I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Thackeray for the first time. I waver between feeling like I enjoyed it and feeling like I’ll never get those hours back. It’s rare that I read a book and find nothing to like about any of the characters, but this one succeeds in that dubious distinction. The thing is, given that its a satire of the behaviors and psychology of people during the Regency period in England, and that the subtitle is “a novel without a hero,” I don’t think I was supposed to particularly like any of the characters. While a good plot is probably the most important thing for my enjoyment of a novel, liking even one character is also pretty important. (I’m also a sucker for “good writing,” which certainly existed in this novel, even though his sentences were sometimes tortuously long and winding…and then kind of irrelevant to the main plot.) The plot of Vanity Fair is well-woven and held my interest, but the characters fought against that and sometimes made picking up the book feel more like a duty.
I couldn’t help making comparisons of the world Thackeray is satirizing with modern times in America, and I was rather amazed that the follies and faults of his characters didn’t feel dated at all. Greed, a longing for power, a shallow fascination with being entertained above other matters, hypocritical piety, adultery…it sounds like a selection of articles in the Sunday paper. It seems to support the idea that human psychology is pretty strongly wired in certain ways (which I think is probably the case for the good in humanity, as well, but that doesn’t really show up in the novel, so…).
Oddly enough, as these things so often work, in the final episode of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday night, Mary alludes to Becky Sharp, the female antagonist of Vanity Fair. If I hadn’t been reading it, I would have missed the allusion entirely. It wouldn’t have made my enjoyment of the show any less, I think, to have missed it; however, knowing the reference did add a layer of understanding of the scene that would have been lacking. It’s this, I think, that leads so many educators to call for a canon of works that students read in school, and it helps me sympathize somewhat with their cause. When we read many of the same books, we have a common language that helps add layers of understanding to our communications through our allusions, connections, and references.
What should be in that canon, however, is not something easily agreed upon, and I don’t think I’m going there in this post.