Classic of the week: Gentlemen and players

Vanity Fair
William Thackeray, Penguin Classics, £6.99
The West Indian writer CLR James read Vanity Fair every three months from the age of eight, and says it taught him to be a gentleman. But if any Victorian novel offers a greater concentration of bounders, I don't know it. The heroine is Becky Sharp, an irresistible and unscrupulous social climber, who is matched off with Amelia Sedley, a ladylike wet hen. They take part in a brutal, sentimental Punch-and-Judy show against the background of the Napoleonic wars. This was already a history lesson when it was written, but it still seethes with life.