“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”
My wife was very keen to watch ITV’s new autumn drama “Vanity Fair”. We had seen the trailers and these had piqued her interest and indeed it did look like a well made adaptation with high production values. However, I didn’t share her enthusiasm as I knew little about the book, other than its title and author, and it looked like another boring period drama and unlikely to be to my taste (I remembered the boredom of the Downton Abbey and later Poldark years). However, I also knew it was very unlikely that I was going to win control of the television remote control on those nights and therefore needed a coping strategy.
It then occurred to me – I have never read any William Makepeace Thackery! I have seen the book many times but its size and weight have always been off-putting. Casual glances inside the covers, and the illustrations inside, tended to confirm my suspicions that it was too dated and I’d be unlikely to enjoy it. But these trailers made me think, why is this book still successful after so many years? I could understand its success when it was published in serial form but why are people still reading it ? I decided that rather than wait for the television version I’d try reading the book. If nothing else came of it I could be a smug know-it-all when we watched the program later on.
I am glad I took this course of action. Not just that I read the book but also that I read the book before I saw the adaptation. The adaptation does not do the book justice. The book is a genuinely funny and biting satire. It excoriates the wealthy, the titled, the self-seeking and reveals their failing through their greed, lust, infidelity, duplicitousness, and vanity. It is a story, as Thackeray says, without a hero – no-one is safe from criticism and ridicule. Much of the writing is dated and the allegories and symbolism, as is much of the humour, relies on a knowledge of both the history of the period (Napoleonic Wars) and classic mythology. I have to confess I was glad I was reading this on the kindle as at a press of a button I could find out details on historical or mythical characters such as the god Hymen (The god of marriage as I was surprised to learn). However, despite this his humour is still wicked enough to cause one to laugh out loud (to the annoyance of my wife as was reading this in bed at night)
The television adaptation does help in that it removes some of the hurdles of the text being antiquated but I fear that it also changes the book such that it looses its heart. Some of the changes I can fully understand. Thackeray was not an abolitionist and he held quite clear racist views. These are clearly shown through the characters of Mr Sambo (‘Sam’ on the television) and Miss Schwarz (who is invisible in the TV drama). I can understand why the racist jokes were omitted but fear that this might suggest that well regarded writers in the past were not tainted with unpleasant opinions. In this book it is important to keep in mind that, although all the characters are sinners, not all men are equal in the eyes of the author. On a similar vein the TV drama seems less able to portray Becky in the harsh light of the text. She is portrayed as a feisty go-getter and we rather skim over her picaresque period of decline, her manipulativeness, her abuse and neglect of her son and her possible role in two deaths. Thackeray was able to display the shocking immorality of his puppets, it seems that this harder to do in our modern age.
I wonder if this problem of the adaptation is also why the humour fails today, When written its audience would have been well aware of the literary allusions employed by the author. Indeed it is likely most of them would have read about Vanity Fair in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. They would have shared a Christian moral code and would have been very well aware when the characters in this tale transgressed, no matter what sugary words they employed in excuse. The gaps between apparent moral society and the real actions and intentions of the cast would be very clear and I am not sure that this is the case with a modern audience.
There was “no hero” in the tale I read, but the adaption possibly created a heroine to dull the edge of this literary weapon. This did blunt the whole enterprise and the television drama did, as I feared, largely end up as a period drama – lots of good costumes and a fair bit of romantic intrigue. Certainly not the funny biting satire that I had enjoyed reading. Though I did manage to become the smug know-it-all that I had hoped.