Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray

I am way behind.  Today is the check-in for Allie's Vanity Fair read-along over at A Literary Odyssey, when we are supposed to have read roughly half the book.  I clock in at only about a tenth--but I am about to have what I hope will be a week full of heavy reading.  More details over the weekend.

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (Oxford World's Classics)From the little I have read so far, Thackeray is fabulous!  I'm not sure I would have appreciated the author's sarcasm and satire back when I fell in love with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice in my high school years.  But for me now, a woman in her early 40s, Thackeray hits my funny bone--and my moral balances--in exactly the right way.

There is so much to talk about in the book already!  I promise to address some of those issues at the end of the month when the read-along finishes.  But for now, I want to talk about the illustrations rather than about the author's words.

William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair for serial publication complete with his own illustrations.  Some of the pictures are amazing, and some of the pictures seem almost awkward to a modern eye.  Due to their mixed quality--and the fact that Thackeray was content to have the novel published without the illustrations during his lifetime--many publishers choose not to print the pictures.  Penguin, for example, publishes an edition with a fabulous introduction but no images.  The editor argues that since "they never approach the degree of mastery displayed by Thackeray's writings" and are in some cases are "embarrassingly bad," the illustrations can "by no stretch of the imagination... be considered worthy accompaniments to a great work of literature.  I understand the point, but I disagree.  Penguin is one of my very favorite Classics publishers, but in this case I was eager to find a different imprint.  If the illustrations had been made by an artist unconnected with Thackeray, I might find it easy to accept the decision to axe the pics.  But when the author drew them himself?  I wanted to see them!

The Oxford World Classics edition, equally well introduced and in the same price range as the Penguin edition (although harder to find in US bookstores), includes images of all the original illustrations.  I encourage you to consider purchasing the Oxford and also finding a way to read the intro to the Penguin version.

This frontispiece (reproduced inside both the Oxford and the Penguin) fascinates me.  In reference to the illustration, the Oxford says, "Harlequin ruefully regards his own face in a cracked mirror, to the background of the towers of the church at Ottery St. Mary, where Thackeray spent happy childhood holidays."

Although I have not gotten far enough in the book to state for sure what theme is being illustrated here, my "reading" of the picture is that the vanity which comes from looking at one's self in the mirror (and one's masked self at that) is in direct contrast to the symbol behind of religion, community, and family.

*  * *

Of course, how an author portrays his or her characters is what almost always draws me to a book.  So far, I am loving both the sassy but not-so-nice character of Becky Sharp and the gentle William Dobbin.  Thackeray tells us that Vanity Fair is "a novel without a hero"--but, at least in the modern interpretation, both Sharp and Dobbin seem like potential heroes to me so far.  The author helped redefine what a "hero" is.  Instead of the Greek ideal of Achilles or even Odysseus, we have characters with complex personalities.  Sharp is smart and clever, strong and sarcastic, and out for herself.  Dobbin is both pathetic and noble, a new kind of gentleman.  I'm eager to see what comes next!


  1. I'm am also reading along, but I am even further behind than you are. After reading your post, I'm grateful that the version I'm reading does have the illustrations, even though I didn't realize that in some editions they are cut out.

  2. I love the illustrations. It really is a shame to lose them, and find it hilarious that some object to them on artistic grounds ("mastery"!), as if the important thing is that they be well-drawn and suitable for framing.

    That harlequin does make a return appearance, with his mask off.

  3. I recently reread this, and I definitely appreciated it far more than in high school! That being said, I wonder what you'll make of it as you get further in; I found that the book's tone changed significantly over 'time'.

  4. My version doesn't have illustrations, as it's a Wordsworth Classics edition :-( I'm really far behind, although it is a reread for me, and I'm enjoying it as much as I did the first time around so far!

  5. When I read "Vanity Fair" some years ago, I loved the first part of it, but--almost exactly half-way through--the book suddenly seemed to fall apart. It was like a different author had suddenly taken over, someone who made it dull and labored. I don't think I've ever seen a book with such a split personality.

    I found out later that while about half-way through writing the book, Thackeray suffered some sort of personal tragedy--the death of a daughter, if I remember correctly--which made it difficult for him to finish the novel. And, to me at least, it shows. I'll be very curious to see what you think!

  6. Undine, I have doubts about your theory. I detect three daughters, all born in India between 1837 and 1840. One died as an infant, the others lived until 1875 and 1919. Thackeray's wife had mental health problems - perhaps that is relevant, although I don't see any link to the novel's timetable.

    And I do not see a hint of interruption in the serialization of the novel. See, for example, Edgar F. Harden, "The Discipline and Significance of Form in Vanity Fair" in the Norton Critical Edition, which includes all sorts of fascinating information about the novel's composition.

  7. AR--thanks for directing me to the VF essay--I'll try to check it out.

    I do definitely remember hearing that something in his personal life at that time influenced the writing of the book--perhaps it had to do with his wife. In any case, I may be alone here, but, boy, that last part of his book was a disappointment to me!

  8. An amazing book so far!! I'm reading it with Allie too, and love it. I'm at halfway through. :-)

  9. I've read it at the beginning of the year and I'm sure it will become one one my 2011 favorites. Dobbin will also enter my list of top romantic heroes.

  10. Undine, you're not alone! On the recent reread, I spent the first half loving it and the second half become progressively more disappointed. It definitely felt darker and more bitter/jaded as it progressed.


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