Daniel Macklin illustration - Ysenda Maxtone Graham on William Makpeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Vanity Fear

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John Sutherland: ‘I’d take Vanity Fair, which I think is the greatest novel in England.’
Sue Lawley: ‘Not Middlemarch?’
JS: ‘It’s more fun than Middlemarch. And you don’t feel lectured in the same way that you do with George Eliot.’

How many of us, on hearing that snatch of conversation on Desert Island Discs in 2006, thought, ‘Well, I’d better get round to reading Vanity Fair, then.’ I did, but it still took me another five years. I was terrified of the great fat book. And so, I think, are many people, judging by the honest responses I’ve had from highly educated friends who have admitted to steering clear of it all their lives. (How I miss Sue Lawley, by the way. Kirsty Young would never make such an incisive rejoinder as ‘Not Middlemarch?’).

I finished the book last night. ‘Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.’ Reading it took over three weeks of bedtimes and early mornings. Like many slow writers I’m a slow reader, and disagree entirely with the recent item in the ‘Wit and Wisdom’ section of The Week which said, ‘He has only truly learned the art of reading who has mastered the art of skipping and skimming.’ As far as I’m concerned, he has only learned the true art of reading who reads and savours every sentence, at least once and
possibly twice. We owe it to the author, surely.

I embarked on Vanity Fair full of preconceptions. I thought, first of all, that it was going to be all about Becky Sharp. Famously, the book is ‘a novel without a hero’, so I thought I was going to have to follow a conniving minx on the make – a sort of Regency Gabrielle-in- Desperate-Housewives – on her 740-page journey of self-aggrandisement.

Well, in fact, there are some quite long sections without Becky Sharp. You can go for a chapter or two without comin

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About the contributor

Vanity Fair was one of many books that Ysenda Maxtone Graham avoided while reading English at Girton College, Cambridge, in the early 1980s. She did, with perseverance, get to the end of Tom Jones. Now she is becoming renowned as a historian of small red-brick schools in Kensington.

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