I just finished reading Thackeray’s most well-known novel Vanity Fair. The question as to whether Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a feminist novel has been sticking in my mind for a while now? And even further, so what constitutes a “feminist” novel?
Thackeray’s portrayal of women, complicated women makes for a good case: wily Becky Sharp and gentler Amelia Sedley endure their share of struggles and triumphs. Many times the narrator, a tongue-in-cheek satirist, comments on the daily, often hidden struggles that women undergo, and which men often willfully ignore; yet, they are also, to the narrator, mischievous, secretive, full of hidden depth. Are these characteristics something to be admired, or are they scathingly critical, or sexist?
To us, from outside gazing […] at the bewildering beauties as they pass the Court or ball, they seem beings of unearthly splendour, and in the enjoyment of an exquisite happiness by us unattainable. It is to console some of the dissatisfied beings, that we are narrating our dear Becky’s struggles and triumphs, as is the case with all persons of merit, she had her share.” (492)
A “feminist” novel is one described as supporting, defending, and perhaps advancing the feminist goals of civil, economic, political, and social rights of women. Does Thackeray’s novel hold up to that definition? Can a man, even writing during the Victorian era, write a feminist novel?
Other blogs have commented on the feminism in Thackeray’s novel, comparing Becky Sharp to a new-wave Lady Macbeth: unsexed, her gender subverted. Rather, Becky Sharp exhibits masculine traits, which are in harsh contrast to the Regency and Victorian England Ideal: she hardly ever keeps female companionship (save for Amelia), is not a stereotypical affectionate mother, but rather distant and cold, and highly ambitious by constantly climbing the social status ladder. (Contrast these traits with the effeminately described male character Joseph Sedley, who is timid, lazy and vain.) For the time of Thackeray’s writing it’s a radical idea that a woman could be independent of her relations to men and never surrender to one, as Becky Sharp is dives headfirst into challenging societal norms dictating women’s lives. As some writers have noted, she could be described as a “hero” not a “heroine.”
Gender roles at the time were most likely much more complicated than the history books are inclined to tell us and if anything Thackeray’s blurring of the gender lines in this satirical but realistic novel was intentional.
P.S. : As a tangential note, it’s come to my attention that Thackeray had a familial connection to my favorite author and feminist writer, Virginia Woolf. Woolf completely upends the question of where women in society stand, through her feminist writings Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, as well as the gender ideal in the novel Orlando. As to how much Woolf was inspired by Thackeray, or even read Vanity Fair, I’m afraid we’ll never know for sure.
[Photo: by me. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.]