read with me: Vanity Fair ch.1-13

“The Rector’s wife paid me a score of compliments about the progress my pupils made, and thought, no doubt, to touch my heart – poor, simple, country soul! – as if I cared a fig about my pupils!”

A Letter from Rebecca Sharp to Amelia Sedley

Rebecca Sharp is really something. If you’re not strong enough to withhold her merciless attacks or wealthy enough to get in her good books, you’d better get out of her way.

The young women who is not A Little Princess

The story starts with a farewell at a boarding school. Miss Amelia Sedley, the most beloved and popular girl, and Miss Rebecca Sharp, the nobody, were leaving for good. There are many similarities between this school and Sara Crewe’s school in A Little Princess. The headmistresses of both schools were arrogant, cold-hearted, stingy, prim old maids, assisted by a good-natured but weak-willed sister.

Both Becky Sharp and Sara Crewe were orphans whose fathers were English and mothers were French. Their fluent French made them tutors to younger children in the school. Wikipedia says A Little Princess (1905) was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished novel Emma. I think it was inspired by Vanity Fair (1847). Even the names ‘Becky’ and ‘Amelia’ appeared as main characters in A Little Princess. However, in terms of our heroines, Sara Crewe was a perfect saint, Becky Sharp was a stiff-necked sinner.

A tale after Jane Austen

There’s another major parallel: Vanity Fair feels decidedly Jane Austen:

  • The story’s setting in the Regency era with the Napoleon War in the background
  • The penniless and lowly young woman going into wealthy and genteel society
  • The scheming for future security through flattering the right people, moving in the right circles and ultimately catching the husband with the deepest pockets
  • The hatred and disputes between family members caused by money, inheritance and the rich relative who never seems to die quick enough
  • And they all have to pretend civility on the surface for the sake of gentility
  • The ‘wicked wit’ that makes you burst out laughing on the Metro

I recently watched an excellent YouTube video by Dr Octavia Cox analysing a character in Sense and Sensibility. The thumbnail says it all: ‘Lucy Steele the charmer’. Lucy Steele grabbed every opportunity to better her social position, adjusted her speech and behaviour to every wealthy lady and gentleman, made herself a favourite to the most snobby of snobs, and arrived at the finale by marrying the right man.

Vanity Fair made one such woman the central character of the story – she had made conquests one after another by chapter 13, and made the guileless Amelia quite pathetic (an equivalent of Marianne I suppose, who wrote long love letters who waited for her man like a dog, and cried lots).

Illustrations by the author

My secondhand edition is part of the MacDonald Illustrated Classics from 1950, with ‘illustrations by the author’, William Makepeace Thackeray. There’s a playfulness to the book, the author every now and then pauses the story and bursts into casual conversations directly to the readers. The book was originally published in 1847 but the story was set a few decades earlier when ‘Waterloo had not yet taken place’, which happened in 1815. Under one of the illustrations, the author notes thus,

“It was the author’s intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costumes, as they wore them at the commencement of the century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this – “, here you see the pen sketch, the woman in a high-waisted column-shaped silhouette and the man topped with an enormous crescent-shaped hat, “I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion.” In the rest of the illustrations, women wear more voluminous dresses with tiny waists – the Victorian fashion.

Read on!

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