North and South
David Stuart Davies reflects on a novel with a theme familiar in our time - the divide between North ...
ITV’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, a full-blooded period drama, pitched against the BBC’s intensely 21st century, social-media driven and adrenaline-fuelled Bodyguard – surely some mistake? But no: here the BBC held all the cards and ITV was caught flat-footed with what looked like an old-fashioned bodice-ripper, while audiences (over 7 million of them) were mesmerised by Keeley Hawes reversing roles and ripping open her bodyguard’s bodice – bullet-proof as it was. What a coup for the BBC, to switch their thinking for that 9 pm Sunday slot from all those old Cranfords to a mint-new drama from Jed Mercurio. And not only did they capture the twittering millennials along with all the rest of us, they turned television viewing habits back to a time before catch-up, iplayer, live streaming and all the technology that works to break up an audience, and instead brought a large common audience in front of the television at the same time. The irony of Vanity Fair being set against The Bodyguard was that, of course, we could all watch both. But then it became about what we watched when. I came late to The Bodyguard, but once seduced, I too watched it first, at 9 pm, and watched Vanity Fair second on catch-up.
But, but, but. Vanity Fair has, as befits an adaptation of an 800 page nineteenth-century novel, been a slow burn. And as we saw Bodyguard self-destruct under the weight of audience expectation and in a firework display of ludicrous plot crises, so now we’ve seen Thackeray’s brilliant narrative and character construction come into their own. From the first episode the production got one thing right, depicting that topsy-turvy illusory world of glittering success which can be tipped up so that those on top go to the bottom and vice versa. The merry-go-round introduction reminded the viewer of that every time, as did Michael Palin’s ironic novelist/narrator. The scenes of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were laid out to us – how else – from the viewpoint of a balloon, but it gave us the distance of time and social perspective. This it was clear was a world where power derived from class and money, where the only power women had came from their person or their family. I wasn’t too keen on the Bob Dylan lyrics – too obvious an updating – but there was enough in the meretricious values on display to remind us of the present. Yes, much has changed; but all too much has remained the same.
Thackeray’s personal subtitle for his seminal work was ‘a novel without a hero’. One reading of this is that there can be no heroes in this sad and bad world. But the novel does have heroes in that conventional sense – Amelia and Dobbin do little wrong, and what wrong they do is meant well. Thackeray’s intent is surely other: this novel has no hero but it has a heroine. It’s a remarkable stroke on the novelist’s part, to make his central protagonist a woman, and one that is deeply flawed at that. From the start Thackeray cleverly enlists us on Rebecca’s side, reminding us that she has to be her own Mamma. She is a child in a wicked world, with no-one to protect her; the Becky Sharp we see emerge is fighting hard for herself because there’s no-one else to do so. Even so, as she progressively sinks further and further into a moral mire of her own making, it’s hard to keep sympathy for her. The television version picks out, true to the novel, the things we find it hardest to forgive. Firstly, her betrayal of the hapless but loving Rawdon in favour of the banknotes and jewels she amasses from the coldly rapacious Lord Steyne (and in this 21st century version it is clear, as it is not in the novel, that Becky has made a simple commercial transaction here – her body for cash and social influence). Secondly, her startlingly cruel treatment of her own son.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, the Battle of Waterloo happens. Here television inevitably played to its own strengths, offering us an extensive and expensive set of battle scenes. Apparently Amazon was the source of funds – amusing given the novel’s play on the evils of the world of money. Amusing also since there are no battle scenes in Thackeray: quite deliberately he places the historical event at the heart of his novel offstage and off-page: ‘We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants. When the decks are cleared for action we go below and wait meekly.’ This makes his one brief sortie on to the battle field the more effective, when in the final sentence of the midway chapter of the novel ‘Darkness came down on the field and city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.’
With George dead, Rawdon emasculated, and Dobbin lovesick from a distance, this adaptation emphasised the two women at its heart. Amelia and Becky are constantly compared, as wives, as mothers, as friends, a comparison within which Becky always falls short. Yet in the novel it is not quite so: Becky is the stronger and more complex character. She knows whereof she does, as on television she indicates to the viewer by the occasional look straight at camera. And she knows why she does. But in the end what she does is too much. Here the adaptation pulled its punches. In the novel Becky ends up as the ‘companion’ of Amelia’s brother Jos and, it is implied, she has a hand in his death to secure the insurance on his life in her favour. There is the briefest of nods to this at the end of that final episode, as Becky and Jos mount the carousel together. Both with Rawdon and with Jos, the monetary gain Becky makes is shown to be meagre in comparison with the emotional security she sacrifices. This is precisely her tragedy. While the adaptation softened that fate somewhat, it was true to Thackeray’s radical purpose, to show a woman acting to all intents and purposes like a man, while using a woman’s body to do so. Even Becky’s one truly good act – showing Amelia George’s eve of Waterloo note asking her to run away, thus freeing Amelia to give her love to Dobbin – arises from her negligent but triumphalist encouragement of George’s flirtation in the first place.
If the modernity embodied in Becky prevailed in Vanity Fair, the ending of Bodyguard fell back on one of the commonest tropes of the nineteenth century novel. David Budd and his hitherto estranged wife played happy families, embarking with their children on a trip to neverland: reader, I remarried him. This was so at odds with what had gone before that any sense of proper character development or narrative continuity and completion were sacrificed. In the world of Vanity Fair on the other hand, the upside down values carried on systematically to the end and undercut any happiness that was shown to be found. The marriage that did take place between Amelia and Dobbin was long fought for and finally won, but only after an honest examination and exchange of feeling. Rawdon and Jos, both in their way decent if foolish men, fell prey to the fate of their class and indeed their gender. And as for Becky - she survived.