My first experience with Thackeray was Barry Lyndon, and I thought it was solid, but I couldn’t really understand why everyone was always praising Thackeray to the skies. Sure, it was a nice satire, but it was actually pretty cut-and-dried, and I didn’t think you could say he was the next Jonathan Swift.
Well, after reading Vanity Fair, my estimation of Thackeray is much higher than it was. He does an excellent job of writing an excoriating satire of English society. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s maddening, and, in the end, it’s satisfying.
The book is subtitled A Novel Without a Hero, and this is because neither of his two protagonists is someone you’d want to emulate. Social climber Becky Sharp is a devious and manipulative minx, and her friend Amelia Sedley is an innocent, virtuous fool.
Before you start waving a misogynist flag at Thackeray, consider also that all of the men in the book are shallow morons, too. Rawdon Crawley is an idiot who is content to coast on his wife’s intellect until he begins to suspect (way too late) that she might be pulling one over on him, too. George Osborne is a rash, young libertine. William Dobbin has a bad habit of idolizing people who don’t deserve his loyalty.
Ultimately, you’ve gotta admit that Thackeray is fair: he roasts all of his characters equally. No one is spared, not even the servants. Everyone’s got some flaw that he can poke fun at.
While I enjoyed reading Thackeray’s tale of the pursuit of vanity, and the underlying implication that chasing vanity will ultimately get you nowhere, it made me a little uncomfortable to think about what Thackeray would say if he were to write about my life here in Southern California.
There’s vanity to spare here. He’d have a field day.