Recently in Vanity Fair Category

Becky Sharp, c'est Thackeray

| No Comments
Melusina.jpgI've already blogged about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair.  But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor. 

Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages.  Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens when she is a teenager.  Moreover,

[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty.  Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more.  She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear.  But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
(p. 10.) 

Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.

Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain.  (Becky is all these things.) 

And, yes, vanity is a sin.  But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.

In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit.  Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:

In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)  

I bridle reading this indictment.  Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially).  She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son. 

But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished.  The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted.  (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)

Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising).  I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.   

And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster.  Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror.  (As I discussed in another prior post, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)

Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless.  The book is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl is based on Madame Bovary, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself. 

The reason is his compassion for his bad girl.  Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her.  With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work.  Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair.  I read The Bad Girl in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book. 

Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky.  Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess:  Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself. 

(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons
Amelia&Becky.jpg
What is William Makepeace Thackeray talking about, in Vanity Fair, when he asserts:

If a person is too poor to keep a servant, though ever so elegant, he must sweep his own rooms: if a dear girl has no dear Mamma to settle matters with the young man, she must do it for herself.  And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener!  We can't resist them, if they do.  Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same.  And this I set down as a positive truth.  A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES.  Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts in the field, and don't know their own power.  They would overcome us entirely if they did.
(p. 25 (emphasis in original).)

While Thackeray is frequently an uncomfortably insightful critic on matters of human greed and gluttony, on this issue - the supposed freedom women have to select their own husbands - Thackeray appears to me to be a lunatic. 

Never mind the fact that his assertion is utterly contrary to my own experience: times have changed.  Vanity Fair predates feminism and, if feminism has proved one proposition, it is that women (with fair opportunities and without absolute humps) awakened to their own power - freed from their beasts-in-the-field likeness, in Thackeray's parlance - are far from assured of marrying whom they like. 

No, my sense of Thackeray's lunacy derives from his own depictions of women attempting to marry whom they like.  The marital trajectories of Thackeray's own characters contradict his overarching statement.  Becky Sharp, for example, begins the novel wanting to marry Jos Sedley.  Despite an exercise of her prodigious power, inopportune drunkenness on Sedley's part, followed by an unkind intervention on the part of George Osborne, drown Becky's hopes.

Nor does Amelia Sedley's marital history support Thackeray.  Amelia, too, exercised her personal powers to show (more than) a "little inclination" to marry George Osborne, but her own efforts would have resulted in spinsterhood.  Nothing short of the extraordinary social pressure exerted by Osborne's long-time friend, mentor and source-of-extra-funds-in-a-pinch, William Dobbin, convinced Osborne to take the plunge with Amelia.

So I return to my original question: what is Thackeray talking about?

One possibility is that Thackeray is just being provocative.  At playing provocateur, he excels.

Another possibility is that Thackeray just had one of those human lapses that lead to the fervent espousal of contradictory positions.  It happens to all of us, even in print, even when editors are supposed to catch that sort of thing before it goes public.

Yet a third option is that Thackeray is urging us women on to greater heights.  Although Thackeray is too much of a realist and a story-teller to be a severe moralist, he does take a firm stand against one sort of immorality: the refusal to grow. 

Thackeray can do nothing but frown on Amelia Sedley's steadfast devotion to the unworthy George Osborne; Thackeray has nothing but contempt for Becky Sharp's persistence in her manipulative and degenerative social tactics.  However much Thackeray hectors and berates his characters, and punishes their stubborn inertia, they don't change.  But perhaps we, the audience, might. 

Hence, just as Thackeray shows us what not to do, he tells us what we should do: ladies, he admonishes us, stop being cows and start getting what you want from the men you want.  In a word: change.

I appreciate the sentiment.  But I also appreciate that Thackeray didn't show us an example of his idealized woman for a reason: she doesn't exist in Vanity Fair - or, since Vanity Fair is a representation of our own materialistic world, she doesn't exist.

Which raises a fourth possible answer to my question of what, exactly, Thackeray is talking about: like most novelists, he too frequently makes things up.

(Image of Romola Garai as Amelia Sedley in Mira Nair's film version of Vanity Fair from Garai's website; image of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in the same film from The New York Times)

The bitch side of Jane Austen

| No Comments
William_Makepeace_Thackeray.jpgWilliam Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair should be a mandatory complement to any Jane Austen reading assignment.  Focusing on the same social set in the same country and time period as Austen, Thackeray offers a view of the world depicted in Austen's novels that is less romantic, less hopeful and less moral than the perspective Austen proffers.

Thackeray is also unrelenting.

I'm a fast reader, and yet Vanity Fair claimed a month of my time.  The extended reading period is odd.  Without question, I enjoyed the book, and I found Thackeray's authorial voice entertaining.  I loved the depth that Thackeray added to my understanding of social dynamics in Britain at the time of Jane Austen.  And, as I passed the hours in Thackeray's company, I admired his wit, courage and antics.  

But the extent to which I dawdled finishing the book is testament to an inherent flaw: the plot didn't function.

The plot is the engine of a novel.  Just like an engine, a book's plot has to rev up to full speed.  As the story progresses, plots should gather momentum like a toboggan hurtling downhill.  The plot should pull the reader onto the toboggan for the plunge.  When the plot functions, a reader should reach a point - somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way through - where he or she feels compelled to finish the book.  With Vanity Fair, I never felt that compulsion.

A major reason for that failure is Thackeray's unrelenting bitchiness.  He is so unsympathetic to his characters that he has disabled the plot in two ways.  First, he successfully persuades the reader that the characters in Vanity Fair are not worth caring about.  Here, for instance, is Thackeray discoursing about Rebecca Sharp:

Miss Rebecca was not . . . in the lease kind or placable.  All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treat ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get.  The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.  Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion . . .This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody . . . .
(p. 8.)  Of course, the world uses ill many good people who drink deeply and undeservedly from the cup of bitterness, but Thackeray early on dismisses any notion that Becky Sharp might belong in that category.  Nor is Thackeray satisfied to pass condemnatory judgment on Becky, but he jumps up and down on the point:

And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce the, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader's sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.  Otherwise you might fancy it was I who was sneering at the practice of devotion, which Miss Sharp finds so ridiculous; . . . - whereas the laughter comes from one who has no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success.  Such people there are living and flourishing in the world - Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless: let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main.                             
(pp. 70-71)  "[L]et us have at them . . . with might and main"?!  When an author recommends to his reader that he or she treat the protagonist thus, what can a reader do but comply?  And since Thackerey harangued me into not liking - and therefore not caring about - his characters, I never became invested in the resolution of their stories.

Second, Thackeray seems to have gotten so carried away being nasty to his characters that he neglected to plot adequately for them.  For example, when William Dobbin wakes up his commander, Mick O'Dowd, in the middle of the night and demands leave so that Dobbin can attend to a personal matter in England (i.e., Amelia Smedley's allegedly impending marriage), Dobbin's urgency generates momentum that Thackeray completely dissipates by failing to follow through on Dobbin's story line for more than a hundred pages.  

Similarly, after Becky's disgrace with Lord Steyne, she falls so thoroughly out of society that the end of the book can have no suspense with respect to her plot line: rehabilitation is impossible.  A compulsive drinker and gambler, living in flophouses, chased away and stumbling from city in city in Europe, Becky has neither the means nor the motivation to restore her reputation.  Thackeray has utterly gutted her plot possibilities both by casting her so low and by giving her a meager living from her ex-husband, Rawdon Crawley.  A woman with a regular income may wish the income were higher, but if she can survive on it, she'll adjust to it - which is what Becky does.  (By the same token, Thackeray ruins Becky's relationship with her son so early in the book that, by the end, when young Rawdon inherits the family money and title, reconciliation is unthinkable - yet another plot possibility for Becky eliminated.)

Thackeray's plotting misadventure is interesting and surprising because, as an author, he's self-aware (and voluble) on the topic of effective story telling, authorial motive and pacing.  Here he is, for example, on all three topics:

I have heard a brother of the story-telling trade, at Naples, preaching to a pack of good-for-nothing honest lazy fellows by the sea-shore, work himself up into such a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing, that the audience could not resist it; and they and the poet together would burst out into a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster of the tale, so that the hat went round, and the bajocchi tumbled into it, in the midst of a perfect storm of sympathy.

At the little Paris theatres, on the other hand, you will not only hear the people yelling out, "Ah gredinAh monstre!" and cursing the tyrant of the play from the boxes; but the actors themselves positively refuse to play the wicked parts, such as those of the infames Anglais, brutal Cossacks, and what not, and prefer to appear at a smaller salary, in their real characters as loyal Frenchmen.  I set the two stories one against the other, so that you may see that it is not from mere mercenary motives that the present performer is desirous to show up and trounce his villains; but because he has a sincere hatred of them, which he cannot keep down, and which must find a vent in suitable abuse and bad language.                       

I warn my "kyind friends," then, that I am going to tell a story of harrowing villany and complicated - but, as I trust, intensely interesting - crime.  My rascals are no milk-and-water rascals, I promise you.  When we come to the proper places we won't spare fine language - No, no!  But when we are going over the quiet country we must perforce be calm.  A tempest in a slop-basin is absurd.  We will reserve that sort of thing for the mighty ocean and the lonely midnight.  The present Chapter is very mild.  Others - But we will not anticipate those.
(p. 70).  And, yet, "sincere" Thackeray's storytelling and pacing did not generate the momentum of Thackeray's "mercenary" brother in Naples.  Whether the problem was that, in his enthusiasm for demonstrating his "sincerity," Thackeray went overboard - or whether Thackeray simply enjoys being bitchy too much to resist when necessary for the sake of the plot - the outcome was the same.  Bitchiness can be diverting over the course of an evening - but after a month, it gets old.

(Image of William Makepeace Thackeray from The Free Library)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Vanity Fair category.

To the End of the Land is the previous category.

Weight is the next category.

Categories

Archives

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04