If Becky Sharp were alive in contemporary America, she would almost certainly be working in Donald Trump’s White House. It’s too easy to imagine William Makepeace Thackeray’s grifter antiheroine slapping on an Ann Taylor shift dress and pearls to lavishly praise the president on CNN, only to spin her way to a seven-figure tell-all and a prominent perch on the speaking circuit. As Thackeray wrote in his 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions,” even though—impossibly!—he’d never even heard of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
So there’s something almost comforting about Amazon’s new seven-part adaptation of Vanity Fair, whose opening credits position Becky (played by Olivia Cooke) on a carousel, spinning round and round and going nowhere. Such is the nature of human frailty, the series suggests; things were ever thus, and ever will be. Thackeray subtitled his most enduring book as “A Novel Without a Hero,” and there’s some misanthropic pleasure to be drawn from his parade of imperfect characters, especially during the season of goodwill to all men.
In part, that’s because their self-serving subterfuges are totally transparent. The center of gravity in Vanity Fair has always been Becky, a brilliant and beautiful orphan who scams her way to the upper echelons of society, only to fall all the way down again. In the opening scene of the series, Becky is being dismissed as a French teacher at a girls’ boarding school for her habitual insouciance. (“You forget your station, Miss Sharp.” “I do, yes, daily, and most sincerely.”) While packing her things, she appeals to the tender heart of Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), kicking off a cycle that persists throughout the rest of the story: Becky finds new marks and manipulates them until she either outstays her welcome or dreams up an even better con.
In Cooke, this Vanity Fair has an actor who revels in Becky’s scheming and her ambition (the last major adaptation, starring Reese Witherspoon, felt the need to make Becky more sympathetic, neutering one of literature’s great female characters in the process). Cooke, instead, plays up Becky’s nastier instincts to the hilt, faux-weeping and flirting and breaking the fourth wall with wry faces whenever she’s in the middle of a particularly shameless charade. In contrast to the saintly and insipid Amelia, Becky is both cheerfully callous and much more fun to spend time with.
The show’s writer, Gwyneth Hughes (whose film The Girl, an examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of Tippi Hedren, preceded the #MeToo movement by five years), also underlines to what extent Becky’s character is a product of her circumstances. A woman in the early 19th century without money or family had limited options with which to improve her lot. Cooke’s Becky, meanwhile, is both fiercely clever and determined that her trajectory will only go up. In another era, those kinds of qualities would present her with numerous options, but amid the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Becky’s only recourse for self-improvement involves manipulating others, mostly men.
This being a British period drama (Vanity Fair was co-produced with the British channel ITV), this means that there’s a murderer’s row of actors filing up to feature in Becky’s maneuvers. Martin Clunes plays Sir Pitt Crawley, the uncouth landowner who hires Becky as a governess and immediately wonders how to make her his third wife. Frances de la Tour plays Sir Pitt’s sister, Matilda, a grotesque harridan who—as one of Becky’s charges puts it—is “the richest lady in the whole wide world, and her will is not yet written.” Anthony Head finds levels of pantomime-like evil in Lord Steyne, an exceedingly wealthy and powerful marquis who prizes Becky as yet another possession to be paid for and owned.
What Thackeray made clear is that Becky is far from the only villain in the piece. In the series, Sir Pitt grins lavishly when his wife falls down the stairs; before even ascertaining her condition, he’s racing toward Becky. The women and men who occupy high society are boorish and despicable to a fault; even Amelia tends toward awfulness in her single-minded obsession with her husband, George (Charlie Rowe).
Vanity Fair, Sebastian Faulks has written, deconstructs the idea of novelistic heroism, forcing readers to sympathize with Becky by rendering everyone around her even more unlikable. With Becky, Faulks argues, “Thackeray makes explicit for the first time the rift between real-life and literary morals by showing that the highest virtue a fictional character can possess is interest.” Cooke’s radiantly grasping, delightfully devious Becky proves his thesis, and then some.