Vanity Fair, a Novel Without a HeroRead about another novel on the list.
by William Thackeray
Vanity Fair, which deals with the same period at the end of the Napoleonic Wars as War and Peace, is something of a dead end for the historical novel, as well as an early example of the realist novel tackling the past. It is a comedy, and I have included it as I think every list can do with a dash of comedic leavening. Whereas the historical novel as it developed, following the model of Stendhal and Tolstoy, has tended to tackle the grand historical themes of war and, later, empire and its disintegration, and therefore to have men and masculinity to the fore, Vanity Fair is a lighthearted satire and has two women at its centre. Its sassy heroine Becky Sharp has come to seem like innumerable chick-lit heroines and the heroines of many popular historical novels set in courts. But in fact Thackeray’s novel is retrospective in its outlook, unlike the majority of great historical novels in the nineteenth century, which have tended to look to the present and the future while dwelling on the past. Becky Sharp is modeled on the great courtesans of the eighteenth century and Regency period, while Thackeray’s story is essentially a satire on the futility of the very notion of progress. All his characters are found wanting, and none are very likeable, unless it is Becky herself who navigates a vitiated world with spirit, humour and, in the end, an unexpected moment of kindness.
Vanity Fair also appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best fat men in literature and ten of the best pianos in literature, and Thomas Mallon's list.