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21st Century Sweetening for Ruthless Becky Sharp

'anity Fair' novelist made her nasty, and no one forced him to do so.

September 21, 2004|Patrick Leary | Patrick Leary is the creator and manager of the VICTORIA discussion list and Victorian Research.org.

William Makepeace Thackeray called his masterpiece "Vanity Fair, A Novel Without a Hero," but it has always been clear that the novel does have a heroine, and that her name is Becky Sharp. One of English literature's most enduring figures, she has schemed and manipulated her way across screen adaptations since the silent era. Memorable Beckys have ranged from Miriam Hopkins' in the pioneering Technicolor production of 1935 to Natasha Little's in the BBC's six-hour dramatization in 1998.

But the Reese Witherspoon version that moviegoers encounter in Mira Nair's new film is something else again. Gone is the coldly calculating Becky Sharp of the novel who entraps her best friend's new husband, arranges the arrest of one husband to get him out of the way while she carries on an affair with a rich aristocrat, and poisons another so that she can live in England on the insurance money. Here instead is a high-spirited and ambitious but essentially good-hearted Becky who struggles pluckily to rise in the world and winds up living happily among the splendors of India with her rich, doting new spouse.

Some reviewers have found this softened, proto-feminist, mostly admirable Becky hard to swallow, but Nair has an answer for them. Thackeray, the director has recently explained in interviews, originally intended for Becky to be this way. As she tells it, the novel was first published as a serial in a monthly tabloid, and the magazine's interfering editors were on Thackeray's back the whole time it was appearing, insisting that he change Becky to make her more clearly wicked. If you go back and read the correspondence between the novelist and the editors, she told the Chicago Tribune, you'll find that "he was actually admonished: 'You're enjoying Becky too much. Make it clearer who's the virgin and who's the whore.' "

These nervous editors, she implies, worried that Thackeray's audience wouldn't approve of the charming, likable Becky that he really wanted, and so forced him to change her into a monster. It was, she says, "just like Hollywood today." Thus, Nair's film version of "Vanity Fair" has at last presented the character of Becky Sharp as she would have been if only those meddling, moralistic suits hadn't gummed up the works.

Like the film itself, this account of how Thackeray's novel was written and published may reflect Nair's perception of her own successful career -- as an outsider battling against prejudice and interfering busybodies to make her way forward. But as regards Thackeray, it is entirely mistaken. "Vanity Fair" was not published in a magazine, tabloid or otherwise. It came out in 20 stand-alone monthly "numbers," as short paperbound pamphlets with bright yellow covers, between January 1847 and July 1848. Thackeray had no interfering editors to contend with, or indeed any editors at all. Having studied Thackeray's correspondence, I am unaware of any discussion of changing Becky Sharp's character. Some Victorian writers were pestered by editors and publishers about the moral tendency of their fiction, of course. (As editor of a magazine later in his career, Thackeray reluctantly did some of this pestering himself.) But this was not the case with "Vanity Fair." So long as he turned in the number of drawings and pages every month specified in his contract, Thackeray's publishers, Bradbury and Evans, were happy to print what he sent.

The book's installments sold well, and critics were strikingly enthusiastic almost from the beginning. Charlotte Bronte so fiercely admired the novel that she dedicated the second edition of "Jane Eyre" to its author before he had even written the last number.

Buoyed by this commercial and critical success, Thackeray had an enviably free hand with "Vanity Fair," and the Becky Sharp that readers find there is drawn exactly as he wanted her to be -- coldly selfish and unscrupulous but nevertheless appealingly resourceful and refreshingly disdainful of the humbug and hypocrisy around her.

To claim that any film could somehow be more true to Thackeray's novel than Thackeray himself is to misunderstand not only the publishing history of this particular book but the relationship of books to movies. More important, it unfairly diminishes both the novelist's accomplishment and the filmmaker's. All adaptation involves loss and gain, and no movie treatment of a novel can hope to be wholly "faithful" -- nor should it try to be. The best that any movie can do is to capture something of the book's spirit.

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