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Vanity Fair

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Title-page to Vanity Fair, drawn by Thackeray, who furnished the illustrations for many of his earlier editions
Title-page to Vanity Fair, drawn by Thackeray, who furnished the illustrations for many of his earlier editions

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero is a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that satirizes society in early 19th-century England. Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was published as a serial before being sold in book form; it was printed in 20 monthly parts between January 1847 and July 1848. (As was standard practice, the last part was a "double number" containing parts 19 and 20.) The parts resembled pamphlets, and contained the text of several chapters between outer pages of steel-plate engravings and advertising. Woodcut engravings, which could be set along with normal moveable type, appeared within the text. The same engraved illustration appeared on the canary-yellow cover of each monthly part; this colour became Thackeray's signature (as a light blue-green was Dickens'), allowing passers-by to notice a new Thackeray number in a bookstall from a distance. Vanity Fair was the first work that Thackeray published under his own name, and was extremely well-received at the time. The original monthly numbers and later bound version featured Thackeray's own illustrations, which at times provided plot hints or symbolically freighted images (a major character shown as a man-eating mermaid, for instance) to which the text does not explicitly refer. Most modern editions either do not reproduce all the illustrations, or reproduce them so badly that much detail is lost.

Thackeray meant the book to be not only entertaining but also instructive, an intention demonstrated through the book's narration and through Thackeray's private correspondence. The novel is now remembered as a classic of English literature, though some critics claim that it has structural problems; Thackeray sometimes lost track of the huge scope of his work, mixing up characters' names and minor plot details. The number of allusions and references it contains can make it difficult for modern readers to follow.

The term "vanity fair" originates from the allegorical story The Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678 by John Bunyan where there is a town fair held in a village called Vanity.

The novel has inspired several film adaptations.

Illustration to Chapter 6 drawn by Thackeray
Illustration to Chapter 6 drawn by Thackeray

Plot summary

The story opens at Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, where the principal protagonists Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley have just completed their studies and are preparing to depart for Amelia's house in Russell Square. Becky is portrayed as a strong-willed and cunning young woman determined to make her way in society, and Amelia Sedley is a good natured though simple-minded young girl. However, by the end of the novel, the reader will realize that neither character is unblemished.

At Russell Square, Miss Sharp is introduced to Captain George Osborne and to Amelia's brother Joseph Sedley, a clumsy and vainglorious but rich civil-servant fresh from India. Becky entices him and hopes to marry him, though eventually fails as a result of warnings from Captain Osbourne and his own native shyness and embarrassment that Becky had witnessed his foolish behaviour at Vauxhall.

With this Becky Sharp says farewell to Sedley's family and enters the service of the baronet Sir Pitt Crawley who has engaged her as a governess to his daughters. Her behaviour at Sir Pitt's house gains the favour of Sir Pitt, who after the premature death of his second wife, eventually proposes to her. Unfortunately for Becky (who would have gladly consented to becoming the next Lady Crawley) she is already secretly married to his son Rawdon Crawley.

Sir Pitt's half sister, the spinster Miss Crawley, is very rich having inherited her mother's fortune of £70,000. Where she will leave her great wealth is a source of constant conflict between the branches of the Crawley family who vie shamelessly for her affections; initially her favourite is Sir Pitt's younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. Miss Sharp elopes with him; but this misalliance so enrages Miss Crawley, that she eventually disinherits her nephew in favour of his elder brother.

While Becky Sharp is rising in the world, Amelia's father goes bankrupt. Captain George Osborne, persuaded by his friend Dobbin, marries Amelia despite her poverty and his ambitious father's fierce objections. His father wishes him to marry Miss Schwartz, a sugar plantation heiress from the West Indies and a contemporary of Amelia's at Miss Pinkerton's.

When all these personal incidents are going on, the Napoleonic Wars have been gearing up, and George Osborne and William Dobbin are suddenly deployed to Brussels, but not before an encounter with Becky and Captain Crawley at Brighton. The holiday is interrupted with orders to march to Brussels. Already, the newly wedded Osborne is growing tired of Amelia, and he becomes increasingly attracted to Becky.

At a ball in Brussels (based on the Duchess of Richmond's ball the night before Waterloo), George gives Becky a note inviting her to run away with him. The morning after, he is sent to Waterloo and dies in the battle. Amelia bears him a posthumous son, who is also named George. With the death of Osborne, Dobbin, who is young George's godfather, gradually begins to express his love for the widowed Amelia, but she is too much in love with George's memory to return his affections. Saddened, he goes to India for many years.

Meanwhile, Becky continues her ascent first in post-war Paris and then in London where she is patronised by the great Marquess of Steyne who covertly subsidises her and introduces to London society. Her success is unstoppable despite her iniquitous origins and she eventually meets the Prince Regent himself.

At the summit of her success, Becky's unsuitable relationship with the rich and omnipotent Marquess of Steyne is discovered by Rawdon, who leaves his wife and through the offices of Lord Steyne is made Governor of Coventry Island to get him out of England. Mrs Crawley, having lost both husband and credibility, is warned by Steyne to quit England and she becomes a wanderer on the continent. Wherever she goes, she is stalked by the shadow of Lord Steyne. No sooner has she established herself in some respectable company than one of Steyne's men somehow finds her and spreads rumours of her disreputable history - destroying her.

As Amelia's adored son George grows up, his grandfather becomes fond of him and takes him from poor Amelia who knows the rich and bitter old man will give him a much better start in life materially than she or her family could ever manage. Meanwhile both Joseph Sedley and William Dobbin return to England. Dobbin professes his unchanged love to Amelia, but although Amelia is also affectionate to Dobbin, she tells him she cannot forget the memory of her dead husband.

While in England, Dobbin manages a reconciliation between Amelia and her father-in-law. The death of George's grandfather gives Amelia and young George a large fortune.

After the death of old Mr Osborne, Amelia, Joseph, George and Dobbin go on a trip to Germany, where they encounter the destitute Becky. Dobbin quarrels with Amelia, and finally realizes that he is wasting his love on a woman too shallow to return it.

However, Becky, in a moment of conscience, shows Amelia the note that George (Amelia's dead husband) had given her, asking her to run away with him. This breaks George's idealised image in Amelia's mind, thus eventually bringing Dobbin and Amelia together.

Becky resumes her seduction of Joseph Sedley and gains control over him. He eventually dies of a suspicious ailment after signing a portion of his money to Becky as life insurance. In the original illustrations, which were done by Thackeray, Becky is shown behind a curtain with a phial (presumably of poison) in her hand; the picture is labelled 'Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra.' (She had played Clytemnestra during charades at a party earlier in the book.) His death appears to have made her fortune.

By a twist of fate Rawdon Crawley dies weeks before his elder brother whose son has already died. Thus the baronetcy descends to Rawdon's son. Had he outlived his brother by even a day he would have become Sir Rawdon Crawley and Becky would have become Lady Crawley - the title she uses regardless in later life.

The reader is informed at the end that although Dobbin married Amelia, and although he always treated her with great kindness, he never fully regained the love that he had once had for her.

Literary significance & criticism

Contemporary critics

Even before the last serial was published, critics hailed the work as a literary treasure. Although the critics were superlative in their praise, they expressed disappointment at the unremittingly dark portrayal of human nature, fearing he had taken his dismal metaphor too far. Thackeray responding to critics explained that he saw people for the most part "abominably foolish and selfish".[1] The unhappy ending aimed to cause readers to look inward at their own shortcomings.


The subtitle, A Novel without a Hero, is apt because the characters are all flawed to a greater or lesser degree; even the most sympathetic have weaknesses, for example Captain Dobbin who is prone to vanity and melancholy. The human weaknesses Thackeray illustrates are mostly to do with greed, idleness, and snobbery, and the scheming, deceit and hypocrisy which mask them. None of the characters are wholly evil, though. Even Becky, who is amoral and cunning, is thrown on her own resources by poverty and its stigma (she is the daughter of an artist who is in debt). This tendency of Thackeray's to highlight faults in all of his characters displays his desire for a greater level of realism in his fiction compared to the rather unlikely or idealised people in many contemporary novels.

The novel is a satire of society as a whole, characterised by hypocrisy and opportunism, but it is not a reforming novel; there is no suggestion that social or political changes, or greater piety and moral reformism could improve the nature of society. It thus paints a fairly bleak view of the human condition. This bleak portrait is continued with Thackarey's own role as an omniscient narrator, one of the writers best known for using the technique. He continually offers asides about his characters and compares them to actors and puppets, but his scorn goes even as far as his readers; accusing all who may be interested in such "Vanity Fairs" as being either "of a lazy, or a benevolent, or a sarcastic mood".

The work is often compared to the other great historical novel which covered the Napoleonic wars: Tolstoy's War and Peace. While Tolstoy's work has a greater emphasis on the historical detail and the effect the war has upon his protagonists, Thackeray instead uses the conflict as more of a backdrop to the lives of his characters. The momentous events on the continent do not always have an equally important influence on the behaviours of Thackeray's characters, rather their faults tend to compound over time. This is in contrast to the redemptive power conflict has on the characters in War and Peace. For Thackeray, the Napoleonic wars as a whole can be thought of as one more of the vanities expressed in the title.

The suggestion, near the end of the work, that Becky may have killed Jos is argued against by John Sutherland in his book Is Heathcliff A Murderer? : Great Puzzles In Nineteenth-century Fiction. Although Becky is portrayed as having a highly dubious moral sense, the idea that she would commit premeditated murder is quite a step forward for the character. Thackeray was a fierce critic of the crime fiction popular at the time, particularly that of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. These lurid and sensationalist accounts—known as "Newgate novels"—took their inspiration, and sometimes entire stories, from the pages of The Newgate Calendar. What Thackeray principally objected to was the glorification of a criminal's deeds; it therefore seems strange that he would have depicted Becky as such a villainess. His intent may have been to entrap the Victorian reader with their own prejudices and make them think the worst of Becky Crawley née Sharp even when they have no proof of her actions. This interpretation is not helped by the trio of lawyers she gets to defend her from the claims, Burke, Thurtell, and Hayes, named after prominent murders of the time (although this may have been further commentary aimed at the legal profession).

Though Thackeray does not settle definitively whether Becky murders Jos, such a development is in keeping with the overall trend of character development in the novel. The tone of Vanity Fair seems to darken as the book goes on. At the novel's beginning, Becky Sharp is a bright girl with an eye to improving her lot through marrying up the social scale; though she is thoroughly unsentimental, she is nonetheless portrayed as being a good friend to Amelia. By novel's end she is (implied to have become) an adulterer and a murderer. Amelia begins as a warm-hearted and friendly girl, though sentimental and naive, but by story's end she is portrayed as vacuous and shallow. Dobbin appears first as loyal and magnanimous, if unaware of his own worth; by the end of the story he is presented as a tragic fool, a prisoner of his own sense of duty who knows he is wasting his gifts on Amelia but is unable to live without her. Whether Thackeray intended this shift in tone when he began writing, or whether it developed over the course of the work's composition, is a question that cannot be settled. Regardless of its provenance, the novel's increasingly grim outlook can take readers aback, as characters whom Thackeray -- and the reader -- at first hold in sympathy are shown to be unworthy of such regard.

The character of Becky Sharp is based in part on Thackeray's maternal grandmother Harriet Becher. She abandoned her husband and children when she eloped with Captain Charles Christie. In 1806 shortly after the death of Christie and her husband she married Edward Butler another army officer. Thackeray lived with his grandmother in Paris in the 1830s and again in the 1840s.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Main article: Vanity Fair (film)

The book has inspired a number of film adaptations, the first being a silent movie in 1911. Notable movie versions include:

  • A 1932 film updated to set the scene at that date; see: Vanity Fair (1932 film).
  • The 1935 film Becky Sharp starring Miriam Hopkins and Frances Dee. Hopkins was nominated for best actress. First film shot completely in three-strip Technicolor.
  • A 1967 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 Theater.
  • A 1987 classic series produced by the BBC titled 'Vanity Fair', starring Eve Matheson as Becky Sharp and James Saxon as Jos Sedley.
  • A 1998 miniseries produced by the BBC titled 'Vanity Fair', starring Natasha Little as Becky Sharp.
  • A 2004 film directed by Mira Nair. The film received only mixed reviews and director Nair was criticized for softening the character of Becky Sharp, played by Reese Witherspoon, with the intent to modernize the story and characters; see: Vanity Fair (2004 film).


  1. ^ Gordon N. Ray, ed., The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1945-46), 2: 309.


  • Harden, Edgar F. (1995). Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-4460-6
  • Vanity Fair: ISBN 0-19-283443-6 (Oxford World Classics edition, that has explanatory notes and original illustrations)

External links

  • The Victorian Web - Thackeray's Illustrations to Vanity Fair
  • Vanity Fair, available freely at Project Gutenberg
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