The other day I raised the question of whether we should write our name in books. While I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an urge to write my name on the flyleaf. I hadn’t done that in years. I did write my name in my Latin dictionary.
I was finding VF a bit of a slog until I wrote my name. Is it magic? Then I began to enjoy it.
Thackeray spins a rip-roaring story of love and war. His whimsical style can be a little coy, but the characterization is peerlessly vivid. I relished the wit of Becky Sharp, an artist’s daughter and con artist who rises from governess to a belle of high society. Becky seems extraordinarily modern. Today, with her business sense, she would control Wall Street. She has a knack for twisted economics, as she schemes to cheat creditors and friends. She might have survived the financial crash of 2008. There is even a bit of #metoo exploitation about Becky: she spins convincing tales about being victimized by men she victimizes. (Yes, they say you must believe what people tweet, but you can’t believe Becky!) My favorite character is her husband, Rawdon Crawley, a gambler and a libertine who eventually reforms for the sake of their son.
Sometimes Thackeray’s satire is a little too 18th-century. (N.B. He is a Victorian writer.) And I tired of his authorial asides as he skewers the Vanity Fair of life. Still, he satirizes all the characters. Even the morally upright William Dobbin, a Major in the Army, goes too far in his idealization of sappy Amelia, the widow of his best friend, George Osborne. And Amelia foolishly idealizes George, who, unbeknownst to her, did not just flirt with Becky but wanted to run away with her.
And then in the last chapter, after Dobbin quarrels with Amelia, we learn the most important fact. Dobbin writes his name in books!
Some books still subsisted, after Dobbin’s departure, with his name written in them: a German dictionary, for instance, with ‘William Dobbin, – th Reg.’, in the flyleaf; a guide-book with his initials, and one or two other volumes which belonged to the Major.
I mentioned that I’d written my name in a Latin dictionary. Dobbin writes his name in a dictionary too–my doppelgänger!
By the way, I recommend VF to fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell obviously lifted signficant bits from Thackeray: Scarlett O’Hara has a lot of Becky in her, and Amelia is Mellie.