History in the Movies


‘Vanity Fair:’ Hollywood’s British invasion

Classic 19th century British novelists-Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray-deserve their own collective star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, given that their works have inspired scads of screenplays over the years. Somehow we Americans never tire of observing their distinctive era. The elegance! The hypocrisy! The lavish facial hair!

The films also offer a fascinating window into the rigid social order of 19th century Britain, when a person’s “place” was determined solely by lineage and money, and snobbery served as the official team sport of the upper classes.

Director Mira Nair brings that world to vibrant life again in her version of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Nair humanizes the heroine Becky Sharp (delightfully embodied by Reese Witherspoon), a penniless orphan who is enormously witty and vivacious, but also-let’s be frank-a scheming social climber. Yet, pitted as she is against her society’s “exquisite tyranny” (in Nair’s words), we as her audience end up rooting for her anyway.

And so, probably, did Thackeray’s mid-19th century readers. For although Becky appears quite modern to us, her character was not really unique in her society. Situated in the upper crust alongside the filthy rich and the illustrious lineages were quite a few Becky Sharps, who had schemed and maneuvered their way to the top.

What other educational tidbits can we glean from the film? Here are questions both trivial and … oh, let’s just stick to the trivial, shall we?

Q. Did the celebrity magazine Vanity Fair get named for the novel, or visa versa?

A. Neither. Both derive from John Bunyon’s famous devotional work, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Bunyon’s Vanity Fair was a marketplace organized by the devil, in which people coldly reduced everything and everyone to commodities. It’s a strong theme of Thackeray’s novel, where characters scheme for the most advantageous marriages. Nair’s film also underlines it, beginning with the opening scene of a young Becky finagling a high price for her dead mother’s portrait. Women, especially, were for sale in 19th century Britain.

Q. Why won’t Rawley, Becky’s charming but deadbeat husband, get a job for heaven’s sake?

A. Because he was a “gentleman,” and a gentleman was defined as someone above manual labor. Men like Rawley were legion, born of “good families” but without the income to live like it. Since working was out of the question, they ran up bills, borrowed from gullible friends and tried to stay out of debtor’s prison.

Q. Was military life that cushy? The officers here seemed to dance more than they fought.

A. It was for the upper-class officers, many of whom bought military commissions more for status than service. Primarily they aimed to look dashing and dance skillfully.

In the film, Becky and her friends attend an extravagant officers’ ball in Brussels in 1815. Interestingly, that ball was a real event and, as shown in the film, it ended abruptly when news came of Napoleon’s rapidly advancing army. Many of the attending soldiers were shot dead only hours later at Waterloo.

Q. There are a lot of references to India in the film. Is that accurate for the era, or did Nair overplay that because of her Indian background?

A. Certainly Nair flavored this traditional British drama with some Indian spice, including one memorable scene of an exuberant Becky riding an elephant in an Indian festival. Yet Nair didn’t invent the Indian subplot, but instead played up a theme already present in the novel-and in Britain. India’s exotic culture had captured the British imagination by the early nineteenth century, as the region gradually fell under British imperialism. And like the characters Jos and Dobbin, thousands of British soldiers and administrators absorbed its culture during years of residence there.

Q. Did people really dig the teeth out of corpses on the battlefield?

A. Not only the teeth, but also the whole corpse if they could get away with it. Surgeons needed cadavers to dissect, and “resurrection men” made a tidy living producing them. Grave robbing, in fact, got so pervasive that families had to set watches or traps at the graves of recently buried loved ones.

Q. Has there been another past era more memorialized on the screen?

A. I can’t think of one. And further forays in 19th century Britain await us on the big screen. Currently filming are the latest adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”

Q. Where can I get more information on that era?

A. The classic novels by Thackeray, Austen, and Dickens are great. But for social history, try Daniel Pool’s “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.