Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vanity Fair by Wm. Makepeace Thackeray

It took me a month, but I finally finished!

I'm not sure if I was distracted when I began the book, or if it was just hard to get into, but the first 50-75 pages were very slow going. I got through them, then put the book aside, assuming I'd not return.

To my surprise, we were sent to London for a month and I decided to pull it up on my Kindle during the flight over. The next 50 pages were a little slow, too, but once I got into it I was always in a hurry to get back to the hotel room and chew on it a little more.

According to my Kindle numbers, the book was about 850 pages. Yes, it would have been more palatable to modern tastes if it was half that size. But if you look at it as a very long look at everyday life of upper and upper middle class Londoners of the early 19th century, it's a perfect length.

I suppose I just gave away the plot! Actually, the plot is very simple and classic. We follow two young women, one good and wealthy, the other bad and poor. We meet their immediate and extended families, and quickly come to know the men they love and their families as well. We learn that being good and kind is better than being avaricious and manipulative. But we also learn that the ride is more fun when the bad girl is driving.

By the time we're really into the book we've met at least 75 people, and most of them show up again and again. Some are caricatures, most are stereotypes, and a few are more complexly drawn. But Thackeray was writing at the beginning of the creation of the novel, and many of the stereotypes were fresh when he used them.

He's most interested and fond of the bad girl and her badish husband. Because it's obvious he's more interested in her, we are as well. But he dutifully tries to make the good girl interesting for us too. I suppose he was one of the early novelists who realized that bad boys and bad girls hold our interest more. There's more to them and their wily motives and that's been true since people have tried to tell stories.

Aside from the main plot, the book, as I said earlier, is a good way to immerse yourself in 19th century London and its environs. The characters are for the most part middle class, which was pretty nice at the time. They all have maids and butlers and cooks and various other servants. Labor at the time was almost free. I've read the typical household servant made two or three pounds a year, plus room and board. Given that they didn't spend much at all on the board part, servants were affordable if you had any income at all.

How money was spent probably took up 20% of the book. Fortunes rose and fell quickly, often with little warning. It seemed that you could live well on a very small income, but most of our characters aren't interested in that. They want to live very well, and that takes a bit more scratch. Getting that scratch takes a lot of time and trickery, and that was the most interesting part of the book for me.

I wouldn't want to read novels like this very often, but I'm glad I read this one. I feel like I have a much better understanding of how England functioned at the time. Given this was the high point of colonialism, it was a very important time in world history. If you have a free month, give it a whirl.

BTW, if you want some background, read "What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens Knew," or "Behind Closed Doors:Life in Georgian England."Then you'll have a much better idea of money, food, social habits, etc.