The Short Version: The story of two young girls, Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, as they set off from the boarding school where they have just finished their studies and enter the great wide world. Society batters them and exalts them both, nearly ruining dear Emmy while the saucy Becky Sharp clambers over nearly every obstacle. In the meantime, there is a war with France and several inheritances argued about – it’s all just life, though.
The Review: I do think, somewhat, that it’ll be impossible to express the complexity of such a sprawling novel in the space of a thousand or so words – but I shall try, as ever. See, this 800+ page monster is a novel of a classical stripe (Dickens, Austen, etc) but also a unique creature so far as I’ve encountered in the English canon. It looks, yes, at the lives of those living in the first half of the 19th Century but it looks at them with an altogether (dare I say) modern sensibility – or at least something a bit more Hobbesian than Thackeray’s contemporaries, anyway.
The most famous and notable (thus, infamous?) character from Thackeray’s magnum opus is of course Becky Sharp. It is almost a shame that we don’t spend more time with Becky and that we never quite get all the way into that pretty head of hers – she’s the sort who might give Patrick Bateman a run for his money (although the question of murder is left a question, to be sure). That said, I’ve known girls who have a streak of Becky in them and they’re not to be trifled with or “known” – they keep their own counsel and look out for themselves above all. And as a result, you can’t help but like them – these girls and Becky, that is to say. Sure, Becky behaves absolutely odiously at times and is to my mind the earliest example of a female sociopath in literature (Aaron, from Titus Andronicus, feels to my mind like the only earlier sociopath of any stripe that I can think of… and perhaps Shakespeare’s Richard III as well) but damned if she doesn’t have a good time. The way she continually is able to lie, cajole, cheat, and flirt her way out of trouble is entertaining without doubt. It’s entertaining in the same way one might be entertained by The Wolf of Wall Street – the behavior is horrible but it is presented in such a way that we laugh, cringe, and thank our stars that we are better people.
Of course, this is Thackeray’s major accomplishment in this novel (something also unique, to my knowledge): there are no better people. Everyone is flawed, everyone has something terrible about them, and that’s what makes the so-called ‘play’ of our lives so lively. Even dear Amelia Sedley or Will Dobbin, closest things our novel has to a hero (the author denotes quite early on with his subtitle that this novel has no hero, so don’t try to argue that there is one), have their massive flaws. Dobbin’s unrequited love, his selflessness that is also selfish; Amelia’s trust, her blindness/disbelief – it’s all to say that no one is all good. Nor is anyone all bad, of course, although Becky does come close. Still, you can’t tell me that you gentlemen wouldn’t be charmed by Becky’s putting in an appearance at your next party – and you ladies might not be a little jealous at the ease with which she gathers a crowd around her. Bad can be good.
Speaking to that theme, this book is sometimes actually quite bad. Or, well, not bad but just… you get the sense that Thackeray sometimes got wrapped up in things and forgot where he was actually going. He does seem to delight in telling stories and flying off on tangents about this person or that, individuals who have little if any actual impact on the story at hand, and he sprawls his cast of characters out so much that he even seems to admonish himself when, at the start of any given chapter, he might say “oh, how we have forgot to check in on this person” and then spends a hundred pages without thought of the person we just left. As a result, there are stretches of the book that drag. Ms. Sedley/Osborne’s story is just as engaging as Ms. Sharp/Crawley’s but the two almost need to balance each other out and there are times when the scales tip wildly to one side or the other.
But despite this, you can’t help but marvel at Thackeray’s work. He paints such an honest (here’s what I meant by “modern” when I used that term earlier) portrait of society, all the while dancing about as our dear author and fondly using terms like “as the novelist does know all” to explain (as if we needed him to explain) how exactly he ‘knew’ that this person did that thing. But this reassurance of omnipotence is what, I think, allows him to get away with showing people at their – not so much at their worst, per se, as just at their most human. As the introduction points out, a novelist like Dickens (whose scope, to be certain, is similar) wouldn’t’ve been comfortable with being so honest about the brutish and selfish nature of human beings – he would’ve found ways to mitigate it or otherwise make such a character completely vile to the point of caricature. Thackeray simply holds the mirror up to nature, as the reader is perhaps meant to understand by the harlequin drawing on the title page.
Rating: 4 out of 5. By god, it certainly did drag on at times. Again, it’s one of those novels that would’ve perhaps been best served by reading it serially as it was originally published – so that each month, you had a new installment to look forward to instead of pushing through it in the space of ten or so days. After all, how can one expect to experience so much of humanity’s broad scope (contained in the pages herein, I assure you) in such a compact span of time? But disregarding all of that, Thackeray’s wit is terribly sharp and his observations terribly keen – and Becky Sharp, that little minx, is absolutely a character to live forever. I’m glad to’ve had this time with her (and Dobbin, and the Sedleys, and the Osbornes, etc.) – and, it now having passed, a bit glad to be shot of her. For now, anyway.