The first episode of the recent ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair, in which we are introduced to the unscrupulous but admirable arch schemer Becky Sharp, did not particularly impress me. For a start, Olivia Cooke was too beautiful. In my imagination, like many attractive people, Miss Sharp dazzled her victims so that they simply could not see any defects of personality or appearance. Also, I remembered the novel as much funnier, more absurd.
I first read Vanity Fair as a teenager. I still have the book – it’s a 1901 edition given to me by my father, who was an antiquarian bookdealer, illustrated with the charming line drawings done by Thackeray himself. Thackeray hated Regency styles so gave all his characters 1840s clothes, which was a bit jarring at first because I loved empire styles, but the writing carried me through.
Ah, the writing. Like all the greats – Shakespeare, Trollope, Austen, Dickens – all human nature is here. Thackeray writes with verve; his humour sparkles off the page and dances through the absurdities of life in Vanity Fair. Well, it does for the first 350 pages (it’s a long book – 746 pages) and then becomes bogged down in digressive passages so dull I can’t remember what they are about (Lord Steyne’s genealogy?). Like many other novels, Vanity Fair was published as a serial, and the author and his publisher may have wanted to spin things out in order to increase sales. According to my kindle (the 1901 book is now too delicate to handle), I have read 68 per cent, but I’ve been madly scrolling through the boring bits and now I am unsure whether I will actually finish it.
Wisely, Gwyneth Hughes, who wrote the adaptation, ignored the dull bits, melded characters (Pitt Crawley and Bute Crawley became one), elided some of the plot and focused on the fortunes of Becky Sharp. And despite her overwhelming beauty Olivia Cooke did an excellent job. She is a real talent and I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of her. The rest of the cast was likewise excellent: I particularly loved Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt Crawley, Simon Russell Beale as Mr Sedley and Monica Dolan as Mrs O’Dowd.
The production is beautiful, with impressive locations. The Waterloo scenes are absurd, as is all war, but also superb. The strange juxtaposition of ballrooms and battles. The costumes are sumptuous, if anything too clean and perfect, but perhaps that just adds to the comic-book atmosphere.
The novel has some heart-sinking racist and antisemitic stereotypes, which were excised for the TV series. Although they were not unusual for the time of publication (1840s) they are ugly blots nevertheless and sit badly with Thackeray’s egalitarian (sort of) streak. Well, he was quite sneering about snobs, put it that way, and his The Book of Snobs, published in 1848, helped popularise the word snob.
Thackeray and his work have not entered the national consciousness in the way Dickens has. I knew almost nothing about his life, and still don’t know much. He was somewhat directionless as a young man, and abandoned studies at Cambridge, failed to finish his law training at the Middle Temple and squandered his inheritance on gambling and bad investments. He married Isabella Shawe and settled down to support his young family but Isabella fell into a depression and spent long periods in and out of asylums. He died of a stroke at the age of 52.
The brilliant parts of Vanity Fair shine out. The creation of Becky Sharp is a triumph of observation. After all, who does not know someone exactly like her? Who does not know a Dobbin? Or a George Osborne? But somehow I know I will not be exploring Thackeray’s other works in any great hurry.