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ClassicsOnline Home » THACKERAY, W.M.: Vanity Fair (Abridged)
Vanity Fair, with its rich cast of characters, takes place on the snakes-and-ladders board of life. Amelia Sedley, daughter of a wealthy merchant, has a loving mother to supervise her courtship. Becky Sharp, an orphan, has to use her wit, charm, and resourcefulness to escape from her destiny as a governess. This she does ruthlessly, musing ‘I think I could become a good woman, if I had £5000 a year.’ Thackeray’s story is set at the time of the battle of Waterloo, in which the Sedley fortunes are lost—and Amelia is back to square one—while Becky rises with contemptuous ease.
In its clear-eyed detachment, Vanity Fair seems to belong
more to Henry Fielding’s 18th century, than to the era of Dickens. Yet William
Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) had more in common with his great contemporary
than the differences in their work might suggest. Born within a year of each
other—Thackeray in Calcutta, Dickens in Portsmouth—they both had cause to feel
rejected by their mothers. Thackeray’s father—a rich ‘collector’—died before he
was six: the widow promptly sent her boy to England to be educated, and soon
remarried. Dickens’ mother saw no injustice in sending her talented boy to work
in a factory when her husband was jailed for bankruptcy.
After Charterhouse and Trinity, Cambridge, Thackeray studied
art in Paris, where he gambled away his inheritance. He then toyed with law,
but was driven to journalism to support his family. Under a series of
pseudonyms he wrote verse, burlesques and parodies for a variety of
He had married at 25, but after four years his adored wife
became incurably insane, leaving him with three little daughters, and her to
maintain in a mental home. After his unhappy married life, Dickens separated
from the wife he had found dull company. Both he and Thackeray had mistresses,
both lectured in America, and both died suddenly, leaving unfinished novels.
But here the similarities end: whereas Dickens was a true
Victorian, Thackeray felt he had been born too late. All his novels, apart from
Vanity Fair, are set in his beloved 18th century, and are underpinned by
uncannily accurate historical realism.
Vanity Fair—the first novel he published under his own name—
appeared in monthly installments in 1847-8. It is set in the Regency period,
during and after the battle of Waterloo. As a child, when his ship called at
St. Helena en route for England, Thackeray had seen Napoleon walking in the
gardens of Longwood: this memory surfaces in the novel.
Thackeray claimed he simply woke up one day with the title
Vanity Fair in his head. In the preface—The Curtain Rises—he invites his
audience to ‘step in for half an hour and look at the performances’. He ends
his novel with he words ‘Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets,
for our play is played out’. He may have been detached from mankind, but never
his marionettes. There is little sentimentality in his approach; any
inconsistencies and awkward time shifts must be partly due to his having
written the novel in serial form.
If the central character in Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is a
Fieldingesque anti-hero, Becky Sharp is no less an anti-heroine. Full of guile
and treachery, outwitting her opponents as she climbs the social ladder, she
clearly fascinated her creator as much as she delights and amuses the reader.
This Circe breaks necks in her ruthless ascent, but she captivates in the
Thackeray’s Book of Snobs was a hilarious exposé of the
hypocrisy of early Victorian society: a similar satirical view permeates Vanity
Fair. Amelia Sedley is introduced as ‘a dear little creature’ but the author’s attitude
to her is deeply ambivalent: he first praises her tenderness and devotion, and
then adds that ‘Vanity Fair is yawning over it’. Incapable of appreciating the
altruistic love of Captain Dobbin, she finally becomes ‘our little simpleton’.
Before his death, Thackeray instructed his executors not to
publish any biography. Most of his novels—he wrote six—are little read, and
details about his life remain scanty. But in recent decades his reputation has
begun to raise, thanks in part to Stanley Kubrick’s superb film of Barry
Lyndon. In life, Thackeray never achieved either the fame or the fortune of
Dickens. Perhaps, in these disillusioned times, his hour has finally come.
Notes by Betty Tadman
Jane Lapotaire’s career has encompassed major roles in
theater, television and film, during which time she has twice won the Variety
Club of Great Britain Award for Best Actress, as well as The Society of West
End Theatre Award, the Plays and Players Award and a New York Tony Award. With
the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has played Gertrude opposite Kenneth Branagh
in Hamlet and Mrs. Alving in Ghosts. Her films include Anthony and Cleopatra,
Surviving Picasso and Shooting Fish. She is Honorary President of The Bristol
Old Vic Theatre Club and has been President of The Friends of Shakespeare’s Globe
since its re-launch in 1996.
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THACKERAY, W.M.: Vanity Fair (Abridged)