William Makepeace Thackeray
Read by Georgina Sutton
I can't tell you how much fun it is to embark on the good ship Vanity Fair, up and down, round about, weaving in and about these characters in and out of 1825 England. It drifts into a drama of dozens of people who come to be friends of ours, or at the least, comic relief.
We get a few side trips into the countryside, and then over to Belgium (Waterloo), and Germany (Pumpernickle). Travelling with an excellent plotter, plotting to lead you through the triple drama of Becky Sharp and her many men, along with Amelia Sedley, George Osborne, William Dobbin.
Becky --- she calls herself "the poor orphan" --- is bent on making London her own, and she damn near does, but gets caught in the wrong place with the wrong man --- not her husband. Amelia's there, and such a wimpy thing: what is wrong with her? --- "Already to be looking sadly and vaguely back: always to be pining for something which, when obtained, brought doubt and sadness rather than pleasure: here was the lot of our poor little creature, and harmless lost wanderer in the great struggling crowds of Vanity Fair."
There's William Dobbin, who wanted her but is, as his name portends, a bit of a plodder --- loyal, too, to friend George Osborne, with his officer pals in the regiment. "Here you take her," Dobbin seems to be saying: "you are a better present for her than I." George does it, but with regret, for she's not rich enough.
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This is the first half of the novel. I think if you give yourself a present of the first fifty or one hundred pages, you may, like me, never want to lay it down. Thackeray is wry, funny, sarcastic (but gently so) ... has the gall to tell us that there are some things here that even he doesn't understand.
Our luck may fail; our powers forsake us; our place on the boards be taken by better and younger mimes --- the chances of life roll away and leave us shattered and stranded. Then men will walk across the road when they meet you --- or, worse still, hold you out a couple of fingers and patronize you in a pitying way --- then you will know, as soon as your back is turned, that your friend begins with a Poor Devil, what imprudences he has committed, what chances that chap has thrown away! Well, well --- a carriage and three thousand a year is not the summit of the reward nor the end of God's judgment of men. If quacks prosper as often as they go to the wall --- if zanies succeed and knaves arrive at fortune, and vice versa, sharing ill-luck and prosperity for all the world like the ablest and most honest amongst us --- I say, brother, the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account.
Thackeray is a novelist, and a novelist must learn to toy with us, delight us, offend us (if necessary). Poor Emily's George is to fight at Waterloo. There is a great build-up. Not on the field, though. This author is no Tolstoi, so we stay with the English at Brussels, the soldiers' families, waiting ten miles from the battlefield. this is Becky Sharp as her husband Rawdon is about to leave for war: "You won't do anything brave, will you?" Dear Becky. She quite wins the reader with her sweet-faced stabs. To her would-be husband: "Are you trying to steer me towards an indiscretion?"
"Would you like me to?"
"No man has managed it yet. "
And this with her patron, Matilda Crawley:
Oh, please tell me there's something disreputable in your past.
Well, my father was an artist.
Ah, that's better, a starving one I hope.
As for sweet wasted Emily, on hearing the guns at Waterloo, thinking on her George in battle, she weeps and prays ... to no avail, for, as we are informed at the end of Chapter XXXII, "No more firing was heard at Brussels --- the pursuit rolled miles away. The darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart."
At this moment our author chooses to say no more of this event that will change the course of the book entirely. In its place, he give us astute insight into the nature of war, what it does to the survivors:
They pant for an opportunity of revenging that humiliation: and if a contest, ending in a victory on their part, should ensue, elating them in their turn, and no end to the so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which two high-spirited nations might engage.
Good high and low comedy engages us when it is thought that the French might turn from Waterloo and battle their way into Brussels. Sweet Becky has managed to round up a couple of horses,
Rebecca caught sight of Jos [Emily's brother]. He too wanted to fly, and was on the look-out for the means of escape. "He shall buy my horses," thought Rebecca, "and I'll ride the mare." Rebecca asked him to come into her room, whither he followed her quite breathless to conclude the bargain. Jos seldom spent a half-hour in his life which cost him so much money. Rebecca, measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos's eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back.
"I'm afraid I will have to charge you rather a lot. My horses are all I own in the world, you know."
"Money is no object to me, ma'am."
"That's good. Six hundred pounds."
Jos is taken aback, but promptly reaches for his pocketbook.
Oh, Becky. Thackeray obviously did not favor you, but he painted you with a fine brush, and of all the characters here, she is the one we'd all like to meet, to gossip with, to play gossip with. Early on at her governess job with Sir Pitt Crawley's two children, George Osborne --- later to be Emily's husband --- comes to sport with her (this is our transcription),
George Osborne [as Becky plays a piano forte]: So, Miss Sharp. How do you like your new place?
Becky Sharp: My place? How kind of you to remind me. It's quite tolerable, thank you. And they treat me very well. But then, this is a gentleman's family... and quite a change from tradespeople.
George Osborne: You seemed to like tradespeople well enough last year.
Becky Sharp: Joseph Sedley, you mean? It's true. If he'd ask me [to marry], I would not have said no.
George Osborne: How very obliging of you.
Becky Sharp: I know what you're thinking. What an honor to have had you for a brother in-law. Captain George Osborne, son of John Osborne, Esquire, son of... what was your grandfather?
[George remains silent and stern]. Becky Sharp: Never mind. You cannot help your pedigree.
§ § §
What is it here that 150 years later captures us so. Innocence and greed? Infidelity? Using others? Being at times noble, at times beasts of property and rank? (One of the characters says of Becky, "I thought her a mere social climber, but now I see she's a mountaineer.")
I read Vanity Fair in college, and a lot went over my head, especially the darker edges of cynicism. Thackeray is a lovely old cynic, but it does take the time to plow though it. As it is being read to me --- Georgina, you're a dream --- I am thinking that Thackeray was one of those people who could put together a story and some people and a chain of events that doesn't want to let us go. I was a goner the moment I popped in disk #1 (there are twenty-five in all). When I was out of radio contact, I picked up the book, and laughed and cheered on my favorite characters, stolid Dobbin, fat, drunken Jos, and, as always, sly Becky. Thackeray certainly didn't love her, but I do.
At last it comes to its natural end, on disc, page, and in our hearts. Our author concludes,
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? --- Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
--- Richard Saturday