When you enter Vanity Fair, you enter a fictional world based on our own, where characters enter and leave like players on a stage, and where the niceties and ugliness of society is reflected back at us, whether we like it or not.
The story starts in 1812 and follows the next 20 years in the lives of Rebecca “Becky” Sharp and Amelia Sedley, who have just graduated from Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Becky, an orphan whose father was an artist and mother was a showgirl, will do anything to attain wealth and propel herself into society. Amelia, from a wealthy London family, has more simple ideals and wants nothing more than to marry Captain George Osborne, and pines for him day and night. The Battle of Waterloo intervenes and disrupts plans for the Sedley’s, the Osborne’s, Becky and the Crawley’s (a noble country family). The full plot is far too epic to detail here, and if you’re not familiar with the story it’s better to discover its twists and turns for yourself.
Thackeray published this story in monthly instalments of 3 or 4 chapters at a time, over almost 2 years from 1847- 1848, and is the novel that made him famous. Throughout he is a constant presence, a narrator stationed at the side of the stage to guide the audience through the moral pitfalls of society. He lampoons the nobility and wealthy with glee, and ridicules the less well off for aspiring to a life of high society tedium. At times this intrusion to the story is a bit much, and I wish he would stick closer to the intriguing plot-line, without having to frequently digress. But it’s obvious he’s having far too much fun creating this world, and at times the ridiculousness verges on pantomime.
Although the setting is outdated and the daily goings-on foreign to the 21st century (it seems that all ladies and gentlemen in London and Europe did was ride round and round parks in carriages!) the meaning is still relevant. Becky’s ruthlessness seemingly knows no bounds, and this is one of the lessons Thackeray implores us to heed. View your actions and deeds with care – in Vanity Fair these mean everything.