Hollywood's British Invasion: Vanity Fair
By Cathy Schultz
Classic 19th century British novelists-Jane Austen, Charles Dickens,
William Thackeray-deserve their own collective star on Hollywood's
Walk of Fame, given that their works have inspired scads of screenplays
over the years. Somehow we Americans never tire of observing their
distinctive era. The elegance! The hypocrisy! The lavish facial
The films also offer a fascinating window into the rigid social
order of 19th century Britain, when a person's "place"
was determined solely by lineage and money, and snobbery served
as the official team sport of the upper classes.
Director Mira Nair brings that world to vibrant life again in her
version of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." Nair humanizes the
heroine Becky Sharp (delightfully embodied by Reese Witherspoon),
a penniless orphan who is enormously witty and vivacious, but also-let's
be frank-a scheming social climber. Yet, pitted as she is against
her society's "exquisite tyranny" (in Nair's words), we
as her audience end up rooting for her anyway.
And so, probably, did Thackeray's mid-19th century readers. For
although Becky appears quite modern to us, her character was not
really unique in her society. Situated in the upper crust alongside
the filthy rich and the illustrious lineages were quite a few Becky
Sharps, who had schemed and maneuvered their way to the top.
What other educational tidbits can we glean from the film? Here
are questions both trivial and ... oh, let's just stick to the trivial,
Q. Did the celebrity magazine Vanity Fair get named for the novel,
or visa versa?
A. Neither. Both derive from John Bunyon's famous devotional work,
"Pilgrim's Progress." Bunyon's Vanity Fair was a marketplace
organized by the devil, in which people coldly reduced everything
and everyone to commodities. It's a strong theme of Thackeray's
novel, where characters scheme for the most advantageous marriages.
Nair's film also underlines it, beginning with the opening scene
of a young Becky finagling a high price for her dead mother's portrait.
Women, especially, were for sale in 19th century Britain.
Q. Why won't Rawley, Becky's charming but deadbeat husband, get
a job for heaven's sake?
A. Because he was a "gentleman," and a gentleman was
defined as someone above manual labor. Men like Rawley were legion,
born of "good families" but without the income to live
like it. Since working was out of the question, they ran up bills,
borrowed from gullible friends and tried to stay out of debtor's
Q. Was military life that cushy? The officers here seemed to dance
more than they fought.
A. It was for the upper-class officers, many of whom bought military
commissions more for status than service. Primarily they aimed to
look dashing and dance skillfully.
In the film, Becky and her friends attend an extravagant officers'
ball in Brussels in 1815. Interestingly, that ball was a real event
and, as shown in the film, it ended abruptly when news came of Napoleon's
rapidly advancing army. Many of the attending soldiers were shot
dead only hours later at Waterloo.
Q. There are a lot of references to India in the film. Is that
accurate for the era, or did Nair overplay that because of her Indian
A. Certainly Nair flavored this traditional British drama with
some Indian spice, including one memorable scene of an exuberant
Becky riding an elephant in an Indian festival. Yet Nair didn't
invent the Indian subplot, but instead played up a theme already
present in the novel-and in Britain. India's exotic culture had
captured the British imagination by the early nineteenth century,
as the region gradually fell under British imperialism. And like
the characters Jos and Dobbin, thousands of British soldiers and
administrators absorbed its culture during years of residence there.
Q. Did people really dig the teeth out of corpses on the battlefield?
A. Not only the teeth, but also the whole corpse if they could
get away with it. Surgeons needed cadavers to dissect, and "resurrection
men" made a tidy living producing them. Grave robbing, in fact,
got so pervasive that families had to set watches or traps at the
graves of recently buried loved ones.
Q. Has there been another past era more memorialized on the screen?
A. I can't think of one. And further forays in 19th century Britain
await us on the big screen. Currently filming are the latest adaptations
of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and Charles Dickens'
Q. Where can I get more information on that era?
A. The classic novels by Thackeray, Austen, and Dickens are great.
But for social history, try Daniel Pool's "What Jane Austen
Ate and Charles Dickens Knew."
Daily Southtown, Sept. 8, 2004.
Also see Malibu