In THE CONFESSIONS OF BECKY SHARP, the protagonist of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” recounts her life story.
The ageing picara has fallen on hard times and is selling her biography to a rather disreputable publisher in order to counter the “lies” of that supreme toady, William Makepeace Thackeray. With this device, Becky’s character relives her many escapades as an inconvenient child, a convent student, governess and finally, Lady Crawley. Unfortunately, her amorous nature causes her estrangement from both her husband and son as well as London Society in the post Napoleonic War years. Destitute and plagued with gout, she dictates her memoirs as she attempts to scrounge her way back to respectability. In spite of her conditions, she still conducts herself as Lady Crawley and seems to revel in her louche past.
An “autobiography” of a fictional character runs the risk boredom for the reader because the character’s story is known and their voice can become shrill as they “correct” the record. David James skillfully sidesteps this problem by placing Becky Sharp at the end of her life and then uses flashback to illuminate the various stages in her life. This same technique also compares the young gamine to the rapacious hedonist in her old age. The flashbacks give her life a serialized quality, much like Vanity Fair’s original publication. As to the content of her biography, all of the men in her life seem to fall totally and madly in love with her, willing to do or provide anything for her pleasure. Just as abruptly, the men leave for the army, disown her or swindle her, thus giving the lie to her reading of their intentions. Becky Sharp aspires to be a writer yet in her high-sounding diction and frequent salting of her speech with French phrases she finds herself using rather trite language to recount her tale. When all of these misfit pieces are taken together, the reader gets a deeper understanding of the events that led to her fall from grace. Still, she survives as a noblewoman fallen from polite society. In the last few pages of the book there are further revelations about the scandalous Lady Crawley and, despite her circumstances, she strives for the glories of the court.
THE CONFESSIONS OF BECKY SHARP is both a revealing look at the character of Thackeray’s most famous heroine as well as the pretenses of polite society in upper class Britain.