Vanity Fair, first published in 1848, is heralded as one of the best Victorian novels. Subtitled “A Novel without a Hero”, it is a satirical commentary of high society in the Regency Street area of London, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Thackeray is a keen social observer and he depicts both the values and the slightly unsavoury aspects of society that were characteristic of Victorian Britain.
There are four main characters whose lives are played out in Thackeray’s puppet show: Becky Sharp, George Osborne, Amelia Sedley, and William Dobbin. Each character is well-formed and displays a different characteristic; for example, Becky has an indomitable will, George disrespect, Amelia complete devotion and Dobbin demonstrates sincerity.
Becky is, without doubt, the heroine of the novel and she is, arguably, one of the most important female leads in fiction. Thackeray describes her as someone with “indomitable courage” who is in complete control of her life and knows exactly what she wants from it; qualities that are not known to be recognisable in many Victorian-era women.
Similarly to Becky, George is consumed with vanity and bettering his position. Betrothed to Amelia as a child, he leaves her broken-hearted in pursuit of a playboy lifestyle of drinking, gambling and debauchery. Although George does eventually marry Amelia, he cannot be content with living the idealistic Victorian lifestyle and on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo he writes a letter explaining to her that he is leaving her for another woman and a better fortune.
Although they start off in, almost, the same position at the beginning of the novel, Amelia is a much more pathetic character in comparison to Becky. She is the perfect, tragic Victorian little woman; accomplished in the desired feminine qualities, content in following the social customs that befit her class and sex, and is completely subservient to her husband. She is unconditionally devoted to George, even in death.
Captain Dobbin is also a poor, helpless creature who spends the entire novel hopelessly in love with Amelia. However, it is interesting to note that Dobbin is the only character in the novel not consumed with vanity or who uses his feelings to destroy the lives of others. He is also not in charge of his own destiny; when he does eventually marry Amelia at the end of the novel, it is only because Becky has forced her out of her all-consuming grief and into reality.
“If this is a novel without a hero, at least let us lay claim to a heroine. No man in the British army which has marched army, nor the grand duke himself, could be more cool or collected in the presence of doubts and difficulties, than the indomitable little aide de camp’s wife”
The Battle of Waterloo is the central feature around which the novel is based but Thackeray avoids describing the military details and the only time that he depicts the vulgarity of battle is when George Osborne dies. “Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.” This quote is arguably the harshest line of the novel and in complete contrast to the light-heartedness and joviality that permeates throughout.
Reading the novel today, it could be interpreted as having strong feminist connotations, but that is certainly not at all what Thackeray intended. Becky is an inspiring character in that she has an incredible will-power and determination to be in charge of her fate; something that was denied to the majority of women at the time. However, she is also somewhat of an unsavoury character, in a similar vein to Emma Woodhouse or Scarlett O’Hara, through her disdain for the weaker of her sex and her deviousness to get what she wants. Becky pulls herself up to the position she desires through using her connections, first Amelia, and then the family she marries into: the Crawley’s. Her marriage to Rawdon Crawley causes more suffering than good and she is not at all content to settle into domesticity with her husband and son; seeking frivolity, parties, affairs and scandal instead.
Vanity Fair is a novel that is very much of its time. Whilst the themes and characters can be seen in modern novels, the writing-style and imagery is essentially Victorian and, therefore, it is difficult to get into. Thackery’s novel is a mammoth of a book to read and it is a classic in its own right, but I think that its sisters, War and Peace and Les Miserables, offer a much more substantial account of the tensions and social changes that were characteristic of the period.