Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Confessions of Becky Sharp by David James

Review by Cori Van Hausen

The Confessions of Becky Sharp, by David James, is based on W.M. Thackeray’s classic novel, Vanity Fair. In its opening pages, Rebecca—or Becky—is found grousing about Thackeray, whose unflattering portrayal of her in his book threatens her social aspirations. Past her prime, plagued with gout, and estranged from family, Becky’s best prospect for supporting herself is selling her life story. Even, if she must, to gossipmonger publishers vying for the opportunity, among whom is a handsome young man she admires, but does not particularly trust.

From Becky’s earliest days in Versailles as a ‘child of the revolution,’ she learns well the art of survival through manipulation. The narrative follows her social ascent, from dalliances with Britain’s great and good, through to her subsequent fall from grace and prosperity. An erstwhile beau perhaps says it best: “Sometimes, Beck, you are so practical and unfeeling that I admire you tremendously.” Steering by a questionable moral compass, Becky is difficult to relate to, yet James makes her sympathetic enough that you really can’t wish her ill any more than manage indifference towards her.

James is articulate in his reconstruction of Thackeray’s story, minus the verbiage characteristic of such early works, and deserves applause for telling the story through Becky’s eyes. Her existing résumé could have made for a salacious tale indeed, but James’s writing is always restrained and intelligent. Studded with luminaries of the era, Confessions includes a sprinkling of literary quotes and allusions (even T.S. Eliot, published much later), adding depth and interest. James sets the stage very nicely in the half century following the French Revolution. Tracking with the storyline, however, can be demanding when dates are not specifically mentioned.

Becky Sharp’s (selective) retelling of her checkered past piques one’s curiosity. Is she the notorious schemer Thackeray has painted in Vanity Fair? As she comes into clearer focus, a shrewd but not always wise woman, James injects an element of mystery into the mix. Who will come to Becky’s aid to save her from penury? And what of the mysterious young man who seeks to draw out the truth of her past? Confessions is like an evening stroll through carriage-lined, gas-lit streets, occupied at times by the likes of Napoleon, Dickens, and Thackeray—a pleasant diversion for the traveler. Be sure to have your French-English dictionary at hand.