Vanity Fair Franchise


Introduction

Vanity Fair is an English novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, which follows the lives of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley amid their friends and families during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

It was first published as a 19-volume monthly serial from 1847 to 1848, carrying the subtitle Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, which reflects both its satirisation of early 19th-century British society and the many illustrations drawn by Thackeray to accompany the text. It was published as a single volume in 1848 with the subtitle A Novel without a Hero, reflecting Thackeray’s interest in deconstructing his era’s conventions regarding literary heroism. It is sometimes considered the “principal founder” of the Victorian domestic novel.

Outline

Title

The book’s title comes from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a Dissenter allegory first published in 1678. In that work, “Vanity Fair” refers to a stop along the pilgrim’s route: a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity, which represents man’s sinful attachment to worldly things. Thackeray does not mention Bunyan in the novel or in his surviving letters about it, where he describes himself dealing with “living without God in the world”, but he did expect the reference to be understood by his audience, as shown in an 1851 Times article likely written by Thackeray himself.

Robert Bell – whose friendship later became so great that he was buried near Thackeray at Kensal Green Cemetery – complained that the novel could have used “more light and air” to make it “more agreeable and healthy”. Thackeray rebutted this with Evangelist’s words as the pilgrims entered Bunyan’s Vanity Fair: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”

From its appearance in Bunyan, “Vanity Fair” or a “vanity-fair” was also in general use for “the world” in a range of connotations from the blandly descriptive to the wearily dismissive to the condemning. By the 18th century, it was generally taken as a playground and, in the first half of the 19th century, more specifically the playground of the idle and undeserving rich. All of these senses appear in Thackeray’s work. The name “Vanity Fair” has also been used for at least 5 periodicals.

Plot Summary (Novel)

The story is framed by its preface and coda as a puppet show taking place at a fair; the cover illustration of the serial instalments was not of the characters but of a troupe of comic actors at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. The narrator, variously a show manager or writer, appears at times within the work itself and is somewhat unreliable, repeating a tale of gossip at second or third hand.

London, 1814. Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”), daughter of an art teacher and a French dancer, is a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless young woman determined to make her way in society. After leaving school, Becky stays with her friend Amelia Sedley (“Emmy”), who is a good-natured, simple-minded young girl, of a wealthy London family. There, Becky meets the dashing and self-obsessed Captain George Osborne (Amelia’s betrothed) and Amelia’s brother Joseph (“Jos”) Sedley, a clumsy and vainglorious but rich civil servant home from the East India Company. Hoping to marry Sedley, the richest young man she has met, Becky entices him, but she fails. George Osborne’s friend Captain William Dobbin loves Amelia, but only wishes her happiness, which is centred on George.

Becky Sharp says farewell to the Sedley family and enters the service of the crude and profligate baronet Sir Pitt Crawley, who has engaged her as a governess to his daughters. Her behaviour at Sir Pitt’s house gains his favour, and after the premature death of his second wife, he proposes marriage to her. However, he finds that Becky has secretly married his second son, Captain Rawdon Crawley, but Becky very much regrets having done this; she had no idea that his father’s wife would die so soon after. Sir Pitt’s elder half sister, the spinster Miss Crawley, is very rich, having inherited her mother’s fortune, and the whole Crawley family compete for her favour so she will bequeath them her wealth. Initially her favourite is Rawdon Crawley, but his marriage with Becky enrages her. First she favours the family of Sir Pitt’s brother, but when she dies, she has left her money to Sir Pitt’s eldest son, also called Pitt.

News arrives that Napoleon has escaped from Elba, and as a result the stockmarket becomes jittery, causing Amelia’s stockbroker father, John Sedley, to become bankrupt. George’s rich father forbids George to marry Amelia, who is now poor. Dobbin persuades George to marry Amelia, and George is consequently disinherited. George Osborne, William Dobbin and Rawdon Crawley are deployed to Brussels, accompanied by Amelia and Becky, and Amelia’s brother, Jos.

George is embarrassed by the vulgarity of Mrs. Major O’Dowd, the wife of the head of the regiment. The newly wedded Osborne is already growing tired of Amelia, and he becomes increasingly attracted to Becky, which makes Amelia jealous and unhappy. He is also losing money to Rawdon at cards and billiards. At a ball in Brussels, George gives Becky a note inviting her to run away with him. But then the army have marching orders to the Battle of Waterloo, and George spends a tender night with Amelia and leaves.

The noise of battle horrifies Amelia, and she is comforted by the brisk but kind Mrs. O’Dowd. Becky is indifferent and makes plans for whatever the outcome (for example, if Napoleon wins, she would aim to become the mistress of one of his Marshals). She also makes a profit selling her carriage and horses at inflated prices to Jos, who is seeking to flee Brussels.

George Osborne is killed at the Battle of Waterloo, while Dobbin and Rawdon survive the battle. Amelia bears him a posthumous son, who carries on the name George. She returns to live in genteel poverty with her parents, spending her life in memory of her husband and care of her son. Dobbin pays for a small annuity for Amelia and expresses his love for her by small kindnesses toward her and her son. She is too much in love with her husband’s memory to return Dobbin’s love. Saddened, he goes with his regiment to India for many years.

Becky also gives birth to a son, named Rawdon after his father. Becky is a cold, distant mother, although Rawdon loves his son. Becky continues her ascent first in post-war Paris and then in London where she is patronised by the rich and powerful Marquis of Steyne. She is eventually presented at court to the Prince Regent and charms him further at a game of “acting charades” where she plays the roles of Clytemnestra and Philomela. The elderly Sir Pitt Crawley dies and is succeeded by his son Pitt, who had married Lady Jane Sheepshanks, Lord Southdown’s third daughter. Becky is on good terms with Pitt and Jane originally, but Jane is disgusted by Becky’s attitude to her son and jealous of Becky’s relationship with Pitt.

At the summit of their social success, Rawdon is arrested for debt, possibly at Becky’s connivance. The financial success of the Crawleys had been a topic of gossip; in fact they were living on credit even when it ruined those who trusted them, such as their landlord, an old servant of the Crawley family. The Marquis of Steyne had given Becky money, jewels, and other gifts but Becky does not use them for expenses or to free her husband. Instead, Rawdon’s letter to his brother is received by Lady Jane, who pays the £170 that prompted his imprisonment.

He returns home to find Becky singing to Steyne and strikes him down on the assumption – despite her protestations of innocence – that they are having an affair. Steyne is indignant, having assumed the £1000 he had just given Becky was part of an arrangement with her husband. Rawdon finds Becky’s hidden bank records and leaves her, expecting Steyne to challenge him to a duel. Instead Steyne arranges for Rawdon to be made Governor of Coventry Island, a pest-ridden location. Becky, having lost both husband and credibility, leaves England and wanders the continent, leaving her son in the care of Pitt and Lady Jane.

As Amelia’s adored son George grows up, his grandfather Mr Osborne relents towards him (though not towards Amelia) and takes him from his impoverished mother, who knows the rich old man will give him a better start in life than she could manage. After twelve years abroad, both Joseph Sedley and Dobbin return. Dobbin professes his unchanged love to Amelia. Amelia is affectionate, but she cannot forget the memory of her dead husband. Dobbin mediates a reconciliation between Amelia and her father-in-law, who dies soon after. He had amended his will, bequeathing young George half his large fortune and Amelia a generous annuity.

After the death of Mr Osborne, Amelia, Jos, George and Dobbin go to Pumpernickel (Weimar in Germany), where they encounter the destitute Becky. Becky has fallen in life. She lives among card sharps and con artists, drinking heavily and gambling. Becky enchants Jos Sedley all over again, and Amelia is persuaded to let Becky join them. Dobbin forbids this, and reminds Amelia of her jealousy of Becky with her husband. Amelia feels that this dishonours the memory of her dead and revered husband, and this leads to a complete breach between her and Dobbin. Dobbin leaves the group and rejoins his regiment, while Becky remains with the group.

However, Becky has decided that Amelia should marry Dobbin, even though Becky knows Dobbin is her enemy. Becky shows Amelia George’s note, kept all this time from the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and Amelia finally realises that George was not the perfect man she always thought, and that she has rejected a better man, Dobbin. Amelia and Dobbin are reconciled and return to England. Becky and Jos stay in Europe. Jos dies, possibly suspiciously, after signing a portion of his money to Becky as life insurance, thereby setting her up with an income. She returns to England, and manages a respectable life, although all her previous friends refuse to acknowledge her.

Trivia

  • The story is framed as a puppet play, and the narrator, despite being an authorial voice, is somewhat unreliable.
  • The serial was a popular and critical success; the novel is now considered a classic and has inspired several audio, film, and television adaptations.
  • It also inspired the title of the British lifestyle magazine first published in 1868, which became known for its caricatures of famous people of Victorian and Edwardian society.
  • In 2003, Vanity Fair was listed at No. 122 on the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the UK’s best-loved books.

Vanity Fair Film and TV Series

  • Silent Films:
    • Vanity Fair (1911), directed by Charles Kent.
    • Vanity Fair (1915), directed by Charles Brabin.
    • Vanity Fair (1922), directed by W. Courtney Rowden.
    • Vanity Fair (1923), directed by Hugo Ballin.
  • Sound Films:
    • Vanity Fair (1932), directed by Chester M. Franklin and starring Myrna Loy, updating the story to make Becky Sharp a social-climbing governess.
    • Becky Sharp (1935), starring Miriam Hopkins and Frances Dee, the first feature film shot in full-spectrum Technicolor.
    • Vanity Fair (2004), directed by Mira Nair and starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp and Natasha Little, who had played Becky Sharp in the earlier television miniseries of Vanity Fair, as Lady Jane Sheepshanks.
  • Television:
    • Vanity Fair (1956-1957), a BBC serial adapted by Constance Cox starring Joyce Redman.
    • Vanity Fair (1967), a BBC miniseries adapted by Rex Tucker starring Susan Hampshire as Becky Sharp, for which she received an Emmy Award in 1973. This version was also broadcast in 1972 in the US on PBS television as part of Masterpiece Theatre.
    • Yarmarka tshcheslaviya (1976), a two-episode TV miniseries directed by Igor Ilyinsky and Mariette Myatt, staged by the Moscow State Academic Maly Theater of the USSR) (in Russian).
    • Vanity Fair (1987), a BBC miniseries starring Eve Matheson as Becky Sharp, Rebecca Saire as Amelia Sedley, James Saxon as Jos Sedley and Simon Dormandy as Dobbin.
    • Vanity Fair (1998), a BBC miniseries starring Natasha Little as Becky Sharp.
    • Vanity Fair (2018), a seven-part ITV and Amazon Studios adaptation, starring Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp, Tom Bateman as Captain Rawdon Crawley, and Michael Palin as Thackeray.
  • Theatre:
    • Becky Sharp (1899), play written by Langdon Mitchell.
    • Vanity Fair (1946), play written by Constance Cox.
    • Vanity Fair (2017), play written by Kate Hamill.

Production & Filming Details

  • Release Date: Various.
  • Running Time: Various.
  • Rating: Various.
  • Country: UK.
  • Language: English.

Video Link(s)

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