Eat the Peach: A Defense of Vanity Fair

becky sharpe

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847

Dear readers, you might as well know the truth: I love Vanity Fair. That’s right. I love it. I have read this book three times. Three! And I thoroughly enjoyed it each time. . Well worth the triple read.

Poor William Makepeace gets a bad rap. People complain that he makes his authorial presence known too frequently in Vanity Fair. He does have a Henry Fielding-like tendency to explain why he is skipping forward in his timeline. However, most of the time he does this briefly and with some humor. Also, I don’t see why people should be so affronted by the author mentioning himself in a book. When Vonnegut does it we call him a post-modern genius. I guess some readers are upset that Thackeray “breaks the fourth wall” or whatever. But should sophisticated readers be bothered by that?  If you are old enough to read Vanity Fair, your enjoyment of a novel shouldn’t be centered on pretending that the characters really exist and the events really took place. You should always think about the author and wonder why he or she skipped forward in the timeline, started following a different character, made Becky so evil, didn’t describe the conversation at one dinner table, but did describe the conversation at the other and so forth. Sometimes Thackeray explains his authorial decisions to his reader. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you have a problem with it, you’re in the wrong. Quit hating, haters.

As to the lengthiness of Vanity Fair, yes it is long, but the plot-to-word ratio is just fine.  I disliked almost every 18th century book that I read, because the style at the time was to use an excess of words to describe a bare bones plot. The author keeps writing while the plot sits still. Thackeray does not do that to you. Find me a chapter in Vanity Fair where you learn nothing new about a character and the plot does not move forward. Go ahead, I dare you.

The book is epic in scale. We follow Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley from the cusp of womanhood to middle age, stopping off at the Napoleonic Wars on the way. Which brings me my favorite thing about Vanity Fair. This is the first book on the list in which the characters get married and the plot keeps going. To be fair, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published at about the same time and it also follows characters beyond their wedding day. However, every other author before Anne Bronte and Thackeray consider the process of deciding whom to marry to be the only interesting part of a woman’s life. That’s all that the heroines of other novels accomplish.

Thackeray knew better. He knows that marriage vows are only the beginning of a marriage story and women’s characters continue to develop even after they have joined themselves to a man. That bit of wisdom, in and of itself, would be enough to bring me back to Vanity Fair for a reread, but it has even more wonderful qualities. Thackeray’s style is richly detailed (in a good way), bitingly satirical, misanthropic and funny—like Emily Bronte with a sense of humor and a point of view. Yes, that was a jab at Wuthering Heights. It might sound odd to refer to a 500 page novel as “refreshing,” but when you’re knee deep in Charlotte and Anne Bronte’s self-sacrificing, sanctimonious, pious women, Thackeray’s scathing portrayal of the self-serving vanity of human nature comes as a wonderful relief.

The subtitle of Vanity Fair is A Novel without a Hero. Becky Sharp is definitely the main character, but she’s too immoral to be considered the hero; Amelia Sedley is too weak; George Osborne too vain, and Rawdon Crawley too gullible. Some say Major Dobbin is also too flawed to deserve the title of hero, but I don’t see it. No one’s perfect. To me he’s the only character who behaves intelligently and unselfishly throughout the novel, and any idiosyncrasies in his personality can be forgiven. Becky is a conniving, crafty villain which makes her a delight to follow, until her actions hurt the sympathetic characters and you get pissed off at her.

becky sharpe 3

I do kind of wish that Thackeray had made a hero out of Becky. Her dominant character trait is ambition. I want to like a woman who doesn’t just accept her place in rigid Regency Society. Becky is not content to remain a poor artist’s daughter. She constantly strives for a higher station in life. In my opinion her ambition is admirable. She’s more intelligent than the aristocrats she encounters; she deserves comfort as much as anyone. However, I get the feeling that Thackeray censures Becky for her “unnatural” desire to break out of the station that was assigned to her at birth.

Thackeray sets up a dichotomy between Amelia and Becky. Amelia is weak and trampled by the world, but more admirable than Becky, because more kind. Becky is strong, but less admirable, because more self-serving. I would have liked to have seen an ambitious female character who has the moral fiber to not trample over anyone in her path. Why does female ambition have to be linked to a complete lack of love for other human beings, Thackeray? Why?

You might like Vanity Fair if:

  • you like War and Peace
  • you are interested in books that detail women’s lives after marriage
  • you like satire

You might not like Vanity Fair if:

  • Hey, if you’re looking for reasons to not read Vanity Fair, ask literally everyone else. People who haven’t even read the book have plenty of trash to talk about it, I’ve found. I personally think it’s a gem of Victorian literature.

Final Thoughts:

Vanity Fair is like a peach. Juicy, delicious literary accomplishment wrapped around a hard, bitter kernel of misanthropy. Eat the peach, y’all. Eat the peach.

becky sharpe 5

The Forgotten Bronte Sister’s Alleged Feminism

Tenant

Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848

“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t tell where it keeps its brain.” Mr. Weasley, Harry Potter

My Kindle updated itself and deleted all of my annotations on books I read for this blog. I’d be crushed, but it’s Thanksgiving time, so I’m going to be thankful instead. Also, if I need something to stress out over, police brutality tops the list right now.

Usually, I read over my notes before I write a blog post, but I can’t do that. So, this might not be my best work. Anyway, on to the novel.

Anne Bronte published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848. Anne is the least remembered of the Bronte sisters. Personally, I first heard of this novel when Mary Crawley acted out the title whilst playing charades in Season 2, Episode 7 of Downton Abbey. Tenant was considered absolutely shocking in its time and is now considered one of the first feminist novels.

The premise: Gilbert Markham, a young farmer, is sort of doing his farm work and sort of suffering from ennui in his little British farming town. . .until a beautiful and mysterious woman mysteriously rents the mysterious, decrepit old mansion on the hill top. The tale is told in a series of letters from Gilbert to a friend, which adds to the tension, because he is dying to know more about this lovely lady and she is quite reticent. Why would she move into that crumbling, dank old Wildfell Hall? Why doesn’t she go to dinner parties and participate in social events in town? Where’s her husband? If he’s dead, why isn’t she trying to get remarried? Shouldn’t she send her son to school?

Before the Tenant (Helen Graham) showed up, Gilbert was courting a pretty town girl. When his attentions drift to Helen, the townie gets jealous and spreads nasty rumors about Helen. Gilbert refuses to believe the gossip, but he becomes jealous in his own right, because a certain Mr. Lawrence visits Wildfell Hall too often for Gilbert’s liking. Gilbert is so jealous that he knocks Mr. Lawrence off of his horse and leaves him for dead. Charming. Helen gets fed up with his jealousy, and wants to share her secret with Gilbert, whom she actually loves, but she won’t admit it. So, she gives him her diaries to read.

The diaries tell of Helen’s marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. When she was young and naïve (as women were back then, because society kept them that way on purpose) she fell for superhot Arthur’s flirtatious ways. He was a bit dissipated: a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer. She thought that she could reform him with her piety and general moral rectitude. You’re probably shaking you’re head right now, thinking “No, girl, no. That never works.” Remember though, in the Victorian era women were told that their role in society was to reform men from their evil ways. If a wife was pure and sweet and she read enough Bible verses to her husband, he’d become all perfect and princely. Magic.

It didn’t work out that way for poor Mrs. Huntingdon. Her husband continues to drink and swear and do other unwholesome things. He takes a lover. He’s verbally abusive toward his wife. Helen is miserable. She keeps living her miserable life and trying to be a dutiful wife until her husband starts encouraging their son to be dissipated too. He gives the boy alcohol and teaches him to swear. She also worries that he’ll teach her son to hate her. So, Helen takes her son and leaves. She flees to Wildfell Hall and takes an assumed name. Also, it turns out that Mr. Lawrence is her brother.

tenant 2

Tenant’s status as a feminist novel rests on Helen’s decision to leave her husband. In this time, ideas of wifely duty were very clear: wives were required to stand by their husbands no matter how horrible they were. “Stand by” includes have sex with, for the record. There is a scene where Helen shuts her husband out of her bedroom, denying him his “rights as a husband.” Legally, he did have those rights. That action, and abandoning their home, created copious controversy when Tenant was published.

After Gilbert reads Helen’s diaries, she asks him to leave her alone, because she is not free to marry. He reluctantly does this. Helen hears that her husband is sick—result of his dissipated lifestyle—and goes back to their home to nurse him, because it is her wifely duty. He is still horrible to her and makes her miserable. Later, Gilbert hears that the husband has died and Helen has inherited a bunch of money and become rich. He worries that she is now too classy for a small town farmer, but he goes to see her anyway and they get married. That’s the end of the book, but in my imagination their marriage turns out almost as badly as her first, because Gilbert is a jealous, violent man.

It is incredibly difficult to assess the social progressiveness of a novel centuries later. At least, it’s difficult for me. I absolutely agree with Anne Bronte’s message that women should have the ability to leave an abusive marriage. It was a radical message at the time. Bronte provides a depiction of a moral woman who does something considered immoral by society. I respect her for showing how societal expectations of women were oppressive and inhumane, and for showing that someone can defy social conventions and the law and still be a good person.

However, as a feminist I did not enjoy reading Tenant. Let me explain. Never once does the protagonist consider her own happiness or wellbeing. She struggles for a long time with the decision to leave her husband, choosing over and over again that any amount of suffering is acceptable if, by making herself an example of piety and forbearance, she can reform her husband in even the slightest, tiniest way and thus bring him closer to God. When she does leave, her motivation is to protect her son, particularly to protect his immortal soul from his father’s corruption. She knows that she will be impoverished and rejected by society, but she leaves because she thinks her obligation to her son outweighs her obligation to her husband. She goes back to nurse her dying husband, subjecting herself to his abuse yet again, because she took a vow and blah blah blah wifely duty again. It’s just incredibly difficult for me to regard a novel as feminist that never once suggests that the female protagonist deserves happiness or even the simple absence of suffering, abuse and degradation. The premise in Tenant is not that women are people who deserve basic human rights. The premise is that sometimes society’s laws actually prevent women from doing their duty to men.

So, I didn’t love it. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t. The end.

Thanks Aunt Sigrid and Matt for being in the pictures!

Quotes!

“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone – there are many, many other things to be considered.”

“I cannot love a man who cannot protect me.”   Feminist? I think not.

Jane Eyre’s Crazy Life

I am no bird; and no net ensares me. Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847          

Oh, Jane Eyre, how I love you. Let me count the ways.

1)      I love your rigid, adamantine character. Miss Eyre has her own ideas of proper self-conduct and the four horsemen of the apocalypse couldn’t drag her off the straight and narrow path. She will crawl away from temptation over the freezing moors and starve to death under a shrub rather than violate her own code of ethics. It’s a bit hypocritical that I love this quality in Jane, because I often get frustrated with characters who do the honorable thing even when it’s the thing that causes the most pain for everybody (think Mr. Bates season 1 and 2). However, it’s nice to see a female character who is not tossed around by the inclinations of others. Jane refuses to let male desires rule her life and when she’s refusing she says wonderful things like “I am no bird; and no net ensares me!”

2)      I love your British school girl days. My family lived in England for a year when I was nine. I remember huddling close to my only friend, trying to survive the bleak, cold, foggy weather during “recess.” I can relate to Jane’s school days and I like that they are included in the story. Most earlier literature considers the time right before she gets married to be the only noteworthy part of a woman’s life.

3)      I love your plot twist. We all know what happens in Jane Eyre, right? Stop reading now if you don’t already know the twist. Secret crazy monster wife! Secret crazy monster wife is such a surprise. I have probably read Jane Eyre four times and Mr. Rochester’s insane secret wife still blows my mind.

Jane Eyre, Bertha, crazy wife

4)      I love your moral ambiguity. Gone is the Arthurian proto-type of the noble knight and the valiant maiden struggling against outside forces. The love between Jane and Mr. Rochester has plenty of conflict without the interference of the outside world. The power dynamics between them are unsettling.  She refers to him as her master. He is always trying to trick her into accidentally revealing her true feelings for him. His eventual blindness makes him dependent on her and obligates her to be his nurse. It’s all very strange, which makes Jane Eyre an interesting book to pick up and read again.

5)      I love your mysticism. Jane is constantly having dreams and presentiments. When she and Mr. Rochester first meet they both think they are having an encounter with a creature of the Fae. In my opinion, Charlotte Bronte pulls off these Gothic elements better than any author I have encountered on this list so far, because her language is ornate, precise and original. Jane’s visions are so well described that they are hard not to enjoy and they don’t come off as trite, as Gothic elements sometimes do in the hands of lesser authors.

6)      I love to hate your horrible cousin. St. John makes my top ten list of the most despicable characters in literature. He attempts to use religion to coerce a woman into marrying him. And because marriage inevitably leads to sex, he is also using religion to manipulate his own cousin into having sex with him. So gross. He actually says this “take that space of time to consider my offer: and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God.” Let me translate that into modern English for you: “Jane, let me mansplain something to you real quick. I personally know the will of God way better than you, because, you know, he made me a man, so he must like me more. So, whatever I want is essentially the will of God, including your everlasting devotion and body. Duh. Now, just do what I want, because God and I say so.” This guy makes me want to vomit. However, adamant Jane does not give in! This line of logic does not work on her. She feels that her interpretation of God’s will is just as valid as St. John’s and God wouldn’t want her to marry this tool. Did I mention that he wants her to go be a missionary with him? Which is the worst thing a person can do.  I honestly don’t understand why anyone was ever gullible enough to be a missionary. Missions were and are never about saving souls, they are about establishing an economic foothold for the benefit of corporations and/or the government. The side effect is the spread of disease and destruction of culture. Kids, don’t be missionaries. It’s an incredibly misguided thing to do. There’s a difference between acting “for God” and acting “for The Church.”

7)       I love that I know you so well. Jane Eyre is long, because it provides a detailed portrait of Jane’s inner life. You really get to know and understand the workings of her mind. It’s not the type of novel that you rush through. Instead you spend time getting intimate with the protagonist. That’s not really how novels are written today. Now, authors like mysterious, inscrutable protagonists. There’s something to be said for the Bronte’s Victorian level of detail. By the end of the book, I felt like Jane was an old friend.

You might like Jane Eyre if:

  • you like Wuthering Heights.
  • you like a bit of magic.
  • you like Victorian fiction.
  • you’re an Anglo-phile.

You might not like Jane Eyre if:

  • you can’t handle the length of it. It’s lengthy.

 

Final thoughts: I really enjoyed rereading Jane Eyre. The strange romance is more intriguing from an adult perspective. This is one of my favorite novels of all time. Most stories about a young person’s religious coming of age put me straight to sleep. To me, the answer to question “How do I reconcile my faith with the realities of my life?” is very simple: Stop torturing yourself and do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. So, when a character feels tormented, because they want something that their religion tells them they can’t have, I get real bored. There are only a few pages, late in Jane Eyre that made me feel this way. Overall, Bronte managed to sell religious dilemmas to this atheist, which is a miracle.

 

Evangeline, the Cajun Trail of Tears

evangeline

Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1847

Evangeline is a lengthy, but not quite epic, poem by Longfellow about the Expulsion of the Acadians. During the French and Indian War, the British forcibly exported French colonists from Nova Scotia, Maine and a few other maritime settlements in Canada. Longfellow’s poem follows the story of a pure, young Acadian lady named Evangeline.

Evangeline and her beloved, Gabriel, are separated during the Expulsion. When they arrive somewhere in the 13 colonies, Evangeline starts searching for Gabriel. She spends her life seeking after him, roaming far across the colonies.

The poem is written in the meter of classical Greek poetry, dactylic hexameter. I am not fond of this choice of Longfellow’s. The awkward syntax and lack of rhyme made me hanker after Percy Bysshe Shelley, who could tell story in lovely poetry. Longfellow tells a story, but the poetry is unlovely.

Evangeline is a sentimental poem. It evokes emotions, but it’s a bit saccharine and oversimplified. Longfellow depicts the Acadians as perfect peasants. He supports that classic Victorian idea that the city is vile and corrupting while the country is basically Eden before the Fall. What a whacky idea. There is darkness in human hearts, regardless of the location of the hearts.

Longfellow ignores the complicity of the American colonists in the Expulsion, letting the blame fall entirely on the British.

I also take issue with the idea that Evangeline is made more divine by her self-sacrificing quest to find Gabriel. She gives up her entire life to this search. I don’t think this concept of complete, all-consuming female devotion serves women very well.

That being said, Evangeline is an important poem. It became Longfellow’s most famous work. It also engendered sympathy for the Acadians among the general public, which is quite a feat given the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment at this time. The Acadians don’t appear often in literature. The rarity of the subject matter lends interest.

Evangeline is beloved in Acadia and in Louisiana. There are sculptures of Evangeline and places named after the poem.

Quote:

“Talk not of wasted affection, affection never was wasted;

If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters, returning

Back to their springs, like the rain, shall fill them full of refreshment;

That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain,

Patience; accomplish thy labor; accomplish thy work of affection!

Sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.

Therefore accomplish thy labor of love, till the heart is made godlike,

Purified, strengthened, perfected, and rendered more worthy of heaven!”

Cheered by the good man’s words, Evangeline labored and waited.

Still in her heart she heard the funeral dirge of the ocean,

But with its sound there was mingled a voice that whispered “Despair not!”

Thus did the poor soul wander in want and cheerless discomfort,

Bleeding barefooted, over the shards and thorns of existence.

 

You might like Evangeline if:

  • Gambit is your favorite X-man.

You might not like Evangeline if:

  • you didn’t enjoy reading the Illiad or Odyssey in high school.

 

Final thoughts:

I feel for Evangeline as a victim of patriarchal need for women to suffer for love. Her story is compelling. However, Longfellow’s treatment of his historical subject matter lacks nuance and so does his poetic style.

Everybody Needs to Read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845

If you haven’t read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or you haven’t read it in a long time, you should read it. It will make you feel terrible, but you should read it. It has a happy ending.

I read this book when I was a child and while I really wasn’t able to process or understand the cruelty that Douglass witnessed and endured as a slave, I was inspired by the strength of his character. As an adult, the facts of Douglass’ early life are much more gut-wrenchingly horrific, and his ability to retain a sense of personal worth and dignity are even more admirable.

No rags-to-riches story in the canon of English fiction is more dramatic than the true story of Frederick Douglass’ life. As a child he was separated from his mother. He suspected that his white owner was his father, but this was never acknowledged. He was barely fed and given one shirt per year as clothing. During winter, on “the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where the wife of his owner began to teach him to read, until her husband made her stop, because it was illegal to teach slaves to read. With dogged determination and resourcefulness, Douglass secretly continued to teach himself how to read. He read abolitionist tracts. He became more enraged at the cruel injustice of slavery and more determined to be free.

Look, I was going to keep writing, but I don’t actually want to say much about this book. You don’t need to hear it from me, you should hear it from Frederick Douglass himself. The entire purpose of a “slave narrative” is to learn about oppression from the oppressed, instead of getting your information second hand. Besides, Douglass is way more eloquent than I am. Every line in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass agitates my emotions.

I have admired Frederick Douglass for a long time. I think he possibly lived the most admirable life of any American ever.

I didn’t dress up as Frederick Douglass, because that didn’t seem respectful and racial politics are complicated. What I did do was visit the house where he lived in Washington, D.C. which is a historical site now. If you live in or are visiting the D.C. area, you should go to the site and learn about this man. Ironically, his house is very close to a school where I taught. A school in which 98% of students are African American and 14% of students are proficient in reading. Frederick Douglass’ work is not done.

One other thing I must mention, Douglass spoke out vehemently about the false Christianity of the slaveholders. In his experience, religious slaveholders were the most cruel. I probably don’t need to warn any of my readers about the way religion is still used in this country as a justification for hatred, oppression and cruelty towards minorities. But, here’s an excellent quote for good measure:

“Men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

Beware of religious revivalism. It saves no souls.

Here are some  more quotes:

Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free.

It’s easier to build strong children then repair broken men.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Final thoughts:

Just read it. It’s not very long. It’s in the public domain, so you can get it for free. No excuses, just read it.

Wuthering Heights, a Second and Third Opinion

Catherine Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, 1847

Welcome to a brand new type of post.  When I review classic literature for this blog, I often feel the need to write “but, that’s just my opinion.” I know that while I think Robert Burns descended from heaven and Herman Melville is duller than an anvil, other people have different and equally valid opinions. My friends Sahra and Simone talk about Wuthering Heights a lot. They’re Wuthering Heights fangirls. I wanted to include their thoughts on the book, so we sat down and chatted about it. I recorded and transcribed the conversation. Let me know if you like this type of post. We three ladies have a lot to say about literature. We could just keep on talking.

This post is very long. Click the link below to read the entire post and see all the pictures. The pictures are a collaborative effort too. Simone and her husband Ike visited the Bronte home on their honeymoon and took some amazing pictures on the romantic moors. Moors!

Sydney’s comments are bold.

Sahra’s comments are in italics.

Simone’s comments are in the regular font.

Let’s Begin

What was first about this book? Why was it so popular immediately?

It actually had a mixed critical reception. It’s much more loved now than it was during its time, because people were shocked by. . .

It was sexual.

It made a big splash. It was controversial and controversial kind of equals popular, because everyone was talking about it. I remember when we went to the house, they had displays of the reviews from that time, saying that it would corrupt young women’s minds.

Did she write under a male penname?

The Bronte’s all did. The question of whether they would all be as popular today if they hadn’t written under male pseudonyms, we can never know.

There are a lot of books by Victorians authors that were embraced by Victorians as being examples of who they wanted to be as a society. Dickens, for example, had evil characters, but overall his work is a reflection of the morality of his times. But, I think that Emily Bronte certainly was not embraced in that way. People did not want to hear about the cruel behavior and twisted psychology of her characters. That was very forbidden.

Can you think of books written before this that have anti-heroes?

(pause)

Byron. Not novels, so much.

Certainly not many, and probably not any female authors.

(Although, now I am thinking that Charlotte Temple certainly qualifies as an anti-hero.)

Byron sort of started that dark, twisted hero deal. And I can see Byronic influence in Wuthering Heights.

heathcliff grief

 

Would you consider Heathcliff to be a Byronic hero?

I think he qualifies as Byronic, because he has a dark past. I don’t know though, because the Byronic hero tries to do the right thing, but is overcome by his dark mysterious past and his psychological issues and Heathcliff is trying really hard to do the wrong thing and mess up people’s lives.

Continue reading