Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Adaptations of 19th century novels for television were once rather plodding, worthy renditions, aimed at the middle class. But more recent adaptations, of George Eliot's Middlemarch or Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and Our Mutual Friend, proved to be not only visually interesting but capable of rising above costume drama. Some complained that they were not faithful to their originals, but at their best these versions 'bent' the originals in order to bring out what was crucial about the authors' critical engagement with the society.
But the BBC's latest offering, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, has proved to be something of a disappointment. Vanity Fair should have been ideal material. Thackeray wrote it between 1847 and 1848 and subtitled it 'A novel without a hero'. Quite deliberately he set out to satirise the vanities not just of the upper class but of those who wished to climb into it. This was a period of quite intense social and political conflict - 1848 was the year of revolutions on the continent and of Chartism's last challenge at home. None of this is reflected in the novel - he does, after all, set the novel in the 1810s - but Thackeray's refusal to let his largely middle class readers keep their illusions intact is an ideological echo of the larger conflict.
By setting his novel in the past Thackeray was refusing to let his readers forget how their society had reached its present position. The wealthy had made their fortunes through colonial plunder (Jos Sedley in India) or through cut throat competition leading to bankruptcy. All this had dissolved the old social hierarchy based on the aristocracy - but the newly wealthy, anxious to forget their origins, thought of nothing except how to model themselves on the very class they were displacing. Consequently, who was or was not a real 'gentleman' or 'lady' was at the centre of a very feverish debate about respectability.
Thackeray explores this in satirical detail. He has great fun showing how 'low' one side of the aristocratic Crawley family is. But he is also aware how another section of the aristocracy, in the person of the eldest son of the family, realises the need to adapt to the new middle class virtues of bookkeeping and evangelical religion.
If Thackeray's ironical view of the aristocracy is fuelled by middle class rejection of their profligacy and arrogance, he is equally ironical about the new cult of keeping up respectable appearances. The love story of the novel - between Amelia Sedley (the nearest we get to a heroine) and George Osborne - is ruthlessly stripped of sentimentality. Their relationship rests on calculations of what is financially a good match. Not only is George a worthless individual, who would have abandoned his new wife had he not been killed at the Battle of Waterloo, but just as superficial is Amelia's devotion to his memory.
In this society calculating social position is related to whether your language is 'correct'. Little wonder then that the novel starts with Miss Pinkerton's academy, where middle class girls acquire polish which will allow them to climb the social ladder. If Becky Sharpe is particularly brazen in her attitude (she throws that model of correct language, Dr Johnson's Dictionary, out of the coach window), her 'vices' are not fundamentally at odds with the 'virtues' of the society which, as an outsider, she wishes to succeed in.
That is why Thackeray is at pains to stress how unremarkable her looks are - she is small and slight, pale and sandy haired, and has very large and odd, if attractive, eyes. Her lack of glamour in the book is what gives the novel its value. The BBC version's mistake has been to concentrate on her charms, turning her into a very modern type of heroine. This runs counter to the essence of the book and, together with the tendency to play up the costume drama side of the characters and locations, weakens the adaptation.
The original novel has its weaknesses too - the narrator can be too insistent in pointing up the moral and sometimes pulls his punches - but when Thackeray unhesitatingly takes a scalpel to his unheroic society the result is stunning.