History: This book was first published in 1847-48, satirizing society in early 19th-century England. Vanity fair refers to a stop along the pilgrim's progress: a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity, which is meant to represent man's sinful attachment to worldly things.
Plot: The story opens at Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, where the principal protagonists Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley have just completed their studies and are preparing to depart for Amelia's house in Russell Square. Becky is portrayed as a strong-willed and cunning young woman determined to make her way in society, and Amelia Sedley as a good-natured, loveable, though simple-minded young girl.
At Russell Square, Miss Sharp is introduced to the dashing and self-obsessed Captain George Osborne (to whom Amelia has been betrothed from a very young age) and to Amelia's brother Joseph Sedley, a clumsy and vainglorious but rich civil-servant fresh from the East India Company. Becky entices Sedley, hoping to marry him, but she fails because of warnings from Captain Osborne, Sedley's own native shyness, and his embarrassment over some foolish drunken behavior of his that Becky had witnessed at Vauxhall.
With this, Becky Sharp says farewell to Sedley's family and enters the service of the crude and profligate baronet Sir Pitt Crawley, who has engaged her as a governess to his daughters. Her behaviour at Sir Pitt's house gains his favour, and after the premature death of his second wife, he proposes to her. However, he finds that she is already secretly married to his second son, Rawdon Crawley.
Sir Pitt's elder half sister, the spinster Miss Crawley, is very rich, having inherited her mother's fortune of £70,000. How she will bequeath her great wealth is a source of constant conflict between the branches of the Crawley family who vie shamelessly for her affections; initially her favorite is Sir Pitt's younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. For some time, Becky acts as Miss Crawley's companion, supplanting the loyal Miss Briggs in an attempt to establish herself in favor before breaking the news of her elopement with Miss Crawley's nephew. However, the misalliance so enrages Miss Crawley, that she disinherits her nephew in favour of his pompous and pedantic elder brother, who also bears the name Pitt Crawley. The married couple constantly attempt to reconcile with Miss Crawley, and she relents a little. However, she will only see her nephew and refuses to change her will.
While Becky Sharp is rising in the world, Amelia's father, John Sedley, is bankrupted. The Sedleys and Osbornes were once close allies, but the relationship between the two families disintegrates after the Sedleys are financially ruined, and the marriage of Amelia and George is forbidden. George ultimately decides to marry Amelia against his father's will, primarily due to the pressure of his friend Dobbin, and George is consequently disinherited. While these personal events take place, the Napoleonic Wars have been ramping up. George Osborne and William Dobbin are suddenly deployed to Brussels, but not before an encounter with Becky and Captain Crawley at Brighton. The holiday is interrupted by orders to march to Brussels. Already, the newly wedded Osborne is growing tired of Amelia, and he becomes increasingly attracted to Becky who encourages his advances.
At a ball in Brussels (based on the Duchess of Richmond's famous ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo) George gives Becky a note inviting her to run away with him. He regrets this shortly afterwards and reconciles with Amelia, who has been deeply hurt by his attentions towards her former friend. The morning after, he is sent to Waterloo with Captain Crawley and Dobbin, leaving Amelia distraught. Becky, on the other hand, is virtually indifferent to her husband's departure. She tries to console Amelia, but Amelia responds angrily, disgusted by Becky's flirtatious behavior with George and her lack of concern about Captain Crawley. Becky resents this snub and a rift develops between the two women that lasts for years. Becky is not very concerned for the outcome of the war, either. Should Napoleon win, she plans to become the mistress of one his marshals, and meanwhile she makes a profit selling her carriage and horses at inflated prices to panicking Britons seeking to flee the city, where the Belgian population is openly pro-Napoleonic.
Captain Crawley survives, but George dies in the battle. Amelia bears him a posthumous son, who is also named George. She returns to live in genteel poverty with her parents. Meanwhile, since the death of George, Dobbin, who is young George's godfather, gradually begins to express his love for the widowed Amelia by small kindnesses toward her and her son. Most notable is the recovery of her old piano, which Dobbin picks up at an auction following the Sedleys' ruin. Amelia mistakenly assumes this was done by her late husband. She is too much in love with George's memory to return Dobbin's affections. Saddened, he goes to India for many years. Dobbin's infatuation with Amelia is a theme which unifies the novel and one which many have compared to Thackeray's unrequited love for a friend's wife.
Meanwhile, Becky also has a son, also named after his father, but unlike Amelia, who dotes on and even spoils her child, Becky is a cold, distant mother. She continues her ascent first in post-war Paris and then in London where she is patronised by the great Marquess of Steyne, who covertly subsidises her and introduces her to London society. Her success is unstoppable despite her humble origins, and she is eventually presented at court to the Prince Regent himself.
Becky and Rawdon appear to be financially successful, but their wealth and high standard of living are mostly smoke and mirrors. Rawdon gambles heavily and earns money as a billiards shark. The book also suggests he cheats at cards. Becky accepts trinkets and money from her many admirers and sells some for cash. She also borrows heavily from the people around her and seldom pays bills. The couple lives mostly on credit, and while Rawdon seems to be too dim-witted to be aware of the effect of his borrowing on the people around him, Becky is fully aware that her heavy borrowing and her failure to pay bills bankrupts at least two innocent people: her servant Briggs, whose life savings Becky borrows and fritters away, and her landlord Raggles, who was formerly a butler to the Crawley family and who invested his life savings in the townhouse that Becky and Rawdon rent (and fail to pay for). She also cheats innkeepers, milliners, dress-makers, grocers, and others who do business on credit. She and Rawdon obtain credit by tricking everyone around them into believing they are receiving money from others. Sometimes, Becky and Rawdon buy time from their creditors by suggesting Rawdon received money in Miss Crawley's will or are being paid a stipend by Sir Pitt. Ultimately Becky is suspected of carrying on an extramarital affair with the Marquis of Steyne, apparently encouraged by Rawdon to prostitute herself in exchange for money and promotion.
At the summit of her success, Becky's pecuniary relationship with the rich and powerful Marquis of Steyne is discovered by Rawdon after Rawdon is arrested for debt. Rawdon's brother's wife, Lady Jane, bails him out and Rawdon surprises Becky and Steyne in a compromising moment. Rawdon leaves his wife and through the offices of the Marquis of Steyne is made Governor of Coventry Island to get him out of the way, after Rawdon challenges the elderly marquess to a duel. Becky, having lost both husband and credibility, is warned by Steyne to quit England and wanders the continent. Rawdon and Becky's son are left in the care of Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane. However wherever Becky goes, she is followed by the shadow of the Marquess of Steyne. No sooner does she establish herself in polite society than someone turns up who knows her disreputable history and spreads rumours; Steyne himself hounds her out of Rome.
As Amelia's adored son George grows up, his grandfather relents and takes him from poor Amelia, who knows the rich and bitter old man will give him a much better start in life than she or her family could ever manage. After twelve years abroad both Joseph Sedley and William Dobbin return to England. Dobbin professes his unchanged love to Amelia, but although Amelia is affectionate, she tells him she cannot forget the memory of her dead husband. Dobbin also becomes close to George, and his kind, firm manner are a good influence on the spoilt child.
While in England, Dobbin mediates a reconciliation between Amelia and her father-in-law. The death of Amelia's father prevents their meeting, but following Osborne's death soon after, it is revealed that he had amended his will and bequeathed young George half his large fortune and Amelia a generous annuity. The rest is divided between his daughters, Miss Osborne, and Mrs Bullock, who begrudges Amelia and her son for the decrease in her annuity.
After the death of old Mr. Osborne, Amelia, Joseph, George and Dobbin go on a trip to Germany, where they encounter the destitute Becky. She meets the young George Osborne at a card table and then enchants Jos Sedley all over again. Becky has unfortunately deteriorated as a character. She is drinking heavily, has lost her singing voice and much of her looks, and spends time with card sharks and con artists. The book suggests that Becky has been involved in activities even more shady than her usual con games, but does not go into details. Since there have been earlier hints about Becky's early life with her father, some of which suggest that Becky was a child prostitute, the reader is tempted to draw the most unsavory conclusions.
Following Jos' entreaties, Amelia agrees to a reconciliation (when she hears that Becky's ties with her son have been severed), much to Dobbin's disapproval. Dobbin quarrels with Amelia and finally realizes that he is wasting his love on a woman too shallow to return it. However, Becky, in a moment of conscience, shows Amelia the note that George (Amelia's dead husband) had given her, asking her to run away with him. This destroys Amelia's idealized image of George, but not before Amelia has sent a note to Dobbin professing her love.
Becky resumes her seduction of Joseph Sedley and gains control over him. He eventually dies of a suspicious ailment after signing a portion of his money to Becky as life insurance. In the original illustrations, which were done by Thackeray, Becky is shown behind a curtain with a vial (presumably of poison) in her hand; His death appears to have made her fortune.
By a twist of fate Rawdon Crawley dies weeks before his older brother, whose possibly retarded son has already died. Thus the baronetcy descends to Rawdon's son. Had he outlived his brother by even a day he would have become Sir Rawdon Crawley and Becky would have become Lady Crawley - the title she uses regardless in later life.
The reader is informed at the end of the novel that although Dobbin married Amelia, and although he always treated her with great kindness, he never fully regained the love that he once had for her. There is also a final appearance by Becky, as cocky as ever, selling trinkets at a fair, presumably having run through the fortune left to her by Joseph.
Review: tThackeray portrays his characters as people really are - flawed. That doesn't mean that they don't have their virtues, however.
The characters portray types of people that still exist in the world today. Amelia is dependent on another for her own happiness. George is vain and selfish, and is insensitive to the feelings of others. Miss Crawley is prejudiced, but won't admit it. Jos Sedley is selfish, and a slave to his appetites. Georgy is spoiled. Mr. Osbourne is proud. Dobbin is unselfish and won't stick up for himself. Becky will be the center of attention (and rich) at all costs, especially to others. I have never loved to hate a character so much in my entire life, in her case.
This book makes a lot of good points about life, , I think it's edifying to read this and realize things you can improve upon. It is an excellent critique of society.
Opening Line: “While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young girls, on Cheswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour.”
Closing Line: “Ah! Vanitus Vanitatum! which of us is happy in this world? which of us has his desire, or having it, is satisfied? - Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”
Quotes: “If success is rare and slow, everybody knows how quick and easy ruin is.”
“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.”