The first Victorian novel that I fell in love with was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero (1847-48). Probably Thackeray’s most famous novel, it seems to have fallen from the canon and certainly from most undergraduate reading lists. This is a sad state of affairs. Thackeray’s novel is important because of his satire of Regency England, his depiction of the Napoleonic Wars from the perspective of privileged aristocrats, the cruel torture of Amelia and her stupidity when faced with sincere love, but most of all, his portrayal of the unstoppable Becky Smith.
The BBC and Hollywood have made multiple attempts to capture this story on film but none off them really work as adaptations. I think this is because Thackeray’s novel does not have a hero or a successful romance to exploit the way Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, or Middlemarch can offer. Instead, you have Becky Sharp, who is the perfect judge of emerging Victorian middle-class society.
Abandoned, multinational, poor, beautiful, she is thrown into the world with little more than a governess position to support herself. She knows her life as set out will be a disastrous experience of hard work without any payoff. Therefore, she rebels. She lies, cheats, and steals from the very people who would mock her poverty and lack of connections. Instead of being sexually exploited by her employer, she exploits him. Instead of being abused by the children she is forced to teach, she neglects them, instead of feeling trapped by a marriage of convenience and a child she does not want, she pushes them aside for the fulfillment of her own desires. Becky survives by taking care of herself and expecting everyone else to do the same.
There is a point in the narrative when we catch up with Becky in Europe before she reunites with Amelia and her son. She is in a den of thieves, prostitutes and other figures of ill repute and she is perfectly at home. Despite her social “ruin” she finds happiness and joy being who she is. There is something satisfying to know that no matter how much society punishes her, it really does not matter. Those who rejected her were a game to exploit. None of them were her real friends or family. She relies on no one but herself.
We see this at the very end of the novel. Dobbin and Amelia are married and it was not a romantic union. Amelia’s absurdity is essentially broken when Dobbin’s moral superiority is exposed. This diminishes her power and silences her voice. Becky is not silenced. She has created a new role for herself living an independent life and financially supported by her son.
The image above has the caption: “Virtue rewarded. A booth in Vanity Fair” – Becky has sold her virtue and in return she is rewarded. Amelia’s goodness essentially bites her in the ass.
Thackeray’s portrayal of Amelia as detestable and Becky as a survivor subvert Victorian gender roles before those roles were even established. Thackeray’s novel is honest, funny, emotionally profound, morally ambiguous, cruel, vicious, and completely satisfying. I highly recommend this novel. Do not be afraid of its size.
One more note, make sure you get either the Norton Critical Edition or the Oxford World’s Classics edition. Thackeray drew satirical images to go along with the novel and these are the only modern editions to include his images. Look for the one of Becky as Napoleon and the controversial image of Miss Swartz. She is depicted in an offensive and stereotypical manner (she is the mixed race heiress who went to school with Amelia and Becky) but the mores of the 1840s) but know this: Swartz is wealthy, happy, and a friend to both Becky and Amelia without any reservation. Despite the mockery of the Osborne family, she is the most honest and sincerely kind characters in the book. I think what comes across as a racist portrayal of Swartz is really a condemnation of a society who would belittle her for her race and exploit her for her money. Thackeray, of a mixed race background himself, would know that hypocrisy first hand.