By William Makepeace Thackeray.
Vanity Fair follows the fortunes and adventures of Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s academy, where Amelia has been universally loved and Becky almost universally ignored because of her low birth.
In spite of her father’s bankruptcy, George Osborne (no, not the modern-day, loathsome oik) married her anyway, much to the anger of his father. He marches off to Waterloo, never to return, while Amelia remains faithful to him after his death; their son, Georgy, who is the spitting image of his father, also keeps the man’s memory alive. She clings to the boy, but her straitened financial circumstances mean that she has to hand him over to his generally odious grandfather, John, who instills less creditable virtues in the boy.
Becky, meanwhile, ends up working as a governess for the Crawley family, receives a proposal from Sir Pitt Crawley (the Elder), but marries Rawdon Crawley, which does him out of an inheritance from his aunt and leaves them living on nothing but credit. They, too, have a child (Rawdon; one of Thackeray’s irritating habits is to give the children the same names as their fathers; as well as the original Sir Pitt Crawley, there is his son, also called Pitt), but unlike the clingy Amelia, she loathes the child, and is often caught out when she can’t remember anything about him. She also despises her husband who does having some paternal affection for the child.
Rawdon and Becky eventually separate after he walks in on her and Lord Steyne, who has her dupe, to some degree knowingly. Rawdon becomes governor of Coventry Island and eventually dies of yellow fever.
Becky and Amelia’s fortunes are reversed as the latter comes into money and improves her social position as a consequence, while the former, penniless, ducks and dives her way across Europe until she ends up in garret in Germany and is rescued by the kind-hearted Amelia in spite of Major Dobbin’s warnings.
He was friends with George Osborne at school, and arranged his marriage to Amelia even though he himself was in love with her and continued to be so until she saved Becky. At that point, Dobbin declared that Amelia was not worthy of his love, and it was only then that she realised what a terrible mistake she had made. Indeed, Becky redeemed herself by talking some sense into her painfully innocent friend, and Amelia, now clinging to Dobbin, finally marries him.
Becky goes off with Amelia’s vain, rotund brother, Joseph (Jos), who worked as an official in India, but had fled in terror from Waterloo. He returned to India, ignoring his family, and having returned to England, he prefers to indulge his appetite on the road home to London, filling his face at every inn on the way. Having been rescued from Becky early in the novel, he ends up in her clutches and eventually dies in Aix-la-Chapelle.
Thackeray called Vanity Fair a novel without a hero. Neither Amelia nor Becky are admirable. Amelia is the very model of a martyr-like female character, who idolises her husband even though he was going to abandon her in favour of Becky, and who clings just as damagingly to her son, damagingly for both of them. Even at the end, when Dobbin, the only decent character in the whole story, finally marries Amelia, Thackeray implies that her limpet-like attachment to him will be a continuation of her unhealthy obsession with the object of her desire.
Becky is sly, but her charms only really work on men, minor female characters in the story not being deceived by her. She often, though, emerges triumphant from her encounters by ingratiating herself with her opponents. However, this is not without some cost such as Lady Southdown’s unpalatable medicinal ministrations and her tedious pamphlets.
Unlike stories about tricksters where the greater villain is outwitted, Becky is generally the greater villain, although the reader doesn’t mind that she fleeces Lord Steyne, and may only feel a slight amount of disquiet when his man threatens her with fatal consequences if she doesn’t leave Rome while his lordship is there.
It is only at the end of the book that either of them do something decent. Becky bluntly tells Amelia the truth about her late husband; Amelia marries Dobbin after recognising how badly she treated him. But Becky continues to lie, cheat and steal her way around Europe while Amelia finds someone new to smother.
Vanity Fair was originally a serial publication across 1847-48, and perhaps, if it could be read in the same fashion (in facsimile?), it might make the book seem less rambling as Thackeray turns moral essayist, trying the reader’s patience at times.
The novel ends somewhat abruptly having (so the notes say) been extended beyond the original endpoint (the Eothen chapter) as if Thackeray needed to wrap things up without worrying about the denouement too much. But perhaps the implicit message is that Vanity Fair is the way of the world, and neither Amelia nor Becky will ever really change.