Photos: 'A Scene from Thackeray's Vanity Fair,' 1923: Getty Images Insets: Marilyn Lightstone (Courtesy of Marilyn Lightstone); 'Vanity Fair' by William Makepeace Thackery
Marilyn Lightstone Reads “Vanity Fair”
William Makepeace Thackeray skewers Victorian society in his satirical novel about class, ruthless ambition and corruption / BY Athena McKenzie / January 20th, 2023
“Oh, those women! They nurse and cuddle their presentiments, and make darlings of their ugliest thoughts!” – William Makepeace Thackeray
While Vanity Fair might bring to mind the glossy magazine known for its iconic celebrity photos, William Makepeace Thackeray chose the title first for his satirical 1848 novel. (A British lifestyle magazine that published from 1868 to 1914 was the first to borrow its name from the novel.) Thackeray himself lifted the expression from John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which London is described as the centre of human corruption, full of depravity, vanity and emptiness.
In Vanity Fair, Thackeray skewers British society, calling attention to its faults. Although the English novelist did not enjoy the same immediate or enduring success as his friend and literary rival Charles Dickens, Vanity Fair, his best known work, is considered one of the great Victorian novels. It was initially serialised by Punch magazine, which ran it in 19 monthly installments between 1847 and 1848, before it was published as a novel.
Set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, the story follows well-to-do Amelia Sedley and lower-class social climber Becky Sharp as they make their way through society and try to be proper ladies. Becky – witty, charming, irresistible to men and desperate to marry for money – is considered one of most unforgettable characters in English literature. Her rise is dramatic, but so is her fall.
Of note is the subtitle, the provocative “A Novel Without a Hero.” All the characters are flawed, and some will stop at nothing to get what they want. Even if the reader understands the characters’ motivations and actions, there is no one to truly root for. Thackeray felt this was a better reflection of reality, and it makes for an entertaining read.
With his pointed social critique of the middle and aristocratic classes, Thackeray calls out greed, hypocrisy, selfishness and pride. Best of all, he does it with biting humour – plus, there’s adultery and murder to make things even more interesting.
The story has inspired lavish screen adaptations, including the 2004 film with Reese Witherspoon as Becky, and the 2018 television series, which features narration by Monty Python star Michael Palin as William Makepeace Thackeray.
Hear Lightstone bring this classic to life on her podcast, Marilyn Lightstone Reads.