Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair, Universal Studios 2004

Vanity Fair, Willaim Makepeace Thackeray, 1848


William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a savage critique of a corrupt, greedy, and hypocritical society hidebound by its prides and prejudices. He writes with bitter irony, exposing illusions and delusions, and showing the ceaseless striving after power, wealth and love as a “vanity of vanities, and a striving after wind,” as the Bible says – hence the title. And yet the book is wonderfully funny, witty, even romantic. This apparent paradox is embodied in the character of that “artful little minx” Rebecca Sharp.

Thackeray (1811-1863) endows Rebecca with all the qualities which make his own writing so delightful. He flatters and charms his characters to their faces, and then laughs and mimics them mercilessly behind their backs – just Becky’s style! Furthermore, he portrays Rebecca as an artist —  the lost, brilliant child of a singer and a painter, singing and dancing, scheming and dreaming her way though life.

It is as an artist that Thackeray appreciates Becky Sharp, and it is an artist that director Mira Nair approaches Vanity Fair. Nair has certainly chosen to accentuate the positive in her movie, and even to add a fanciful ending; but her interpretation, vividly colored by her own experiences, is amply supported by the text.

Making a movie from a book is a very elaborate form of reading, and Nair’s movie is an inspired and exceptionally well-researched reading of Vanity Fair. Alas, a cannonade of negative reviews chased it out of the theaters after a short run.

What sharp and stinging barbs Thackeray would have cast at those vain and foolish critics who panned Vanity Fair after praising a movie like Possession — such a shallow reading and pointless evisceration of A.S. Byatt’s book that it seemed as if the director had barely read the synopsis, much less the book.

Critics who condemned the movie because they considered Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp too charming reminded me of the first time I read Vanity Fair, in high school a long, long time ago. Some other girls, whom I secretly suspected of skimming the 900-page book, all agreed that Amelia was good and Rebecca was bad. I considered Amelia a pale, insipid, silly little drip, and wrote a passionate defense of the sublime literary creation whose name I happen to share. Once again, I lift my pen to defend the honor of my namesake, played to perfection by lovely Witherspoon in Nair’s delightful film.

Those critics didn’t seem to realize that while Thackeray repeatedly tells us that Rebecca is wicked and Amelia is good, what he shows us is something quite different indeed.  Left with no money, no noble name, no prospects in life, Becky Sharp determines to make her own way in the world. It is the early nineteenth century; law, medicine, business, the church, and even the arts  are all closed to her. She is wonderfully musical, but an amateur without proper training; the theater was not considered respectable. She could have spent her life as a governess or lady’s companion – and Thackerary paints a pathetic portrait of  poor, simpering sycophants in that line of work. Rebecca’s talent is for life, and her only hope is marriage. She does marry a man, Rawdon Crawley, a younger son of a fine old family gone to seed. She is genuinely fond of him, but he is disinherited for marrying a lowly governess, and then nobly refuses to demean himself by working for a living. They sink into poverty. After sighing that she could be good if she had an income of a few thousand pounds a year, Rebecca tries to establish herself in society by using her charms on a decadent rich old Marquis who supports their household for years, until her her husband belatedly does the math and leaves her alone and penniless once again.

Thackeray draws many subtle parallels between “bad” Becky and “good” Amelia and even better Jane, Becky’s pious sister-in-law.  “Bad” Becky marries above her station and then flirts with, and accepts money from, another man. How dreadful! But wait —  “good” Amelia, who is constantly praised for being sweet, submissive, and a little stupid, also marries above her station and, after her husband’s death, ever so chastely flirts with another man, Major Dobbin, and ever so sweetly allows him to support her for years. Wicked Becky tries to persuade Rawdon’s rich aunt, old Miss Crawley, to leave Rawdon her money – but wait! Virtuous Jane (nee Lady Jane Sheepshanks – is Thackeray, such a master of funny names, trying to tell us something here?) marries Rawdon’s boring brother Pitt, and then actually moves in with the old lady and virtuously cajoles her into leaving all her money to Pitt. Bewitching little Becky is a heartless flirt, no doubt about it, but she only flirts heartlessly with other heartless flirts; Amelia breaks the heart of her genuinely devoted admirer, exploits and torments the love-sick man for years, and then only marries him when he is no longer quite so much in love with her, and she has long since lost her youthful charms.

One really wicked thing about Becky: she is a terrible mother, who neglects her only son and eventually allows him to be given away and brought up by his rich relations. But good Amelia terribly spoils her only son, and eventually gives him away to be brought up by his rich relations. At least Becky’s son receives a good education, paid for by the Marquis, while Amelia’s son is tutored by foolish flattering toadies. And in the end, Becky’s son inherits the wealth and rank of the Crawley house, while Amelia’s son shows every sign of turning into a vain and foolish fop, just like his father. Furthermore, Thackeray darkly hints that pious Jane hastens the death of her own son by treating his fatal illness with prayers and ridiculous patent medicines.

It is true that in the last hundred pages of Vanity Fair, Thackeray briefly changes his tone and turns against Rebecca in some particularly unkind passages; he then adds insult to injury by giving Amelia a sudden deep appreciation of the music of Mozart. But he can’t sustain his attack of righteousness, and comes back to Rebecca. It is she who performs the single most noble, selfless, and romantic act in the whole book, when she reveals to Amelia poor Dobbin’s true worth in the end.

Thackeray was born in India, and India is everywhere in the novel. Several of the men go there and make their fortunes; there are curries, cashmere shawls, and references to elephants in nearly every chapter. The Indian-born director Nair magnifies the Indian element, and fills the screen with peacock feathers, pink silk, and premonitions of the evils of colonialism yet to come. Rebecca, like India, is brilliant, seductive, exotic, and dangerous. Her worst crime is that she is not “one of us,” as a later critic of colonialism, Joseph Conrad, put it so well, and her fatal flaw is her longing to be accepted by a society which will always see her as an outsider.

Thackeray hated hypocrisy more than anything, and he would have had some harsh words to say about film critics who thrashed Nair’s Vanity Fair after smiling blandly when poor Henry James was butchered and tarted up beyond all recognition in several recent films. They all complained about the silly dance scene in Vanity Fair, although there are countless examples of such  Orientalisms in the art of the era in which Vanity Fair takes place; the scene is pretty racy in the book, too. None of them minded the silly dance scene in The Golden Bowl, which was not in the book, and had no historical justification at all.

Thackeray’s book is full of sly, mischevious asides and Becky-esque winks at the reader. He would probably have relished the movie and had a good laugh at Nair’s sending Becky off to India, triumphantly, on the back of an elephant at the end. This fanciful flourish, this little  touch of Bollywood, is a profoundly Thackerayan wink, which Nair has earned precisely because she was so faithful, in her fashion, to the text.

See for yourself: there’s just enough time to read or reread the book (all 900 pages!) before Vanity Fair comes out on DVD.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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