Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray.

Vanity Fair follows the fortunes and adventures of Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s academy, where Amelia has been universally loved and Becky almost universally ignored because of her low birth.

In spite of her father’s bankruptcy, George Osborne (no, not the modern-day, loathsome oik) married her anyway, much to the anger of his father. He marches off to Waterloo, never to return, while Amelia remains faithful to him after his death; their son, Georgy, who is the spitting image of his father, also keeps the man’s memory alive. She clings to the boy, but her straitened financial circumstances mean that she has to hand him over to his generally odious grandfather, John, who instills less creditable virtues in the boy.

Becky, meanwhile, ends up working as a governess for the Crawley family, receives a proposal from Sir Pitt Crawley (the Elder), but marries Rawdon Crawley, which does him out of an inheritance from his aunt and leaves them living on nothing but credit. They, too, have a child (Rawdon; one of Thackeray’s irritating habits is to give the children the same names as their fathers; as well as the original Sir Pitt Crawley, there is his son, also called Pitt), but unlike the clingy Amelia, she loathes the child, and is often caught out when she can’t remember anything about him. She also despises her husband who does having some paternal affection for the child.

Rawdon and Becky eventually separate after he walks in on her and Lord Steyne, who has her dupe, to some degree knowingly. Rawdon becomes governor of Coventry Island and eventually dies of yellow fever.

Becky and Amelia’s fortunes are reversed as the latter comes into money and improves her social position as a consequence, while the former, penniless, ducks and dives her way across Europe until she ends up in garret in Germany and is rescued by the kind-hearted Amelia in spite of Major Dobbin’s warnings.

He was friends with George Osborne at school, and arranged his marriage to Amelia even though he himself was in love with her and continued to be so until she saved Becky. At that point, Dobbin declared that Amelia was not worthy of his love, and it was only then that she realised what a terrible mistake she had made. Indeed, Becky redeemed herself by talking some sense into her painfully innocent friend, and Amelia, now clinging to Dobbin, finally marries him.

Becky goes off with Amelia’s vain, rotund brother, Joseph (Jos), who worked as an official in India, but had fled in terror from Waterloo. He returned to India, ignoring his family, and having returned to England, he prefers to indulge his appetite on the road home to London, filling his face at every inn on the way. Having been rescued from Becky early in the novel, he ends up in her clutches and eventually dies in Aix-la-Chapelle.

Thackeray called Vanity Fair a novel without a hero. Neither Amelia nor Becky are admirable. Amelia is the very model of a martyr-like female character, who idolises her husband even though he was going to abandon her in favour of Becky, and who clings just as damagingly to her son, damagingly for both of them. Even at the end, when Dobbin, the only decent character in the whole story, finally marries Amelia, Thackeray implies that her limpet-like attachment to him will be a continuation of her unhealthy obsession with the object of her desire.

Becky is sly, but her charms only really work on men, minor female characters in the story not being deceived by her. She often, though, emerges triumphant from her encounters by ingratiating herself with her opponents. However, this is not without some cost such as Lady Southdown’s unpalatable medicinal ministrations and her tedious pamphlets.

Unlike stories about tricksters where the greater villain is outwitted, Becky is generally the greater villain, although the reader doesn’t mind that she fleeces Lord Steyne, and may only feel a slight amount of disquiet when his man threatens her with fatal consequences if she doesn’t leave Rome while his lordship is there.

It is only at the end of the book that either of them do something decent. Becky bluntly tells Amelia the truth about her late husband; Amelia marries Dobbin after recognising how badly she treated him. But Becky continues to lie, cheat and steal her way around Europe while Amelia finds someone new to smother.

Vanity Fair was originally a serial publication across 1847-48, and perhaps, if it could be read in the same fashion (in facsimile?), it might make the book seem less rambling as Thackeray turns moral essayist, trying the reader’s patience at times.

The novel ends somewhat abruptly having (so the notes say) been extended beyond the original endpoint (the Eothen chapter) as if Thackeray needed to wrap things up without worrying about the denouement too much. But perhaps the implicit message is that Vanity Fair is the way of the world, and neither Amelia nor Becky will ever really change.


China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

seThe Long Read: The country’s rulers do not just suppress history, they recreate it to serve the present. They know that, in a communist state, change often starts when the past is challenged

Source: China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

In November of 2002, my colleague and I went to Xi’an one weekend. At the time, the walls of the ancient city were being rebuilt, but there was a gap or perhaps about a kilometre left. There were large plaques up on the new walls proclaiming that the money for rebuilding the walls had come from UNESCO (I think; I can’t recall exactly). I realised in fairly short order that there’s very little in China which is more than about twenty-five years old. There may have been a temple on some site for 1,400 years, but the current incarnation is probably a recent “fake” built during the current dynasty. 大钟寺 in Beijing was being renovated when I visited it ten years ago, but how much of the building or the site was original beyond its boundaries, I can’t say.

Such places end up being little more than museums; a bit more than a building where relics are on display, but still little more than museums. I assume that most cathedrals in Europe, even if they are mainly modern tourist traps, are more than just the remains of history and are still functioning buildings. Of course some, such as Yonghe Gong (雍和宫) in Beijing are still in use; elsewhere, such as Fuzhou, where there are a lot of temples, they appear to be largely neglected.

One of the things I’ve also noted about my pupils in China is their ignorance of history, their knowledge of which, as far as I can tell, rarely goes beyond 1911, apart from key events in the 19th century such as the Opium Wars, which serve a nationalist agenda as a shorthand for something the wicked foreigners did to the Chinese Empire and something to distract people from the truth. My own knowledge of Chinese history may not be that detailed, but it seems to be more extensive than your average Chinese schoolchild, and although I’m not overlooking potential bias, my knowledge of the subject is at least not filtered through the grimy lenses of the Party’s self-serving view of history.

“Modern” China seems to be at about the level of Tudor England when Tudors usurped the throne (“It was empty, so I sat in it,” said Henry Tudor. “That makes me Henry VII”) with no legitimate claim to the kingdom, but plenty of propaganda behind them throughout their short-lived dynasty.