Friday 23 July 2021

Vanity Fair

I've just finished all 31 hours and 1 minute of Vanity Fair, narrated by John Castle. Possibly the second longest audiobook I've enjoyed, after Victor Hugo's 67 hours and 53 minutes of Les Mis.

I throw my hat down. I am a huge Thackeray fan. Yes, there was a bit of arbitrary racism and sexism in there, he was a man of his age, and that age was the 1800s. But, that's why I like classical works. You don't read a novel from the 1800s to feel like you're living in today. You read books like that to time travel, and seeing how society has changed makes you all the more surprised by how much we share in common.

The man was an astute observer of human character. And human character may have dropped a few of its thous and therefores, but it ain't that changed. Just fascinating, and very entertaining. When I was in my early twenties, my partner at the time sat me down to watch Barry Lyndon, another of Thackeray's works, saying it was his favourite film. It took me a minute to get into it, but by the end I loved it too. If you haven't seen it, do.

I did actually see the movie of Vanity Fair. It got pretty average ratings, which I guess you expect if you go up against a Kubrick adaptation (Barry Lyndon). Having now read the book though, I actually think it was a pretty decent adaptation, with very acceptable casting. All except for the Marquess of Steyne, who is far less attractive looking in the book. I wouldn't change that though, as I've adored Gabriel Byrne ever since The Assassin. From what I recall of the film, there was also a much happier ending for Joseph Sedley than there was in the book, and I felt so much more for poor Dobbin in the book, bless his heart. I think the film scrimped a little on his final reconciliation with Amelia, though Rhys Ifans was a good casting call. 

All that aside, the most interesting thing that I discovered in this book was that George Osborne had a horse called Greased Lightning! As in, that's where greased lightning comes from! Who knew?

Now we all do.

Interestingly, there's also a Captain Kirk in there. 

As with all these long novels, I make so many notes, so won't go through them all. I'll focus on the broader observations. 

Something I find quite charming about older works like this, is the way authors like to title their chapters, explaining to the reader what the chapter is about: Chapter Five, in which [this happens]. It's kind of cute. Though, Thackeray, Hugo and Leroux (if I recall correctly) can't help but interject as the author. Thackeray uses this to give the whole thing a sense of realism, claiming to have met Major Dobbin and Mrs Osborne on his travels. I can't decide if I like that or not. There's nothing wrong with it, but it feels slightly uncomfortable. A couple of characters also ejaculated on the page, but far fewer than in Les Mis.

It was also interesting to hear mention of the Castle of Udolpho, and I can't help wondering whether Thackeray was as much a fan of Ann Radcliffe as Jane Austen was? 

Speaking of Radcliffe, one thing I loved about The Romance of the Forest, was reading her French character's observations on the English. There was a nice paragraph in this on that subject:

In fact, our friends may be said to have been among the first of that brood of hardy English adventurers who have subsequently invaded the Continent and swindled in all the capitals of Europe. The respect in those happy days of 1817-18 was very great for the wealth and honour of Britons. They had not then learned, as I am told, to haggle for bargains with the pertinacity which now distinguishes them. The great cities of Europe had not been as yet open to the enterprise of our rascals. And whereas there is now hardly a town of France or Italy in which you shall not see some noble countryman of our own, with that happy swagger and insolence of demeanour which we carry everywhere, swindling inn-landlords, passing fictitious cheques upon credulous bankers, robbing coach-makers of their carriages, goldsmiths of their trinkets, easy travellers of their money at cards, even public libraries of their books - thirty years ago you needed but to be a Milor Anglais, travelling in a private carriage, and credit was at your hand wherever you chose to seek it, and gentlemen, instead of cheating, were cheated.

There was also a fascinating line about Germany and the difference in how divorced women were viewed. I'd love to know how true this is:

Love and Liberty are interpreted by those simple Germans in a way which honest folks in Yorkshire and Somersetshire little understand; and a lady might, in some philosophic and civilized towns, be divorced ever so many times from her respective husbands, and keep her character in society.
How much easier life would have been for so many if that were correct. 

Some interesting turns of phrase in there that felt rather modern: 'forget and forgive,' which we usually reverse today as 'forgive and forget.' He alludes to keeping up with the 'Joneses and the Smiths,' and the 'lottery of life,' and I wonder whether these phrases were first written by anyone else? 'Lottery of life' has a Shakespearean ring to it. There was a play, The Lottery of Life, by Brougham in 1867, but Vanity Fair predates that. And 'keeping up with the Joneses' - is that where we get that from?

There was a very cute put-down from the lips of Lord Steyne:

My wife is as gay as Lady Macbeth and my daughters as cheerful as Regan and Goneril.

And, on that note, it's time to pour a cognac and suck upon a cigar, that most 'pernicious vegetable.' Well, five a day it is, then.

A most enjoyable and entertaining read. 

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