All's Fair in Love and War?

Carol Iannone

A new multi-part television dramatization of William Makepeace Thackeray’s nineteenth century novel Vanity Fair distributed by Britain’s ITV network in 2018 set me to reviewing previous adaptations. Lively, voracious, life-seizing scourge of all pieties, protagonist Rebecca Sharp has been an irresistible draw for readers, audiences, viewers, and actresses alike, and her story has been dramatized in many forms. There have been three radio adaptations, one as recent as 2004, both on American and British stations. There were four silent film adaptations, from 1911 to 1923. A play, Becky Sharp, by Langdon Mitchell, dates back to the 1890s and starred the legendary Mrs. (Minnie Maddern) Fiske. (A photo from 1910 suggests she persisted in the role, All about Eve-like, long after her prime.) Mitchell’s play became a film in 1935 starring an eager, glittery-eyed Miriam Hopkins and directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Another, modern dress version featured a beautiful but bland Myrna Loy three years before that. Both actresses were to become major Hollywood stars. Indian-American director Mira Nair did a lavish film version in 2004 starring Reese Witherspoon and emphasizing the Indian aspects of the plot, as two of the characters spend time there. And we haven’t even gotten to the British television serializations yet, of which there have been no less than five since the 1950s, with the most recent being the ITV version mentioned above.

Most of these visual adaptations have portrayed Becky as kind of a British version of Scarlett O’Hara--naughty, devious, flirtatious, manipulative, yes, but also admirably resourceful, exhilaratingly unstoppable, and basically redeemable in our eyes. But Thackeray subtitled his work “a novel without a hero,” and he meant it.

Written in the 1840s, serialized in 1847-8, this lengthy, rambling classic (running in some editions to almost 900 pages) is set earlier in the century, around the time of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the reignition of the war on the continent in 1815. Three of the main characters are English soldiers who fight at Waterloo; Becky marries one of them, and her school friend Amelia marries the other two, sequentially, of course.

Most of the adaptations show a plucky Becky climbing the ladders of high society pretty much by any means necessary, aiming to overcome her impoverished origins and insecure orphaned state. To be sure, even basically sympathetic versions allow glimpses of some bad girl behavior. She is cold and cutting to her young son who yearns for mother-love. She breaks her good friend Amelia’s heart by flirting with the latter’s (undeservedly) adored first husband George and inciting his desire. She allows intimate favors to the hideous Lord Steyne (pronounced variously as Stayn, Styne, and Steen) in exchange for money and jewels. But all of these actions tend to be more or less glossed over and in effect excused, given Becky’s threadbare background, English snobbery, and society’s limitations on women. Foiled badly at length in one of her schemes, living in reduced and shady circumstances, she manages to glom onto the last available man standing, Amelia’s weak, vain, pudgy but essentially decent brother Jos, and most versions bid us applaud Becky’s indefatigable appetite for life and her determination to grab whatever it offers.

The affectlessly amoral flapper in the 1932 Myrna Loy version set in the 1920s departs from these more sympathetic portrayals, and from Thackeray’s own ending, to show Becky coming to ruin in a conventional wages-of-sin framework (kind of a low energy Pandora’s Box, the German classic 1929 film by G.W.Pabst starring Louise Brooks).

But only one version has the nerve to go the whole way with Thackeray’s startlingly quasi-nihilistic ending—the 1987 series (well done if a little stiff). That is the only version that treats Becky’s last act as recorded by the narrator, that is, to usher Jos to a wretched death, probably by poison, under the guise of caring for him through a series of illnesses, in order to secure his life insurance and most likely his fortune as well. These actions enable her to end up as a prosperous and well-situated lady in some part of English society, albeit shunned by her former friends and grown son.

This is not stated as outright fact but is reported at second hand by the narrator, and critical debate about it has evidently allowed Becky fans to blot it out. As John Sutherland, who wrote the preface to the popular Oxford University Press paperback, explains one side of the argument, Thackeray can’t have meant the account to be taken as true (instead of malign rumor designed to further discredit an unconventional woman), because nineteenth century fiction followed strict moral codes, and Becky as a cold blooded murderer could not end in considerable prosperity, doing charitable works and counting “excellent people” in her circle of acquaintance. And yet, Sutherland continues, there are enough clues in the narrator’s report to indicate that Thackeray is serious. For one thing, the legal firm Becky hires to defend her case before the insurers, who are suspicious of Jos’s death, is Burke, Thurtell and Hayes, the names of three notorious nineteenth century murderers!

And that’s the surprise: Thackeray at least in this aspect of his novel may still be a nineteenth century author, but one leaning more toward the future Dostoevsky rather than the reigning Dickens, anticipating Nietzsche, or reflecting the cold cynicism of the worthless nephew in Diderot’s dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau, written in the 1760s and 70s but not published until the 1800s.

In important ways, however, Thackeray is fulfilling traditional conventions, only a bit aslant. He takes his title from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, of course, and works the moral dimension by showing how far the worldly pleasures and attainments of Vanity Fair can make us go. Thackeray tests us as readers to see how far we will go in relishing Becky’s unconventional behavior, refusal to play by stuffy societal rules, and take-no-prisoners approach to life. Adaptations that stay with the jaunty, jolly, ever-resourceful, proto-feminist Becky, however, don’t present that challenge.

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