William Makepeace Thackeray, “Vanity Fair” (1848) – Thackeray was, by most accounts, a prime bastard; those of Irish descent will never forgive him for his pro-genocide comments during the Great Famine. Great satirists generally are. The idea that satire only “counts” or is valid or funny if it solely “punches up” is a very recent idea and completely anachronistic as far as the history of the genre goes from Juvenal, another asshole and bigot, on down. Satire is supposed to be a mirror to society, and is as moral as mirrors ever are.
In that tradition of satire, Thackeray ranks high in the English pantheon, largely on the strength of “Vanity Fair.” One of the ultimate asshole power moves great satirists get away with isn’t casual bigotry or “punching down;” its having their cake and eating it too. Thackeray not only accomplished the satirist trick of ogling immorality whilst impugning it. He also played with the forms and conventions of literature between his time and the pre-Victorian period about which he writes. Moreover, convention and morality tie in with each other, then and now, so playing with one is playing with the other.
“Vanity Fair” has been subtitled “a novel without heroes,” and that’s an example of Thackeray’s spiteful playfulness, in this case seemingly targeted at his readership. There’s an obvious hero, as in protagonist: young amoral social climber Becky Sharp. There’s no novel without her. But according to the codes of Victorian propriety that Thackeray both upholds and critiques (the former more substantially), such a character, who uses charm and sex to climb the social ladder, cannot be a hero. But all the same, the readers are clearly there for her, not for her opposite number and frenemy Amelia Sedley, a simp and social faller. They’re definitely not there for any of the male characters, who are all comparative dullards, good, bad, and indifferent.
Becky Sharp establishes her bad girl cred right out of being a scholarship student at finishing school, where she throws a book by established moral authority Samuel Johnson out of a carriage window. Thackeray continually challenges his readers to judge Becky- does she truly do anything that awful? Is she really worse than those around her, from the simpering Amelia to the other social climbers to the horny, drunk, amoral lords on top of everything already? In part, this is answered by the title and theme of “vanity fair,” borrowed from Protestant preaching: where all is worldly, all is vanity, and who can especially blame (or praise) anyone within it? It’s also, I think at least, answered by the historical frame- Thackeray plays with the idea that morals were just worse in that pre-Victorian period, and invites his readers to the sort of self-congratulation that only reaffirms Thackeray’s diagnosis of universal vanity.
I, for one, don’t especially care whether Becky is good or bad, and see her only real crime as being bad to her kid. But Thackeray, with his contrast between Victorian family-centric morality and Georgian neglect and cruelty, may have coopted me into applying a possibly anachronistic judgment there. Altogether, I enjoyed the panoramic portrait of a scrambling, living society. His England (and Europe) are living, breathing places, more diverse than we’re used to thinking (and proof that including diversity — in this case, both wealthy and poor black characters and the presence of British imperialism in India — is any sign of authorial virtue). I loved the depiction of the ways in which imperialism and war abetted or foreclosed on the social climbing of the characters. The book is funny along with everything else. All told, a deserved classic. *****