Vanity Fair!

Ok, I’ll admit, I was equal parts wary and excited by this. I love the book (though admittedly it’s been some years since I last read it), and LOVED the 1998 miniseries that starred Natasha Little as Becky Sharp (did anyone else think it was kind of hilarious that Little ended up playing Becky’s polar opposite, Lady Crawley, in the 2004 film version?) The absolutely ludicrous film that followed it, however? I did not like. I love Reese Witherspoon and think she’s an excellent actress, but unsympathetic adventuress Becky Sharp is not her role.

Is it Olivia Cooke’s? Well, I can’t rightly say just yet. At the end of this first episode, I’m… ok with this. I don’t love it, I don’t know that I feel terribly compelled to keep watching it, though I will, just to see how it goes and because I’m recapping it here. Given the choice, though, I think I’d rather be watching Bodyguard.

But it’s only the first episode. Maybe it’ll grow on me. Hell, maybe this recap will make me reconsider my position. Let’s see, shall we?

We begin with an acoustic version of All Along the Watchtower, because acoustic versions of famous rock songs are so hot right now, and really help make these period flicks relevant for the kids these days. It’s right up there with having a person of colour playing a servant giving the people they work for some side-eye shade when the white people start rattling off totally racist comments.

As the song plays, the camera reveals a highly anachronistic merry-go-round, which begins spinning at the snap of a man’s fingers. The man is Thackeray himself. As the ride spins, now populated with all our main characters, he tells us that this is a world filled with kind of terrible people, all of whom are pursuing things not worth having. This Greatest Showman opening seems like an unnecessarily expensive way to tell us something we should already be able to figure out, if the adaptation is any good at all, but hey, what do I care how ITV wastes money?

Now we get to the story proper. We open at Miss Pinkerton’s school for young ladies. The young ladies in question all appear to be pastel-clad idiots who talk about how their second pony is a palomino. I guess that’s the Regency version of bragging about how your second car is a Tesla or whatever. In the midst of this cascade of frippery is Becky Sharp, who marches into the headmistress’s office and starts flinging around a huge amount of attitude out of absolutely nowhere. She informs Miss P that if she’s to continue teaching French and drawing to these girls, she’s going to have to get paid for it. It’s either that, or Miss P needs to find Becky another job.

Ok, that’s fair. I mean, the demanding to be paid bit, but the timing is a bit strange. It’s the very end of the school year, so wouldn’t it make more sense to have this discussion shortly before the new school year is to begin? This way, Miss P could easily go, ‘Fine, off with you, then!’ and have plenty of time to recruit a new teacher. If Becky did this shortly before the new term began, she’d have Miss P up against quite the wall, no?

Also: Becky’s obnoxious attitude is really making it hard for me to be on her side. And I get that Becky’s not supposed to be a particularly likable character, but still, it’s a bit rough being this put off by her so early in her own story. She’s slumped all over her chair like a sulky 2018 teenager, snarking away at this woman who could literally leave her homeless on the street. And how would it be Miss P’s job to find Becky a new position? That would be Becky’s job, if Becky really wanted to leave.

Turns out, Miss P isn’t having it. She tells Becky that she can take up a new post as a governess at the home of Sir Pitt Crawley, MP. Becky’s face falls like she’s shocked by this, even though she literally told Miss P to do this exact thing. Seriously, not two minutes ago, in this very scene, she told Miss P to find her a paying job. This is the paying job, Becky! What sort of job did you think you would get, with your qualifications? Honestly, she might not be happy about this, but she wouldn’t be this stupid.

The job starts in a week, but Becky’s shitty attitude has put Miss P off so badly she tells Becky to get the hell out immediately. See, Becky? Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, even if it is a very tight-fisted hand. At least until you’re actually ready to leave.

But Becky is nothing if not resourceful and quick with the crocodile tears. She whips up a batch in time to manipulate her friend Amelia into extending an invitation to stay at her home in London for the week.

Off the girls go, surprising Amelia’s parents, the Sedleys, with this unexpected guest. It transpires that Amelia’s fat and socially awkward brother, Jos, is in town too, taking a break from his work as Collector of Boggley Wollah in India. Once Amelia lets slip that Jos is really rich, Becky sets her sights on him. He is charmed by her willingness to eat curry and by the way she simpers over him. The household servant, Sam, is less charmed and seems to have Miss Sharp’s number. Amelia is almost as excited by the prospect of Becky marrying her brother as she is over her own impending marriage to George Osbourne.

George, by the way, is a dick. That’s pretty much is sole defining characteristic. His father, a wealthy banker, is old friends with Mr Sedley and Amelia and George have been ‘in love’ since they were kids. George is a soldier and hates Becky on sight, for no other reason than he views her as a social inferior. Like I said: he’s a dick. He also has a friend, Dobbin, who’s not a dick but continues to hang out with George anyway and seems willing to be a total third wheel to this guy. It’s probably because Dobs is in love with Amelia too.

George, Dobs, Jos, Amelia, and Becky head off to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens for an evening, where the music gets away from itself for a little while and starts playing the most saccharine, soaring romantic melody, because apparently the composer had no idea what this story was actually about. Believe me: there’s nothing romantic about Vanity Fair.

Jos, in his nerves, gets incredibly drunk and embarrasses himself and everyone else. And George starts a fight, too, and insults Becky, which even earns him a rebuke from Amelia. The next morning, George rubs the humiliation in Jos’s face, despite Dobs telling him to just chill out already, and then delivers the killing blow: indicating he might not be so willing to marry Amelia if his sister-in-law is ‘just some French mistress.’

Jos backs off, sending Amelia a letter telling her he’s leaving (but not, it seems, sending a similar letter to his parents, which seems a little odd). Amelia is really upset, Becky is more angry than anything else.

Seems there’s nothing for it but to climb into the Crawley carriage and head off to Hampshire, which is a beautiful part of the country, so I don’t really know what Becky’s whining about (yes, yes, I know, it’s not London. But it’s not like she’s stuck on some desolate moor or anything either. Hampshire’s halfway between London and Bath, which were the two major Regency-era centres of Society, so it’s not as if she’s that far from civilisation).

As she goes, the Sedley parents breathe a sigh of relief and Mr Sedley sniffs that both Jos and Amelia will soon forget Becky. Wow, he has a pretty low opinion of his own children. I mean, we already knew he didn’t think much of Jos, but apparently that indifference stretches to his daughter as well. Even though Amelia seems like the type to totally hang onto a friendship like this. The tragic romance aspect of it would be too touching.

Becky is driven out to Queen’s Crawley, a creepy Gothic pile (feel free to tick that off your Period Drama Bingo card). She discovers that the coachman was none other than Sir Pitt himself, and she unleashes her attitude by wondering how he can afford a governess when he can’t even afford a coachman. Woah, Becky. Maybe he’s saving money on the coachman so he can pay you? How is this any of your business? Sir Pitt informs her that he can afford a dozen coachmen, but he likes to drive his own horses. He does not like to teach his own kids, however.

Nor, it seems, does he like to heat or light his own house. The place seems deserted, there are no fires lit, and he leads the way to Becky’s room with one sad candle. On the way, she asks about the portrait of a lady on the wall and Sir Pitt shrugs that it’s one of the Lady Crawleys, but be can’t remember which. That’s odd, Sir Pitt, considering she’s dressed in clothing that was fashionable in the last decade or so of the 18th century. Considering this portion takes place before the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, that would make that portrait 25, maaaaaybe 35 years old at the most, which puts it well within his lifetime. Are they trying to make a point of the fact he’s indifferent to his home? Because I think we get it.

He shows Becky to her room, and acts so creepily towards her she rather prudently pushes some furniture in front of the door before going to bed. The next morning, she wakes just in time to see a rather dashing soldier on a rather nice horse come galloping up to the house. As he approaches and dismounts, she accidentally knocks a small double-portrait out the window and it lands at his feet. He picks it up and glances up at her window as she ducks off to the side and smiles.

Conquest: Round 2 has begun.

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4 thoughts on “Vanity Fair, Episode 1: Husband Hunting

  1. I have actually been surprised by how stylistically conventional this period drama has been so far; the press releases that I’d read beforehand had led me to expect something bolder and more experimental. All of the choices that could possibly be considered somewhat innovative (for this genre, anyway)—the shots of the carousel, the modern music, “Thackeray” as a narrator—are limited to the credits sequences. Okay, Becky looks directly at the camera/audience a few times, but that’s hardly revolutionary. Nearly everything else seems to be pretty standard for a TV period drama. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave me a little disappointed that the screenwriter didn’t find something more interesting to do with the material—maybe, say, bring some of Thackeray’s caustic commentary (from the novel) into the show through use of narration. I realize that narration has to be applied carefully to ensure that it doesn’t feel awkward, but I think it could have been done here. And you are absolutely right that the show should be using anachronistic music throughout, if it’s going to use it at all.

    Another problem—which you have also mentioned—is the soppy romanticism that the show has been dipping into on occasion. Vanity Fair is such a cynical book that this approach feels wrong. Maybe the show’s creators intended irony of some sort by this, but if so, it is totally lost on me.

    On the plus side, the script is decent, if fairly conventional. The acting is pretty good, and the costuming is flat-out gorgeous. I can imagine a lot of viewers tuning in to drool over Becky’s outfits. Also, is it just me, or is the actor playing Dobbin FAR too good-looking for the role? Dobbin is supposed to be extremely plain and gawky, but here, he gives George Osborne a run for his money.

    1. Agreed. I actually no longer believe marketing copy that claims this will be a ‘fresh, new, revolutionary’ take on anything because it almost never is.

      And yes, Dobbin is definitely too good looking! He’s not supposed to be handsome at all, but sometimes I feel like adaptations are afraid to cast anyone who isn’t conventionally handsome or pretty out of fear of turning off audience members.

  2. Dobbin is too good looking?? Really? I don’t think so.

    Seems there’s nothing for it but to climb into the Crawley carriage and head off to Hampshire, which is a beautiful part of the country, so I don’t really know what Becky’s whining about (yes, yes, I know, it’s not London. But it’s not like she’s stuck on some desolate moor or anything either.

    A potential wealthy husband had just slipped through her fingers.

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