Vanity Fair (novel)

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Vanity Fair
Houghton EC85 T3255 848vb - Vanity Fair, title.jpg
Title page to the first edition in book form of Vanity Fair, drawn by Thackeray, who furnished the illustrations for many of his earlier editions
Author William Makepeace Thackeray
Illustrator William Makepeace Thackeray
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Punch magazine (serialized)
Publication date
January 1847 and July 1848 (serialized in 20 parts)
Media type Print

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero is a novel by English author William Makepeace Thackeray, first published in 1847–48, satirising society in early 19th-century Britain. It follows the lives of two women, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, amid their friends and family. 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.[1]


The book's title comes from John Bunyan's allegorical story The Pilgrim's Progress,[2] first published in 1678 and still widely read at the time of Thackeray's novel. 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.[3][4]

Plot summary[edit]

Illustration depicting Captain George Osborne, 1848

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 City 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. 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 the outcome. She also makes a profit selling her carriage and horses at inflated prices to Jos, seeking to flee Brussels.

George Osborne dies at Waterloo, while Dobbin and Rawdon survive. Amelia bears George a posthumous son, also named 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. During this time, 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.

Becky and Rawdon appear to be financially successful, but they have no money and live on credit, even if this ruins those who trust them such as their landlord, an old servant of the Crawley family. The Marquis of Steyne gives Becky money, as well as other gifts.

At the summit of their social success, Rawdon is arrested for debt. Becky does not bail him out, so he applies to his brother's wife, Lady Jane. When he returns home, he finds Becky and Steyne there, and assumes (perhaps rightly) that they are having an affair. He also finds the money that Steyne has given her. He leaves Becky, and expects 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 Crawley 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 Germany, where they encounter the destitute Becky. Becky has fallen in life. She is drinking heavily, gambles, and spends time with card sharps and con artists. 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.


Amelia Sedley[edit]

Amelia 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. Her popularity is often resented by other women. She marries George Osborne against his father's wishes, and is 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.

After George Osborne's death 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.

Becky Sharp (Rebecca)[edit]

The anti-heroine, and Amelia's opposite, is 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. She is also completely amoral and without conscience. 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. Lady Jane, the Dobbin sisters, and Lady Steyne see right through her. Amelia and (initially) Miss Crawley are exceptions to the rule.

Rawdon Crawley[edit]

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[edit]

Rawdon Crawley's elder brother 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[edit]

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[edit]

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.

William Dobbin[edit]

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.

Joseph Sedley[edit]

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.

Publication history[edit]

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. As was standard practice, the last part was a "double number" containing parts 19 and 20.

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', 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. The original monthly numbers and later bound version featured Thackeray's own illustrations, which at times provided plot hints or symbolically freighted images (a major character shown as a man-eating mermaid, for instance) to which the text does not explicitly refer. Most modern editions either do not reproduce all the illustrations, or reproduce them so badly that much detail is lost.

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. 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.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Contemporary critics[edit]

Even before the last part of the serial was published, critics hailed the work as a literary treasure. Although the critics were superlative in their praise,[5] 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".[6] The unhappy ending was intended to inspire readers to look inward at their own shortcomings.


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 scorn 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".[7] 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."[8]

The work is often compared — for instance by John Carey[9] — 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.

In the original illustrations, which were done by Thackeray, Becky is shown behind a curtain when Jos dies, with a vial in her hand; the picture is labelled "Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra" (she had played Clytemnestra during charades at a party earlier in the book). Joseph's death appears to have made her fortune.[10] The suggestion near the end of the work that Becky may have killed Jos is argued against by John Sutherland.[11] Although Becky is portrayed as having a highly dubious moral sense, the idea that she would commit premeditated murder is quite a step forward for the character. Thackeray was a fierce critic of the crime fiction popular at the time, particularly that of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. These lurid and sensationalist accounts—known as "Newgate novels"—took their inspiration, and sometimes entire stories, from the pages of The Newgate Calendar. What Thackeray principally objected to was the glorification of a criminal's deeds; it therefore seems strange that he would have depicted Becky as such a villainess. 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 trio of lawyers she gets to defend her from the claims, Burke, Thurtell, and Hayes, are named after prominent murderers of the time, although this may have been a tease or further commentary aimed at the legal profession.

Though Thackeray does not settle definitively whether Becky murders Jos, such a development could be seen as in keeping with the overall trend of character development in the novel. The tone of Vanity Fair seems to darken as the book goes on. At the novel's beginning, Becky Sharp is a bright girl with an eye to improving her lot through marrying up the social scale; though she is thoroughly unsentimental, she is nonetheless portrayed as being a good friend to Amelia. By the novel's end she has become an adulteress and is suspected of being a murderess. 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's infatuation with Amelia is a theme which unifies the novel and one which many have compared to Thackeray's unrequited love for a friend's wife (Jane Brookfield).[12] 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. Whether Thackeray intended this shift in tone when he began writing, or whether it developed over the course of the work's composition, is a question that cannot be settled. Regardless of its provenance, the novel's increasingly grim outlook can take readers aback, as characters whom Thackeray—and the reader—at first hold in sympathy are shown to be unworthy of such regard.

It has been claimed that the character of Becky Sharp is based in part on Thackeray's maternal grandmother Harriet Becher, but according to Peter Shillingsburg she is said to have been the model for Miss Crawley.[13] She abandoned her husband and children when she eloped with Captain Charles Christie. In 1806, shortly after the death of Christie and her husband, she married Edward Butler, another army officer. Thackeray lived with his grandmother in Paris in the 1830s and again in the 1840s.

Film, television and radio adaptations[edit]

The book has inspired a number of adaptations:

Silent film versions[edit]

  • 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[edit]




  1. ^ "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003. Retrieved 31 October 2012. 
  2. ^ "The Pilgrim's Progress" (1853 ed.). University of Virginia. Retrieved 30 October 2014. It beareth the name of Vanity Fair, because the town where it is kept is 'lighter than vanity. 
  3. ^ "The Title of Vanity Fair". Retrieved 2 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "The Pilgrim's Progress, By John Bunyan. Summary and Analysis, Part 1, Section 7 - Vanity Fair". Cliff's Notes. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  5. ^ see for example The Times, July 10, 1848
  6. ^ Ray, Gordon N., ed. (1945–46). The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray,. 2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. p. 309. 
  7. ^

    "Some people consider Fairs immoral altogether, and eschew such...; very likely they are right. But persons who think otherwise, and are of a lazy, or a benevolent, or a sarcastic mood, may perhaps like to step in for half an hour, and look at the performances."

    — William Makepeace Thackeray — "Before the Curtain", Vanity Fair
  8. ^ Cecil, Lord David (1934). Early Victorian Novelists. Constable. p. 69. 
  9. ^ Carey, John (1977). Thackeray: Prodigal Genius. Faber. 
  10. ^ Dibattista, Maria (August 1980). "The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair". PMLA. 95 (5): 827–837. doi:10.2307/461760. Retrieved 2013-09-12. 
  11. ^ Sutherland, John (1996). Is Heathcliff A Murderer?: Great Puzzles In Nineteenth-century Fiction. Oxford University Press. 
  12. ^ Taylor 2004.
  13. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  14. ^ Robertson, Annabelle (2 September 2004). "Vanity Fair Offers Good Glimpse into 19th Century Society, movie review". 
  15. ^ Yarmarka tshcheslaviya at the Internet Movie Database


  • Taylor, D. J. (2004). "Brookfield, Jane Octavia (1821–1896)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56277. 
  • Harden, Edgar F. (1995). Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-4460-6
  • Vanity Fair: ISBN 0-19-283443-6 (Oxford World Classics edition, that has explanatory notes and original illustrations)

External links[edit]