Alex's Reviews > Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
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Mar 05, 14

bookshelves: 2011, reading-through-history, top-100
Read from September 01 to 14, 2011

Vanity Fair is sometimes called the best British novel ever written, but it's totally not. Middlemarch is way better. Honestly, VF's not even in the top ten. So why do people love it so much? Because of Becky Sharp. Which is funny, because she's not what it was supposed to be about.

Becky Sharp is to Thackeray as Satan is to Milton. The argument has been made in both cases that the author secretly intended us to love their most memorable characters, but that's not true - or at least it's not that easy. While both dominate their stories, both authors are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that that's happened.

Vanity Fair didn't really take shape until Thackeray turned it into an autobiography: the Amelia / Dobbins story, which he thought of after he'd submitted the first few chapters and which caused an eight-month delay while he reconfigured the story, mirrors his own one-sided love affair with his friend's wife. Dobbins is based on himself. And their story is an important counterweight to Becky's; without it, the novel would be a slighter work about a femme fatale, arguably more fun but less important. With them it turns into a sprawling landmark in realist literature, one that unarguably influenced War & Peace.

But Amelia and Dobbins are such milquetoasts that Becky insists on running away with the book. They're nice people, and you root for them, but during their chapters...you wish it would get back to Amelia's frenemy.

And Thackeray attacks Becky, again and again, viciously.(view spoiler)

Compare this with Middlemarch, also a landmark realist novel, and also one released in installments, but one in which it's perfectly clear that Eliot had the entire plot, thread by thread, perfectly planned from the beginning. Eliot never lets her book get away from her. And when I say that, and when you consider the fact that Middlemarch includes no character as compelling as Becky Sharp - she would have despised Dorothea - it sounds like Vanity Fair might be more fun than Middlemarch, but it's not. Thackeray's sense of human nature isn't as strong as Eliot's (or as Tolstoy's), and the novel isn't as satisfying.

It's good, because Becky Sharp escaped from somewhere in Thackeray's brain and took it from him. What doesn't belong to her is just okay.
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Reading Progress

09/07/2011 page 450
49.0% "I got to spend like five hours reading this today, and really getting into it."
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Maria (new)

Maria Friett The only reason Becky wanted Emmy and Dobbin together, was to get them out of her way. She only ever acted to benefit herself. Murderess? It was only a matter of time. Of course everything she did was coldly calculated. Is that not the make up of a murderer? Jos just made it easy for her, and she was running out of time and patience to make her independance. I think in the end she ran to her goal. What I dont understand is how Dobbins left Jos there, it seamed a little too rushed at the last. Although I do love this novel.


Chris Gager I'm reading a 19th century edition and the name is clearly spelled Sharp. No "e".


Alex Chris - belatedly, thanks. I edited the review to remove the "e", which was not the fault of my edition - it was all me.


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