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5.0 out of 5 stars "Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" Thackeray, 1 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Vanity Fair (Penguin Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
Thackeray's subtitle to his most famous and enduring book, 'a novel without a hero' is, I think, a little disingenuous. Still, no matter, it's a great read. Described as a 'panoramic portrait' of Regency-era England, in the broadest sense of that latter term, we follow the fortunes of a numerous interconnected cast, the principle loci of which are the meek Amelia Sedley and the adventuress Rebecca Sharp.

As these two emerge from Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, and make their ways in the world, we subsequently encounter a large number of colourful characters, most of whose fortunes are destined to rise and fall in numerous intriguing ways across the more than 700 pages of this picaresque novel. Thackeray considered himself more of a realist and less of a sentimentalist than Dickens. Whether you'd agree with such an analysis or not I leave to your judgement.

The book itself, like much of Dickens work, originally appeared in serial instalments. This results in a long tale made up of satisfyingly small and palatable chapters, a veritable literary banquet of sixty-seven courses. I found it utterly compelling, and, despite rather too much life and work intervening, was nonetheless able to read the whole thing in about a week. I enjoyed it so much I plan to listen to it as an audiobook and watch the more recent BBC adaptation of it to.

Thackeray writes very well, choosing to frequently address the reader directly, and portraying the tale as if it were a real story that he himself picked up in his travels (I plan to enjoy finding out if there's anything to this idea other than a nice authorial conceit). Like the England of the times, this is fascinating: we have protagonists who fight (and some of whom die) at Waterloo, and several characters who see farther flung parts of the then burgeoning empire; like Austen and the Eyre's, Eliot, Dickens and the like, we are treated to depictions of C19th England such as we never seem to tire of - the country, the town, the city; the clergy in their livings; the gentry in their palaces - although, even allowing for Becky Sharp's humble origins (and in contrast with Dickens, who not only depicts poverty and the 'lower orders', but lets us into their worlds of thought and action) Thackeray predominantly addresses the upper echelons. His characters fortunes may rise and fall, but he's very much dealing with life 'above stairs'.

The conflicts between moral ideals and pragmatism, virtue and vice, and so on, are major themes, but leavened with enough wit and picturesque sensibility to render them very palatable. Thackeray's vision of the culture of this time and place, though world-weary and shot through with an almost resigned pessimism, is also colourful and even romantic enough to make the long winding romp through a very Hogarthian landscape a thoroughly beguiling and enjoyable journey. Long perhaps, but well worth it.

My very old Penguin Classic edition sports a cover by one of those excellent cartoonists of the Napoleonic era, George Cruikshank, and Thackeray's Vanity fair seems to me, perhaps, rather like the print-shop windows of that era, such as Gillray and Cruikshank themselves sometimes depict, filled with their own colourful images, portraying a very motley band of fools, going about their worldly business.

So, a rollicking roller-coaster of a Regency-era novel, and one I'd thoroughly recommend.
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