Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

Vanity Fair is a novel that has first been serialised in 1847 in Punch Magazine, before being published as a whole in 1848. It focuses on two women, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley who are as different as their names might suggest; Becky is a quick and witty woman, who has to fight to make her way into the world, whereas Amelia is a soft and passive girl, who comes from a middle-class family and has always had everything planned for her.

It is a very long book, indeed, but it is so immensely rich! I find myself absolutely unable to sum this story up so here is what I found on

Vanity Fair is so broad and sprawling that trying to summarize its plot is almost impossible. Still, let’s give it a try. It’s the story of two young women whose lives take them in and out of every segment of English society, each of which can be mocked and displayed for laughs in turn. But what’s more important than plot is the style of the novel – its bitter and caustic humor. This genre of satire is called “picaresque” and it’s part of a pretty long tradition that goes all the way back to Don Quixote in the 16th century and weaves through the awesome Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century. The idea is to start with a character (a picaro) who is young or looking for a place to settle down, then to lead this character around all the types of people and situations that the author wants to ridicule. And this novel really does have something for everyone to laugh at: snobby merchants, greedy social climbers, illiterate aristocrats, nosy servants, evil nobles, macho soldiers, bossy women, bumbling men, British people, German people, Belgian people, and every other kind of group of humans that can be crammed in.

(There is also a summary chapter by chapter and very insightful comments and analysis on there )

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray 001

The story takes place during the Napoleonic war, so it is technically a historical novel – although it really is a satire. Having the action set several decades ago enables Thackeray to be very vivid and acidic in his criticism of society. No one is spared in this book, especially not men and that’s why I really wanted to talk a bit about this novel here – I found very interesting to study what power women manage to have in Vanity Fair.

Towards the beginning of the novel, the narrator states that:

‘And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.’

And that is what actually happens in the novel; two women, disguised as silly ‘beasts of the field’, have a hold on men.

Becky is the only woman in the novel who manages to escape the hold of men absolutely and that makes sense because she is very conscious of what she wants and what she needs to do to obtain it. Her father was a painter and her mother, a French dancer, she has thus been accustomed from a very young age to the customs of the world and knows that if she does not show herself merciless, she will never gain a comfortable situation. She knows very well the intricate system of society and that is what enables her to deceit people and tell them exactly what they want to hear. And the way she uses language is redoubtable. She does not speak like most women of the time were supposed to speak – you can just compare Amelia’s words to Becky’s and the difference is striking. Rebecca actually behaves like many ambitious women of the period who wanted to communicate efficiently and assert themselves. Such women had an outstanding understanding of how speech works and they managed to mix a very masculine tone into their feminine language.

You may say that she goes too far in her enterprise, however, it is still very easy to understand what pushes her to be so eager to climb the social ladder. She comes from a very poor background and she is well aware that there is no viable alternative available for her – she does not have a family, so she needs to find a husband. She eventually manages to marry a member of the upper class, Rawdon Crawley who may not have money but has a prestigious name. She can almost be compared to Napoleon, in that that she tries to conquer all spheres of society, almost succeeds but end up isolated from the world after her defeat.

‘The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?’

The other main character of Vanity Fair is Amelia. Contrary to Becky, she is not clear about her intentions and one can wonder whether she realises the extent of her influence on the men of her life. She is described very clearly as a parasite clinging to a tree (Dobbin, in this case), ‘Farewell, dear Amelia — Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!’. She makes men act according to her will because she manages to get to their emotions. Whilst Becky mainly plays with language, Amelia plays with her typical femininity – she is soft and fragile. It becomes obvious when Mr Osborne refuses his son to marry Amelia even though the two had been planned to marry from their childhood. At first, it does not really matter to George because he was getting somewhat bored of Amelia, but when his friend Dobbin tells him she is dying of unhappiness, he decides to marry her anyway – amongst other reasons as well, of course. Her behaviour is just as parasitic with Dobbin who remains with her at the end of novel, not so much by choice than by duty, because she just cannot be on her own. As a consequence, she is arguably even more dangerous than Becky because her ascendancy is much more insidious.

Of course, Amelia’s conduct agrees perfectly with her position of a woman in a traditional, patriarchal society. However, Becky’s is far more masculine, whilst some men have a very feminine attitude. George Osborne and Jos Sedley, in particular, practise coquetry as women traditionally do. For instance, Jos sports stylish outfits and is very self-conscious about always being very fashionable. He is obviously ridiculed by the narrator with his ‘several immense neckcloths that rose almost to his nose’ and he is later referred as ‘the head under the neckcloth’. His good friend George is also peculiarly vain as regards his physical appearance and he is guilty of loving his reflection in the mirror, a traditionally feminine attitude. Mirror-gazing was for women and aristocrats, at this time, and these two categories were expected to be decorative and without purpose. As a result, these two men find themselves in the position of a woman and that enables women as Becky to gain ascendancy over them. It is especially true when we take a closer look at George and Becky and how they interact together. They both are the most eager to climb the social ladder – George always yearns for male aristocrats to like him and accept him in their circles. Whilst Becky has to act in a more manly, in her speech for instance, George is quite effeminate in his consideration for his appearance and his interest in other powerful men. It is just as Sarah Rose Cole argues in this essay, ‘The penetrating social mastery of the female Napoleon finds its necessary inverse in the effeminate of George’s social ambition.’

‘Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?’

As you may have understood, I highly recommend reading Vanity Fair. It may be quite long but it is very interesting, but most importantly, it is absolutely hilarious! Honestly, this is one of the best novels I have ever read.


Further readings:

‘The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair’, Lisa Jadwin, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 32, No.4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1992). pp.663-687, Rice University

‘Serpent or Parasite?’, Jenni Calder, Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976)

‘The Aristocrat in the Mirror: Male Vanity and Bourgeois Desire in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair’, Sarah Rose Cole, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol.61, No.2 (September 2006), pp. 137-170, University of California Press

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