William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled his sprawling serial novel Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” (in the collected form, apparently as a serial it appeared with a different subtitle. I don’t know about that. Seems like there are two to me, but maybe Thackeray couldn’t regard them as such due to conventions at the time.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for John Banville and 1st for Thomas Mallon.)
After all, Vanity Fair mainly follows two women (though it is true that much is what happens to them as opposed to what they do, so maybe that’s where the no hero thing comes in), Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp, and the various friends and family that surround them. Having gone to school together, Amelia is a sweet twit who comes from a good and established family whereas Becky is a conniving orphan. Though Thackeray seems to be painting Amelia as good on the surface and Becky as bad, it really seems like he is really much more ambiguous on the pair.
But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; and a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (and the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileless and good-natured a person. As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short than otherwise, and her cheeks a great deal too round and red for a heroine; but her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes which sparkled with the brightest and honestest good-humour, except indeed when they filled with tears, and that was a great deal too often; for the silly thing would cry over a dead canary-bird; or over a mouse, that the cat haply had seized upon; or over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid; and as for saying an unkind word to her, were any persons hard-hearted enough to do so–why, so much the worse for them. Even Miss Pinkerton, that austere and godlike woman, ceased scolding her after the first time, and though she no more comprehended sensibility than she did Algebra, gave all masters and teachers particular orders to treat Miss Sedley with the utmost gentleness, as harsh treatment was injurious to her.
For it may be remarked in the course of this little conversation (which took place as the coach rolled along lazily by the river side) that though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude, or such as would be put forward by persons of a kind and placable disposition. Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least 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 treats 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; and so let all young persons take their choice. This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody; nor can it be expected that twenty-four young ladies should all be as amiable as the heroine of this work, Miss Sedley (whom we have selected for the very reason that she was the best-natured of all, otherwise what on earth was to have prevented us from putting up Miss Swartz, or Miss Crump, or Miss Hopkins, as heroine in her place!) it could not be expected that every one should be of the humble and gentle temper of Miss Amelia Sedley; should take every opportunity to vanquish Rebecca’s hard-heartedness and ill-humour; and, by a thousand kind words and offices, overcome, for once at least, her hostility to her kind.
I mean, he seems softhearted toward Amelia for her goodness, but seems to regard her as a useless ninny. At the same time, he seems to decry Becky for her ruthlessness, but he seems to understand that there was nothing else she could really do as an independent woman in that time and place in the world. Society as a whole he seems to regard as foolish.
There is certainly no complete clarity in what happens to the women, unlike other English novels of the time period. Their fortunes oscillate over time. One does good while the other suffers, and then they reverse. Really, neither do too bad.
Both get married, both against wishes of various families. The Napoleonic wars muddle things up a bit. Fortunes are made, fortunes are lost, all kind of what you expect in a sprawling serialized novel.
For a book of this kind, I actually found Vanity Fair a great deal more readable than I expected. I was delighted by how the morality was much more complex and hidden than in other contemporaries. I certainly can’t fault the scope or the quality of depiction. I heard there were come continuity problems since the immense book was done as a serial, but I didn’t notice any of that. I’m not completely wild for Vanity Fair, but it was well worth my time.