Given the piles of unread books I keep on buying, it seems unproductive of me to reread things, but then productivity isn’t really the point here. A few months ago I picked up Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters to read (highly recommended; I’m surprised it isn’t better known) and was slightly horrified to see I had bought it eight years ago, at a store now closed; at the time, I just had to have a copy right away, but other novels and other things in general intervened. One of the titular daughters, a relatively poor girl who gets romantically entangled in unsatisfying ways in an effort to improve her lot, reminded me of Becky Sharp – a more sympathetically drawn Becky, but there was enough of the Sharp aura about her to make me wonder if Becky was one of the character’s literary mothers. Then I watched Gone with the Wind again, which is a terrific movie despite its abhorrent politics, and thought that Scarlett and Melanie clearly were descendants of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. So I was wondering if Vanity Fair isn’t perhaps one of the most influential novels in English, and I remembered that Robertson Davies recommended reading it several times, once when you were young, in the making-your-way-in-the-world years, and later, when you were older. So now that I’m older, I felt compelled to re-read Vanity Fair.
I think I hadn’t read it since college. I still have the paperback edition I bought then, which cost $4.25 (it's stamped on the front cover, right below where I wrote my name and dorm room), and it includes Thackeray’s own illustrations, which is a plus even though I don’t like his drawings of Becky (I think he makes her too plain and too obviously calculating). Geoffrey and Kathleen Tillotson were the editors, and somewhere in their preface, most of which I skipped, they say they’re trying to give the reader the same experience as the novel’s first readers, which is a nice idea except we don’t came to the book in the same cultural context as the first readers. The annotations are sparse and somewhat perverse; we are notified of tiny differences between manuscript and printed text, but information known to Thackeray’s contemporaries and countrymen that might be useful or interesting to modern readers (e.g., “the King” is which king?) isn’t supplied. We might be told that a Latin tag is from Sallust, but not given a translation. But I go back and forth on the value of annotations anyway.
The story sweeps right along, annotated or not, and I was caught up in rediscovering the details, though I did remember the general movement of the plot, and the famous scenes of Waterloo, and in vaguer ways the clever portraits and rueful musings. I was a bit surprised that I couldn’t remember much that happened after Rawdon’s sister-in-law springs him from debtor’s prison and he surprises Becky with Lord Steyne. The reason I couldn’t remember is that the novel falls off a bit after that – the story bogs down with a long digression about the narrator meeting Amelia Sedley and her brother Jos, and the faithful Dobbin, in Germany. It all seems like filler, and the filling includes lots of heavy humor about German names and court rituals and lots of sentimental and unfortunately non-satirical stuff about how dear and winsome Amelia is. Up until then I found her quite appealing; a sweet and fairly ineffectual woman, who blossoms (not always in appealing ways) under kindness but withdraws under pressure. Her sad little attempts to earn some money after her stockbroker father’s bankruptcy are quite moving. She comes across in a less appealing light in the German scenes, after she has come into enough money to be socially visible and desirable again (like many features of Vanity Fair, that rings true in America today – the way the financially unfortunate simply drop out of the sightlines of the bustling commercial world – the Vanity Fair of the title – the world that insists it’s the real world).
What makes her less appealing is one of the things I had forgotten, or been too young to realize when I last read the book – my memory was that she was either too innocent or too self-centered in her widowhood to realize how Dobbin feels about her, but she knows about it all along, and strings him along because he’s useful. Of course, he puts up with it for years, but the supposedly wicked Becky at least tries to please the people she’s using. Both Dobbin and Amelia prefer to channel their love into idealized images rather than actual physical beings; Thackery comes right out and tells us that Dobbin's lengthy separations from her helped him maintain his devotion, and after her husband’s death she readily forgets the unsatisfactory nature of their very brief marriage. This too is part of the novel’s sexual astuteness.
When I read the book years ago, the critical consensus was that all novels should aspire to be by Henry James, with maybe a dash of Henry Miller for our livelier times. Thackeray’s narrative intrusions and (alleged) sexual prudery were considered unfortunate weaknesses. My first paperback copy, which I no longer have, included an introduction that roundly condemned Thackeray for not stating boldly whether Becky was, in fact, having an affair with Lord Steyne. Reading the novel now, I have to say: you’re kidding, right? It’s completely obvious what’s going on; and in fact Thackeray's portrayal is extremely realistic, since we see the story as we usually see the stories around us: there are outward actions that conform, we assume, to a small number of possible interpretations. (Isn't this how Thackeray shows us the battle of Waterloo? Not the battle itself, but the surrounding ripples.) We make assumptions, given the nature of those involved. The insistence on some sort of explicit statement of the obvious now seems more banal in its dated “boldness,” more quaint than any Victorian reticence; isn’t the novel about living in the world – the worldly world, where one knows these things? It's part of the game he's playing with how we know what we think we know.
And years ago, at Berkeley, when I re-read the novel for a course in Victorian literature, the professor pointed out that it’s irrelevant whether Becky was technically an adulteress or not: we already have plenty of evidence that she’s materialistic, selfish, and manipulative (though also good-humored, sensible, and realistic in a way that makes her very likeable; I re-read The Eustace Diamonds when I finished Vanity Fair, because I remembered that Trollope refers to Lizzie Eustace as “a Becky Sharp,” but Trollope takes the radical step of making his heroine genuinely dislikeable – not entirely unsympathetic, but certainly dislikeable). Do we really need a sexual misdeed spelled out for us in order to find her a less than ideal friend and wife? The professor’s point was that this prurient approach to morality implicated us, the readers, as little better than the tittering gossips of Vanity Fair. So critics were already starting to talk that way.
Maybe that was the breaking dawn of post-modernism, because re-reading Vanity Fair I was struck by how post-modern this novel from 1848 seemed, in its awareness of itself as a narrative, and narrative as a socially created construct, and its awareness of its readers’ assumptions about narratives and what they mean; in its interest in power relations, in limited and shifting perspectives, in global perspectives and moral relativities (both of which usually take economic forms), and in pastiche and irony. It’s the prefaces and essays in the old paperbacks that now seem dated, trapped in the passing certainties of their times. This is why novels last but criticism is mostly like a fly preserved in amber; my edition of Wives and Daughters makes much of the novel’s critique of the patriarchy, which strikes me as not only dated but a bit silly, since the novel is very clearly (as the title might tell you) about female power relationships, which include but are by no means limited to "the patriarchy.”
I was so struck by these qualities that I first associated the novel’s onomatopoetic names with Pynchon (at least with what I remembered of The Crying of Lot 49, the only one of his novels I’ve read). Then I realized that of course such names are a long-standing tradition in English literature, not only comically as in Ben Jonson but allegorically as in John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress is the source of the novel’s title. There’s an air of lost moral certainty in the reference to Bunyan that underscores the triviality and futility of many of the struggles so entertainingly depicted in the novel, and perhaps adds to the sadness of the book, because that’s what struck me the most while re-reading – not just the subtle sexual psychology, or the mildly shocking (to us) extent to which nineteenth-century British novels are about money (or, more exactly, about how the middle class is supposed to get it) – but the pervading sadness of the book.
A younger reader enjoys Thackeray’s famous cynicism, finds the humor in it, and feels flattered at understanding so much of the world. Most young people love to love the wicked, and Becky is in some ways an admirable philosopher: equal to most disasters, she shrugs and good-humoredly moves on. But an older reader is struck with how the characters cling to whatever little things bring them some little joy, with their fragile hold on the world and even on their own children, with their solitude, their loneliness: Rawdon and his son, both deserted by Becky; Rawdon’s worldly wise aunt, dying in paranoid, manipulative isolation; Mr Sedley’s increasingly disastrous attempts to regain his hold in the world; Sir Pitt Crawley, living in isolated squalor; Dobbin, clinging to his love for a woman he rarely sees; Amelia wandering alone on dusty streets, hoping for a glimpse of the son taken by her late husband’s rich relatives, who have rejected her; Becky, bright and clever Becky, living in a German garret, drinking too much and starting to rouge over her aging appearance.