October 22: Victorian Must -- the worst fragrance ever

Is "Vanity Fair" any good? I can't imagine that it is after reading this excerpt from Thackeray's essay on Jonathan Swift's love problems. Note that this is economizing, Harvard Classics style -- this way they shove two classic authors in one entry. Way back earlier this year I read Robert Louis Stevenson on Pepys. What's interesting is that Thackeray and Stevenson smell much more strongly of camphor and lavender, than the even older authors they write about (disclaimer: in fact I haven't read that much Swift, so I 'm bullshitting a little (more than usual)). Here's an example of Thackeray, as intricate as a little old lady's doily:
Who hasn’t in his mind an image of Stella? Who does not love her? Fair and tender creature: pure and affectionate heart! Boots it to you, now that you have been at rest for a hundred and twenty years, not divided in death from the cold heart which caused yours, whilst it beat, such faithful pangs of love and grief—boots it to you now, that the whole world loves and deplores you? Scarce any man, I believe, ever thought of that grave, that did not cast a flower of pity on it, and write over it a sweet epitaph.
"Boots it to you" and "whilst"? Reading stuff like this, my instinct is to run sprinting for the nearest absinthe bottle, crying, "Are there no workhouses?" With authors like these, it's amazing the British even had an empire, but maybe wars in malaria-ridden foreign lands start to look good, when the alternative is staying in England and reading magazines with articles by Thackeray.

About Swift's love life, which I guess is one of those things literate people used to know about but now require research (someday Yoko Ono will be like that), I have no opinion. It seems a little creepy that the love of his life is a girl he started tutoring when she was 8, but these things happen -- ask Woody Allen. But I'm sort of on Swift's side now, just because I hate to see him written about the way he is in today's, I mean yesterday's, reading.

1 comment:

beche-la-mer said...

I had Vanity Fair on an undergrad reading list many years ago, and it was the only book in my entire university career that I could not finish. I think the biggest problem was that I just couldn't like any of Thackeray's characters, so stuffed with Victorian mores and morals: even naughty Becky Sharp just seemed like she needed a good slap around the chops. I'm with you, I much preferred Swift.