I last read Vanity Fair aged ten, and unsurprisingly the satire and the character of Becky Sharp (this is a heroine?!) left me largely puzzled. So wheI last read Vanity Fair aged ten, and unsurprisingly the satire and the character of Becky Sharp (this is a heroine?!) left me largely puzzled. So when I picked it up thirty years later, thanks to its serialisation by The Pigeonhole, I was not expecting a huge amount. I thought I'd give it a go, and if I didn't like it, well, that was okay. I'm an adult now, and I don't have to like books just because they're considered great contributions to the literary canon.
First off, I rather loved the framing device of Vanity Fair itself, with stalwarts and archetypes of Georgian/Victorian society revolving on a virtual carousel composed of of images and anecdotes. I also love Dickens, so I was already primed to be patient with Thackeray's occasional meanderings and authorial commentary on the behaviour of his characters.
Onto Our Heroine, Becky (or is it Amelia?). From her very first scene, in which she throws the kindness of Miss Jemima back in her face, she breaks the rules of society, of femininity, of likeability. She schemes, she betrays, she mocks, yet it is hard to actively dislike her. Her position as a penniless orphan at the start of the book is a quirk of fortune: why shouldn't she seek to improve it? Some characters do reprehensible things, and it is satisfying at times to see Miss Becky exerting revenge on behalf of the reader and less powerful characters, even if she only does so to suit her own ends. When she succeeds in her schemes it is hard not to smile, except on those occasions when the victims are those weaker than herself - and Thackeray, while he mainly treats Becky with lighthearted wit, makes sure the reader is all too aware that her crimes are not victimless.
Which brings me to Amelia. For my ten-year-old self she was the real heroine - the good, obedient, nice girl who, well, deserves nice things. Her fate was what kept me reading as a child, past the bewilderment of Waterloo and on through the various moral mazes. And I still feel that without Amelia to balance Becky the novel would be much poorer. Of the two of them, she is the one who is allowed to grow and change the most, and after a certain point I was still more invested in her fate than I was Becky's.
Onto something I missed as a child: this novel is hilarious, and also angry, and ahead of its time in its treatment of women (if the main characters both being female didn't already tell you this). Becky and Amelia navigate within the power they have (and in Becky's case can obtain). Other women are often their greatest detractors, and Thackeray is as good when skewering women's treatment of other women as he is when highlighting the hypocrisy upon which the society of Vanity Fair is built. That said, women treat each other as competitors because this is the society in which they operate, but the male characters are implicitly given the moral high ground, Thackeray perhaps not recognising that they also play a role in the Vanity Fair of the sexes.
Anyway, I'm so glad I finally read this as an adult. Fabulously entertaining, thought-provoking even at a distance of 175 years or so, and lots of fun!...more
Isolated and outclassed (in every sense) at Oxford, James is taken in by a group of friends revolving around the mercurial, rich and very troubled MarIsolated and outclassed (in every sense) at Oxford, James is taken in by a group of friends revolving around the mercurial, rich and very troubled Mark. James is drawn closer and closer in Mark's orbit until, inevitably, tragedy strikes.
This twist on Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History will not be to everyone's tastes, but I loved Alderman's fresh take on the themes. Her Oxford felt real and beautiful (and well-grounded in the modern era), but the book made me grateful there was never any question of me studying there.
At one point early on I became very uncomfortable while reading, and realised it was because, given the archetypal nature of the characters, I was braced for James to be unfaithful to a particular person (hopefully keeping that vague enough to avoid spoilers). In the end, I felt Alderman navigated that particular maze perfectly, avoiding the obvious choices but embroiling James in even more complicated relationships.
Another very good book I was strongly reminded of was Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Both deal in protagonists who have no sense of their own self (worth), and in the power of humans to hurt one another. Alderman's book differs in the sense that the novel remains to some extent an ensemble novel, which leaves certain questions open at the end. I don't have a problem with that - I like that I am still thinking about certain situations, and about whether the characters could have done anything differently....more