Vanity Fair – Ancient and Modern

the book: 

The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp by Sarra Manning

published 2018

(A modern version of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, published 1848)

Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp 2

Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp

While Amelia was still in bed, Becky spent her mornings in Kensington Gardens with Jos Sedley. He had been planning to go back to LA and his protein balls weeks before, but if he’d done that, then he wouldn’t have been able to devise a fitness programme for Becky.

‘But you’re perfect,’ he gasped when Becky had descended the stairs on that first morning in the lululemon workout gear he’d bought for Amelia, which his sister couldn’t squeeze into. ‘You are fit. I mean you don’t need to get fit.’

‘But I’m not firm. Everything wobbles, Look!’ Becky had done a shimmy, which had made everything wobble, including Jos. Becky had looked down at her chest and shimmied again. ‘Particularly these.’

commentary: This is dead easy: the idea behind the book is brilliant, and the book itself is brilliant.

William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic for the ages, Vanity Fair (1847/48, though set 30ish years earlier) is being adapted for TV this autumn – it is a great book and will no doubt be a great series, & the first episode goes out on UK’s ITV tonight. 

Sarra Manning had the inspired notion to write a contemporary update – Becky Sharp in the late 2010s.

The original book was subtly subtitled A Novel Without a Hero….the reader was left to decide whether there was a heroine or not. The book followed the fates of a number of people, but there is absolutely no doubt that the character who resounded down the ages was Becky Sharp, who is wicked, and on-the-make, and will do anything to achieve her aims – which are to get on in life and not live in poverty. She is like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost: meant to be the villain but completely unbalancing the book by being deeply attractive.

And in Sarra’s modern-day version, we are allowed to admit that she IS wicked but she is just downright good fun, and although one can’t approve of everything she does (!) who can blame her for trying to get by any way she can in this contemporary world?

If you have read the Thackeray version (and yes, I have, it is one of my favourite books) you can enjoy the ingenious, complex, and detailed comparisons that Sarra makes – she has done the most fantastic job on it. But you don’t at all need to have read the original – you will get the idea fast enough, and then you will want to watch the TV series.

In this version, Becky – and this is utter brilliance – and her friend Amelia have been in the Big Brother house – the book starts as the programme ends. (In Vanity Fair the two girls have just left school together). Becky, a penniless orphan, knows she has a short time in which to make the most of her new fame and moment of glory, and she latches onto rich girl Amelia – as in the book, something of a soppy ditherer – as hard as she can. Her first plan doesn’t come off, but she continues to scheme and push her way through a world of Instagram and Twitter, of designer clothes and expensive nights out for charity, of girls who grow up with ponies and girls who don’t. Becky coolly calculates the odds for getting what she wants, and it is a flatout joy to watch her.

There are ups and downs,  a wide range of modern characters are nicely filleted, and the book is very very funny. I would say Sarra enjoyed herself hugely writing it: it is tremendous fun and all the better for not being constrained by considerations of good taste or either virtue rewarded or vice punished. I loved every minute of it. It is true satire – the word is often used of books, but usually I shake my head in a firm ‘no’. This time, satire is exactly what it is.

I was curious to see how Sarra would handle the ending: in the original book Thackeray isn’t really supposed to reward vice, so Becky Sharp’s final fate is a compromise – she’s supposed to be repentant, and leading a quiet life (though one certainly thinks she still has a twinkle in her eye). Sarra’s decision on what to do with Becky is quite wonderful – an ending for our times.

And I’m sure Sarra would join me in encouraging the reading of Vanity Fair too. One of the great moments of my life was reading it (for the 3rd or 4th time) while drinking tea in the café of the Wallace Collection in central London, and finding out that the original of one of the characters – Lord Steyne, features in old and modern versions – had lived in the very house I was sitting in. (He was Lord Hertford, and both real and fictional men are unspeakably wicked… though the modern-day one has the look of someone else too.) 

And from the book you can find out the very good reason why, although many of the character names are kept the same, the name of Amelia’s crush in Sarra’s book is George Wylie.

Two of Sarra Manning’s earlier, splendid books have featured on the blog: After the Last Dance and House of Secrets.

The original Becky Sharp's first encounter with curry and chili featured in a Guardian piece I did on toxic dinner parties.

The exercising couple lying down are wearing lululemon. The other two are wearing Outdoor Voices, more of an upandcoming brand. Leggings are making a comeback in the fashion world at the mo, (a terrible shock to those of us who wear them all the time – it’s likes saying ‘shoes are coming back’). And as those exercisers lie down and stand up, what could be more appropriate for the rise and fall of Becky: but don’t ever believe she’ll be down for long…


  1. Oh, this sounds absolutely wonderful, Moira! What a brilliant idea to give that story a modern-day makeover, but still tell it. And it is a fine story, too, in the original. I think that's possibly why it was such a good candidate for modern retelling. And it sounds very well-done, too, with a solid setting and all the modern trimmings.

    1. Like all the best ideas, updating Vanity Fair sounds obvious now - no classic could be a better candidate. And it really is a good read, with something to say about modern life.

  2. I would like to read both of them but I am losing ground again on the TBR piles.

    As for what is in or out of style I like to use the word for some of my clothes that my younger son uses with regard to older or older looking clothing he has purchased. He will say it in as it is "vintage". I have lots of "vintage" clothing.

    1. Yes indeed - it's just as vintage for having been in our wardrobes all that time.
      I know what you mean about the TBRs. I would like to read Vanity Fair again, but it is a long book, I need to find the time.

  3. Sounds good, but then I haven't read Vanity Fair so might now have as much meaning for me. And I can only aim at reading so many books, so I don't think I will be tempted by this one.

    1. Would you watch the TV series of Vanity Fair? It is a co-production, I think with Amazon, so will surely be shown on US TV.

    2. That is a good question... and I don't know the answer. I had not even heard of the series before this post. If so I would rather read the book first and it has a lot of pages. Glen liked Barry Lyndon, the novel, when he read it years ago. And he loves... and I do mean loves... the film. He is a big fan of Stanley Kubrick.

    3. I remember seeing Barry Lyndon at the cinema many many years ago. There were only a couple of people in there, and after a mystifying section ('is this Kubrick being particularly esoteric with the timeline?') the manager interrupted the film to say that they had shown the reels out of order. His question was - did we want to carry on, or go right back to the place it had all gone wrong? Well it was a very long film, and it was getting late - I think we all voted for a medium solution which wasn't going to keep us there past midnight. I have since seen it on DVD. It was a very beautiful film, and I was much struck by the fact that Barry Lyndon's real name is Redmond Lyndon - Redmond being my own last name.

    4. That is a nice story about seeing Barry Lyndon for the first time. It is interminably long, so I can imagine not wanting to start again a the beginning. Glen is very much interested in art, lighting and photography in films whether or not the story is interesting. Not that I have anything against the story, just the length. And I had forgotten that his name was Redmond, and I could see how that would be appealing.

      Getting back to Vanity Fair, I am beginning to think I want to read the book (Thackeray's) someday.

    5. 'Interminable' is the right word. It is very beautiful, and interesting, but not sure it justifies its length. I have it in a Kubrick boxset, I should watch it again. (Possibly while doing something else at the same time... )
      I think with the likes of Vanity Fair, you hear about it so much that you feel you should read it. And then if you hear about it too much more (and it is very much discussed in the UK right now) you convince yourself you probably have read it already. This is not true for VF with me, I do know and love the book, but there have been times I have become convinced I have read a book/seen a film just because I know so much about it.


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