Born in Calcutta in 1811, William Makepeace Thackeray was the only child of an administrator in the East India Company. Sent home at five after his father died, young William was enrolled by his new stepfather (an engineering officer) in a London private school where he was miserable.After studying at Cambridge without taking a degree, William came of age in 1832, inheriting his father’s fortune and just as quickly losing it through gambling and speculation. He married a penniless Irish girl in 1836 while studying art in Paris, and his stepfather bought a newspaper so he could serve as a Parisian correspondent. The venture failed after a year, and Thackeray moved back to London, where he became a prolific journalist. Like countless dropouts and dilettantes before him, Thackeray had in fact been living a life, having experiences that would provide him with rich grist for his true calling as a writer.
Working in the golden age of the magazine, Thackeray wrote for many different rags under a number of pseudonyms, including Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Fitz-Boodle, Ikey Solomons, and The Fat Contributor. In early works such as The Yellowplush Correspondence and The Luck of Barry Lyndon, he became a virtuoso of the speedy character sketch and ironic pastiche, all while addressing the reader with a winkingly metafictional eye. In fact, Vanity Fair was originally published in 19 installments in Punch magazine from 1847 to 1848, accompanied by Thackeray’s own primitive woodcut illustrations and subtitled “Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society.” It was the first work Thackeray published under his own name, and one that made his fame and fortune, but it was made possible by over a decade spent honing his craft.
Thackeray’s novel is a unique spin on the coming-of-age novel or Bildungsroman popularized in England by Thomas Carlyle’s 1824 translations of Goethe. Like Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (also published as a serial from 1880-81), Thackeray’s is a female coming-of-age story, and he writes with surprising acuity about what it means to be a woman in a time of tumult. Though the working title for the book was “A Novel without a Hero,” Thackeray in fact offers us two to choose from: the unprincipled adventuress Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and her best friend Amelia Sedley, an heiress with a romantic disposition. Like a Restoration Comedy featuring a rakish couple and a sentimental one, part of the novel’s pleasure derives from toggling back and forth between symmetrical narratives with ironically contrasting tonalities. As Becky and Amelia approach life in profoundly different ways, we are left to wonder what we might do.
The period is thirty years in the past, during the British Regency and Napoleonic Wars of the 1820s, when British society was still sharply riven by class divisions, but one could make one’s own fortune rise with sufficient pluck and determination. Over the course of the action, the novel’s titular fair, which the characters attend early on, becomes a kind of ambivalent metaphor for the woman’s experience. As the wheel of fortune spins around, and reputations rise and fall, each character seeks to find their place in the firmament. Thackeray intended Vanity Fair to “indicate that we are for the most part foolish and selfish people … all eager for vanities,” but in many ways he achieved the opposite, vividly dramatizing the eternal optimism of the human spirit.
In her adaptation, Kate Hamill (author of the similar adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility at the Folger in 2016) theatricalizes Thackeray’s picaresque structure by embracing Thackeray’s tendency to address the reader directly. As in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a Stage Manager narrates the action and sets the scene, with an ensemble creating much of the action on an empty stage. Characters are able to jump into and out of the drama, while narration allows wide landscapes to be traversed with ease. The effect is a native American form of the epic theater, providing you with the flexibility of the Brechtian stage but without stripping away any of the humanity of Thackeray’s endlessly resonant tale.