Monday, November 21, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“VANITY FAIR” by William Makepeace Thackeray (first published in 1847-48)

You may or may not have noticed that sometimes on this blog, when I come to undoubted and world-renowned masterpieces (look up DonQuixote and War and Peace), I drop my habitual wearisome and long plot summaries, and give quite terse analyses. The point is, I don’t want to insult you by telling you what you already know. And in the case of these Great Books, there’s the strong possibility that you know the general drift of the plot even if you haven’t read the novel, so often has each of them been filmed, synopsised, turned into a television series and passed on as general cultural currency. The last two times I dealt with William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) on this blog, with The Newcomes and The Four Georges, I synopsised like mad because those two books are not widely read. With Thackeray’s most famous novel Vanity Fair I at first felt I wouldn’t have to do so, the general situation of the story (artful woman making her way unscrupulously in society) being so well known. But then I reflected that the plot has so many turns that it’s worth noting in some detail.

So here’s a lengthy reminder of how it goes after all.

Vanity Fair is a very long Victorian novel written when Thackeray was only in his late thirties but had already developed the blasé, gossipy, chittery-chattery tone of an elderly London clubman. It runs to 636 pages in my closely printed Collins Classics copy, and 746 pages in a much older edition I possess which is illustrated with Thackeray’s own line drawings. Unlike Dickens, Thackeray was a talented artist and didn’t have to hire illustrators, as he could illustrate his own works himself. When Vanity Fair was first published in serial form, beginning in 1847, it bore the subtitle Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society. When it was first published in book form in 1848, the subtitle had become A Novel Without a Hero. This is a true enough description as men are subordinate in the novel to two contrasting women, one of whom could be called the anti-heroine.

Briefly, the novel contrasts the lives of
active, cunning, opportunist, social-climbing, sexually-exploitative, fortune-hunting adventuress Rebecca (“Becky”) Sharp, who comes from an impoverished background; and her schoolmate, passive, trusting, sedate, domestic, painfully-virtuous Amelia Sedley, whose background is (at first, at any rate) comfortably middle-class.

Becky makes it her business to woo or seduce any man who might give her a large fortune or raise her in society. She begins by trying to woo Amelia’s harmless fat brother Joseph Sedley. Amelia herself is wooed by the soldier George Osborne, but he tends to be rather neglectful of her and has to be reminded of his duty in courtship by his decent, plodding schoolmate William Dobbin (who himself carries a torch for Amelia but will not derail another fellow’s wooing). In fact George Osborne marries Amelia only because his family want him to marry somebody else, and he wants to prove his independence. He continues to treat her offhandedly even though Amelia sees him as her loving master.

Meanwhile Becky becomes governess at the home of the minor baronet Sir Pitt Crawley. She tries her seductive skills on a number of members of the Crawley family (including old and susceptible Sir Pitt himself) in the hope of marrying into a noble fortune. She marries the junior son, and lesser heir, of the family, the slightly rakish, sporting and basically empty-headed army officer Rawdon Crawley. Becky and Rawdon still hope to inherit at least part of the great Crawley family fortune, but in the meantime they live off credit and by card-sharping and sponging off George Osborne and others.

Comes Napoleon’s escape from Elba and return to France. The soldiers Rawdon Crawley, George Osborne and William Dobbin are all called to serve in the army in Belgium. Their wives and many civilians follow them across the Channel. Becky and Rawdon switch their modus operandi to sponging off affable, stupid General Tufto and cheating George Osborne out of money at cards. Rawdon uses Becky as a lure for George, who is now smitten with her. Becky Sharp and George Osborne plan an “assignation”… But before it can happen, George is killed at the Battle of Waterloo. By this time Amelia is pregnant. She gives birth to a son whom she dutifully calls George. She is reconciled to her parents (who had cut her off for her marriage, of which they didn’t approve) and lives with them as a virtuous young widow and mother.

Meanwhile Rawdon and Becky live it up in Paris for some months, running up debts they never pay and capitalising upon Rawdon’s claims to nobility. They have a son (of course Becky leaves his care to others). But various complicated manoeuvres in the Crawley family mean they lose any claim to an inheritance that might have come to them from the Crawleys. Becky and Rawdon relocate to Mayfair and continue to live by cardsharping and holding soirees. It is broadly hinted (but never directly stated) that Becky also sells herself to fashionable guests, becoming in effect a high-class courtesan. Whether Rawdon is fully aware of this or not is another matter. Later there is some reconciliation with the Crawleys, but Becky reaches the highest ranks of society (being presented at court) only by (apparently) becoming the mistress of old Lord Steyne.

At this time, virtuous Amelia Sedley’s material fortunes sink so low that, for some remuneration, she has to hand over her beloved young son to the Osborne family to be raised.

So the busy minx is in high society while the sinless widow is in dire financial straits. Virtue is not rewarded, but there is at least a temporary nemesis for Becky.

Becky had not exerted herself to get Rawdon bailed out of jail when he is imprisoned for debt. Somebody else bails him out. Rawdon had always considered himself as the pal and partner in mischief of his wife Becky, but he was beginning to get suspicious of all the male company she kept. Now returning home unexpectedly, he is finally disabused of Becky when he finds her canoodling with Lord Steyne. He loudly repudiates her and deserts her. Their marriage is over. Lord Steyne, suspecting he has been set up, also deserts her. Becky’s entrée into high society (and money) is now barred.

The years go by. Becky has made her living at seedy casinos on the continent and is no longer in high society but shines in the company of soldiers (whatever that may mean…). Poor William Dobbin still loves the widowed Amelia, but Amelia will not have him as she has an idealised image of the late George Osborne, her “one husband on earth and in heaven.” How susceptible Amelia is! She is weak enough to take up again with Becky, who now plays the pathetic part of the poor deserted wife and mother. Amelia is cured of her foolish, sentimental daydreams only when Becky – in what at first seems an uncharacteristic show of altruism - shows her the note (which she has kept for years) in which, before his departure for battle, George Osborne was making an assignation with Becky. With the scales fallen from her eyes, Amelia at last understands the truth about her late husband and feels free to marry Dobbin, the faithful chap she has spurned for so long. This she does.

But there is a nasty little coda – foolish Joseph Sedley is seduced by Becky and lives with her. It is strongly implied (but not directly stated) that Becky contrives to kill him for the insurance money – though the only punishment she receives is merely to no longer be in Amelia’s society.

Thackeray dismisses his characters with his famous closing words:

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? – Come children, let us shut up the box and puppets, for our play is played out.”

They are oddly distancing words, telling us that these characters are only the playthings of the author – they are not real – and that in the end they are no more important than children’s toys. But they also imply that, regardless of the vice of one and the virtue of the other, neither Becky nor Amelia is ever really fulfilled or happy.

As was the case with most of Dickens’ novels, Vanity Fair was originally published in serial parts, so when reading it you get used, every three or four chapters, to one of those dramatic cliff-hangers designed to make the original readers buy the next serial part. Some of these coups de theatre are still very compelling. At the end of Chapter 14, there’s the surprise revelation that Becky is already married, when libidinous old Sir Pitt Crawley comes courting. Chapter 22 ends with the sudden turn of the narrative when the soldiers are ordered to Belgium. The end of Chapter 29 has the regiment departing for battle as the bugles blow. Most famously (or shockingly), Thackeray waits until the very last sentence of Chapter 32 to tell us that, after the Battle of Waterloo, “Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart”. The novel’s other big shocker is the end Chapter 53, with Rawdon Crawley discovering Becky with Lord Steyne and repudiating her.

There’s the other obvious point that Vanity Fair, though written in the “hungry ‘40s”, is a retrospective novel, looking back to the Regency period. Spanning the years from 1813 to 1830, the action all takes place in Thackeray’s lifetime, but in decades that were already beginning to fade from living consciousness. Thackeray did write novels set in his “present” (like The Newcomes and Pendennis), but he much preferred to deal with the past and produced many historical novels, usually with 18th century settings (Henry Esmond, Barry Lyndon, The Virginians). This was in contrast with Dickens, who produced only two historical novels (Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities) out of a larger corpus of novels.

Some would say that Victorian Thackeray’s spiritual homeland was the 18th century coffee house and its literary gossip, and Vanity Fair has been described as a long exercise in pseudo-18th century prose. Certainly it shares with Fielding’s novels the frequent intrusion of direct authorial comment, what with all those “Dear Reader” addresses that delight some readers and infuriate others as Thackeray instructs us on how to react to his characters. (I also can’t help feeling that Thackeray must have chosen the name Amelia for his virtuous woman in honour of the long-suffering heroine of Fielding’s Amelia).

In another sense it can be seen as a Victorian novel, which goes through the motions of tut-tutting over the loose morality of the Regency period, but which is half in sympathy with Regency views. It may be called Vanity Fair after John Bunyan’s vision in The Pilgrim’s Progress of a totally worthless life of frivolity and lax morality. But then in the end isn’t it a novel in which, for all the author’s periodical moralising, the immoral minx isn’t really punished and the moral woman is a passive and gullible bore? Only once, in Chapter 31 (when the soldiers have marched off to fight the Battle of Waterloo) does Amelia rouse herself to round on Becky and rebuke her for the misery she has caused. Otherwise Amelia is helpless and no exemplar of any sort of active virtue.

So, of course, we end up often identifying with, and laughing along with, Becky Sharp as she shows up the hypocrites and cowards and lechers of her age.

In Chapter 32, for example, it is gloriously funny to see Becky keeping her nerve, at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. By bargaining to sell horses at very high prices, she cheats out of their money panicky and rapacious Britishers who wish to escape after what rumour has told them has been a French victory. Chapters 36 and 37, “How to Live Well on Nothing a Year” and its sequel, almost celebrate Becky’s skill in gulling foolish and fashionable men out of their money. Could it be that, far from deploring her vice, Thackeray’s real business in Vanity Fair is to show Becky giving a corrupt society exactly what it deserves? (Yet, interestingly, in his own line illustrations for the novel, Thackeray the artist always depicts Becky as an evil-faced, nasty looking woman, like a stage villainess.)

Which brings me to what has most often been criticised in this novel by fastidious critics: its social perspective. Thackeray cries vanity to everything, say his critics, but he ignores how the Regency society he depicts gave way to the realities of the society in which he was writing. Unperceived by the novel is the process which led to a transition from a world with squire, aristocracy and country estate as power bases, to the Victorian world where merchant, speculator and industrialist call the tune. Vanity Fair shows no awareness of the industrial revolution that was already rumbling on in the 1810s and 1820s. Thackeray’s social criticisms are superficial ones. Vanity Fair shows the affairs of a large cross-section of middle-class and aristocratic society and their servants (but never the lower classes) at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Hostile critics occasionally compare it with another great novel that gives a social panorama at the time of the Napoleonic wars – Tolstoy’s War and Peace - and of course in any such comparison Vanity Fair will come off looking a very poor and distant second best. Set against the grandeur and profundities of War and Peace, Vanity Fair is trivial and frivolous.

I find the venerable critic Walter Allen grumbling “No novelist of genius has given us an analysis of man in society based on so trivial a view of life.” Allen goes on to quote the Victorian Walter Bagehot remarking dyspeptically (and snobbishly) that all Vanity Fair does is “to prove that tenth-rate people were ever striving to be ninth-rate people.” There may be schemers, connivers, social-climbers and a few plodding exemplars of virtue (plodding indeed – why else would Thackeray give one such the name Dobbin?); but there are no real intellectuals or thinkers.

Part of me says that all this is perfectly true, and I cannot pretend that whenever I have read and shamelessly enjoyed Vanity Fair, I have ever been looking for deep insights into human nature and society. I am painfully aware that Thackeray sometimes accepted complacently the worst prejudices of his age. I still shudder at Chapter 20 where Thackeray appears to expect us to be amused by the racist chatter about Miss Swartz (i.e. “Black”), the mulatto West Indian heiress whom one male almost marries. As I mentioned in an earlier post (see CulturalAppropriation and other Chimera), this was the passage that rightly offended a senior class of Palagi and Samoan schoolgirls to whom I once taught this novel.

But another part of me says it’s ridiculous to expect Vanity Fair to be War and Peace. It is simply not that sort of novel. Thackeray can do the “pathetic” as well as Dickens could (e.g. the sad scene in Chapter 22 where Amelia and George marry on a rainy day with neither of their fathers present), but he is mainly in the realm of satire and humour. Of course it’s funny to behold the fat civilian Joseph Sedley trailing along after the regiment in Belgium, dressing in quasi-military clothes, and then running away at the prospect of defeat. Of course it’s funny when (in Chapter 34) young James Crawley, trying to wheedle an inheritance out of a rich relative, is tricked into the vice of smoking and gets cut out of the will. And even if it is not the most profound of social comment, Thackeray does mock some social arrangements and social pieties. Clergymen of all stripes come off badly – Anglican or evangelical or “dissenter”, Thackeray treats them all as either shams or pompous fools. He gives a very good account of a “rotten borough” in Queen’s Crawley. We eventually join Becky Sharp in seeing the life of the country gentry – into which she has striven to be accepted – as a vacuous round of dull social engagements. Probably offending at least some Victorian sensibilities, Thackeray takes no sides in the Battle of Waterloo (Allies and French are equally heroic) and presents the Allies in Paris as rapacious carpetbaggers. He ridicules the sham gallantry of the court of George IV (formerly the Prince Regent) and by implication says that its habitués are all sharpers and social climbers just as Becky is. It is true that in showing greed, snobbery and fortune-hunting as being true of all social classes, Thackeray avoids having to make a true critique of society. (After all, if all are guilty, nobody is guilty.) Even so, he scores some palpable hits and justifies his chattery “man of the world” tone.

And yet… and yet… and yet.

There is one important element of Vanity Fair that really does irritate me. This is Thackeray’s nudge-and-wink approach to sex. We are all aware that the matter couldn’t be dealt with frankly in Victorian novels, but it is still irritating that Thackeray repeatedly hints, insinuates and snickers over the fact that Becky uses sex as a lure, probably prostitutes herself a number of times to wealthy clients, and probably serves as somebody’s mistress, as she seeks money and position. At a certain point it becomes ridiculous that a whole novel can be written about a sexual adventuress without the issue being addressed frankly. I sigh in exasperation at this evasiveness in such passages as the one near the end of Chapter 53. Rawdon Crawley comes home and finds Becky in a compromising position with Lord Steyne. It is implied that she is Lord Steyne’s mistress, and this is what Rawdon apparently understands. And what does the authorial voice of Thackeray at once do? It goes all sham coy and baits readers with questions, thus: “What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not; but who could tell what was the truth that came from those lips; or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure?” etc. etc. This sort of thing makes me want to shake Thackeray furiously and shout at him “You’re the ruddy author making all this up. TELL US FRANKLY WHAT HAS HAPPENED!

I would of course be a cad and a bounder if I didn’t admit to greatly enjoying Vanity Fair whenever I have read it. But in this particular, I cannot help comparing it with what I believe is a better novel and which, as it happens, was first published the year before Vanity Fair appeared. I am referring to Honore de Balzac’s Cousin Bette (La Cousine Bette, 1846). It, too, deals with the impact of sex upon both bourgeois and aristocratic society (a spiteful, scorned spinster wrecks various wealthy Parisian men using a willing courtesan as bait). But unlike Thackeray, when Balzac is talking about a mistress he calls her a mistress, when a prostitute appears, she is called a prostitute, and so on. I much prefer this to Thackeray’s coy nudge and wink.

Not that I am condemning Thackeray for not being Balzac, anymore than I would condemn him for not being Tolstoy.

Cinematic footnote: I think as far as the great reading audience is concerned, Thackeray is a one hit wonder, known only for Vanity Fair. It would probably be true that Vanity Fair has been reprinted and read more than all his other (many) works combined. All the many novels of Dickens have been repeatedly dramatized, filmed, televised or turned into musicals. By contrast, I was aware that Stanley Kubrick made a slow and stately film out of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon; and Wikipedia informs me that there was once a Polish (!) film musical based on Thackeray’s children’s story The Rose and the Ring. Otherwise the ONLY one of Thackeray’s novels to be filmed or televised has been Vanity Fair. But it has been filmed many, many times.

I have made the acquaintance of five Becky Sharps on screen.

My first Becky Sharp was the young and very pretty Susan Hampshire in the 1967 BBC TV serial adaptation, which I saw as a teenager (apparently it was the first BBC serial shot in colour, but we were still watching black-and-white TV in New Zealand in those days). In retrospect, Susan Hampshire’s pert performance was a remarkably innocent one, almost as if Becky was a schoolgirl playing pranks. But I still recall vividly the sequence in which she dictates a begging letter for gormless Rawdon to write, and then sprinkles it with water to simulate that tears of sorrow which the letter claims Rawdon is shedding. 

            I thought Eve Matheson in the 1987 BBC adaptation – although only in her mid-twenties – was a more mature Becky and certainly one who suggested both Becky’s sexual appeal and her lowdown cunning. So far, I think she is the most satisfactory Becky I have seen.

            Natasha Little in the 1998 BBC adaptation was adequate but rather bloodless, and not as sexy as Eve Matheson. Becky Sharp gone a little too stately. Part of the problem was a messy adaptation that skipped over or simplified much of the novel – and also took the sting out of Becky’s final villainy.

Be it noted that all of these adaptations, while depicting Becky as a self-interested minx, nevertheless tend to see things her way without any overt moralising. She becomes an ingenious adventuress, knocking over gullible, pompous or otherwise despicable people.

Only within the last few years, thanks to Youtube, was I able to catch up with Rouben Mamoulian’s ancient 1935 Hollywood movie Becky Sharp, apparently one of the first four-strip Technicolor films made. It is very brief (88 minutes) and a very, very simplified (and stagey) version of the story. Adapted from a stage version of the novel, it is all shot in restricted sound-stage sets. Also, true to Hollywood codes of the day, the wicked woman has to be punished for at least some of the film, so Becky is appropriately degraded near the film’s conclusion before the pert and cynical exit lines. Even so, Miriam Hopkins (then in her mid thirties) was a good, if rather mature, Becky.

Finally, the strangest Becky Sharp of my ken. The 2004 film version of Vanity Fair was the first to be directed by a woman, Mira Nair, and it considerably softened the role of Becky.  After all, we now have the doctrine that women in patriarchal societies are fully justified in using any methods at hand to advance themselves, so why moralise over Becky Sharp’s connivances? Here Becky becomes a brisk, knowing and rather likeable character. Despite this, the film followed the plot of the novel fairly faithfully, save for a non-Thackerayan happy ending – Becky pairs with Joseph Sedley and the two of them visit India for a happy-ever-after. (Apparently another, equally sentimental, ending was also shot.) This Vanity Fair bombed at the box office, but oddly enough I found myself enjoying it, unfaithful to the novel or not. Reese Witherspoon convinced me of her Becky’s amiability and she is one of the modern breed of American actresses who can actually do convincing English accents. So I had a pleasant evening with her movie, even if I tut-tutted the way Thackeray would have and said this wasn’t really Thackeray.

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