A Novel Without a Hero, but…
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(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!
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?
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…
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.)
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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!