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Morality play

Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray

12 December 2008

12:00 AM

12 December 2008

12:00 AM

Vanity Fair William Thackeray

Every year, when winter descends on the country, one of English literature’s great works always finds itself pulled down from my bookshelf: namely, William Thackeray’s immortal Vanity Fair. The reason is simple: no degree of chilliness in the air can extinguish the book’s incredible warmth and humour. It is a tonic.


Being an accepted classic, Vanity Fair is no doubt familiar to many readers. But its indelible characters and set-pieces still deserve mention. From the sly anti-heroine Becky Sharp to the gentle-mannered Dobbin — and from the mistreatment of a dictionary to the battlefield death of one character (I won’t reveal whom!) — there is not one component of the story which detracts from the whole.

The plot and characterisation are underpinned by Thackeray’s acute eye for social detail. He is cutting, of course, but never slips into crude caricature. The result is a portrait of 19th-century society which feels authentic and unpompous. If Vanity Fair succeeds, it is because it is — like much of Dickens’s output — a great work of journalism.

To paraphrase The Spectator’s own motto, Vanity Fair is champagne for the soul. For that, I give it my highest recommendation, and raise a glass to Mr William Makepeace Thackeray. 

Each month The Spectator Book Club, in association with Barclays Wealth, selects and prints a book review by a reader. For more details, or to enter your own review for consideration, go to new.spectator.co.uk/books


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