Friday, August 14, 2009


I have just indulged in a rather interesting experiment. While reading Thackeray's novel, I've also been able to watch the six part BBC serialization starring Natasha Little as Becky Sharp. I'll comment on this BBC serial later--but first to the novel itself.

Well, it's a very good novel. Certainly one of the best from the Victorian period which it parodies so beautifully. Becky Sharp is a fine literary creation and the personal embodiment of that "Vanity Fair" which Thackeray, on the one hand, appears to despise so much, while winking at us in happy glee and suggesting "it ain't such a bad place after all" (by gad!)on the other. All the main characters are fully realized and mercilessly exposed in their weaknesses by the unrelenting author.

Becky, as I have said, is the very embodiment of the superficial, and finally worthless, attractions on offer in the pitiless and unrelenting world of "Vanity Fair" which raises people up for a moment, only to mercilessly crush them forever after they have strutted for their little pompous moment on the high society stage. Amelia's Major Dobbin is the only really honourable character in the book--and he is continually trampled over by all the bright young things who want to make their momentary splash in "Vanity Fair". Thackeray describes him as a "spooney" and, indeed, he spends most of the novel as Amelia's platonic lover who dare not ask for more than the little she will give him. Becky Sharp is the real hero, heroine or "anti-heroine" of this novel "without a hero". She manipulates everyone with the most perfect judgement and lives for the joy of Vanity Fair's thousand intrigues. Her husband Rawdon's unexpected escape from a debtor's house and subsequent discovery of his wife making love to the Marquis of Steyne (and his resultant thrashing of that gentleman) is probably the most dramatic moment in the book. However, Becky--if not her husband or the Marquis--is able to move beyond even this catastrophe.

Vanity Fair is not without faults for the modern reader. Sometimes Thackeray indulges in page after page of almost nonsensical parody of the contemporary society of his day and this comes across (in the 21st century) as even worse than Swift's most obscure rants in Gulliver's Travels on the Tory/Whig politics of his time. Thankfully, Thackeray doesn't usually detain his reader long in such tedious environs, but soon gets his marvellously readable story moving again.

As I wrote earlier, I have been watching the 1998 BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair while actually reading the novel itself--and it's been quite a revealing experience. Of course, one sympathises with the person responsible for making the adaptation. How is it possible to condense the action of more than 800 pages into a 6 hour serial? No doubt it's an impossible task, but I was, mostly, impressed with the beeb's minor success. The adaptation is well done, though it's not without blemish and, most notably, substitutes some of Thackeray's prejudices for several of our own time. For example,(in the novel) Becky's husband, Rawdon, thrashes Lord Steyne with his open hand to make the point that he regards him as a coward and expects to be satisfied in a duel. The beeb substituted a drunken head-butt for this subtle assault--presumably because they thought this was more acceptable to late 20th century British yob culture. Again, the serialization accurately includes a black manservant in the Sedley family. However, he (the black manservant) is given a far larger part in the adaptation than in Thackeray's novel (where, indeed, he is hardly more than a wretched slave). Wouldn't it have been better to simply cut this character out altogether rather than have him purposelessly wandering through every episode full of a somewhat threatening "joie de vivre"? Nevertheless, as I wrote earlier, the adaptation is probably ALMOST as good as it could have been in the circumstances. In particular, Natasha Little is quite enchanting as Rebecca Sharp.

So now I move on in my reading to weightier matter: "The Brothers Karamazov" awaits!


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