Vanity Fair (novel)
The title is taken from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in which the pilgrims Christian and Faithful come to the town of Vanity where there is a perpetual fair where all sorts of vanity are sold, “as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts . . .” Thackeray's version, given in the introduction to the book version of the novel, “Before the Curtain”, is “There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing, and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the lookout, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind.”
The sub-title is A Novel without a Hero.
The novel follows the stories of two girls who leave Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies at the same time. Amelia Sedley is beautiful and warm, her father a rich stockbroker. Rebecca (Becky) Sharp is penniless and has to live by her wits. At an early stage Amelia's father is bankrupted. She nevertheless marries George Osborne, but he is killed at the battle of Waterloo, and her husband's family want nothing to do with her. George's friend, William Dobbin, continues to support her. Becky, after an unsuccessful attempt to marry Amelia's brother, starts as a governess and goes through various ups and downs in high society. There are no happy endings. Although Amelia eventually marries Dobbin, by then he has lost his respect for her because of the way she has treated him. Becky, having drifted round Europe, ends up with enough resources to spend her time at Bath and Cheltenham, but is alienated from her son. Much of the central part of the novel is taken up with the comic attempts of different members of the Crawley family to benefit from the rich Miss Crawley's will.
Thackeray in “Before the Curtain” gives a wry account of most of the leading characters: “The Manager of the Performance . . . is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire. The famous little Becky Puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints and lively on the wire; the Amelia Doll, though it has had a smaller circle of admirers, has yet been carved and dressed with the greatest care by the artist; the Dobbin Figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner; the Little Boy's dance has been liked by some; and please to remark the richly dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared, and which Old Nick will fetch away at the end of this performance.”
Becky is a perfectly ruthless person, of great charm and wit. She does one selfless action (which costs her nothing) for her old friend Amelia, but otherwise is just out for herself.
Amelia is too preoccupied with her grief and her family to take a proper view of what Dobbin does for her.
Dobbin is the son of a wealthy London grocer. He persuades William Osborne to marry Amelia against the wishes of his father. At the start of the book he is a captain in the army and ends as a colonel.
The Little Boy is Amelia's son Georgy who eventually goes to live with his paternal grandfather, much to his mother's distress, and completely charms him.
The Wicked Nobleman is the Marquis of Steyne. Becky becomes his mistress, and when her husband Rawdon finds out, he assaults the marquis, scarring him for life.
The other main characters are:
Sir Pitt Crawley, an eccentric bully, with whom Becky is placed as a governess, and his half-sister Miss Crawley, on whom everyone fawns because of her independent fortune.
Rawdon Crawley, Sir Pitt's second son, who marries Becky and is manipulated by her into the higher echelons of society. Following his assault on the Marquis of Steyne, he is got out of the way as governor of Coventry Island, where he dies of yellow fever.
From time to time Thackeray uses a particular circumstance or event to make general remarks about the nature of Vanity Fair. Thus we learn how someone who might have been a good and happy farmer's wife leads a miserable existence because as the wife of a crotchety old man who has a baronet's title; we find out how to live well on nothing a year; and we are instructed in the need to have servants who are illiterate mutes: "Discovery walks up to her in the shape of huge powdered man with large calves and a tray of ices — with Calumny (which is as fatal as truth) behind him in the shape of the hulking fellow carrying the water biscuits."