Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Vanity Fair.... No not the Magazine

~~~Following is my book review disclaimer:  I'm not writing this for anybody's benefit other than my own.  No pretense of being a literature expert....this type of post falls into the journal aspect of the blog.  Nothing personal or family oriented here.... just a book report.
     I've found that a few weeks after finishing a book, I often forget key elements of the plot, what the final resolution was and sometimes have even lost the gist of the entire outline.  Was that book set in World War I or II?  Was that the one where everybody died or the one where they all lived happily ever after?  By creating a post about most of the books I'm reading I hope it will help me to remember the details of the book later or at least I'll be able to hit search and then say .... 'Oh yeah, I remember that book'!~~~

My first book of 2011 was Vanity Fair written in 1847 by William M. Thackeray.  Sadly my only prior knowledge of Vanity Fair is the magazine, so it came as a surprise that the term has derogatory connotations as a name for an imaginary place where vanities rule and superficial fair-goers live shallow lives of pretense.  Not exactly what I'd think of as a a positive name for a magazine.

Not required for one of my reading groups, this one was my choice.  I "won" the book on an ebay as a leather bound Easton Press version and have had it lingering around for the past year.  I cracked into it and expected to have a "serious" British novel, somewhere along the lines of Brideshead Revisited and Madame Bovary.

Set in the early 1800's, the novel begins at a girls boarding school (Chiswick) where two of the young ladies have completed their education and are leaving.  Amelia is the favored, wealthy, kind, quiet girl about to return to her family's home in London.  Becky is poor and orphaned and leaving to take a job as a governess; she has been at the school only as a charity case and is not well liked or understood though she's pretty and has plenty of brains.

The book is living up to my preconceptions of being a "serious" tome until the moment that the girls drive away together in a coach from the boarding school.  Amelia (the wealthy one) has received the cherished standard Dictionary as a parting gift from the headmistress.   Becky wasn't seen as worthy enough to receive the gift but the sister of the headmistress takes the liberty of bestowing the gift upon the young lady at the last moment by running out to the carriage with the book.  Moments later, my vision what type of book I was reading changes; as the carriage begins to depart, Becky tosses the Dictionary out on the lawn and declares, "So much for the Dictionary and Thank God, I'm out of Chiswick."

Wait!  It's going to be Peyton Place set in 1815!  It's as much satire, parody and comedy as it is drama.... a parody with a moral warning not to get too swept away at 'Vanity Fair.'

So begins the tale of these two.... think Scarlett and Melanie from Gone With The Wind.  Becky/Scarlett goes from one scandal to the next and is a social climber to the Nth degree.  Amelia/Melanie is so naive, gentle and sweet that I wanted to give her a slap in the face.

It's a satirical and a withering take on how the wealthy use and abuse their power and the shallowness of "manners" and social graces.  People are rejected or accepted based on their bank account status or family ties.  The titled are allowed to skate out on their debts just because of their family name and wealth can bring overnight status to those lacking in family connections.  Not much has changed over the years!

Becky climbs the social ladder with dogged determination; acquiring money and mingling with the uppercrust her aim in life.  Though she loses her claims at social status along with her husband, child and money when an affair with a titled Lord goes awry, she's unrepentant.  She thrives on the material pleasures of life:  clothes, men, drinking, gambling.... you name it.  She's the poster child for lousy mothers.  Meanwhile, her schoolmate Amelia gets married and spends most of the book as a poverty stricken widow doting on her son and memorializing her dead louse of a husband.

In the end, it appears that Thackeray will wrap it all up neatly.  Long suffering Dobbin (aka Ashley Wilkes) finally gets to marry Amelia (Melanie) and Becky (Scarlett) has gotten her much desired fortune (probably illegally and by committing murder, but who cares!).  In a little twist, the final short paragraphs turn the whole happy ending on its ear... Becky has apparently become pious and charitable and there are hints that Amelia hasn't really found the love that she has always pined for.....

The final sentence:

"Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" —Vanity Fair

All  is not as it seems in the superficial world of Vanity Fair.

I wouldn't call it riveting but neither was I bored.  I was genuinely wanted to find out what was going to happen next to the characters plus gossipy tone made it actually fun to read.... that's saying something for a book that's over 150 years old.

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