Marquis of Steyne (Gerard Murphy) the one strong man in the film who sees through Becky (Natasha Little) as a liar, thief but wants her intensely (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Marc Munden)
the Dobbin figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys’ Dance has been liked by some and please to remark the richly-dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared — the Manager
Dear friends and readers,
I recently re-watched Andrew Davies’s magnificent film adaptation of Wm Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and felt I had walked into a terrain shared by Anthony Trollope & Thackeray too. In Davies’s depiction of the male characters in Vanity Fair he makes visible what drew Trollope to Thackeray and where Trollope’s texts resemble Thackeray’s. So much criticism and ordinary reader commentary concentrates on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley This criticism marginalizes a large group of characters by Thackeray given equal importance: Dobbin, George Osborne and his father; Joseph Sedley and his and Amelia’s father; Rawdon and Rawdon’s son (made more important in all the movies), the Marquis of Steyne; the older and younger Pitt Crawleys, not to omit Becky’s memories of her drawing master alcoholic father (and how no one else forgets such a man was her father).
I began to realize how in his Thackeray, Trollope’s perspective on Thackeray derived from how Trollope was consciously looking at Thackeray from the point of view of his success as a novelist and more generally as a man: Trollope had in mind criteria of masculinity and what makes a man admired. Trollope measured Thackeray from the point of view of the man’s career and unlucky marriage. In the sections in Thackeray on Thackeray’s novels Trollope shows a fascination with Thackeray’s strong women (Rachel and Beatrice as well) and ethical men. Thackeray’s is a strongly gendered fiction as is Trollope’s and Davies strongly gendered films.
Strong women, weak men — a development of this kind of contrast is central to Davies’s films, Thackeray’s VF and Henry Esmond, and some of Trollope’s novels, but especially He Knew He Was Right, one of the two Trollope novels that Davies has chosen to do, and the choice is highly unusual because of the explicitness of the theme of the partly despised because anguished male. I’d been reading Trollope steadily once again for months now, criticism, writing papers & proposals, and watching Davies’s movies. A couple of months ago I returned to Thackeray through Trollope’s literary life of him, and feel that it was Trollope’s life of Thackeray enables me to see a shared territory between the three of them in a nervous exploration of real men’s lives and psyches against what is expected of them.
The blog is about how one can see the convergence of Thackeray and Trollope’s points of view in the way Davies adapts them. As I’ve gone over these themes in other blogs on Trollope, I’ll concentrate on Vanity Fair here, one where the exploration of masculinity’s ordeals and losses is insufficiently emphasized, especially given how prevalent it is in the book & films.
So, memory too a bitter desire for revenge may be part of Becky’s motives in Davies’s film, brought out as partial explanation for her coldness; but its source for Davies is her relationship with her father which Davies’s film begins with. This father is referred to many times in the film adaptation as that which in her background makes her unacceptable: Thackeray did make her a daughter of a drawing master and everyone refers to it at some poit. Who was her grandfather? In the film Becky’s memory is this picture. She’s getting back.
The young men are tied to and dependent on the women in this book and film:
Older men are part of the continuum. An unexpectedly powerful thread in the story-line of Davies’s film is a contrast between the anguished failure of Amelia’s father and the seething loneliness and self-hatred of George Osborne’s father in his scenes first with his son, then bullying his daughter, and then trying to reach his grandson (hopelessly) through drink:
The depiction of Mr Osborne is extensive: his grief for his son George and his mis-bringing up his grandson — he is but a child and cannot drink with his grandfather the way the son did.
Thackeray gave Davies’s the trajectory of the abject Dobbin finally at the close realizing he’d wasted his life in worship of a small foolish woman too late:
Where Thackeray neglected a potentially tragic male, Davies built the character up: Davies gives us Rawdon and Becky’s courtship, Rawdon’s becoming subject to Becky, sharing, giving his all, trusting her naively (while not naive in any other area of his life), then gradually awakening to her coldness (to his boy) and unconcern for him. Rawdon cries. His becomes the moving story of the movie:
Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker) looking at her, saying I gave you all (Davies’ VF)
In a sense he dies of the loss (escape is his solution, but Coventry is a death sentence) giving the boy to Lady Jane who not having a child of her own, ironically the boy Rawdon becomes the owner of the estate
The accent is on heterosexual males except perhaps Joseph Sedley who modern critics tend to turn into the book’s closet (or unaware) homosexual, his debonair plumpness and lack of military prowess and woman companion inviting this.
Some critics go so far as to suggest it’s not Dobbin or George Osborne Thackeray has put part of himself in, but Joseph Sedley with his love of gourmet eating too. At any rate, the sexual angle in Davies’s Vanity Fair brings home the vulnerability of males to female sexuality; the males whatever their orientation are presented as enthralled and subject to women again and again, even where it’s not admitted or maybe especially.
Characters degraded, debased, become, however sordid and ugly, poignant in their vulnerability to loneliness: thus the aging Pitt (David Bradley) whose children by his 2nd wife Becky first becomes governess to and is a harsh semi-grotesque character is pitiable when we last see him and he’s lost Becky:
Nair and Fellowes pick up the depiction of comic lechers in Thackeray as shattered pitiable. Davies gives Steyne insight into Becky’s lies, thievery, ridiculous veneration of ribbons and the highest-ranking people.
In my paper Trollope’s “Comfort Romances for Men” I argued Trollope was developing an unconventional portrait of manliness out of identification and concern; last week I came across similar approaches to a continuum of males in Trollope: from Gordon Ray and Peter Shillingsburg to Joseph Litvak (Strange Gourmets); I’ve been aware for a long time how Davies’s key identifications are with the non-macho transgressive males, the inept and inadequate, the Oedipal struggle, gay men. This is not the first time Davies has made me aware of an underlying stratem in work no one ever wrote about before.
I know that Davies changes the story. For his exploration of masculinity I’d call it (the term would be manliness in Victorian times), the story of Rawdon and Becky’s relationship is much extended and show more centrally — to the point that when Rawdon is rowed away to Coventry (and we know death), the series seemed to suddenly collapse for a moment or so; we had reached its natural ending. Davies though picks up strong with the reappearance of Dobbin and bringing Emmy centrally onto the stage, and again he has changed the story as it’s not until very late in the book that Emmy realizes the piano was from Dobbin. The way Davies at first shows them as clearly a pair after Dobbin returns from India, with Emmy appearing to fall in love with Dobbin is not in Thackeray
so that in the film adaptation Dobbin gets two powerful scenes of her betrayal while (if I’m remembering right) there is but one in the book, and Dobbin’s disillusion is omitted except that the words used in his second betrayal are about how she is not worth his devotion much more emphatically. The men’s bullying their wives is given full play — the way men treated women in the 1820s. Admittedly this is not in Trollope except late in his career (it’s in The Way We Live Now but early books has women liable to bully men) — that’s a real part of Thackeray’s and Davies’s feminism.
Gambling and cheating (in all its aspects) are elements in the build up of perverted men, destroyed men (by the system they live in). Gentlemen must not work and when disinherited are simply without funds to carry on because they must inherit money as gentlemen or are businessmen, but they must not fail as Mr Sedley (David Ross) did:
This would have been George Osborne’s case had he lived. The woman are oddly not destroyed and remain strong psychologically — that is very much Davies, I am not sure about Thackeray not having read him enough but do remember how strong Beatrice was in Henry Esmond and something I read by Sutherland suggests the strong woman who is amoral and yet a heroine is what struck Thackeray’s contemporaries.
Gambling is bisexual in the sense that Rawdon acts with Becky until she goes too far and betrays him — and that life’s a gamble in the book.
Davies shows how Rawdon allows himself to be corrupted and is cheating for Becky for years; but Becky has been stealing since she first left Miss Pinkerton’s and the stash of jewels found by Rawdon are many years in the making. This is re-emphasized in the coach when Lady Jane recognizes Becky’s super expensive shawl as a shawl that was in Queen’s Crawley years ago and has (she now realizes) gone missing. Becky does gamble to live by the end.
I have meant this blog to be about a convergence of themes in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies, so some areas I’ve not looked into as yet: for example Thackeray’s distaste for snobbery that Davies shares but Trollope defends. Seen in the light of depiction of problems of masculinities, its false materialistic values, “snobbery” destroys people — ethically too. Thackeray shows us how sentimental folk turn away from financially ruined snobs especially.
Davies’s Melmotte’s (David Suchet) downfall: he wanted to be an English gentleman: part 2 of film opens with dumb show of him having himself painted with a gun, dog, and backdrop of country house and curtain (2001 TWWLN, scripted Davies, directed Diarmuid Lawrence
Another is the characters’ urge to find a high status as a gentleman and the demands this elite image makes. Robin Gilmour’s 1981 book, *The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel*, contains a long chapter on Thackeray’s gentlemen, focusing on the shift from dandyism and military glory to domesticity. It’s the kind of book summaries don’t help with as the insights are intricate to the argument and come fast and many over each page. The best review I could find was by Alexander Welsh, half of whose review is on Mark Girouard’s Idea of Chivalry.
Simon Raven’s book about the death of the ideal and type of gentlemen in the UK is relevant because Raven wrote the first The Way We Live Now script (1969), which I suspect Davies’s based his adaptation on — but I cannot get to see as I cannot travel to London this summer.
Emily (Laura Fraser) and Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) fail to cope with the arch rake, Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy) who knows just how to insinuate himself (2004 HKHWR, scripted Davies, directed Tom Vaughn)
I’ll close on parallel concerns with masculinity between Thackeray’s and Trollope’s books: He Knew He Was Right dwells on internal psychological intangible states as brought out in psycho-social dynamics, all shaped by sexuality, social norms and fears (especially male anxieties, ego needs), and money and power; The Way We Live Now an analysis of the larger forces of society as we see them enacted by individuals, not just prophetic of today, but enacting the same patterns we see today albeit different costumes.
Trollope’s attitudes emerge as closely similar through his paradigms and voice-presence. Davies of course saw this in his choice of the two and the ways he handled them, though his TWWLN reminds me of modern mini-series like the 1991-5 House of Cards, the modernity of his and Hooper’s Daniel Deronda and subversion of costume drama’s pieties in Davies’ Moll Flanders; HKHWR takes on some cheer and strong women from Plater’s Barchester Chronicles. Davies though specifically has his younger males, like Paul Montague, repudiates the model of the “mature” man marrying the girl (she forced into it) as tyrannical, egotistic, appetitive disgusting (so much for Plantagenet Palliser ….)
Davies in his one original novel, Getting Hurt, gives us a man as uncertain, anxious and shattered as Louis Trevelyan. And as lonely as Dobbin. Our aloneness another theme angled similarly in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies.
Ah! Vanitas Vanitatem! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets for our play is played out — the Manager