Vanity Fair: The Book and the Adaptations

There have been many movies or television dramas based on the novel Vanity Fair, not all of which are available for viewing today.  Of those I have been able to see, though some are more faithful to the novel than others, none are faithful in the most critical sense.  In fact, even the memories of those who have read the novel often do what the movies do, which is to change the story and the character of Becky Sharp into something different.

At the end of the novel, Jos Sedley is dead, on account of his having been poisoned by Becky Sharp for the insurance money (she got him to take out a life insurance policy naming her as one of two beneficiaries).  Also, her son, whom she never loved and whom she treated badly, has become wealthy, and though he won’t have anything to do with her, yet he nevertheless allows her a liberal allowance.  Furthermore, Becky has managed to find a secure place for herself in society, going to church and participating in all sorts of charitable enterprises.  When her old friend Amelia and her husband, William Dobbin, see Becky in a stall at one of the Fancy Fairs, they recoil in horror, for Jos was Amelia’s brother.  Becky merely looks down demurely and smiles. William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of the novel, also provided illustrations, the last one of which depicts the scene just described.  The caption below the illustration reads, “Virtue Rewarded:  a Booth in Vanity Fair.”

As far as I know, not a single movie or television drama ends the way the novel does.  The oldest movie version that I have seen is Vanity Fair (1932), starring Myrna Loy.  Being only seventy-eight minutes long, it could not possibly be faithful to the lengthy novel in all its details.  But while we may excuse that as owing to the exigencies of bringing any novel to the screen, it also deviates from the spirit of the book.  Jos Sedley is still alive at the end of the movie.  He becomes fed up with Becky and leaves her.  Now alone, and worried about losing her looks, she is unhappy.  The other movies and television dramas end differently.  In Becky Sharp (1935), starring Miriam Hopkins, the television mini-series Vanity Fair (1998), starring Natasha Little, and Vanity Fair (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon, Becky and Jos live happily ever after.

Some people argue that the murder of Jos Sedley at the end of the novel is out of character with the Becky that we have become used to in the earlier pages.  But that is only because we tend to make excuses for Becky’s behavior throughout the novel.  I have already mentioned the way she neglected her son and was even mean to him on occasion.  But right from the beginning, we are given indications of her spiteful nature.  Though Miss Pinkerton may have treated Becky badly at the academy for young girls, yet her sister, Miss Jemima, was always sweet to her.  And even though Miss Pinkerton refused to bestow upon Becky the traditional parting gift of Mr. Johnson’s dictionary, Miss Jemima sneaks a copy to Becky just before she gets on the carriage to depart.  And yet, Becky flings the dictionary out the window as the carriage drives off, not only hurting the feelings of the kind Miss Jemima, but undoubtedly getting her in trouble with Miss Pinkerton, who had already told Miss Jemima that Becky was not to get a copy under any circumstances. Not only that, but Becky uses a doll to represent Miss Jemima so as to ridicule and belittle her for the amusement of her father and his friends.  This is mean-spirited to say the least, and yet we tend to forget about the cruel treatment of poor Miss Jemima, and remember instead her sister, Miss Pinkerton, who deserved Becky’s contempt and ridicule.  In other words, right from the beginning, though we are shown Becky’s dark side, yet we seem determined to construct a sympathetic portrait of Becky, which requires us to overlook and forget about anything that contradicts it.

The movies do all the hard work of overlooking and forgetting for us.  Save for the 1932 version of the novel, which was mild in its treatment of Becky in any event, the subsequent versions suppress these dark aspects of Becky’s character altogether, guaranteeing that we will see in her a strong, resourceful, admirable woman who may be a little ruthless at time, but always justifiably so, given what she is up against.

One of the reasons that even people who have read the novel either forget or deny that Becky murdered Jos for the insurance money is that Thackeray does not explicitly say she did, but only hints at it.  First, we are informed that Becky has come into possession of a bottle of laudanum, and at one low point in her life toward the end of the novel, she contemplates suicide. In this way, Thackeray lets us know that Becky has at her disposal an instrument of death.  Second, Becky has been nursing Jos through a series of “unheard-of illnesses.”  One can almost picture Becky making sure Jos drinks his medicine, which we suspect is laced with increasing amounts of the laudanum.  Third, Jos is afraid of Becky, but even more afraid of trying to leave her, telling Dobbin that she would kill him if she knew he had spoken to him about his apprehensions.  Fourth, after Jos has died, the solicitor of the insurance company “swore it was the blackest case that ever had come before him,” and the company refused to make payment on the policy.  Fifth, Becky hires lawyers Burke, Thurtell, & Hayes, who force the insurance company to make payment.  The names of the lawyers allude to actual criminals who were notorious at the time:  the first, a body-snatcher; the second and third, murderers.  Finally, all this is accompanied by an illustration depicting the scene in which Jos pleads with Dobbin to save him from Becky, while she hides behind a curtain, a sinister smile on her face, appearing to hold something in her hand, presumably the bottle of laudanum.  The caption under the illustration reads, “Becky’s Second Appearance in the Character of Clytemnestra.”  However, Thackeray acts as though he is not sure himself exactly what happened.

In fact, at several points in the novel, Thackeray feigns ignorance as to what Becky has done.  For example, when her husband Rawden catches her alone with Lord Steyne and becomes outraged that he may have been cuckolded, Thackeray says:  “What had happened?  Was she guilty or not?  She said not; but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips; or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure?”

The subtitle of this book is A Novel without a Hero.  Heroes and villains are complementary characters:  where you have one, you tend to have the other.  And so, a novel without a hero should also be a novel without a villain.  Had Thackeray made Becky’s guilt explicit, she would have undeniably been a villain, throwing the novel out of balance, owing to its lack of a hero.  By leaving us in doubt as to her sins and crimes, he makes it possible for us to deny her villainy altogether.

It is not uncommon for an author to avoid being the omniscient narrator, as a way of making the story more interesting by leaving some things to the imagination of the reader.  And this is believable, because in telling a story, it is often the case that we do not know everything that happened, but can only tell the parts we are actually sure of.  But before the story proper begins, Thackeray refers to the characters in his story as puppets, and he ends the novel by saying he is going to put his puppets away.  In other words, he is making it explicit that he not only knows what the characters in his novel are doing, but as the puppeteer, he is also the one making them do those things.  What, then, are we to make of his pretense of ignorance regarding Becky’s actions?

Actually, it is not so much a matter of ignorance as it is one of delicacy.  As Thackeray notes toward the end of his novel, it would be unseemly in Vanity Fair to put words to many things we know exist, to discuss various matters we know are taking place:

…it has been the wish, all through this story, deferentially to submit to the fashion at present prevailing, and only to hint at the existence of wickedness in a light, easy, and agreeable manner, so that nobody’s fine feelings may be offended.  I defy anyone to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not been presented to the public in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner.  In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster’s hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the water line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.

Throughout this novel, Becky has, like a siren, tricked and seduced many of the people she has encountered.  But her greatest accomplishment is the way she seduces us, the reader of this novel.  We are loath to look below the water line.  We want to sympathize with Becky.  We want to admire her.  In fact, we want to be seduced.  And so, we refuse to see the evil that has been there throughout the novel, up to and including her most wicked deed, the murder of Jos Sedley.

By the time we see a movie or television version of this novel, however, the siren’s tail has been replaced by a nice looking pair of legs, to spare us the effort of having to excuse or ignore much of Becky’s behavior, as we are wont to do when reading the book.

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