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Insights from a person of questionable sanity

Famous Frontal Development ...

Rating: 3 votes, 5.00 average.

The doorbell rings.

A semi –drunk (who could tell the difference?) Phil Mitchell slouches off the couch and looks outside through the window. Like a bad horror movie no one is outside. He assumes it is kids playing tricks.

The doorbell rings again.

Frustrated, he opens the door and shouts ‘I know who you are!’ in a drunken stupor. He wobbles down two steps, ‘I know who you are the next time I see ya, I’m gonna turn ya backside, do ya hear me?’ Half of Walford probably did mate.

He turns his pack and wobbles up the steps and …imitating some sort of 70s spy movie, the head of a gun peaks out of some leaves.

The gun is fired by someone hiding,

Cut to Phil Mitchell leaning against the wall. He touches his chest, his face twists in agony, he rolls down the steps and falls on his face. He convulses a little, raises his head and with blurry eyes looks about him – does he see the killer run off? Is he dead? The sound of a train gets louder before it mingles with the iconic theme tune which to me has always sounded like somebody using the bald head of the Mithchell brothers as drums.

An epic moment in Eastenders? Probably the last decent storyline in it.

Who shot Phil Mitchell? Come on, out with it, which bugger messed it up and didn’t finish the job?

What I can tell you is that it wasn’t Becky Sharp.


Because Becky Sharp isn’t the kind of girl who would mess up a job like that, she’d do it properly, she’d blow him to pieces of chunky raw meat in blood gravy and feed it to her spaniel. Atta girl!

Vanity Fair, an epic triple-decker bus length , contains the essential ingredients for a good soap; from morally corrupt characters to ridiculous self-important oafs to murders and plenty of sex. Becky Sharp, regardless of whether Thackeray intended his audience to like her, is perhaps the most memorable character in any medium of fiction – on paper, on screen (as long as she is not played by the cute Witherspoon) and stage. Not provocatively clad in leather, latex and boots but in Victorian style dress, Becky Sharp possess the brains, ambition and ruthlessness that few women are blessed – or plagued, with. And of course add to that combination - her infamous looks – ‘Green eyes, fair skin, pretty figure, famous frontal development’ (chapter 19). Famous frontal development? With all due respect to her - why did Witherspoon play her I wonder.

It is ‘a novel without a hero’ because almost every character has a ridiculous fault within their nature. Even the insipid and passive but sweet and virtuous Amelia Sedley, who still loves and grieves over her dead and worthless husband. She, however unconsciously, selfishly exploits William Dobbin, the only gentleman in the novel and who has been passionately in love with Amelia Sedley since the moment he sets eyes on her. But he is indeed a true gentleman and never acts on his feelings because Amelia is in love and engaged – and then married through his help, to his close friend George Osborne. But I find that Dobbin has faults too, he is a bad judge of character - he fails to see George Osborne for what he truly is; and then he wastes his affections on Amelia and by the end of the novel realises that he has wasted his entire life pursuing someone who is not worthy. And if I'm completely honest his perpetual self-sacrifical attitude annoyed the hell out of me sometimes. Maybe it's the 'modern' woman in me but he should have been a bit more...'manly'. That's it. He should have declared his feelings much sooner and just generally be a bit more dominant and forceful. Women like that sort of that thing - just read any self-help book.

Amelia is juxtaposed against Becky Sharp throughout the novel, even from the opening chapters. In the first chapter both girls leave Miss Pinkerton’s school for ladies with a very different future ahead of them. Amelia was loved by all and treated as an equal whereas Becky was isolated and disliked because of her social status – the orphaned daughter of an opera singer and a poor artist. The difference? Money of course. Becky herself thinks half way through the novel that with five thousands pounds a year she could be - could be - could be - a good woman.

Rebecca Sharp, the indomitable quintessential anti-heroine, sacrifices all in her path, from husband to friend to son, for her ambition, for money and a place in society. Without a mother to secure her future (as so many mothers found their daughters a rich husband – who must be in want of a wife), Becky Sharp must secure her own future. She almost snares Joseph Sedley, brother of Amelia, early in the novel. Failing that she begins to work a governess to Sir Pitt Crawley’s daughters. His sister, Miss Crawley, is my second favourite character, after Becky, in the novel and one of the few people in Vanity Fair who see through her act. Thackeray out-classes even Dickens in his caricatures. Miss Crawley is a rich old hypochondriac, morally rebellious and has an irrational fear of death – not surprisingly when all her relations are waiting for the moment she keels over so they can have her money. Becky acts as a nurse to her and during that time the old woman becomes attached to her charms and wit and her constant mocking of others. It is during her contact with the Crawleys she meets her future husband – Rawdon Crawley, the son of Pitt Crawley; the heir and favourite of Miss Crawley. He falls in love with Becky Sharp, however, on her part she feels nothing but secretly marries him because his aunt will leave him all her fortune.

However, Miss Crawley is somewhat of a hypocrite. She praises unequal marriages but becomes angry when her nephew makes an unequal match with Becky Sharp. Although she dotes on Becky Sharp and think she is good enough for her brother Sir Pitt Crawley (after Lady Crawley dies), she thinks Becky Sharp is not worthy of her nephew, of her favourite. She becomes outraged when she hears of their clandestine marriage,; that her favourtie should marry a penniless governess and right under her nose too!

Her quasi-rise and success, and her subsequent fall and demise mark Rebecca Sharp as a truly remarkable character. She redeems herself a little at the end of the novel in her only selfless act - towards her old friend Amelia by exposing George for what he truly was. Amelia, under Becky's revelation about her quondam lover, can now let go of the past and stop hero-worshipping her husband; and is able to grasp with both hands her last chance of happiness. Even at the end of the novel the stark differences between the two girls stands. For example, Amelia is younger, and as Gilbert K. Chesterton remarked in 1909:

she has not lost her power of happiness; her stalk is not broken [...] But the energy of Becky is the energy of a dead woman; it is like the rhythmic kicking of some bisected insect [...] The life of the innocent, even the stupidly innocent, is within; [...] Thackeray’s thought is really suggestive; that perhaps even softness is a sort of superiority; it is better to be open to all emotions as they come than to reach the hell of Rebecca; the hell of having all outward forces open, but all receptive organs closed (Bartleby).

Thackeray weaves several plots together like a master craftsman with one common purpose – to expose human folly. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, despite its length, never gets dull and is a must read, not just for the cheap thrills that a soap can provide you but - far more importantly - for the lessons we can deduce from the text. He removes the thin fragile shroud characters use to cover their true motives and nature to expose a selfish and morally corrupt set of people who fail in their aims in the end; who under false labours pursue what they think they want the most - what they THINK they want the most - after all – ‘Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?’

Updated 03-09-2009 at 01:36 PM by optimisticnad



  1. Virgil's Avatar
    It's been ages since I read Vanity Fair. I think I was an undergraduate still. That's more than half my lifetime away. I don't remember many of the novel's details, but I did remember liking Becky Sharp and to some degree even Amelia. I should read that once again. But it's soo long. It would take me forever.
  2. optimisticnad's Avatar
    It is really long isn't it! It took me two months to read it when I can normally read a book regardless of length in a fortnight. At the time one a friend of mine everytime i'd speak to her would ask 'what are you reading?' and I'd tell her 'Vanity Fair' and one time she remarked 'you've been reading that for a year now!'.
  3. kiz_paws's Avatar
    I have not read Vanity Fair but thoroughly enjoyed this wonderfully crafted book review, Opti. Thank you for taking the time to write this entertaining and informative review.