Lots of people will say: “Get serious.”
But I am serious. I know the consensus on Thackeray. He’s a “middle of the pack” novelist, better than Trollope, not as good as Dickens, whose best work still has significant problems.
Such as … Vanity Fair’s plot is flabby and rambling. Thackeray’s constant moralizing exhausts the patience of the reader long before the book comes to an end. And its cast of characters lack vivid life (except perhaps for the famous Becky Sharp) and are flattened by the novel’s satirical tone.
On the flabby and rambling plot charge, I think Thackeray is clearly guilty. No defense.
On the moralizing, I find that the range of emotional colors Thackeray brings to his comments enriches the novel rather than making it poorer. He is often satiric, scolding, caustic, angry, even cruel. But there are times when his voice is humorous, generous, almost warm – tolerant even forgiving of human weakness.
Thackeray’s approach to his characters is also complicated. They are, on first encounter, similar to Dickens’ people, who were inspired by popular stage melodramas: strongly drawn, not particularly well shaded.
But as Vanity Fair progresses, many of the characters start slipping sideways out of their defined roles. For example, the book’s two leading female characters, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley.
Becky Sharp is a classic “bad girl” – bohemian parents, no money, no connections – who is perfectly willing to use intelligence, wit, charm, and sex to find wealth and climb in society.
But there is something deeply persuasive about a character who simply refuses to accept the place and prospects that “respectable” people demand she take, and who has few illusions about herself even while she is manipulating everyone else’s picture of her. And yet, Becky remains for all her persuasion, essential selfish and amoral.
Becky is paired in Vanity Fair with her girlhood friend, the sweet and virtuous Amelia Sedley, who possesses the money, family, and social standing (and naivety) Becky lacks.
Amelia looks all ready to play the “Victorian woman of admirable virtue” role – and she does play it – right into the ground.
Amelia, a perfectly lovely girl, marries a philandering scoundrel who gets her pregnant before dying at the battle of Waterloo.
For the next twenty years, she blights her life with a stubborn idiot celebration of his memory and her single-minded devotion to their son, until her youth and almost all chances of happiness, for both herself and the family friend who has patiently loved her, are gone.
Amelia does all this in the name of “virtue” but Thackeray doesn’t make this virtue look very appealing, just as he fails to make Becky’s “villainy” all that unappealing. What he succeeds at doing — and deliberately, I think — is make characters who look simple, and easy to judge, become complicated and hard to judge. Or, if you like, turn them into constructions that feel a lot like people.
The final quality that makes Vanity Fair great is Thackeray’s constant reminders of the novel’s artifice. Throughout the book, he continuously points out that it is a book, that he is an author controlling events, and that his characters aren’t real. (The last line of Vanity Fair is “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”)
This is particular because our emotional engagement with art is dependent on our ability to ignore the fact it is art – the famous “willing suspension of disbelief” — and success for most authors depends on this engagement.
That Thackeray refuses to make this engagement easy — building it up and tearing it down, again and again – is one last tasty, tangled, problematic gift he gives to his readers.