Thursday 2 May 2024

Vanity Fair plot spoiler alert! Please do not read this until you read the book.

'It isn't difficult to be a country gentleman's wife,' Rebecca thought. 'I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.'

I just finished rereading Vanity Fair, which I found superficial at twenty. I felt the same about all the many books I read by Thackeray, but Vanity Fair this time was electrifying. 

I have always admired and sided with free spirits, as did Thackeray when young, when he was one, but a lot of them are parasites, crooks or whores. Becky Sharp is all three and a murderess. 

Is it is the stodgy conventional people who are the heroes then? Not in Vanity Fair. They are selfish hypocrites, with a very few exceptions.

Surely most human beings are not as repellent as Thackeray would have us think? It depends on how forgiving you are of human weakness, but remember that he is a satirist and, like Martin Amis and Juvenal, his job is to shock us out of our complacency.

The novelist John Esten Cooke asked Thackeray about Becky Sharp and Jos Sedley. “There is one mystery about her which I should like to have cleared up. Did Becky kill him, Mr. Thackeray?” (Cooke was an American which is why he called him 'Mr.') 

Thackeray “smoked meditatively,” a “‘slow smile’ dawning on his face,” and then proclaimed “I don’t know!” 

The omniscient novelist (he says several times in Vanity Fair 'The novelist knows everything!') is himself a character in the novel. When the book finishes the novelist himself cannot know what the book does not mention. 

But I know and so does any attentive reader. 

She did kill him - or if she did do it herself she arranged his death and stole his property. 

She is one of the two most convincing portraits of an evil person I ever read - far more so than Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas or any of Wilkie Collins' or Dickens' characters. 

The one comparable character is also a woman, Lady Macbeth, but Lady Macbeth is much slighter. Iago is just a shadow, like a figure from medieval morality plays to whom he has been likened. 

Who else is there in the canon?

Gil-Martin in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Thackeray tells us that Becky's husband Rawdon could not get life insurance for the island to which Becky and Lord Steyne exiled him. I imagine she wanted insurance for him as she did for Jos. 

Both men died because of her. (Steyne threatened to have her killed.)

A cursory search of the net shows left-wing English lecturers are trying to make the feminist case for her but psychopaths and criminals are never rebels, always conservatives. 

How I'd hate to read English at university nowadays. I'd proba
bly get sent down for being conservative, as would that port-loving High Tory George Saintsbury were he to be reincarnated as an undergraduate.

Interested to find reading his Early Victorian Novelists just now that Lord David Cecil thinks WMT made her act out of character by the murder No, no, it was his tour de force.

Lord David's view reminds me of Trollope saying that 'no schoolgirl who ever lived' would have thrown away the edition of Johnson's Dictionary which she had just been given by the headmistress's sister, as Becky does in the first chapter.

Lord David's is, however, the view of all the innumerable film and television adaptations. The first film (Myna Loy is Becky) shows her at the end separated from Jos but the rest show them happily married at the end! Just as she seduces most characters in the book she has seduced her readers.

Now the #metoo movement has made her a heroine or as they would say a hero. (Here is a fatuous essay here.)

This essay tells you all you need to know.

Throughout this novel, Becky has, like a siren, tricked and seduced many of the people she has encountered. But her greatest accomplishment is the way she seduces us, the reader of this novel. We are loath to look below the water line. We want to sympathize with Becky. We want to admire her. In fact, we want to be seduced. And so, we refuse to see the evil that has been there throughout the novel, up to and including her most wicked deed.

When we see a movie or television version of this novel, however, the siren’s tail has been replaced by a nice-looking pair of legs, to spare us the effort of having to excuse or ignore much of Becky’s behavior, as we are wont to do when reading the book.

I have read about Thackeray over the years, but this old newspaper article taught me a lot about him, from the first command he received at Charterhouse, 'Come and frig me!', his schoolfellows' enjoyment of public executions, the love triangles he was involved in and the fact that his great rival Dickens remained at his tomb for an hour after the other mourners had left.

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