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Al Murray on Vanity Fair: My great-great-great-granddad wrote a comic masterpiece

Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharpe in ITV's Vanity Fair
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharpe in ITV's Vanity Fair Credit: ITV

Al Murray explains how he fell in love with his ancestor's literary classic

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is one of those books. You may have read it for A-level, you may have watched ITV’s recent and superlative adaptation by Gwyneth Hughes or any number of other television or movie versions, of wildly varying standard.

And you know what I mean by one of those books: you’re meant to have read it, it’s part of that creaky, wordy, (cough) boring pantheon of GREAT NOVELS that mainly consists of Dickens’s stuff and Jane Austen’s works and the odd Trollope: it may even be one of those books that’s good for you and that you really should have read.

For me it’s slightly different, and not just because I’m appearing in a new radio adaptation playing the narrator.

For the thing is Thackeray – for what it’s worth and given his works are long out of copyright, exactly nothing – is my great-great-great-grandfather. Three greats.

Actor and comedian Al Murray in Chiswick, 2018 Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

So long ago as to not mean much, but certainly enough of a thing for it not to go unremarked in the family. My great-aunt liked to impart folklore straight from her grandmother, Thackeray’s daughter, about the printer’s boy waiting impatiently for copy at the front door.

I won’t say I grew up in his shadow, but Vanity Fair was definitely a book that I should have read. So, as a cussed youth, I didn’t. You couldn’t make me.

I did read about Thackeray though, whose life had as many twists and turns as anyone’s in Vanity Fair. Born in India to his lovelorn mother (long story), sent to study in England, via visiting Napoleon on St Helena, bemused by his brutal schooling at Charterhouse, he grew up to be what you might call a Trustafarian; when he came of age Thackeray had his heart set on being a respectable gentleman.

After going to Cambridge, gambling away his fortune and getting sent down, Thackeray turned his hand to illustrating and writing.

His marriage brought him two daughters, but his wife, my great-great-great-grandmother Isabella, suffered from post-natal depression, and never recovered; he spent the rest of his life looking for treatments for her and struggling with being in a marriage without love.

He became a celebrated sketch writer at Punch, long before it went to dentists’ waiting rooms to die. He coined the word “snob” – some might contest this, do so and you’re arguing with my family, OK? But as Thackeray found his voice as a journalist, a humorist and a satirist, so he came to take his writing more and more seriously – “our profession … is as serious as the parson’s own”. And Vanity Fair is where, as a writer, he came of age.

So, why does Vanity Fair keep resurfacing? And don’t say it’s because it’s out of copyright. I think it’s because of its brilliant central premise – it’s A Novel Without A Hero. And this is why Vanity Fair pulls our attention in every time. You can search for a hero all you like in Vanity Fair but Thackeray refuses to offer you one.

The novel’s central character, Becky Sharp, is an amoral chancer, slicing her way through society because she is smarter than any man or woman she meets; she knows how to play the games others can’t even see they’re part of.

Becky understands the difference between being happy and getting what she wants, and prefers the latter. She is by far the most compelling character in the book, but she’s no hero.

These days we are well used to anti-heroes, Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad’s Walter White, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, but these characters are criminals or politicians, we expect them to be s----. Thackeray’s masterstroke was to don the clothes of a romantic novel to tell a different story and illuminate now he felt society operated, its pitfalls, foibles and, of course, snobberies, and how the amoral can rise to the top without looking back, while asking “well, why wouldn’t you”?

The more conventional hero – at least on paper if this were a normal romance – is the dashing George Osborne, a gaming, gambling, squiring (pastimes Thackeray himself wasn’t averse to) horror who courts and wins affection from Amelia Sedley, yet deserves none.

Amelia, who in turn ought to be the romantic heroine, is a rather tedious drip, paralysed by her inability to stand up for herself. The closest the novel has to a constant hero type is Dobbin, and the clue to his character is in the name. Boring old reliable Dobbin, who comes good in the end, but largely through his own inertia. “Vanitas vanitatum: which of us is truly happy?” asks the novel. Nobody is the reply.

Of course, this kind of canter-through-the-main-points synopsis of the main players in Vanity Fair overlooks one thing: it’s a funny book. A bloody funny book. Thackeray doesn’t skewer polite society in a sentimental “wouldn’t it be better if we were all nicer people” way.

He laughs loudly and broadly at the hypocrisies and vanities that everyone succumbs to, but with a certain fatalism about human nature, too.

He’s saying that this is a world with wars, jealousies, kings and queens, social climbers, lushes, dandies, pride, sloth, gluttony, misplaced loyalty, confected manners, empty tradition, neglectful parents, ungrateful children, the tragically weak, the carelessly strong, prigs and puritans, posers and pricks.

Above all, this is a world of morals, moralists and moralising – hypocrites, in short. You can laugh, or you can cry – and Thackeray says you might as well laugh. And who could disagree with such a proposal? Not me for one, I’m family.

Vanity Fair is on Radio 4 on Sunday 
at 3pm. Al Murray: Landlord of Hope and Glory 
is now on tour; tickets: thepublandlord.com