Monday, September 22, 2008
Vanity Fair: It’s All About You
I started work on Thackeray‘s Vanity Fair with my 19th-century fiction class today. There are many things I savor about this novel, from the brilliance of Becky “I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year” Sharp to the sharply satirical illustrations. I particularly enjoy the intrusive narrator:
[M]y kind reader will please to remember that this history has “Vanity Fair” for a title, and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions. And while the moralist, who is holding forth on the cover ( an accurate portrait of your humble servant), professes to wear neither gown nor bands, but only the very same long-eared livery in which his congregation is arrayed: yet, look you, one is bound to speak the truth as far as one knows it, whether one mounts a cap and bells or a shovel hat; and a deal of disagreeable matter must come out in the course of such an undertaking. . . .
And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.*
He’s everything you could wish for in a novelistic companion: wry, passionate, witty, acerbic--and surprisingly coy, considering he has every apparent reason to be, well, omniscient, seeing as how he is frank about having made it all up.
Here’s my favourite passage from the novel. For those who haven’t had the pleasure yet, let me briefly set the scene. I don’t have to worry much about spoilers: Thackeray has rendered them, not irrelevant, but impossible. Our girl Becky, having spent about 700 pages in pursuit of fame and fortune, has been stringing along a lecherous nobleman, Lord Steyne--who has devised to get her alone for an evening by (among other clever means) getting her husband Rawdon locked up for outstanding debts. But Rawdon gets sprung unexpectedly (by the not-so-sheepish Lady Jane Sheepshanks) and comes home to find Becky and Lord Steyne alone:
A little table with a dinner was laid out—and wine and plate. Steyne was hanging over the sofa on which Becky sat. The wretched woman was in a brilliant full toilette, her arms and all her fingers sparkling with bracelets and rings, and the brilliants on her breast which Steyne had given her. He had her hand in his, and was bowing over it to kiss it, when Becky started up with a faint scream as she caught sight of Rawdon’s white face. At the next instant she tried a smile, a horrid smile, as if to welcome her husband; and Steyne rose up, grinding his teeth, pale, and with fury in his looks.
Rawdon throws the man out, rips off Becky’s diamonds, forces her to cough up the rest of her horde of money, and leaves “without another word.” It’s all very exciting. But now comes the part I think is truly great.
What were her thoughts when he left her? She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about—dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself?—she thought—not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs? The French maid found her in this position—sitting in the midst of her miserable ruins with clasped hands and dry eyes. The woman was her accomplice and in Steyne’s pay. “Mon Dieu, madame, what has happened?” she asked.
What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure?
The scene painting is marvellous, for starters. It’s rare that we see Becky off-stage in this way, but now we see the cost of the ebullient theatricality that makes her progress through the novel so corruptly captivating. For once, she seems weak and vulnerable (though, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, she will rise to strike again!). Every detail in this tableaux is telling. But why not tell us if she’s guilty? Surely our omniscient puppeteer knows?
There are lots of ways to answer this question, not least of them the practical (best, perhaps, to leave the worst unspecified, lest he should “bring a blush to the cheek of a young person"). There are thematic reasons too: actual guilt doesn’t matter in this world--just the appearance of guilt, and appearances are certainly against our Becky. Here’s another way I’ve come to think of it. The novel only purports to be about Becky Sharp. In fact, you don’t have to look that hard at it to see that her story is more the occasion than the point of the novel. Really, it’s about you. Well, us. Our friend the narrator hardly misses a chance to invite us to see ourselves reflected in the unflattering mirror of his novel and to reflect, in our turn, on our own passage through Vanity Fair:
The doctor will come up to us too for the last time there, my friend in motley. The nurse will look in at the curtains, and you take no notice—and then she will fling open the windows for a little and let in the air. Then they will pull down all the front blinds of the house and live in the back rooms— then they will send for the lawyer and other men in black, &c. Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, oh, how far, from the trumpets, and the shouting, and the posture-making. . . . Which, I wonder, brother reader, is the better lot, to die prosperous and famous, or poor and disappointed? To have, and to be forced to yield; or to sink out of life, having played and lost the game? That must be a strange feeling, when a day of our life comes and we say, “To-morrow, success or failure won’t matter much, and the sun will rise, and all the myriads of mankind go to their work or their pleasure as usual, but I shall be out of the turmoil.”
If we know exactly what Becky has done or not done, we might think our work was done: we could judge her, and close the book. But guilt of one kind or another is pervasive in her world, and in ours; whatever sexual misdemeanors she has committed are at most a subcategory of the vast array of immorality with which the novel is preoccupied. Was she guilty or not? Who cares? (And what kind of people do we become if we try too hard to find out for sure?) The real question is what have we done lately that we might regret on our deathbeds?
“Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum!” concludes the narrator; “which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?” There is enormous satisfaction in finishing a reading of Vanity Fair. But if we finish it satisfied, with our world or with ourselves, we betray our own vanity, which is no less epic, perhaps, than Becky’s.**
*Quotations are taken from the University of Adelaide’s etext of the novel.
**Maybe this could be the start of a new series. Moralizing Mondays? Maybe not.
When I was 11, this was my favourite book and Becky was my ‘heroine’ - which says one hell of a lot about me as a kid! What’s worse, in true Jesuitical fashion, I still admire her: she’s gutsy, feisty, plays everyone at their own game ... a bitch at the height of her powers straight out of The Devil Wears Prada.
I think Thackeray betrays his own adoration of her, too, by making Amelia so wet and George so very worthy of her disdain (my own favourite bits are when she hurls the book back at the patronising Pnkerton and when she rips everyone off after Waterloo)!
Rohan, It’s great to see that you are teaching _Vanity Fair_. Too many teachers have given up on it with the excuse that it is too long for the students to get through. I find that it is the Victorian novel I tire of least. And there are always some students who love it. I think the illustrations help too; students are good at analyzing the interaction of text and image.
"Too long”? I don’t understand the meaning of the words…
Later this term we’re doing Bleak House. In retrospect, Vanity Fair will look, well, shorter. I tell them Bleak House is my gift to them: after that, no book they are assigned will intimidate them, at least not because it’s long. (Of course, I figure it’s a gift in lots of other ways too.)
In How to Read a Novel, John Sutherland says Vanity Fair is his ‘desert island’ book. I’m not convinced it would hold up that well over time, but I haven’t tired of it yet either. Maybe its lack of popular currency (despite Reese Witherspoon’s [appalling] big-screen version) is part of what keeps it fresh: the students have no preconceptions or expectations, and I get to play along while they get pleasantly surprised. Teaching Jane Austen isn’t really like that: they expect to like it, they get what they expect, and I increasingly feel I don’t bring all that much new to their experience.