmy. She wouldn’t have had to weep half as much if he’d just given her a decent allowance… 😉 I’d read it before long ago and knew I’d loved it, but I’d forgotten just how good it is. Great choice for a review-along and I’m glad we’ve all enjoyed it! Rose chose well! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Your review is priceless!!! 💃💃💃 I read this book in college. Great fun! Did you see the Reese Witherspoon movie? They tried to make Becky a misunderstood victim. Completely missed the point of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you! No, I haven’t seen it and it sounds awful! Becky was nobody’s victim! I love the old adaptation the BBC made about 20 years ago, though, which I thought captured the tone brilliantly.

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    • I’m not usually a fan of satire – a little goes a long way – but somehow Thackeray gets so much warmth into this one that I’m happy to go along for the lengthy ride! Yes, she’s a great character too. Actually, that’s one of the things I like most about it – nearly every character is interesting as an individual, not just a minor part in Becky’s story.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Bravo, FF! You’ve captured the essence of this one without making it too revealing. I’m pretty sure I suffered through it back in high school, but I’ve long forgotten it — now you’ve gone and made me want to re-read it. I’m sure my older self would appreciate it more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although I remember loving it when I first read it long ago, I’m sure I got far more out of it this time, now that I’m nearly as cynical as Thackeray is!

      Debbie, I think you missed my post last week when I mentioned that my little Tuppence had died. I wanted you to know because I’ve always joked on your blog about T&T chatting to your pup, and didn’t want to just stop doing that without any explanation. Tommy and I are missing her, as I know you’ll understand.

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      • Oh, NO!! I can’t hit the Like button on this one, FF. Yes, I’ve been AWOL from blogging for a bit — too much on my plate right now — so I did miss it. Thank you for cluing me in. I’m so very sorry. I know you and Tommy will miss her — she was a sweetheart, and we grow so close to our fur-kids. Here’s hoping Dallas was on hand to greet her at the Rainbow Bridge and show her where the good foods are!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Debbie – yes, we’re missing her a lot, but I’m also glad she’s not suffering. It all happened quite quickly, though – she was still able to enjoy things up until the last few days. Lovely thought – I hope he was! 🙂

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  9. This book is sitting on my shelf and I’ll admit I opted to pass it by when looking for titles for my Classics Club list. Now you have me second guessing that decision! (Another I skipped over was Anna Karenina.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, keep skipping over Anna, but this one deserves a place! That’s unfair, really – I think I did enjoy Anna Karenina overall, but it’s hard work and deeply depressing, whereas this one is great fun despite its length!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a brilliant and fun write-up of Vanity Fair, FF! When I first read it as a teen, I was rooting for Becky and surprised that a character like her appeared in a book written so long ago. Her perception of her situation and the absolute determination to get out of it especially appealed then. For me she must have been an fairly early example of loving a not entirely admirable character which, thank goodness, has continued.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m a day late and a dollar short with my review, but it’s up now! I also absolutely loved this – the narrator in particular is a work of comedic genius while also constantly reminding the reader how human all his characters are. I simply couldn’t get past all the one-paragraph victims of Becky’s selfishness this time around (the Raggleses and their children, who were pulled out of school because Becky diverted the rent money, for example), and so I was left wincing as much as laughing, and I wasn’t in the mood to root for her – but I still so enjoyed rereading this, because it’s a wonderful book. Thanks so much for hosting the review-along!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You may be late but I refuse to accept that you’re a dollar short – I loved your review! I do know what you mean about Becky’s victims and despite my defence of her I agree. I’m not sure I loved her as a person but I loved her as a character and felt she was a brilliant antidot to all those images of perfect drooping females the Victorians forced on us! I also loved the way Thackeray forgave all his characters on the grounds that we all share at least some of their weaknesses – his warmth is what made the humour work, I think. I’m glad we all enjoyed this one so much – Rose’s pick, and she picked a good one! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The first achievement of Vanity Fair for me is that I was entertained, smiling and happy to keep reading over its 600+ pages. There is good humour and a lightness of touch throughout. The names of characters such as Mr Bawler, a minister, Lady Slingstone, a gossip, Mr Smirk, Miss Toady and Lord Heehaw are one example of the fun in this book. I agree with you, FF, although Thackeray mocks his characters mercilessly (and enjoyably for the reader) much of the time, his affection for them and his capacity to give some insight into their mixed motivations and actions, as well as his own cleverness with language, made this a gentle satire which did not alienate me with viciousness at his characters’ expense.

    It was refreshing to see that the long-suffering, self-sacrificing, “good” Amelia was revealed as creating smothering expectations of others, and was eventually shown to be almost as conniving as Becky in her attempted manipulation of Captain Dobbin. Of course, it was such a satisfying moment when he told her a few home truths.

    Becky had few redeeming moral characteristics, but I appreciated her unfailing commitment to being a woman making her own way (on the make), and her effectiveness in consistently acting on her own behalf. She had a talent for identifying the vain flaws of others and working these to her own advantage, without being held back by any empathic emotions on her own part. Becky’s explicit portrayal as a self-interested, manipulative adventurer acts as a good foil to the many examples Thackeray presents of self-interest, manipulation and immoral behaviour in so-called upright characters. Becky’s more self-honest, even though selfish, motivations can seem strangely more moral in contrast. Personally, I found myself conflicted in my response to her as while she succeeded in forging her own path, she did leave others who acted in good faith, to their own detriment, in her wake.

    Becky had a much stronger sense of embracing life in all its forms, whether she was in a stately home or a garret, than did Amelia with her self-restricted sphere of engagement. I think it was this delight in human life which most engaged me in the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this rich portrayal of society life and its generous portrayal of characters. Thanks for the prompt to read Vanity Fair, FF.

    (I can recommend Wanda McCaddon’s narration of the audio version. If I’m listening to a long book on audio, I’ll often mix this with reading sections of the book as well. I so enjoyed McCaddon’s reading that I stuck with this throughout.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hurrah, I’m glad you enjoyed it too! Yes, it’s pretty astonishing that Thackeray managed to maintain the humour over such a lengthy book – I usually find humour runs out after a while, relying too much on repetition, but Thackeray let his characters develop and change over time which kept it feeling fresh. I loved the topsy-turviness of Emmy becoming more of a figure of fun the more saintly she tried to be, while Becky was forgiven all her faults simply because she was fascinating! I think Thackeray has hit on a Great Truth there – that we all prefer interesting to good in this world, however much we feel we should admire the self-sacrificing ones.
      I agree too that Becky was so selfish when it came to the impact of her actions on other people. I didn’t love her as a person exactly (though she’s so much fun), but I adored her as a character – such a refreshing contrast to all those drooping angelic women the Victorians forced on us. Becky was no more immoral than a lot of the male characters who turn up in fiction and get away without judgement, and that’s what I loved about her. I also loved that Thackeray didn’t reward all the good people and punish all the bad ones, as again the Victorians had a tendency to do. Emmy may have ended up married and well off and Becky may have gone off to a retired life, but I bet Becky was still the one who was enjoying herself most! I did feel a bit sorry for poor Jos, though, who had entertained me so much I felt he deserved a better fate!
      A great choice from Rose for this one, and next time I think it must be yours and Alyson’s turn to suggest a few options… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like your distinction between Becky the person and Becky the character, that sorts out my feelings about her exactly. And yes, I felt too that poor old pompous Jos had earned a better outcome after the delight he’d given us as readers. There was so much to relish in this book!
        I’ll have to put my thinking cap on after such good recommendations this year!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve never heard of a Review-Along before, what a great idea!
    I came here from Loulou reads, who did a great review. I like how you wonder how young ladies of the time felt while reading. Too bad none of them had blogs 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, we’ve done a few Review-Alongs now but for some reason this one took off and lots of people joined in who hadn’t before – probably because it’s such a great book! 😀 Haha, yes, I’d love to know what Victorian girls really thought of the restrictions their society placed on them, and whether any of them really liked Dora Copperfield! It’s been great fun reading everyone else’s opinions too – we all seem to have loved it, which is nice! Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

      Like

  14. Oh my! 😂 Yours is the first of the review-alongs I’ve read and I’m quaking in my slippers at the thought of mine (finally) going live tomorrow! So you all liked it and I didn’t, at least, not very much. That’s fine, I tell myself. Absolutely fine that I’m going to appear as a wet holier-than-thou blanket (though not as wet at Emmy thanks goodness). Whilst I promise that I will not amend the body of my review, I may just feel compelled to add a tiny bit more to my preamble…. Brilliant review, FF! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. ha! I loved your review, how delicious. I’ve always been so curious about the famous ‘vanity fair’ book, and now I know so thank you! Does it have some connection to the ‘vanity fair’ magazine that is so famous now? Do you guys have that over in Scotland? It’s big in North America, but not sure if it’s over the pond too…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I skipped right down to the end, so I don’t see any spoilers, not even in the comments. I am, however, glad to see that you have reviewed this and I will come back and check it out after I have finally gotten around to reading the book.

    I never intended to read Vanity Fair but then I put it on my classics list. I still don’t have a copy though. Will have to find one next time I get to a read book store, because I have to know the print is large enough to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg and while there was the occasional typo as always with these transcribed novels, it was pretty good and I like that the Kindle lets me choose my own font size – these massive classics do tend to come in tiny print in paper copies. Also, I don’t know if you listen to audiobooks, but I enjoyed Georgina Sutton’s narration, and doing it as a read/listen made it a bit quicker to get through! I hope you love it when you get to it – nearly all of us raved about it! 😀

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