First edition title page of Vanity Fair
How delightful to be able to state unequivocally that you have a favourite book. However, to some of us it is like saying you have a favourite painting: impossible. Just how is it possible to prefer the Piero Della Francesca in Sansepolcro to a Cezanne landscape?
Books are even more difficult. Who wins in a contest between Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duc De Berri and one of several Declines and Falls that spring to mind; or between Paradise Lost and Tristram Shandy?
Even if you restrict the playing field to one genre, it’s difficult enough, but the game certainly becomes easier to play. So I’m going to cheat a bit and stick to novels and be partisan about it.
Novels are, of course about the human condition. They depend on the perceptiveness of the authors, their sensibilities and ability convincingly to portray character. They must also generate the reaction: “Yes, that is just what might have happened,” whether you are reading Wodehouse or Austen. Tone therefore becomes important.
And that is just what kills Dickens for me. What a genius for character he has. But in the end the relentless facetiousness is repellent. He may be one of our greatest novelists, but with Dickens I react like Andre Gide who, when asked who was France’s greatest writer, replied: “Victor Hugo, hélas.”
I will also pass lightly over the brooding madness of the Brontes, confess to being tempted by George Eliot, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and reluctantly reject the sadly unfashionable Walter Scott. In the end there are three novels of the relatively few I have read which for me portray the world as it really spins: Le Rouge et Le Noir, Vanity Fair and The Sword of Honour Trilogy.
All three mix a convincing and compelling cocktail of ambition, money, sex, cruelty, decadence and betrayal; but there is kindness, generosity and idealism as well. All three, Evelyn Waugh’s most of all, convey the sense of a regime on the edge of destroying itself. The duped innocence of the ambitious Sorel, the otherworldliness of Crouchback, the dull doggedness of Dobbin act as a sad contrast to the selfish and the depraved who work the snobbery and the decadence of the system to their own advantage. Who can fail to recognise and be ashamed of the behaviour of the Crawleys to their old retainer, the exploitation of Trimmer by the authorities or the dangers of mixing with the de la Moles in Restoration Paris? Here is the great world as surely it once was and essentially it still is.
So, which of the three to plump for?
Waugh is tempting. His style is spare, ironical and well-suited to savage contempt. He understands English snobbery and hypocrisy horribly well, perhaps because he was such a snob himself. And there are few funnier writers in the English language. Apthorpe is a creation of genius. Those of us who lived through some of the final kicks of the British Empire came across many part-Apthorpes: mostly honourable victims of changing times and of a Whitehall bureaucracy that found them an embarrassment.
However, in the end it has to be either Stendhal or William Makepeace Thackeray and it is a difficult choice. Is it just my little Englander pro-Brexit views that make me plump for Thackeray, blinded to the superiority of anything foreign over stuff produced in dear old Blighty? Some of my Europhile friends would think so. However, there is a unanswerable argument to that Eurobound anti-globalist view, in two words: Becky Sharpe. She is worth twice Madame de Renal and Mlle. de la Mole put together and is three times as wicked.