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Classy drama

Nineteenth-century novel is still relevant today, writes Sarah Olowofoyeku

Becky believed becoming rich would bring happiness

ALL’S not fair in love and war in the new ITV adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, which begins tomorrow (Sunday 2 September). The seven-part period drama tells a tale of life against the backdrop of hierarchical early 19th-century English society.

Anti-hero Becky Sharp, born to an artist and an opera girl but now orphaned, finds herself on the bottom rung of the ladder in a world of low social mobility.

Her position in society is made plain to her when she demands to be paid more as a teacher of French and music at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies in London. The snobbish Miss Pinkerton (Suranne Jones) not only refuses her request, but also assigns her to a new appointment as a governess in Hampshire. Becky is outraged, but Miss Pinkerton won’t budge and, with a week until her new position starts, Becky has nowhere to go.

But in the words of the actress Olivia Cooke, who plays her, Becky is ‘fierce and ferocious, manipulative and charming’. She charms her way into spending the week at the home of her friend, a sweet stockbroker’s daughter, Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie). When Becky arrives at Amelia’s family home, she meets someone who might be the ticket out of her station.

Amelia’s older brother Jos (David Fynn), a wealthy collector in India, is home for a visit. After Becky lays eyes on him, she sets out to secure a marriage proposal.

Meanwhile, Amelia is reunited with her childhood sweetheart George Osborne (Charlie Rowe). But he makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of Becky. Why would this son of a banker even want to be seen with somebody of a lower class?

All the young characters are conscious of how they are going to be perceived by others, and it affects how they behave. But that was the norm of the day. Director James Strong describes it as a period ‘obsessed with social standing’.

He says: ‘Becky believed becoming rich, successful and famous would bring you happiness … That’s a relevant modern parallel. We’re all striving for what is not worth having. It’s a timeless truth.’

James is right. As we navigate life, love and work, with all their stresses and their joys, we can often find ourselves believing the same – that certain things will make us happy.

We hope that finding a special someone will cure our loneliness. We think that getting a promotion at work will finally make us feel that we are worth something. We seek approval and validation through social media.

While these may be good things, they will never satisfy us in the way that we want them to. In the Bible, God recognises that people live this way. He says to them, ‘I don’t understand why you … work so hard for what leaves you empty,’ adding, ‘Listen closely and come even closer. My words will give life’ (Isaiah 55:2, 3 The Voice).

God invites people to draw near to him to find everything that they are longing for – and the invitation is still open to people of all backgrounds.

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