I was inspired to read it when I came across a series of drink and book related blogposts at Desperate Reader (do visit her blog, it's fascinating). William Makepeace Thackeray's novel tells the history of a number of related characters from their youth to middle-age. The novel is set against the turbulent background of the Napoleonic wars. If its social mores are very different to those of the 21st century, the lives of the central characters are not really that changed - their quest for love and a decent life remain as relevant as ever. It's rather appropriate too that I should have finished 2015 in the company of a book much of which is set around the Battle of Waterloo, whose 200th anniversary was this year.
The two central characters are, perhaps unusually for the period, women. Thackeray, like Daniel Defoe, is great at getting under the skin of his female characters. Becky Sharp, the bad girl, and Amelia Sedley, the good girl, come dazzlingly to life. Also in common with Defoe, Thackeray is very aware of a society that is judgmental in its attitudes towards women, but much more forgiving of the men who are involved in the relationships.
Amelia comes from a wealthy mercantile family, while Becky is the orphaned daughter of a drawing master and an opera singer (then seeing as being only a small step above a prostitute). As both girls leave school, Amelia knows that her future is assured, Becky knows she'll have to fight for everything.
The two meet up with George Osborne and William Dobbin, his best friend. Amelia falls for the dashing, but weak Osborne, who ditches her when Amelia's father loses his fortune. Dobbin, who is actually in love with Amelia himself, manages to reunite the lovers, despite the attitude of Osborne's father.
Becky meanwhile has become a governess in her pursuit of wealth. She elopes with the second son of the household, and although there is little love in the marriage (at least on Becky's side), the two are happy enough. But Waterloo, and the changes it brings to Europe, will also bring huge changes to the two pairs of newly-weds - Amelia is widowed and penniless, while Becky's husband is also not as rich as he was. Becky turns to the notorious roué, Lord Steyne - it will be her downfall in respectable society....
It's a fascinating novel, not least because of what Thackeray says about attitudes towards the sexes. It is a brilliantly ironic read contrasting Becky's manipulations and the judgement that falls upon her with the wicked life of Lord Steyne - who is lauded at his death for his positive influence upon society. Interestingly Thackeray doesn't just blame the patriarchy of society for these attitudes. Amelia is equally guilty with her rose-coloured picture of her husband. Her inflated image of him nearly ruins her life, and ironically, it is Becky who finally enables her to see the truth; only for Becky to be ditched unceremoniously by the happy couple. Becky though will always struggle back to the top, and for that, Thackeray suggests, she is to be applauded.
If Amelia is good but vapid, her would-be lover, William Dobbin, must be one of the nicest men in English literature. He may be lacking the dash of his friend, George Osborne, and the wealth and aloofness of a Mr. Darcy, but it's hard not to fall in love with him, making Amelia's own stupidity rather more pointed.
I said that this was a three-decker novel. What's truly surprising about it is that it doesn't feel like it. I started the novel before Christmas, and was nearly late back to work one day, as it was the eve of Waterloo, and I had completely forgotten that the "real" world existed. It's that sort of book - compelling, funny, at times shocking, one of the world's great classics. Do visit Vanity Fair.