Vanity Fair (novel)
Title page to the first issue of the Vanity Fair serial, whose canary-yellow color became a Thackeray hallmark. Thackeray was also responsible for its illustrations.
|Author||William Makepeace Thackeray|
|Illustrator||William Makepeace Thackeray|
|Publisher||Punch magazine (serialized)|
|January 1847 and July 1848 (serialized in 20 parts)|
Vanity Fair is an English novel by William Makepeace Thackeray which follows the lives of Becky Sharp and Emmy 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 Life, reflecting 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.
The story is framed as a puppet play and the narrator, despite being an authorial voice, is notoriously unreliable. Late in the narrative, it is revealed that the entire account has been 2nd- or 3rd-hand gossip the writer picked up "years ago" from Lord Tapeworm, British charge d'affaires in one of the minor German states and relative of several of the other aristocrats in the story but none of the main characters: "the famous little Becky puppet", "the Amelia Doll", "the Dobbin Figure", "the Little Boys", and "the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared". Despite her many stated faults and still worse ones admitted to have been passed over in silence, Becky emerges as the "hero"—what is now called an antihero—in place of Amelia because Thackeray is able to illustrate that "the highest virtue a fictional character can possess is interest."
The serial was a popular and critical success; the novel is now considered a classic and has inspired several film adaptations. In 2003, Vanity Fair was listed at #122 on the BBC's The Big Read poll of the UK's best-loved books.
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 is meant to represent 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. In a letter to the critic Robert Bell—whose friendship later became so great that he was buried near Thackeray at Kensal Green Cemetery—Thackeray rebutted his complaint that the novel could have used with "more light and air" to make it "more agreeable and healthy" 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 story is framed by its preface and coda as a puppet show taking place at a fair; the cover illustration of the serial installments 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 highly unreliable, repeating a tale of gossip at second or third hand.
Rebecca Sharp ("Becky") is a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless, young woman determined to make her way in society. After leaving school, Becky stays with 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 she has secretly married his second son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. (Becky very much regrets having done that; however, when she married Rawdon 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 oldest son, also called Pitt.
Amelia's father, John Sedley, becomes 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. News arrives that Napoleon has escaped from Elba, so 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. Already, the newly wedded Osborne is 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 (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, seeking to flee Brussels.
George Osborne is killed at Quatre Bras, while Dobbin and Rawdon survive Waterloo. Amelia bears 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 has 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 she 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, setting her up with an income. She returns to England, and manages a respectable life, although all her previous friends refuse to acknowledge her.
Emmy Sedley (Amelia)
Amelia, called Emmy, is good-natured but passive and naïve. Not very beautiful, she is frequently ignored by men and women but is well-liked by most men who get to know her because of her personality. This popularity is then resented by other women. She begins the work as its heroine ("selected for the very reason that she was the best-natured of all") and marries the dashing George Osborne against his father's wishes, but the narrator is soon forced to admit "she wasn't a heroine" after all as she remains soppily devoted to him despite his neglect of her and his flirtation with Becky. After George dies in the Battle of Waterloo, she brings up little George alone while living with her parents. She is completely dominated by her spendthrift father, who, it is revealed, sells the annuity Jos had provided in order to finance one of failing investment schemes and by her increasingly peevish mother. Amelia becomes obsessed with her son and the memory of her husband. She ignores William Dobbin, who courts her for years and treats him shabbily until he leaves. Only when Becky shows her George's letter to her is Amelia able to move on, though she informs Becky that she has already written to Dobbin to ask him to come back. She eventually marries Dobbin.
In a letter to his close friend Jane Octavia Brookfield while the book was being written, Thackeray confided that "You know you are only a piece of Amelia, my mother is another half, my poor little wife y est pour beaucoup". Within the work, her character is compared and connected to Iphigenia, although two of the references extend the allusion to all daughters in all drawing rooms as potential Iphigenias waiting to be sacrificed by their families. Her sacrifice of her child to her wealthy relatives is compared to the biblical Hannah.
Becky Sharp (Rebecca)
Rebecca Sharp, called Becky, is Amelia's opposite, an intelligent young woman with a gift for satire. She is described as a short sandy haired girl who has green eyes and a great deal of wit. Fluent in both French and English, Becky has a beautiful singing voice, plays the piano, and shows great talent as an actress. Without a mother to guide her into marriage, Becky resolves that "I must be my own Mamma". She thereafter appears to be completely amoral and without conscience and has been called the work's "anti-heroine". She does not seem to have the ability to get attached to other people, and lies easily and intelligently to get her way. She is extremely manipulative and, after the first few chapters and her failure to attract Jos Sedley, is not shown as being particularly sincere. Never having known financial or social security even as a child, Becky desires it above all things. Nearly everything she does is with the intention of securing a stable position for herself, or herself and her husband after she and Rawdon are married. She advances Rawdon's interests tirelessly, flirting with men such as General Tufto and the Marquis of Steyne in order to get him promoted. She also uses her feminine wiles to distract men at card parties while Rawdon cheats them blind. Marrying Rawdon Crawley in secret was a mistake, as was running off instead of begging Miss Crawley's forgiveness. She also fails to manipulate Miss Crawley through Rawdon so as to obtain an inheritance. Although Becky manipulates men very easily, she does not even try to cultivate the friendship of most women. She is utterly hostile to Lady Bareacres and Lady Jane, the Dobbin sisters, and Lady Steyne see right through her. Amelia and (initially) Miss Crawley are exceptions to the rule.
Beginning with her determination to be her "own Mamma", Becky begins to assume the role of Clytemnestra. Becky and her necklace from Steyne also allude to the fallen Eriphyle in Racine's retelling of Iphigenia at Aulis, where she doubles and rescues Iphigenia. In lesser contexts, Becky also appears as Arachne to Miss Pinkerton's Minerva and as a variety of classical figures in the works' illustrations.
Rawdon, the younger of the two Crawley sons, is an empty-headed cavalry officer who is his wealthy aunt's favourite until he marries Becky Sharp, who is of a far lower class. He permanently alienates his aunt, who leaves her estate to Rawdon's elder brother Sir Pitt instead. Sir Pitt has by this time inherited their father's estate, leaving Rawdon destitute.
The well-meaning Rawdon does have a few talents in life, most of them having to do with gambling and duelling. He is very good at cards and billiards, and although he does not always win he is able to earn cash by betting against less talented gamblers. He is heavily indebted throughout most of the book, not so much for his own expenses as for Becky's. Not particularly talented as a military officer, he is content to let Becky manage his career.
Although Rawdon knows Becky is attractive to men, he believes her reputation is spotless even though she is widely suspected of romantic intrigue with General Tufto and other powerful men. Nobody dares to suggest otherwise to Rawdon because of his temper and his reputation for duelling. Yet other people, particularly the Marquis of Steyne, find it impossible to believe that Crawley is unaware of Becky's tricks. Steyne in particular believes Rawdon is fully aware Becky is prostituting herself, and believes Rawdon is going along with the charade in the hope of financial gain.
After Rawdon finds out the truth and leaves Becky for an assignment overseas, he leaves his son to be brought up by his brother Sir Pitt and his wife Lady Jane. While overseas, Rawdon dies of Malaria.
Sir Pitt Crawley, Baronet
Rawdon Crawley's elder brother is ignorant, boorish, and mean. He inherits the Crawley estate from his elderly father, and he also inherits from his wealthy aunt, Miss Crawley. Sir Pitt is very religious and has political aspirations, although not many people appreciate his intelligence or wisdom because there's not much there to appreciate. Somewhat pedantic and conservative, Sir Pitt does nothing to help Rawdon or Becky even when they fall on hard times. This is chiefly due to the influence of his wife Lady Jane who dislikes Becky because of her callous treatment of her son, and also because Becky repaid Lady Jane's earlier kindness by patronizing her and flirting with Sir Pitt.
Miss Matilda Crawley
The elderly Miss Crawley is everyone's favourite wealthy aunt. Sir Pitt and Rawdon both dote on her, although Rawdon is her favourite nephew and sole heir until he marries Becky. While Miss Crawley likes Becky and keeps her around to entertain her with sarcasm and wit, and while she loves scandal and particularly stories of unwise marriage, she does not want scandal or unwise marriage in her family. A substantial part of the early section of the book deals with the efforts the Crawleys make to kowtow to Miss Crawley in the hope of receiving a big inheritance.
George Osborne, his father, and his two sisters are close to the Sedley family until Mr. Sedley (the father of Jos and Amelia) goes bankrupt following some ill-advised speculation. Since George and Amelia were raised in close company and were childhood sweethearts, George defies his father in order to marry Amelia. Before father and son can be reconciled, George is killed at the battle of Waterloo, leaving the pregnant Amelia to carry on as well as she can.
Raised to be a selfish, vain, profligate spender, handsome and self-obsessed, George squanders the last of the money he receives from his father and sets nothing aside to help support Amelia. After marrying Amelia, he finds after a couple of weeks that he is bored. He flirts with Becky quite seriously and is reconciled to Amelia only a short time before he is killed in battle.
The best friend of George Osborne, William Dobbin is tall, ungainly, and not particularly handsome. He is a few years older than George but has been friends with him since his school days even though Dobbin's father is a fig-merchant and the Osbornes belong to the genteel class and have become independently wealthy. He defends George and is blind to his faults in many ways although he tries to force George to do the right thing. He pushes George to keep his promise to marry Amelia even though Dobbin is in love with Amelia himself. After George is killed, Dobbin puts together an annuity to help support Amelia, ostensibly with the help of George's fellow officers.
Later, Dobbin discreetly does what he can to help support Amelia and also her son George. He allows Amelia to continue with her obsession over George and does not correct her erroneous beliefs about him. He hangs about for years, either pining away over her while serving in India or waiting on her in person, allowing her to take advantage of his good nature. After Amelia finally chooses Becky's friendship over his during their stay in Germany, Dobbin leaves in disgust. He returns when Amelia writes to him and admits her feelings for him, marries her (despite having lost much of his passion for her), and has a daughter whom he loves deeply.
Amelia's older brother, Joseph "Jos" Sedley, is a "nabob", who made a respectable fortune as a collector in India. Obese and self-important but very shy and insecure, he is attracted to Becky Sharp but circumstances prevent him from proposing. He never marries, but when he meets Becky again he is easily manipulated into falling in love with her. Jos is not a courageous or intelligent man, displaying his cowardice at the Battle of Waterloo by trying to flee and purchasing both of Becky's overpriced horses. Becky ensnares him again near the end of the book and, it is hinted, murders him for his life insurance.
Thackeray may have begun working out some of the details of Vanity Fair as early as 1841 but probably began writing it in late 1844. 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 for Punch by Bradford & Evans in London. The first three had already been completed before publication, while the others were written after it had begun to sell. As was standard practice, the last part was a "double number" containing parts 19 and 20. Surviving texts, his notes, and letters show that adjustments were made—e.g., the Battle of Waterloo was delayed twice—but that the broad outline of the story and its principal themes were well established from the beginning of publication.
- No. 1 (January 1847) Ch. 1–4
- No. 2 (February 1847) Ch. 5–7
- No. 3 (March 1847) Ch. 8–11
- No. 4 (April 1847) Ch. 12–14
- No. 5 (May 1847) Ch. 15–18
- No. 6 (June 1847) Ch. 19–22
- No. 7 (July 1847) Ch. 23–25
- No. 8 (August 1847) Ch. 26–29
- No. 9 (September 1847) Ch. 30–32
- No. 10 (October 1847) Ch. 33–35
- No. 11 (November 1847) Ch. 36–38
- No. 12 (December 1847) Ch. 39–42
- No. 13 (January 1848) Ch. 43–46
- No. 14 (February 1848) Ch. 47–50
- No. 15 (March 1848) Ch. 51–53
- No. 16 (April 1848) Ch. 54–56
- No. 17 (May 1848) Ch. 57–60
- No. 18 (June 1848) Ch. 61–63
- No. 19/20 (July 1848) Ch. 64–67
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's, 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. After the conclusion of its serial publication, it was printed as a bound volume by Bradford & Evans in 1848 and was quickly picked up by other London printers as well. As a collected work, the novels bore the subtitle A Novel without a Hero.</ref> By the end of 1859, royalties on Vanity Fair had only given Thackeray about £2000, a third of his take from The Virginians, but was responsible for his still more lucrative lecture tours in Britain and the United States.
From his first draft and following publication, Thackeray occasionally revised his allusions to make them more accessible for his readers. In Chapter 5, an original "Prince Whadyecallem" became "Prince Ahmed" by the 1853 edition. In Chapter 13, a passage about the filicidal Biblical figure Jephthah was removed, although references to Iphigenia remained important. In Chapter 56, Thackeray originally confused Samuel—the boy whose mother Hannah had given him up when called to by God—with Eli, the old priest to whose care he was entrusted; this mistake was not corrected until the 1889 edition, after Thackeray's death.
The serials had been subtitled Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society and both they and the early bound versions featured Thackeray's own illustrations. These sometimes provided symbolically-freighted images, such as one of the female characters being portrayed as a man-eating mermaid. In at least one case, a major plot point is provided through an image and its caption. Although the text makes it clear that other characters suspect Becky Sharp to have murdered her second husband, there is nothing definitive in the text itself. However, an image reveals her overhearing Jos pleading with Dobbin while clutching a small white object in her hand. The caption that this is Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra clarifies that she did indeed murder him for the insurance money, likely through laudanum or another poison. "The final three illustrations of Vanity Fair are tableaux that insinuate visually what the narrator is unwilling to articulate: that Becky... has actually been substantially rewarded—by society—for her crimes." One of the Thackeray's plates for the 11th issue of Vanity Fair was suppressed from publication by threat of prosecution for libel, so great was the resemblance of its depiction of Lord Steyne to Marquis of Hertford. Despite their relevance, most modern editions either do not reproduce all the illustrations or do so with poor detail.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, London: Bradbury & Evans, 1848 [ Wikisource ] [ [https://archive.org/stream/VanityFair1848#page/n9/mode/2up Archive.org] ].
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Vols. I, II, & III, Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1848, reprinted 1925.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, London: Bradbury & Evans, 1853, without illustration.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Vols. I, II, & III, New York: Harper & Bros., 1865.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, New York: Harper & Bros., 1869, reprinted 1898.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1883, reprinted 1886.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Walter Scott, 1890.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, George Routledge & Sons, 1891.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Vols. I & II, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1893, in four editions.
- Ritchie, Anne Isabella Thackeray, ed. (1898), The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Vol. I: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, London: Smith, Elder, & Co.
- Gwynn, Stephen, ed. (1899), Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Vols. I, II, & III, Methuen.
- Doyle, Richard, ed. (1902), Vanity Fair, Vols. I & II, New York: P.F. Collier & Son.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1906.
- Neilson, William Allan, ed. (1909), Vanity Fair, Vols. I & II, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, republished 1917.
- Tillotson, Geoffrey; et al., eds. (1963), Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Boston: Riverside.
- Page, Josephine, ed. (1964), Vanity Fair, Tales Retold for Easy Reading, Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 1967, 1975, & 1976.
- Sutherland, John, ed. (1983), Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Zhang, Xinci, ed. (1992), 浮華世界 [Fuhua Shijie, Vanity Fair], Tainan: Daxia Chubanshe, reprinted 1995. (Chinese)
- Shillingsburg, Peter, ed. (1994), Vanity Fair, New York: W.W. Norton & Co..
- Francis, Pauline, ed. (2000), Vanity Fair, Harlow: Pearson Education, reprinted 2008.
- Carey, John, ed. (2001), Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, London: Penguin.
- Mowat, Diane, ed. (2002), Vanity Fair, Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 2003, 2004, & 2008.
- Butler, James; et al., eds. (2004), Vanity Fair, Genoa: Black Cat.
- Walker, Elizabeth, ed. (2007), Vanity Fair, Oxford: Macmillan.
- Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- Hui, Tang, ed. (2014), 名利场 [Mingli Chang, Vanity Fair], Beijing: Waiyu Jiaoxue yu Yanjiu Chubanshe. (Chinese) & (English)
Reception and criticism
The style is highly indebted to Henry Fielding. 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. A letter to his editor at Punch expressed his belief that "our profession... is as serious as the parson's own". He considered it his own coming-of-age as a writer</ref> and greatest work.
Critics hailed the work as a literary treasure before the last part of the serial was published. In her correspondence, Charlotte Brontë was effusive regarding his illustrations as well: "You will not easily find a second Thackeray. How he can render, with a few black lines and dots, shades of expression, so fine, so real; traits of character so minute, so subtle, so difficult to seize and fix, I cannot tell—I can only wonder and admire... If Truth were again a goddess, Thackeray should be her high priest." The early reviewers took the debt to Bunyan as self-evident and compared Becky with Pilgrim and Thackeray with Faithful. Although they were superlative in their praise, some expressed disappointment at the unremittingly dark portrayal of human nature, fearing Thackeray had taken his dismal metaphor too far. In response to these critics, Thackeray explained that he saw people for the most part as "abominably foolish and selfish". The unhappy ending was intended to inspire readers to look inward at their own shortcomings. Other critics took notice of or exception to the social subversion in the work; in his correspondence, Thackeray stated his criticism was not reserved to the upper class: ""My object is to make every body engaged, engaged in the pursuit of Vanity Fair and I must carry my story through in this dreary minor key, with only occasional hints here and there of better things—of better things which it does not become me to preach".
The novel is considered 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 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, although Becky's manipulative, amoral tendencies make her come pretty close. However, even Becky, who is amoral and cunning, is thrown on her own resources by poverty and its stigma. (She is the orphaned daughter of a poor artist and an opera dancer.) Thackeray's tendency 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 Thackeray'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 cheek 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". As Lord David Cecil remarked, "Thackeray liked people, and for the most part he thought them well-intentioned. But he also saw very clearly that they were all in some degree weak and vain, self-absorbed and self-deceived." Amelia begins as a warm-hearted and friendly girl, though sentimental and naive, but by the 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. The novel's increasingly grim outlook can take readers aback, as characters whom the reader at first holds in sympathy are shown to be unworthy of such regard.
The work is often compared to the other great historical novel of 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 a backdrop to the lives of his characters. The momentous events on the continent do not always have an equally important influence on the behaviors 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.
A common critical topic is to address various objects in the book and the characters' relationships with them, such as Rebecca's diamonds or the piano Amelia values when she thinks it came from George and dismisses upon learning that Dobbin provided it. Marxist and similar schools of criticism that go further and see Thackeray condemning consumerism and capitalism, however, largely overstate their case. Thackeray is pointed in his criticism of the commodification of women in the marriage market, but his variations on Ecclesiastes's "all is vanity" are more personal than institutional. He also has broad sympathy with a measure of comfort and financial and physical "snugness". At one point, the narrator even makes a "robust defense of his lunch": "It is all vanity to be sure: but who will not own to liking a little of it? I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because it is transitory, dislikes roast-beef?"
Despite the clear implications of Thackeray's illustration on the topic, John Sutherland has argued against Becky having murdered Jos on the basis of Thackeray's criticism of the "Newgate novels" of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and other authors of Victorian crime fiction. Although what Thackeray principally objected to was glorification of a criminal's deeds, his intent may have been to entrap the Victorian reader with their own prejudices and make them think the worst of Becky Sharp even when they have no proof of her actions.
The book has inspired a number of adaptations:
Silent film versions
- 1911: Vanity Fair, directed by Charles Kent
- 1915: Vanity Fair, directed by Charles Brabin
- 1922: Vanity Fair, directed by W. Courtney Rowden
- 1923: Vanity Fair, directed by Hugo Ballin
Sound film versions
- 1932: Vanity Fair: directed by Chester M. Franklin and starring Myrna Loy, updating the story to make Becky Sharp a social-climbing governess
- 1935: Becky Sharp: starring Miriam Hopkins and Frances Dee, the first feature film shot in full-spectrum Technicolor
- 2004: Vanity Fair: directed by Mira Nair. Starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp and Natasha Little, from the television miniseries of Vanity Fair, as Lady Jane Sheepshanks. This work rewrites Becky as a sympathetic character whose faults are "understandable."
- 1956-7: Vanity Fair: BBC serial adapted by Constance Cox starring Joyce Redman
- 1967: Vanity Fair: 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.
- 1976 Yarmarka tshcheslaviya: directed by Igor Ilyinsky and Mariette Myatt. In 2 episodes. (TV show staged by the Moscow State Academic Maly Theater of the USSR) (Russian)
- 1987: Vanity Fair: BBC miniseries starring Eve Matheson as Becky Sharp, Rebecca Saire as Amelia Sedley, James Saxon as Jos Sedley and Simon Dormandy as Dobbin
- 1998: Vanity Fair: BBC miniseries starring Natasha Little as Becky Sharp
- The CBS Radio series Campbell Playhouse, hosted by Orson Welles, broadcast a one-hour adaptation on 7 January 1940 featuring Helen Hayes and Agnes Moorehead.
- The NBC Radio series Favorite Story, hosted by Ronald Colman, broadcast a half-hour adaptation with Joan Lorring as "Becky Sharp".
- BBC Radio broadcast an adaptation of the novel by Stephen Wyatt in 2004 starring Emma Fielding as Becky, Stephen Fry as the Narrator, Katy Cavanagh as Amelia, David Calder, Philip Fox, Jon Glover, Geoffrey Whitehead as Mr. Osborne, Ian Masters as Mr. Sedley, Alice Hart as Maria Osborne and Margaret Tyzack as Miss Crawley. This was subsequently re-broadcast on BBC Radio 7 in 20 fifteen-minute episodes.
- "It beareth the name of Vanity Fair, because the town where it is kept is 'lighter than vanity."
- The narrator does claim to have first seen Dobbin, Amelia, and Jos at Pumpernickel on their European tour and that he is "the present writer of a history of which every word is true", but, given his swift admission that most of his story has been gossip, this is either intended as a self-serving lie or a cheeky reference to a different work from the one before the reader.
- French: "...is the rest."
- In addition to its other intentions, the name was a jab at Thomas Carlyle's "Lectures on Hero and Hero-Worship".<ref name='FOOTNOTESutherland1988,<span>,",</span>,[https://books.google.com.hk/books?id=X2KuBAAAQBAJ,<span>,&,</span>,pg=PA105 Carlyle ,<span>,&,</span>, Carlylism],<span>,",</span>'>Sutherland (1988), "Carlyle & Carlylism".
- In the letter where he recorded these sums, Thackeray noted "Three more years please the Fates and the girls will have eight or ten thousand a-piece that I want for them: we must n't say a word against filthy lucre for I see the use and comfort of it every day more and more. What a blessing not to mind about bills."
- To a German visitor who told him he had learned to read English from Vanity Fair, Thackeray replied "And that's where I learned to write it".<ref name='FOOTNOTEWilson ,<span>,&,</span>, al.1970[https://books.google.com.hk/books?id=Z-U2aQz1NqgC,<span>,&,</span>,pg=PA85 85]'>Wilson & al. (1970), p. 85.
- Examples include Carey's Prodigal Genius and McAloon's defense of the work in The Telegraph.
- The trio of lawyers Becky gets to defend herself from the claims—Burke, Thurtell, and Hayes—are named after prominent murderers of the time, although this may have been a tease or commentary on the legal profession itself.
- Faulks, Sebastian (2011), Faulks on Fiction: Great British Heroes and the Secret Life of the Novel, London: BBC Books, p. ii.
- Sutherland (1988), "Domestic Fiction".
- Vanity Fair, 1848, pp. ix.
- "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
- The Pilgrim's Progress, 1853.
- "The Title of Vanity Fair". Shmoop.com. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
- "The Pilgrim's Progress, By John Bunyan. Summary and Analysis, Part 1, Section 7 - Vanity Fair". Cliff's Notes. Retrieved 30 October 2014.
- Milne (2015), p. 103.
- Milne (2015), p. 104
- Milne (2015), p. 102.
- Espinasse, Francis (1885), "Robert Bell (1800-1867)", Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. IV, London: Smith, Elder, & Co..
- Milne (2015).
- "Jeremiah 17", Bible Gateway.
- Milne (2015), p. 110
- Vanity Fair, 1848, pp. vii–ix.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 624.
- York (1997), p. 61.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 134.
- Heiler (2010), p. 61.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 563.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 605.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 288.
- Sutherland (1988), "Vanity Fair".
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 15.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 624.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 32.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 9.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 103.
- Wilson & al. (1970), p. 86.
- Taylor (2004).
- York (1997), pp. 16 ff.
- York (1997), pp. 20–1.
- York (1997), p. 22.
- "Readers love a good anti-hero – so why do they shun anti-heroines?" by Emma Jane Unsworth, The Guardian, 18 November 2014
- Milne (2015), p. 110–111.
- York (1997), pp. 22 ff.
- York (1997), pp. 30 ff.
- York (1997), pp. 24 ff.
- Shillingsburg, Peter, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Macguire, Matthew (2000), "W.M. Thackeray's Illustrations for Vanity Fair", The Victorian Web.
- Tillotson & al., cited in York.
- Tillotson & al. (1963), pp. xvii ff..
- York (1997), p. 29.
- Milne (2015), p. 108.
- Tillotson & al., cited in York.
- Wilson & al. (1970), p. 13.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 36.
- York (1997), p. 28.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 504.
- York (1997), p. 133.
- Dibattista (1980).
- Jadwin (1993), p. 48.
- "Suppressed Plates", Pall Mall Magazine, London, 1899.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 577.
- Wilson & al. (1970), p. 8.
- See, e.g., The Times review of July 10, 1848.
- Ray (1946), p. 309.
- Milne (2015), p. 111.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. viii.
- Cecil, David (1934), Early Victorian Novelists, Constable, p. 69.
- Carey, John (1977). Thackeray: Prodigal Genius. Faber.
- McAloon, Jonathan (20 June 2015), "Why Vanity Fair Is the Greatest Novel about Waterloo", The Telegraph.
- Milne (2015), p. 114.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, pp. 450 & 624.
- Vanity Fair, 1848, p. 450.
- Sutherland, John (1996). Is Heathcliff A Murderer?: Great Puzzles In Nineteenth-century Fiction. Oxford University Press.
- Robertson, Annabelle (2 September 2004). "Vanity Fair Offers Good Glimpse into 19th Century Society, movie review". crosswalk.com.
- Yarmarka tshcheslaviya at the Internet Movie Database
- Dibattista, Maria (August 1980), "The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair", PMLA, Vol. 95 (No. 5), pp. 827–37, doi:10.2307/461760.
- Harden, Edgar F. (1995), Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, New York: Twayne Publishers, ISBN 0-8057-4460-6.
- Heiler, Lars (2010), "Against Censorship: Literature, Transgression, and Taboo from a Diachronic Perspective", Taboo and Transgression in British Literature from the Renaissance to the Present, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 49–74.
- Jadwin, Lisa (1993), "Clytemnestra Rewarded: The Double Conclusion of Vanity Fair", Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, pp. 35–61.
- Milne, Kirsty (2015), At Vanity Fair: From Bunyan to Thackeray, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ray, Gordon N., ed. (1946), The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Vol. II, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Sutherland, John (1988), The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, Pearson Education, reprinted 2009 by Routledge.
- Taylor, D.J. (2004), "Jane Octavia Brookfield (1821–1896)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56277
- Wilson, James Grant; et al. (1970), Thackeray in the United States: 1852–3, 1855–6: Including a Record of a Variety of Thackerayana, Vols. I & II, New York: Haskell House Publishers.
- York, Kenneth Galen (1997), Lively Becky Sharp Performs as the Queens of Vanity Fair: A Study in the Mythical & Historical Allusions and Intertexts Employed by William Makepeace Thackeray in Vanity Fair, University of Montana.
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- The Victorian Web – Thackeray's Illustrations to Vanity Fair
- Vanity Fair at Project Gutenberg
- Vanity Fair at Feedbooks
- Vanity Fair at Planet PDF
- Vanity Fair at Penn State University
- Vanity Fair public domain audiobook at LibriVox