“Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray is one of those books which I am happy to read again and again, as it feels like a new story on each read. I love the novel’s wicked satirical humour, as well as the countless real-life references and allegories that both allow a glimpse into the gentry/ aristocratic world of Regency England and foreshadow the eventual fates of the characters. It is also refreshing to see “A Novel without a Hero” (the subtitle of the book), as the story feels much more realistic with characters who are flawed in various ways and in varying degrees.
Set in an environment where the ultimate aim in life is the pursuit of wealth and position, the novel follows the lives of 2 women, who are set up as the binary opposite of each other. In the beginning, Rebecca is a poor orphan, who is born to Bohemian parents and has to support herself by becoming a governess to the blue-blooded Crawley family. Dissatisfied with her limited prospects, Rebecca was determined to use her charms and wit to improve her situation. Amelia Sedley starts out as a veritable “angel in the house”: good-natured, domestic, passive and naïve. With the support of her well-off parents and an engagement to her childhood sweetheart, the handsome and charming George Osborne, whom Amelia is deeply in love with, Amelia seems to be settled for life.
Rebecca marries Rawdon Crawley, in the hopes that his aunt will leave her fortune to him, her favourite relative. However, contrary to the aunt’s self-professed liberal ideals and love for “imprudent matches”, she was furious at the discrepancy in their ranks and instead left most of her money to Rawdon’s elder brother, Pitt Crawley. Undaunted, Rebecca slowly climbs up the social hierarchy by leveraging on her husband’s family name, living beyond their income but convincing creditors that their debts will be paid, helping Rawdon to cheat men at gambling and attracting the attentions of rich and powerful men.
All of these came to a screeching halt when Rawdon discovers Rebecca apparently committing adultery with Lord Steyne, a well-known reprobate. Rawdon refuses to see Rebecca again and takes a post in Coventry Island (ironically, Lord Steyne obtained it for him before the abovementioned debacle took place), where he eventually dies of yellow fever. With her reputation in tatters and without the Crawley name to protect her from creditors, Rebecca fled to Continental Europe, abandoning her son to the care of his Crawley relatives.
Amelia’s engagement to George clearly shows the reader how selfish he is, from the limited attention which he gave her, his indifference to her love letters and him using money that was meant for Amelia’s present to buy jewellery for himself. Things become worse when Amelia’s father became bankrupt: George’s father, a snobbish merchant, demanded that George break off the engagement to marry a mixed-race heiress, in order to rise from his middle-class background. Persuaded by his best friend, William Dobbin (a simple and honourable man who was secretly in love with Amelia), George married Amelia anyways, angering his father who disinherited him.
After George dies in combat, Amelia lives in genteel poverty with her fiscally irresponsible father and her self-pitying mother, while perpetually mourning for George. While Amelia doted on her son, she gives him up to his paternal grandfather’s care to ensure that he was well provided for. Although Amelia tries to stretch her income, she fails at every attempt. Amelia was only restored to a “respectable” position when William and her brother Joseph Sedley (a rich civil servant) returned from India.
A few years later, while the Sedleys and William were travelling on the Continent, they unexpectedly met up with Rebecca, who was reduced to gambling at casinos and giving music lessons for her living. After Rebecca shows Amelia a note written by George stating that he wanted to run away with the former merely a few months after his marriage, Amelia realised that her husband was not worthy of her love and was convinced to accept the affections of the long-devoted William.
Rebecca finally managed to ensnare Joseph, which she failed to do at the start of the book. After Rebecca makes herself the main beneficiary of his life insurance policy, Joseph dies in mysterious circumstances, which suggests that Rebecca contributed to his death. With Joseph’s money and financial support from her long estranged son (now a baronet after his uncle Pitt and his cousin dies), Rebecca ends up living as a seemingly charitable and respectable woman in Bath.
Vanity Fair: Fashion-ified
“Vanity Fair” symbolises a social setting where social-climbers forever attempt to outdo each other by accumulating as much material gains as possible, as well as an opportunistic mind-set dominated by the dogged pursuit of money and power. In particular, in an era where women had minimal means of supporting themselves, the concept of marriage being the sole means of financial security was well explored (e.g. Rebecca’s hunt for a husband as soon as she left school; Rose Dawson, a working class girl who became a baronet’s 2nd wife and died loveless and friendless; the unmarriageable plight of Bute Crawley’s plain and poor daughters).
In this layout, I have piled on gold and jewelled accents to represent the main tenets of Vanity Fair. Contrasted with a innocuous-looking white gown (I thought it was a nice touch that it has an Empire waistline reminiscent to Regency era dresses) and a headband with “orange blossoms” (stated in the book as representing bridal purity, even when the marriage in question was a purely “pragmatic” May-December relationship), it highlights how the institution of marriage is turned into a farce by mercenary concerns.
Ambiguity and Secrets
In the shadowy world of “Vanity Fair”, mysteries and duplicitous behaviour are everywhere. In fact, they are the main drivers of many of the pivotal moments of the books. Rebecca fabricating her ancestry to gain acceptance by the Crawleys; Rebecca lying to Lord Steyne to wheedle more money out of him; Pitt manoeuvring to get rid of other competitors for his aunt’s fortune; Amelia finding out that her piano was a gift from William, and not George, after 18 years, and the list goes on.
Thackeray was curiously coy as to whether Rebecca did actually commit her 2 greatest sins: (1) committing adultery with Lord Steyne and (2) murdering Joseph. Like a good court case, the concrete evidence presented can really go either way, depending on what the reader thought about Rebecca’s character. Thackeray was also ambiguous about giving his characters the endings, which they morally “deserved”. Seemingly “bad” characters like Rebecca, seem to end up just as comfortable, if not better, than “good” characters like William (he himself eventually admitted that the insipid and weak-willed Amelia was not worth his devotion and gradually fell out of love with her after their marriage).
To evoke the hazy, convoluted, enigmatic and surprising world of “Vanity Fair”, I have used shapeless forms, shades of gray, unexpected details and finally, the clichéd anonymous big hat and sunglasses.
For a book where both its protagonists are female, “Vanity Fair” spends a surprising amount of time discussing the idea of what being a gentleman entails. Although Thackeray concluded that William is the only true gentleman in Vanity Fair due to his honest and principled character (the “internal” aspect), it can be said that the other main male characters represent other parts of what being a gentleman means. Rawdon Crawley represents the “traditional” concept of what a gentleman is, by virtue of his aristocratic blood and all the respect, which it naturally entails; George Osborne represents its “external” facet through his (excessive) pride in his personal appearance.
This outfit combines the classic elements of menswear (fedora, tailored vest, blazer, bow tie, peter pan collar, satchel bag) to symbolise the “traditional” idea of what a gentleman looks like, with the flamboyant details (bright colours, clashing stripes and polka dots, oxford heels) that reflect the aesthetics of a fashionable man-about-town.