Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero – William Makepeace Thackeray (1847 – 48)

What a journey this book was. I would liken it to other epic books (length-wise) such as Don Quixote and perhaps The Count of Monte Cristo, except this time with a female anti-hero. Becky Crawden (nee Sharp) is a stereotypical “bad” Victorian woman: out for money even if it means losing scruples (and other things along the way) although there is a suitable come-uppance at the end (although not full redemption as mentioned later.)

Becky is actually, despite being quite despicable at times, rather to be admired in some ways. She certainly doesn’t follow the rules of the time (when it was fatal to your society role if you didn’t), she did what she wanted to do and she focused on that. I think in today’s society, there were definitely parts of Becky that would be admired: the ambition, the tenacity, the focus… However, I thoroughly doubt that other wives would be as understanding if she swiped their hubbies/partners, even if it is the twenty-first century. (And yes, I recognize that multiple parties are guilty in such an incident and it’s not just one person’s fault.)

The character of Becky was supposedly based on Thackeray’s maternal grandmother who abandoned her husband and children for an army officer, and who, when he died, went to marry another army officer. Thackeray lived with her at various points in his life.

This is rather a dark satire of the grubby materialism that was prominent during the mid-1800’s in England (and elsewhere). It’s comparable, I think, in some ways to the shallowness of the later Gilded Age in the US, when money was everything, the be-all and end-all, especially what it bought you in terms of power and prestige. Quite fascinating if you think about it and compare it to some of the crass reality shows of today where they showcase idle rich people doing idle rich things. (The more things change…) However, I am not one to judge and who is to say (although I would hope not) that I wouldn’t have ended up in the same way if I had been in that family dynamic?

John Bunyan, author of “Pilgrim’s Progress”

So – the title Vanity Fair is taken from Pilgrim’s Progress, a huge long allegorical story written by religious writer John Bunyan (who grew up very close to where l was born and lived in Bedford and was put into jail where he wrote this story). (Slightly irrelevant but slightly interesting at the same time.) Now, even though I lived a large part of my life in Bedford and walked over the plaque on the pavement which marks the Very Spot where Bunyan’s cell was located, I have never quite got around to reading Pilgrim’s Progress (mainly because it looks very boring and preachy and bossy.) So – I don’t actually know if this link to PP is actually there as I am not familiar with any of it. (I could show you the cell plaque though if you and I happen to be in Bedford one day.)

According to Wiki (I know…), Vanity Fair is a stop along the pilgrim’s progress, a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity which is meant to represent all human’s “sinful attachment” to worldly things. This theme is obvious throughout as Thackeray is not light-handed about this at all. However, as satire, this works assuredly well and just adds to the overall sumptuous over-the-top feel to everything. It’s satire after all.

It also stands out from other Victorian novels of the time in that there is no redemption for the characters. Yes, they make poor choices but they have to live with those for the remainder of their lives. There is no “learning from mistakes and getting a good life after all.” No one is really suffering at the end, but it’s a middling sort of misery for all. No one is really that happy.

Since it was published in a long series over a year or two, it was released every month or so with a bright yellow cover so readers would know when there was a new edition out. (Dickens did the same thing with his serialized novels but had a green cover.) This ongoing publication schedule is also reflected in the long, rambling and sometimes confusing plot. I am not 100% convinced that Thackeray knew where he was going for quite a few chapters and just wrote to publish and make his rent. This was his first success after having written for some years under various pseudonyms so I imagine that he was under some pressure here.

The book is about five million pages (hooray for hyperbole!) which would usually freak me out somewhat (being as gun-shy as I am of long books). However, I read it mostly on Project Gutenberg (thanks to someone who typed it) and so I didn’t have to realize how reaaaaally long it was in real life. However, as mentioned above, this book didn’t seem that long for the majority of the reading. Yes, there were some parts that went on and on and on, but generally speaking, the story carried itself. (Besides, it was Victorian times. They were not known for brevity.)

London in the early Industrial Revolution

The plot follows several families but mainly the Segleys and the Crawleys who start off being friends and end up being a bit like the Hatfields and the McCoys due to financial mismanagement and unapproved marital choices. It’s clear that Thackeray is being a bit heavy handed here in his imagery: yes, money doesn’t always lead to happiness; yes, being selfish is a bad life for you; yes, being a good person is good. However, if you keep in mind that this is satire (and Victorian satire at that), then it works.

It was the Industrial Revolution, a lot of money being made by quite a few people and a transition in society from the old influential families (due to lineage) to the new rich industrialist. Money was everywhere, it was quite easy to get (if you worked hard and had some luck) and you wouldn’t run out unless you were immoral and/or stupid. (Sort of idea.)

Not only was the plot intricate in and of itself, but there were loads of characters who kept intermingling so I had to take notes to keep it all straight at first. But once I settled into the book, I could keep who was who straight. This is not a book I recommend to pick up and put down. Sink into it. Embrace its complexity and enjoy the ride.

Overall, a good read that pulled me in as a reader. Glad I have read it. Not sure that I would read it again.


General Life Update…

Oh, Olympics, how I loved thee. Thank you for a good job, London and the World.

And Oh. My. God. I recently came across two really impressive mother-lode resources… one about books (naturellement) and one about the play list for the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony…

Here is the list about books, this time ones categorized as “microhistories” by Goodreads readers, and these are *exactly* what I like to read about – an in-depth look at something that  is not that big in the first place (topic-wise)… Pages and pages and pages… Oh my. Be still my beating heart.

And then the playlist from Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Limpets (from the Daily Telegraph). I wonder if there is one for the closing ceremony last night…

[Addendum: Here is the link for the playlist for the Olympics closing ceremony.]

Many many memories included in there for me!!

And I do have to send some kudos to NASA for the Curiosity project success!! How brilliant was that?

The Clothes They Stood Up In (1996) / The Lady in the Van (1994) – Alan Bennett

Two novellas written by playwright and author Alan Bennett which both showcase his sense of humor and his gentle handling of people’s odd foibles and habits. I had read Bennett’s autobiographical work of letters and essays last year or so, and had enjoyed it although the name-dropping was wasted on me as I was not familiar with most of them. It was in that book (Writing Home) that there was the first mention of The Lady in the Van.

Bennett must have had a heart of pure gold to allow curmudgeonly Miss Shepherd (the namesake of the van story) to live in her rickety old van permanently for years in his own driveway in London. I think that the original agreement for her and her van/home to stay there must have been somewhat impulsive and occasionally regrettable as she was filthy and rudely eccentric. His neighborly heart must be bigger than mine. I wonder how his neighbors felt about this act of generosity?

This novella, The Lady in the Van, is an entertaining collection of Bennett’s diary entries over the fifteen years she lived on his property and she was quite the character. Bennett does a great job of describing the ongoing mix of charitable intentions and unutterable frustration this neighbor caused in his life, but regardless of what obstacles she raises, he continues in a vein of kindness. Not a God-like level of kindness, but just an ongoing sweetness of spirit that I can’t imagine having myself for this woman. (She was a very cantankerous woman who had unexplainable and unchanging filthy habits not helped by the fact that she elected to live in a space that was without plumbing or electricity.) When she eventually died, it was received by a perfectly understandable mixture of relief and grief for Bennett.

The other novella, The Clothes They Stood Up In, concerns the fictional story of a middle class middle-aged couple who, after having lived in their flat for 35 years, come home after an evening at the opera to find that every single thing they had previously owned had been stolen — everything from the silver tableware to the box of matches and the casserole that was cooking in the oven.

Bennett is very skilled at describing characters and writing their thought processes so that I, as the reader, really felt as though I would know these people in real life – the husband, a staid solicitor with conservative views and a quiet subdued wife who takes everything at her husband’s word. Their differing reactions to the burglary and how it changes these two individuals was well described and although the explanation about the robbery was somewhat contrived, the ending rang very true for me.

Bennett is a master writer and it is not surprising that he has been recognized with numerous awards. He seems to have an affinity for damaged characters, but perhaps it’s more of a fondness for the human race as aren’t we all damaged in some way really?

A funny and poignant read.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first story in a long line featuring the English private detective, Sherlock Holmes, along with his friend Dr. Watson, this volume introduces both the characters as they meet for the first time and work on a case (although it’s more that Watson tags along whilst Holmes solves).  Apparently Conan Doyle wrote 46 short stories and four full novels about this duo, and this was the first one to appear.

Since I finished it yesterday, I have been contemplating why the novel was called “A Study in Scarlet”, and then the answer came (via Wiki):  Holmes gives a speech to Watson about his work, and mentions “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it”… Ah-ha!

As usual, this is a murder mystery presented (for the most part) from the POV of Watson who is looking for affordable housing in London upon his return, weak and recovering from illness, after having served the English Army in Afghanistan. The two meet (through a mutual friend) and after making a list of characteristics, they think they will make good flatmates. So off they go to 221B Baker Street.

As always, this is a well written story that truly sucked me in, but the book (unbeknownst to me) consists of two parts and it seemed as though they were two very different stories without any connection. For the first book, we are based in London and some of the southern coast of England, and then the story seems to pause for a bit. Book Two starts and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the reader is in the barren plains of Nebraska with a dying old man and a young girl who have run out of water. The story continues (with no mention whatsoever of London or its environs) when the couple are rescued by the early Mormons traveling west to search for their Promised Land with their slightly nutjob leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Hold on a second. What on earth do the Mormons have to do with a murder mystery in London?

Perplexed but enjoying the story about the Mormons’ travel (helped tremendously by my learning all about Mormons from my trip to Salt Lake City), the US-based story continues. It’s a good one, but holy cow – I was so lost for most of it. What was the link with London? Was this a completely separate story and “Study in Scarlet” was over with some kind of PoMo ending that I didn’t get?

It wasn’t until toward the end of Book Two that it all came together, but really, there was no clue that the two stories were related until then. Sherlock Holmes and Mormons? London and Nebraska? Murder in the City and rebellion in the Mormon camp?  *Completely lost* for a while.

There has been some criticism in how Conan Doyle has presented the Mormons in this story, but when you look at the surrounding history that had just occurred, he really can’t be blamed for taking a negative tack. The Mountain Meadow Massacre had just occurred (1857) within recent memory, and to be honest, the early Mormons were a pretty violent group.

However, once you are filled in and given the rest of the story, it actually all hangs together and makes good sense, but holy guacamole, there is no clue before then. It’s really clever how it all fits together, but it really threw me off at first.

A good mystery story, and one of the first to ever mention using a magnifying glass to help solve a crime. I am not a huge reader of murder mystery type stories, but Sherlock Holmes is an ongoing fav right now.

Consequences – E. M. Delafield (1919)


A heart-felt book set in later Victorian times with a young girl, Alex Clare, growing up in a somewhat wealthy family with what would seem to be lots of choices for her to make over the years. However, Alex never seems to fit in anywhere – she always seems to be making mistakes and getting into trouble, even when older, and so she learns to see herself as a problem and the Black Sheep of the family.

Her only method of feeling happy was to have vivid close attachments to her friends, all women and none of it reciprocated. Poor Alex. She does her best to win the affections of Queenie in school, but goes a bit overboard and Queenie moves on, not returning the level of friendship. The same thing happens after Alex has turned down a quite suitable engagement (although it was lacking in love) and ends up entering a convent as a nun. Her parents are horrified that she has turned down the engagement as there were not a lot of other offers coming in, but are understanding (but a bit lost) at her decision.  She is also quite clever, but that wasn’t encouraged either, to wit:

“Don’t go and get a reputation for being clever, whatever you do. People do dislike that sort of thing so much in a girl.” (Mother of girl in question.)

As the years go and Alex’s younger siblings grow up and enter society, Alex feels she has been left behind and it’s her fault. Her self esteem is shattered and only by attaching herself in another deeply-felt (but unrequited) friendship with her Superior Nun, can she go on and takes vows for a religious order in Belgium. (This is similar to what Delafield did as well in real life just a few years before this was published…) However, when the Superior Nun leaves for another convent, Alex is lost. (She sounds like she is primed for therapy to me.)

Finally realizing that she was never meant to have taken her lifetime religious vows, Alex requests to be set free (which she is after a long tedious process), but although she is free, she is never allowed to marry anyone. (Note: How can this be? If you are not a nun any more, then wouldn’t you be free to go what you want? How would this get monitored? Was it an honor system? What happened if you did get married? Did monks have the same set up?…)

However, Alex has been in the convent so long now, that all her family have gone on and developed lives without her, thinking as they were thinking that she would remain in the religious convent for the rest of her days. So – when she leaves, everyone is a little confused as to what, exactly, they are to do with her.

 As Father Farrell notes, “A maiden aunt isn’t so very much thought of, in the best of circumstances, let me tell ye”… and that is it in a nutshell. If you are a Victorian era woman and don’t marry, what on earth are you supposed to do? The options just weren’t there for you. Well, they were in some ways but you would have been completely bucking the trend with little support if you did. And imagine the shame of the family name!

This is quite a tough read for me, as it’s painfully obvious how chafing the restrictions of society with regard to gender roles could be. Her younger brother inherits the house and most of the money so he doesn’t really have to worry about anything. Her youngest sister is a Society Deb and a hit in the social circles, and her middle sister is now a widow, poor but not too badly off. With the rules as they were, there was no choice for a middle-aged ex-nun. She had no money saved (since she’d been in the convent for years) so she was completely reliant on other people (mainly her family). She had no marketable skills – her convent years had not set her up for the future as an ex-nun – and she didn’t really have any idea of how the world really worked as her family had provided throughout her childhood and then the convent had acted in a very similar fashion.

Life seems to happen to Alex who drifts along like a branch in a stream. She is very passive about her choices, understandable but no less irritating, and she feels very detached about everything. Her whole life has been handled by someone else (her parents and the nanny, and then the convent) so she is not used to making decisions herself, and feels very childlike in comparison to her siblings, all of whom seemed to have got on ok.  There were times when I really wanted to shake Alex into taking some responsibility for her life… But she was Victorian to the core.

It’s quite interesting to compare this 1919 novel with “The L-Shaped Room” written 40 years later: there were more choices for women, that’s true, but society frowned upon unmarried women then as well, especially pregnant ones. So both Alex and the protagonist of that later novel face a similar lack of options: if you are not married (and especially if you are pregnant and unmarried), where do you fit in? Where do you go? … And even now in the twentieth first century, there are still remnants of this – nothing as bad as it was, but the threads of it remain.

Delafield obviously felt very strongly about feminism, and this is obvious throughout the novel which can be argued to be one of the earlier examples of feminist writing. This was a completely different read from the “Diaries of a Provincial Lady” – this was one of her earlier works and is a much more serious look at the roles of gender in Victorian society.

The ending is sad, but not surprising.

Shadows of the Workhouse – Jennifer Worth (2005)

A former midwife writes of her time during the 1950’s in East London when she worked with a group of nuns helping the poorer families. Divided into three parts, the book looks at this time through the eyes of three very different people: brother and sister Frank and Peggy who were both raised in the workhouse, Sister Monica Joan (a not-so-good nun) and then old Mr. Collett’s heart-breaking story to end with.

Although the first two stories are powerful in their own rights, Mr. Collett’s story was the one that I found most poignant and memorable. The author, also a nurse as well as midwife, is assigned to help Mr. Collett with his slow-healing leg ulcers, and in doing so, the young nurse becomes friends with the old soldier. Through describing the conversations they both had, you get to know the old man – his life fighting in the Boer War and his family afterwards. Although his story is probably similar to lots of other elderly people (with respect to fighting in various wars etc.), it was sad to realize just how much importance he placed on the daily visits of his nurse and friend. How many other elderly people are out there in similar incredibly lonely situations like his?

Very poignant for me to think about, especially with all the holidays coming up.

Another over-arching theme throughout the book was the looming shadow cast by the workhouse and its reputation on the patients to whom the author was nursing. Workhouses officially closed in 1930 by Acts of Parliament, but they remained very similar but now called “institutions”. However, for many of the older population, the memory of the workhouse threat still hung over them and filled them with horror.

An interesting book about a forgotten (or at least neglected) part of history. I will be moving my other workhouse book up the TBR pile to get a different view point.

The Social Calendar – Anna Sproules (1977)

A fast read about the very busy social calendar (or “Season” as it was called) during 1897, the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Victoria’s reign. (This narrow focus expands to include the end of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth – thus Victorian and Edwardian calendars are included in some depth.) Both Victorian and Edwardian high society kept a demanding schedule of social events that seemed to peak during the summer months, but actually kept up a steady demand throughout the year.

Sproules has written a nicely researched look at the social lives of the upper echelons of English society during this time, and covers the various aspects of it from “Sports” (hunting, polo, early bicycle riding) to “The Servant Problem” (because to be honest, none of this would have happened without this labor pool) and to just how expensive it was to be a part of this social whirlwind.

The book starts with the beginning of the Summer Season with the early balls and summer events that were pivotal in this culture: Ascot, Henley (although that came later), Wimbledon (again a later invention) and Queen Charlotte’s Ball (a huge social event that kept going until the 1970’s). The level of commitment from the family (and its bank account) was incredible but there was an awful lot riding on the whole system: meeting the “right” people, seeing and “being seen”, the machinations of ensuring your daughter meets the right level of people with the potential of marriage in the future etc…

It was, in fact, a whole industry involving masses of people from different levels of class, ranging from brass boys (the young boys who shined the brass on the horse harnesses) to the clever seamstress, the chef to the butler… Amazing amounts of money must have been spent on creating and maintaining an image of wealth year round, and it got more expensive every year.

There is a smattering of information covering a lot of topics, which is a little frustrating being a reader who likes to get in-depth on some of these subjects. However, this limitation was acknowledged at the beginning of the book – it’s more of a survey than an in-depth look and if you keep that in mind, all will be well.

Despite having dug quite deeply into the social history of this era, I find that there is always something new to learn and it was the case here as well. Having grown up with mention of the social events (Ascot, Henley, Wimbledon) and even having attended some of them (although not in the Royal Enclosure – sniff), it was fascinating to see the evolution of such events over the years to becoming THE places to See and Be Seen (and these events have maintained this image up to this day).

And I am very grateful not to have come of age in that era and having to endure the process of being a Debutante and searching for a suitable husband (and with this, there was no other avenue unless you wanted to be a spinster which was completely viewed with horror). I can’t imagine the pressure of being a young lady and going to ball after ball to meet men, some of whom were much older than you, and being forced to evaluate them as potential providers and husbands. (There were even rules set up to let girls know what level their lives would be at different income levels – obviously, the higher the better.)

And the number of times people (especially women) had to change their clothes during the day. Morning visits, luncheons, afternoon visits, tea, hunting, riding in Hyde Park, bicycling (if you were daring), evening balls and god forbid you repeat your wardrobe from week to week. Additionally, fashions used huge amounts of fabric to create their look and so this must have cost a lot and weighed a lot to wear, as well as have been awkward to move around. Thank goodness young (and old) women only were expected to sit around on the settee all day and drink tea. Yikes.

Speaking of which, I had no idea that not only did the ladies have to change their clothes all day long, but that the women could not change their outfits by themselves, requiring help from their lady’s maid tightening up the corsets and the many many layers of clothing they were required to wear. Yuck.

Another point that I had not realized was just how *crowded* some of these social events were: people were packed in to small rooms, elbow to elbow, jostling around with their dresses getting crushed – just in an effort to be at the event…

So, although this book has been criticized for its superficial research, I think it’s a useful addition to the pantheon of social/domestic history literature of the era. Additionally, it had a useful bibliography in the back for further research. (As if I don’t have enough titles right now! Ha.)

Enjoyed this and it added depth to what I know about these times.

For curious cats out there, here is a link to Debrett’s, THE place for socialites to find out who, where and when is happening in London and around the world.

New Grub Street – George Gissing (1891)

After having found a beautiful 1930 edition of New Grub Street and based on the opinion of one of my more well-read friends, I picked this up a couple of years ago. As part of my ongoing quest to read more classics, this was pulled off the shelf.

I really knew very little about either Gissing or this book before reading it, so did some initial research during my read as I find I get a lot more out of the books when I have some background knowledge. The title “New Grub Street” refers to an old street in London actually called Grub Street that was the neighborhood of bohemian types, beginning writers, poor poets and low-class publishers. Thus, Grub Street was linked with hack journalism and low-level literature and it has been argued that Gissing would have been familiar with this due to his own career of writing.

The book focuses on the writing world on London during the mid-Victorian era, following two characters, both writers although in very different veins and with very different motivations. Edwin Reardon writes for more noble reasons: he writes literature with little commercial value and sees it as art for art’s sake even though this means he (and his family) will be (and will remain) poor in all likelihood. Jasper Milvain is the polar opposite to Reardon: Jasper writes only to make money and will write whatever is needed to meet the demand of the market.

They also have contrasting views of marriage: Reardon has married young and married for love to a quite educated lady who views money as success, not literature. This, of course, leads to some troubles for Reardon and his small family especially when his wife views him as voluntarily placing the family in poverty for misplaced values.  Milvain, on the other hand, wants to get married, not necessarily for love but definitely for money. His future wife, he thinks, is the free meal ticket that he needs to write and live successfully.

Since this is a Victorian novel, there is no surprise that there are some quite heavy moralistic overtones to the story and a lot of familial intertwining between both Milvain and Reardon. However, despite this, this novel is really quite good and reads fast considering it was written more than 120 years ago.  It is also considered one of the best examples of nineteenth century writing on the subject of writing professions.

Gissing was one of the naturalist writers of the nineteenth century and this is seen throughout this novel in his detailed descriptions of the various garrets when Reardon lives, the social machinations of meeting the “right people at the right time” in order to forward a career (not so different from our 21st century networking but with a much heavier focus on income) and the heavy emphasis of the class system in Victorian society then.

Although this novel has a bitter attitude towards the literary profession, some of it rings very true in some ways. It can be challenging to make a living writing what you want, and there are probably times when you would have to write what other people desire for money. Such is life, so there are parts of this story that do resonate with anyone who has tried that line of work.

A good read, a story that moves quickly and some interesting characters. If you’re jonesing for a Victorian fix and want someone with a lighter moral touch that Dickens, try Gissing. He has a lot of work out there so there’s lots to choose from.

Packing my Bags…

Off to England tomorrow, where I plan to be busy catching up with friends and family, drinking lots of cups of tea and coffee, and refilling my Englishness supply again.

Not too sure about access to the blog over there – not bc of a lack of internet, but due to being busy doing other things.

Will report back upon my return Stateside.

Adieu for now!

The Love of Libraries…

Just came across this really lovely essay by Alan Bennett in the London Review of Books…

It voices so well the love of libraries that we readers have…and led me down memory lane of riding our bikes with mum to the County Library on a damp chilly Saturday to get a new selection of books – Mum trying her best to expand our reading with titles like “Jonathon Livingston Seagull” and us preferring to read for the one millionth time “Little Tim and the Big Sea Captain”…

I think it’s because of my bookish parents (and older bro) that I am such an avid reader now. That, and the rainy days in England when I was growing up when it drizzled all day long and you didn’t want to go outside and get all wet….

Home Trip Countdown: 4 weeks to England.