Having never read anything by Makepeace Thackeray beforehand and being only familiar with the name of the book, I did not know what to expect. The only idea that I could form in my mind about this book, aside from what I read in the blurb at the back was “is it something like Charles Dickens?” and although it might resemble Dickens’ books in length, subject wise it seemed to be a tad more serious and the novel definitely has less comical, grotesque characters as can be found in a Dickensian story.
The novel narrates the story of Amelia Osborn-Sedley and Becky Sharp who have just finished their studies at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Although both Amelia and Becky, or Rebecca, marry, become mothers, and struggle to navigate through society, their attitudes and fortunes differ greatly. Amelia is a very timid, gentle, and good-natured young woman, yet she is extremely passive and meek throughout the novel and is awfully gullible especially regarding her husband George Osborn, whom she believes to be faithful yet in reality has little regard for her and is more interested in Becky. Having been childhood sweethearts, after Mr. Sedley’s bankruptcy, George’s father opposes the long betrothal between Amelia and George and forbids George to marry her. He defies his father and marries her, yet continues to flirt with Becky, who despite being married herself, encourages this behaviour in all men in order to further her goal of becoming wealthy and esteemed in society. Amelia becomes pregnant and follows George to Brussels as he is suddenly deployed there to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He is killed in the fight and Amelia returns distraught and her son becomes all she lives for and raises him with her parents as George’s father refuses to acknowledge the boy. Becky, on the other hand, rises quickly in the world. She leaves the Sedley household after she realises that both George and Amelia’ brother Joseph do not succumb to her advances. Becky is a cunning and wily woman who knows exactly what she wants and get it through all means. She finds a position as a governess in the family of Sir Pit Crawley, but discovering that his younger brother is the favourite of their wealthy aunt she secretly marries him. The family is outraged by this secret marriage and Becky and Rawdon, her husband, escape to the continent where she bares him a son. Throughout the novel Becky uses her charm and cunning to further her family’s position. These actions affect her reputation and after being found in a compromising situation Rawdon leaves her and places their son in the care of his brother. Becky flees the country but is followed by her reputation in every city. Eventually Becky and Amelia find each other again in Germany, yet whereas Amelia is struggling with her relationship with her faithful friend Dobbin, who has been in love with her since the beginning of the novel, Becky is in a degraded and destitute position in society, drinking heavily and associating with con artists and other shady characters. This times around she succeeds in seducing Joseph, who soon dies and leaves her a portion of his money.
I will not spoil the ending for you, but as this ‘short’ summary demonstrates Vanity Fair is one of the denser and longer Victorian novels. Nevertheless I did enjoy reading this novel,. The relationship between and the juxtaposition of Becky and Amelia intrigued me. Although the Becky is the ‘morally degraded’ character, I immensely enjoyed her storyline as she differs from the more traditional virtuous angel in the house type of female character. Becky’s assertive and pragmatic nature disrupts the ideal image of women of the other characters. This makes her an immoral person in the eyes of multiple characters as the story evolves, but Amelia’s tendency to see the good in people, even of the depraved, makes her a long-time friend of Becky’s. Amelia’s credulousness at times becomes irritating, especially when she refuses to admit George’s unfaithfulness and neglect. Whereas Amelia undergoes a learning curve developing an understanding that not everybody is as good as they seem, Becky, on the other hand, continues in her habits of conning and wiles despite being financially supported by her son.
The tension and differences between these two characters and how this affects their lives is highly enjoyable. I also loved how the immoral character in the novel is not punished in such a manner as the ‘evil’ characters in some other Victorian novels, such as in Oliver Twist. I admit that it is a dense and long book and it took me a fair time to finish reading it, but the storyline and the characters provided me with a lot of pleasure while reading.