Vanity Fair

William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 serialised novel,

was adapted to an ITV 7 episode series in 2018. I have not seen that, but I have just finished a second reading of the nineteenth century original of such a saga appearing in regular parts, eagerly awaited at intervals by a keen public. Indeed, taken in steady, regular, chunks, this was the Victorian version of streaming.

Fay Weldon’s insightful and informative introduction offers as an explanation for the author’s active change of pace and continuous engagement of his readers, what would seem to be the economics of landing a publisher. The early chapters introducing the characters are remain staid and tentative until the rollicking narrative responds to the need to meet a monthly contractual deadline when a writer follows his subjects at an enthralling speed.

The 1815 battle of Waterloo is pivotal, from the point of view of those left at home, rather than the combatants.

We follow the fortunes and misfortunes of two upper middle class families; two beautiful women of contrasting natures – one kind and gentle; the other scheming and seductive; a falling out of the patriarchs and its consequences.

Thackeray’s descriptive powers and command of conversation, his deep understanding of human nature, and his knowledge of those of his chosen class, keep his characters alive to us through all the years during which his work has been continually in print.

We learn the customs of the times of the times, including the legal systems, the position of women; class and economic differences; attitudes to gaming and duelling. Some of the terms betray attitudes to race which grate to modern ears.

Roland Pym’s exquisitely drawn, composed, and detailed colour plates are delightfully apt for the period.

A book of 67 chapters perforce requires a certain amount of culling of the vignettes with associated examples of prose.

These are my choices.


    1. I was a member of the Folio Society for 50 years and have collected others all my life. My first was in a Dutch auction at school when I was 16. Thanks very much, Dale

  1. The color plates must have greatly enhanced the reading experience. From your review, I think Vanity Fair would be a good 19th-century novel to immerse myself in. (I’ve always thought that 19th-century novels should read immersively.) I enjoyed reading the last page you featured in this post.

    1. Thank you very much, Liz. Despite its length it is an easy and mostly engaging read.

  2. Hi, Derrick – My initial quesiton was the same as Dale’s. I wondered where you found all of these exquisitely illustrated books. Thank you for this very detailed and thoughtful review.

  3. A great review! Thank you!
    Oh! The colourful illustrations are amazing!
    But the black and white ones are always my faves…so many details!
    (((HUGS))) ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  4. The books are beautifully illustrated, especially those color plates. Looking back at life in another time with different customs is always enlightening.

  5. I have never read Vanity Fair but have heard of Becky Sharp and her conniving ways. Quite the last name, isn’t it. Sorry to read about the racist elements. Always jarring and disappointing to come across them. Alas, not uncommon for books that were written before World War II. After the war, I have found that there are hardly any racist slurs in books I have read.

    1. Those in Vanity Fair are not exactly slurs – more a reflection of the language of the times. Thanks very much, Laurie

  6. Very nice. I’m going to have to turn back to the classics. Most authors I liked are dead or getting old… And I haven’t had good experiences with “modern” authors… Thackeray? Ok. Sounds good. (I’m just about ready to read the complete works of Jules Vernes and Alexandre Dumas…)

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