Footnotes: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

As Downton Abbey’s creator returns to our screens with Belgravia, read the ultimate novel about Victorian social climbing.


What’s the story?

Fans of the corset, rejoice! Belgravia, the new weekly costume drama from Downton Abbey-creator Julian Fellowes, bustles onto our screens this Sunday night. Set against the backdrop of the Battle of Waterloo – and the high-society antics of the men who fought in it – Belgravia focuses on the lives and secrets of one family, the Trenchards, as they attempt to assert themselves on the slippery ladder of Victorian London’s class structure.

What’s the book?

What else could it be but Vanity Fair? William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic about the misdemeanours one woman will commit to achieve social acceptance still resonates, almost two centuries after it was published.  At its heart is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s most engaging female characters. Conniving, morally abhorrent and yet somehow still vaguely sympathetic, Sharp inveigles her way into aristocratic homes and families using a fearsome combination of feminine charm and barefaced lies.

Thackeray’s book was – as with other Victorian classics – originally released as a monthly serialisation called Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society (with illustrations drawn by the author) in Punch. But in the late 1840s, shortly after the opening events of Belgravia, it was published in full as Vanity Fair. The serialised format makes it a pacey read: the literary equivalent of the latest bingeworthy Netflix offering, and Sharp makes a deliciously good baddie. No wonder she’s inspired countless film and television adaptations over the decades.


Belgravia is based on a book, too: Fellowes published his novel of the same name in 2016.

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