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REVIEW:  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

REVIEW: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

vanity fairDear Reader,

I will preface this review by stating that Vanity Fair is not a romance, nor is it remotely romantic. For those who are unfamiliar with Thackeray’s classic novel, it is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero”, and satirizes English society circa 1815. It may be of interest to those of us who cut our teeth on Regency-era romances; Vanity Fair presents a somewhat jaundiced view of the British upper classes of the time.

Becky Sharp completes her studies at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy, studies that were subsidized first by her artist father’s teaching at the school and later, after he dies, by her own teaching of French to the pupils. She leaves the school to stay with her good friend Amelia Sedley, who finishes matriculating at the same time. Becky needs to go into service and she has a position secured, but first she will spend some time with Amelia in the comfortably prosperous atmosphere of the Sedley household.

There, Becky meets Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, who is visiting, having made his fortune in India. Jos is fat and shy, especially around women, but also vain and given to cultivating and believing ridiculous puffery about himself and his exploits (after Waterloo he seemingly believes he was a vital part of the British victory, in spite of the fact that he spent the entire battle in town, desperately trying to flee to safer environs).

Becky sets her sights on Jos, believing he will offer for her and save her from a life of drudgery. But she’s not able to reel him in before being forced to depart for Queen’s Crawley to work as a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley, a baronet who is a nobleman in name only. Sir Pitt is crude and Queen’s Crawley is dirty and depressing, but Becky manages to do what she does best – charm and ingratiate herself with anyone who is capable of being charmed and willing to be ingratiated. She quickly has Sir Pitt eating out of her hand, and when she meets Sir Pitt’s wealthy relative Miss Crawley, Becky becomes fast friends with the old lady. The entire Crawley family fawns over Miss Crawley in hopes of gaining her inheritance, though Rawdon Crawley, Sir Pitt’s younger son, has long been her favorite and presumptive heir.

Positions in the Crawley family are thrown into disarray, however, after Sir Pitt Crawley’s mousy wife dies. This prompts Sir Pitt to propose marriage to Becky, only to find that she cannot marry him, as she is already secretly married to his son Rawdon. The secret and, some would say, unsuitable marriage (Becky’s mother was an opera dancer, after all) infuriates the entire Crawley family, none more than Miss Crawley. Rawdon was her favorite and she adored Becky for her ability to amuse (usually by cruel mockery of others – Becky knows how to tailor her talents to her audience), but Miss Crawley is at heart a snob and feels betrayed by both parties after the elopement. Rawdon is promptly cut off by his father and dropped from Miss Crawley’s will; all of Becky and Rawdon’s attempts to reingratiate themselves with Miss Crawley fail (in no small part to the machinations of other family members who are scheming to get their hands on the money, as well).

Becky reunites with her friend Amelia after marriage; Amelia has  married under somewhat similar circumstances. Amelia had long been betrothed to George Osborne, son of her father’s business partner. But when Mr. Sedley undergoes a disastrous financial reversal, his old friend Osborne immediately turns on him and orders George to drop Amelia. George only demurs due to the very strong influence of his friend and fellow Army officer, William Dobbin. Dobbin is in love with Amelia himself, so in love that he selflessly wants her to have everything she wants, and she wants George. So George and Amelia are married, and like Becky and Rawdon are cut off financially. But it’s time for the men to head to Belgium to face Napoleon, so at least they don’t have to worry about trying to live in London with no incomes for the time being. Becky and Amelia accompany their husbands to Brussels.

The meaning of “A Novel without a Hero” isn’t hard to parse. The characters in “Vanity Fair” are all deeply flawed. At first glance it seems like the “best” characters in a conventional sense are Amelia and Dobbin, who demonstrate the selflessness and humility so integral to heroes and heroines in 19th century English novels. But Amelia is a total twit, devoted to George beyond reason and given to crying at the drop of a hat (Thackeray makes fun of her constant waterworks, which I appreciated; late in the book he refers to her as “our simpleton”, which I just loved). Dobbin is a tad more sympathetic, but he’s not exactly a relatable character, spending years pining after someone who is unworthy of his affection and lacking any sort of charm or sense of humor to lighten his character.

George Osborne is an idiot and a jerk, completely unworthy of Amelia’s devotion. His father is even worse; he justifies his horrible treatment of Mr. Sedley by acting even more horrible, renounces his only son for marrying against his wishes, and only relents partly years after George is killed at Waterloo by taking in Amelia and George’s child (thus taking the beloved child away from Amelia, who selflessly gives him up – gag – so he can have a better life). Oh, the kid is kind of a brat, too.

The Crawleys are also mostly awful, from the odious Sir Pitt to his namesake eldest son, whose pomposity and piety are as tiresome as his sire’s debauchery. Actually, Pitt Jr.’s eventual wife, Jane, is probably a fair candidate for least obnoxious character – she’s a good person without being a martyr about it. Rawdon Crawley is rather unprincipled and something of a happy idiot (at least Becky treats him so, after they marry), but he is redeemed somewhat by his love for their son, also called Rawdon.

Then there’s Becky. What to say about Becky? I really liked her for much of the novel; she fit the anti-heroine mold well. She is someone who clearly grew up via the school of hard knocks, and she’s learned to take care of herself, with a vengeance. She manipulates people, yes, but it helps that most of the people she manipulates are not that sympathetic themselves. I liked this description of her, mid-novel:

“When attacked sometimes, Becky had a knack of adopting a demure ingenue air, under which she was most dangerous. She said the wickedest things with the most simple unaffected air when in this mood, and would take care artlessly to apologize for her blunders, so that all the world should know that she had made them.”

At a certain point, though, Thackeray takes Becky too far, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. The first issue is her disdain for her child. I could accept benign indifference (punctuated by bouts of using him when it’s convenient to do so); that would be in line with the Becky the reader has come to know. But Becky seems to really take an active dislike to her son, and it becomes distasteful to read about and makes her seem a lot meaner. Previously she hadn’t been mean, exactly, except on occasion when she mocked someone. But there was usually a reason for it; Becky’s every action is calculated and chock-full of self-interest. Her hostility towards the boy has no purpose, and feels out of character.

It’s especially unpleasant contrasted with her husband’s fondness for his namesake. Rawdon Sr. is no great shakes, but at least he has some parental instinct. He actually seems to improve as a person through his love for the child.

Then there’s Becky’s treatment of Rawdon himself. For years into their marriage, she seems to be acting in both of their interests, and Rawdon seems fine with her flirting (and perhaps more than flirting) with other men if it means that they can continue to live a certain lifestyle without ever paying their bills. But Becky grows increasingly more contemptuous of her husband, and by the time she lets him languish in debtor’s prison, ignoring the pleading note he sends begging her to bring a small-ish sum that will free him, he becomes fed up with her, and so did I as the reader. I was actually sort of sorry to feel that way; I preferred her as an entertaining sort-of-villain, the type who you can never feel too bad about liking because the people she hurts are mostly those who’ve brought it on themselves. But by book’s end Becky is revealed to be thoroughly corrupted and capable of anything, even, perhaps, murder. I didn’t really like the transformation because it smacked too much of conventional morality, of a simplistic division of characters into “good” and “bad”, which clearly hasn’t been Thackeray’s thing for the majority of the book.

As much as I liked “Vanity Fair” (and I did really like it), I found myself wondering at how it had become so beloved. In 2003 it was voted the UK’s “Best Loved Novel” in a BBC poll. It struck me as strange because in some respects, it feels like a bit of a lightweight story. I’d compare Thackeray to Jane Austen, in that both write serio-comic takes on 18th century British life. Thackeray is about 1000 times more cynical and less concerned with morality than Austen, of course. But it’s mostly just an arch commentary on the times, not a big sweeping novel of deep philosophical themes like, say War and Peace. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (I liked Vanity Fair better than War and Peace!), but one wonders what makes a story that’s not after all a big, serious epic something that is remembered and loved 160+ years after it’s published?

Though that’s not a complaint. Vanity Fair is well worth reading, and I’m glad it’s famous enough that it came to my attention. My grade is a B+.

Best regards,

Jennie

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Dear Author

What Makes A Romance Novel Endure?

Specifically, what makes a Romance novel endure? Think about the hundreds of Romance novels published each month –  in a multitude of subgenres and formats – and the thousands that adds up to each year. Where do all these books go, and what makes one book remain in our collective memory over hundreds, even thousands, of others?

I started thinking about this when I was re-reading The Windflower for my conversational review with Sunita. Here is a book that in so many ways is indicative of its time (1984)—an innocent heroine with tons of bravado who pretty much grows up on page; a jaded hero who becomes emotionally in touch when he falls in lust and then love with the spirited but innocent heroine; and plenty of melodramatic urgency and extremity to make the hero and heroine’s journey to happiness both arduous and long. And yet, readers can still pick it up for the first time, years after its publication, and be immersed and enchanted. Is that what makes a “classic Romance”? And if so, what sets that book apart in providing that experience from all the others published along side it?

This question was raised in a sideways manner a few months ago when the idea of a Romance canon was raised. Wendy wrote a very good wrap-up of that particular controversy, with many suggested authors and books for a Romance canon.  And still, for every Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas, Joan Smith, Victoria Holt, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Nora Roberts, Christine Feehan, Bertrice Small, and Charlotte Lamb, there are dozens of names not only all but forgotten, but out of print to the point where their books are essentially out of circulation. And even for those authors whose names have not iconic, was their success presaged in their early works? Although the first few Lisa Kleypas books are among my favorite of her historicals, the writing is far weaker than her later books. And some of Charlotte Lamb and Anne Stuart’s books are just so chock full of crazy that some may wonder why they have remained so influential in the genre. And then there are writers like Bertrice Small, who, in some ways, are still writing in a similar vein to their earlier books, and whose work still seems to sell pretty robustly.

And then take a look at today’s market and how all over the place it seems. From the far extremes of erotic stories to the popularity of MC books and the upswing of New Adult, to the downslope of historicals, readers are complaining about poor writing, horrible editing, derivative plots, copycat themes, covers, and titles, and more chock full of crazy (can we just accept that that’s an ongoing theme in the genre?).

Italo Calvino has constructed a pretty famous checklist for designating a book as a classic. His list is pretty extensive, but here are a few key criteria:

The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

Salon’s Laura Miller took on the same question, pointing to Calvino’s list, as well as to a Goodreads discussion that raised the same issue.

Miller complicated the formula, pointing to the fact that individual taste plays a huge role in how a book is received:

This is why we will go on arguing about what constitutes a classic book for as long as we read books at all: While the label is bestowed by the culture at large and we tend to judge it by an unquantifiable impression we have of how much prestige has accumulated around a particular book, that prestige is still built from the idiosyncratic experiences of individual readers. The fact that many readers hate “The Scarlet Letter” can’t disqualify it as a classic, but only because many more readers have loved it, or at least found it profound. Yet that doesn’t mean the opinions of the rejecting readers don’t count or that they can’t at some point overbalance the novel’s admirers and cause it to drift into obscurity. No wonder those Vonnegut novels keep migrating. Whatever a classic book may be, it doesn’t ever seem to stand still.

And yet, there are books within the Romance genre that we almost universally recognize as classic. These are not even books that would qualify as pristinely written (Woodiwiss, for example, or Small), but they somehow rise above other books around them. Some books seem to have conflicted status – Judith Ivory’s books, for example. I know many readers who would not include them as classics and other readers who would. What qualifies or disqualifies her work from that title? Are Laura Kinsale’s books classics? How do her books compare to, say, Tracy Grant’s historicals? Or Christine Monson’s? When I was thinking about what character in genre Romance was most like The Windflower’s Cat, Samuel from Kinsale’s The Shadow and The Star was the first hero I thought of, except that Samuel had a big head start in terms of a loving family and a clear life path compared to Cat. Fallen Professor compared Cat to Dain from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, a book that feels so much lighter in tone to me that I cannot compare them at all.  In fact, for me, Lord of Scoundrels is a book the appeal of which I have never fully understood. Is it because I did not read it at the time it was written? And yet, one of the supposed qualifications of a classic is that it speaks both of its time and beyond it. Is this a book that transcends, and if so, why?

Even if we discard the idea that every genre has the same qualifications for a classic book, there does seem to be some uniformity within genre Romance about which books have had lasting impact. Heck, there are some books that are still being read, thirty, forty, fifty, even a hundred years after publication. But why those books? Why are people still reading LaVyrle Spencer, or re-reading her, at least? What about Jennifer Crusie or Julia Quinn or Laura Lee Guhrke? What kind of endurance do we expect these authors to have?

For me, classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves. Perhaps it comes down to appreciation over adoration for me, although a combination of both is ideal. I would not venture to say this is true for all, or even most, Romance readers, though.

What, for Romance, make certain books unforgettable, and is unforgettable the same thing as classic? Can notoriety alone create a classic read, or is there some standard of merit that must stand behind it? And if so, what standard? How do we define merit in a genre that may be more about emotional satisfaction and catharsis than wordsmithing? Even those books that may be deemed “bad” by current standards can be appreciated and even enjoyed as a nostalgic trip to the past. I’m not sure this is the same thing as a book “transcending,” though, if it doesn’t seem to retain a consistent standard of excellence. Still, what are the characteristics of excellence when we’re cataloguing Romance’s strengths?

I would argue that classic status requires more than popularity or memorability, but I’m not sure what. Is it the prose, and if so, what about it? Is it the tropes, and if so, why? Is it the character types, and if so, what type is more enduring or “classic” than another? Is it the tropes or the settings or the subgenres or the notoriety of a book? How many people think that readers are going to be picking up Fifty Shades in 30 years – or even thinking of is as a defining moment in the genre’s development?

Thinking back as long as you’ve been reading Romance, what are the books that stand out to you as genre classics and why? And thinking ahead as far as you can, what books published today do you think people will be reading? What books would you want them to be reading, and why?