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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Vanity Fair — W. M. Thackeray

I’m actually not all the way through this novel. It’s bloody long. But I’m a nerd for the 19th century, so here we are.

Vanity is a tricky criticism to throw at someone. It seems straight forward — stop being so up yourself. It’s a Kiwi classic. But it’s not something we really believe in most of the time, I think. We applaud the grandstander, the confident, the slayer, the money-maker. Then we work to one day stand in their shoes and be applauded ourselves.

Rebecca Sharp, the centre around which the chaos of Vanity Fair spins, epitomises everything we aspire to be. She’s got an answer for every question. She’s got everyone tied around her little finger. She plays the game, and she usually lands on her feet. She starts off with nothing and dedicates her life to amending this problem. What I mean is, she’s “winning”.

How is this vanity? Aren’t we supposed to dream big? What’s the harm in getting what we want?

Thackeray seems to think there’s a lot wrong with this argument. He’s a satirist at his core, and what he does best is poking at the splendour and the recklessness and the self-obsession of his characters until all the air comes out and we see them for the hollow costumes that they are. Becky Sharp is adept at getting what she wants, by pretending at friendship, and even love, and when Thackeray shows her off as so immensely talented, we can suddenly see how gross it all is. When George Osborne, the young, dashing love interest of Becky’s “best friend” Amelia, marries to rebel against his dad, spends all their money to impress their posh social circle, and flirts his way through the London theatres while his wife is at home, suddenly good looks, wealth, and charm don’t seem so obviously important anymore.

It’s easy today (and forgive me for all this unnecessary social commentary) to think that vanity is an outdated concept. It’s easy to think that it’s just another word to condemn people who are only trying to be themselves. And tall poppy syndrome has had some pretty awful side effects. But it’s also risky to think that just because New Zealanders are supposed to be humble, we actually are.

Vanity Fair will bring all these thoughts to the surface. I know this because I read the first chapter, and I was like, damn, I’m vain as hell. I saw myself in all the desperate characters Thackeray created. I spend more money on M&Ms than on services for helping homeless people in Wellington figure out a better way forward, because I’m self-obsessed as heck. Sometimes I read classical novels because I don’t want other people to think I’m not classy, even though the truth is I’m from Palmerston North.

But I’m not trying to extol the virtues of self-flagellation. I just want to say that there’s a lot to be learned from a book like this, written over a hundred years ago, that is directly applicable to us now, because human beings don’t change. We were hilariously dumb then, and we’re hilariously dumb now.

So, even though it really is super long, consider reading this book. Read it if you want to be enraged by the 1%. (Remember that phrase? Do people use that anymore?) Read if you don’t really “get” satire, and just like period pieces with horses and carriages and dramatic romance. Or read it if you thought you were too insecure to be vain — it’s a shock to the system, I can tell you.


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