The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, by Sarra Manning – book review

I love Vanity Fair (the book rather than the ITV dramatisation – which I haven’t watched yet) and so I just had to have a look at Sarra Manning’s retelling of Thackeray’s classic. I approached it as nervously as Jos after a night in Vauxhall, for the blurb suggested that the 19th century masterpiece of social satire was to be a 21st century romance. But just like Becky Sharp, the blurb lied. The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp an excellent remix with the sax slightly more to the fore and with the inexplicable 15 minute drum solo cut out.

Gone are the constant flippant asides and classical references of Thackeray’s narrator, but instead Manning gives us more up-to-date commentary on the workings of high society. Her references are far more contemporary: there’s space for Cillit Bang, Blur, Downton Abbey, Allo! Allo! and there are no prizes for identifying whom she means by

A narcissistic, yellow-haired, orange-skinned reality TV star

Slightly more barbed is the newspaper poll on readers’ attitudes to our Becky. 52% of readers approve: ‘not a clear majority but what was good enough for a hard Brexit was surely good enough in this case’. Also more modern is the backdrop: the militia and money men behind Britain’s opposition to Napoleon become celebrities on TV and social media, and in Parliament where George Wylie (Thackeray’s George Osborne) takes a safe Conservative seat. He would agree only too clearly with Becky’s assessment that

It was easy to take so much when most people were happy with so little.

I bet Sarra Manning had a great time writing this, with its barbs, comic references and Easter eggs (Lord Steyne’s lawyers are called William, Makepeace and Thackeray). Manning loves to point out that Becky’s supposed faults arise from her poverty: it is an accident of birth that gives Wylie financial and social capital. The threads of inherited capital weave through the pages and Manning enjoys flaunting the double standards of the wealthy: Wylie’s father in a single sentence talks about how he should be supported by someone he was at school with, but shouldn’t himself have to support someone he ‘just happened’ to be at school with. The royal family want to cure world hunger but also need to keep an eye on renovating a palace. Jos is a successful businessman in his own right but still receives a monthly allowance.

The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp coverThe plot is similar to but not the same as that of Vanity Fair. There’s more Wylie – as Becky’s male equivalent, I wonder? There’s less Rawdon (and he’s less sympathetically portrayed). And Amelia has a fairly unconvincing personality transplant towards the end of the book. None of this poses a problem. I do find, on the whole, that this group of characters is less appealing and more generally unpleasant than Thackeray’s but I guess that’s because Thackeray’s characters could hide behind his flippant prose: Manning places her people in our world and we see them for what they really are. Which is precisely the point. 

Despite the fake news provided by the blurb, this is, as before, a novel without a hero (though the narrator comes close). It is still very much a commentary of its times and it’s sobering to think how English society has perhaps not changed much in 170 years. Fans of Thackeray’s book will find much to enjoy, and those new to the fun of the fair have a treat in store.

You can get The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp here.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.


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