Googling the words Vanity Fair brings up a popular publication, a 2004 movie starring Reese Witherspoon and a 2018 BBC show, and finally, the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Reese’s scheming face and dramatic (possibly anachronistic) high collar popped up one too many times on my Netflix recommendation queue, and living by the “book is better than movie” adage I decided to read the intimidatingly thick book before I watched its film adaptation. It’s the kind of classic that you’ve heard of in the sense that it’s famous enough to spark recognition but not for its plot to be widely known, or for its characters to be the kind of ‘no explanation needed’ Halloween costume that gets you extra candy. But we all expect famous books to be famous for a reason, and that reason is usually (ask English Literature students anywhere) that they stand the test of time, they achieve the same effects across generations. I’d like to preface with the fact that I do not denigrate Thackeray’s skill or the novel’s pathbreaking nature, but consider why it doesn’t work half as well in the 21st century cultural imagination as it did with its original audience. Vanity Fair is fundamentally satire, which somewhat traps it in its own social context in the first place, but to me– in light perhaps of the storytelling tropes and mechanisms I’m used to– it often felt like too much of a stretch to find it genuinely funny, layered or relatable.
This is in part due to its focus on Rebecca ‘Becky’ Sharp– its scheming, scamming, sorely-morals-lacking protagonist. The fact, however, is that she isn’t a very layered or appealing central character because her ‘evil’ is just a little too textbook. Although its working title was “a novel without a hero” and the narrator reminds us of this often, the clearly protagonistic nature of Rebecca raised questions about the idea of the literary hero and made Thackeray revolutionary for breaking conventions. Since anti-heroes didn’t exist at the time, the subtitle was supposedly Thackeray highlighting her morally gray nature. It’s thus understandable that Rebecca was deeply intriguing at a time when giving her actions any sympathy was unheard of, because she lies, cheats and mythologises herself without any qualms but earns social merit in the process. But today, Rebecca’s characterisation seems reminiscent of your older relative who’s so desperate to seem cool and edgy that she’s on TikTok and winks conspiratorially at you before making tasteless jokes. She isn’t that remarkable now that we live in a world with no shortage of stories about people who are famous or socially elevated for strange, self-manufactured reasons– think Kardashian– or the villain whose work you appreciate but can’t condone, like Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belafonte or Ocean’s Eleven. Sure, Rebecca’s schemes are vaguely interesting as a fascinating case study in 19th century social mores and sometimes her comebacks are satisfying– but her motivations aren’t examined deeply enough to be relatable and make her two-dimensional. Social climbers are fun only when you can sympathise with them; yet every time you want to give Becky the benefit of doubt she does something more repulsive and almost uncharacteristic considering her need for social acceptance, such as hitting her son. She’s too mildly written to be truly shocking today and too inexplicably evil to actually be mysterious or layered as a character.
Some claim the subtitle was used because she is technically a heroine, and If you want to read Vanity Fair as a feminist work, there’s no doubt that Becky has more agency than most men in the novel– but the foil to Rebecca, Amelia Sedley, disproves this suggestion and feels trite. This comparison is a reflection of the classic “not like other girls” trope, where women are valued by men for displaying ‘manly’ traits like cunning, courage and aggression, as is seen in the fact that all the male characters including Amelia’s husband like garrulous Becky more than shy Amelia. Those who conform to the stereotype of a submissive, domesticated individual, as Amelia does in her obsessive parenting and inability to scheme her way out of social downfall, are automatically seen as worse than the other. As literary critics Owen and Knowles have explained, “many readers of 1848 were inclined to regard the novel as having a simple moral design” in contrasting the virtuous woman with the ambitious one. By the last few chapters, the point feels like it’s being hammered into your skull: sympathise with Becky, who makes every effort even if it is illegal, and feel jealous of Amelia who gets what she wants even though she only whines. The Guardian, in its placement of Vanity Fair at #14 on “100 Best Novels”, praises its “gaudy theatricality”, and of course, satire as a rule exaggerates character traits. Yet Amelia’s sheer submissiveness and blind love feel a little too ridiculous, just as Rebecca’s endless, increasingly problematic (her last act is actually implied to be murder) string of fraudulent endeavours do. Maybe the point is to highlight how absurd these people are, in which case I doff my hat to Thackeray– but reading hundreds of pages of it is difficult.
The narrator is the one part of the book that seems fresh and enticing, subverting your expectations with the kind of sass and light teasing that Rebecca constantly tries to emulate, a voice with fourth wall-breaking opinions and exposition. Contrasted with examples like Nick’s attempts at pointed objectivity in the Great Gatsby, this felt engaging and reminded me positively of Jane the Virgin’s biting humour or the deeply relatable voice in Too Hot To Handle. There are scathing comments about class that very clearly underpin the different character arcs, and it would be harsh to fault the novel for using this to achieve its purpose, sketching 1790s English society for the enjoyment of an audience in the later half of the same century. Class critique was once a part of its tongue-in-cheek charm, having for the modern reader the same effect as in Edith Wharton’s work where the background prejudices and issues are openly laid out. When you know whom to look down on, or whom to envy, you feel included enough in the social milieu to laugh along.
Surprisingly, issues of race are handled in a very unique way for a work of this era, especially where George Osborne– one of the main characters– is encouraged by his money-hungry father to marry a woman of Caribbean descent for her money. Only vitriolic Becky thinks she is “a thousand times cleverer [than] that Creole”, but most of the characters do not seem to consider her race a reason to shun her, even Rebecca grudgingly admitting her “fine pedigree”. This is just one of the ways in which the novel surprised me, and perhaps in disappointing my expectations Vanity Fair performed the same role Thackeray sketched out for it back in 1848, making the audience aware of the conventions they expect works to follow and thus forcing them to realise that there’s no such thing as “the perfect story”.