I am a manly American man. I lettered in football in high school. I’m a decorated Army veteran. I’ve done everything a wild bear might do in the woods—and, no doubt, some things a wild bear has too much dignity to do. I’ve lived fast. I’ve played hard. I’ve got a lifetime of testosterone-induced scars and all the machismo a man my age can handle.
So why am I enjoying William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” so much? It’s girly. Way too girly for a manly man like me. What isn’t girly (the narrator is male) oozes a worldly, British Empire, look-down-the-nose form of snide that, by rights, ought to earn someone (Thackeray or the narrator—your choice) a punch in the nose.
It’s a big story set in London in Napoleonic times. Or, this being so British, should I say Wellington’s times? Thackeray fills his story with affluent merchant class people and lesser nobles and rich old spinsters and ne’er do well young army officers, and he drives it all forward on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of two young women, one, Amelia Sedley, naively good-hearted, the other, Rebecca Sharp, cunning and ambitious.
If Thackeray’s Becky Sharp wasn’t the prototype for Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara, shame on Margaret Mitchell, The two share all the traits of literature’s great heroines—brains, good looks, but most of all the kind of ruthless pluck a good writer can use to stretch a great story out over hundreds of pages.
This Thackeray does, with his worldly male narrator dishing details only women or simpy British narrators would note. It’s “Pride and Prejudice” all over again, and as a manly all-American man, I ought to be prejudiced. “Vanity Fair” shouldn’t work. Not for me. But it works gloriously, if not for my inner manly man, then for me as a writer.
Damn you, William Makepeace Thackeray. Where’s Zane Grey when I need him?