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.
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.
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!