I just finished Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. This book is like Ecclesiastes meets Mean Girls. It's a biting social commentary on British society around the Napoleonic Wars. Thackeray speaks to the whitewashed vanity and corruption of his time.
I've often puzzled over the social structure in high school and junior high. There's a weird heirarchy that wasn't present for me in college, in church youth groups or in any other social group, at least with nothing approaching the same intensity. Vanity Fair confirmed that Biblical truth that truly there is nothing new under the sun. The same phenomenon occurred in Britian in the 1800's.
Becky Sharp is a shameless, heartless social climber who you can't quite dislike. Born to poor and disreputable parents, an unpardonable sin, and orphaned at a young age, she makes a place for herself in the world, leaving many casualties along the way, many of whom thoroughly deserve their treatment. Early in the book, she comes out the victor against her headmistress at school. Becky is a sort of scholarship student and the headmistress tries to take advantage of her. Becky roundly defeats her, in part by speaking perfect French to this woman who pretends fluency in the language but is actually ignorant of it.
Becky is contrasted with Amelia Sedley who, compared to the rest of the motley cast of the book, is a paragon of virtue and honesty. She's a small minded and silly woman, though, and honestly, I preferred Becky.
My other two favorite characters were Rawdon Crawley and Major Dobbin. Rawdon is a reprobate and not at all bright, but he loves his wife and son. Dobbin is the real hero of the book. He stays consistently above the social nonsense and cruelty. His only real fault is his love for a silly woman. The book left me wishing Becky Sharp had a conscience, and I think she could have been a really good match for Dobbin.
I also loved Thackeray's social commentary on his world. Vice is perfectly acceptable as long as you hide it and don't call it what it is.
Overall, this is one of my new favorite books. Thanks for the recommendation, Semicolon.
Here are some favorite quotes:
Becky Sharp needs a way to get out of town because fighting with the French is getting too close. She masterfully manipulates a gullible and cowardly man. She pretends he has intentions of joining the army. He's actually terrified...
"You men can bear anything," replied Becky. "Parting or danger are nothing to you. Own now that you were going to join the army and leave us to our fate. I know you were - something tells me you were. I was so frightened, when the thought came into my head (for I do sometimes think of you when I am alone, Mr. Joseph), that I ran off immediately to beg and entreat you not to fly from us."
This speech might be interpreted as, "My dear sir, should an accident befall the army, and a retreat be necessary, you have a very comfortable carriage, in which I propose to take a seat."
Women only know how to wound so. There is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man's blunter weapon.
Of the surface level morality of his society...
...the most squeamish, if not the most moral of societies.
We must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley's biography with that lightness and delicacy which the world demands - the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name.
And Thackeray's overall commentary on the vanity of wealth and success...
Be gentle with those who are less lucky, if not more deserving. Think, what right have you to be scornful, whose virtue is a deficiency of temptation, whose success may be a chance, whose rank may be an ancestor's accident, whose prosperity is very likely a satire.