I was an enormous fan of Sarra Manning in my teens. I devoured Guitar Girl, sighed through Diary of a Crush, and absolutely idolised the kids in Pretty Things. When I saw she was doing a retelling of Vanity Fair, I thought this would be the perfect time to finally take on that huge (900 page!) classic that I’ve always meant to read, with a cool contemporary version to lighten things up. Let me say, the retelling is pitch perfect, but if you are looking at it as a stand-alone novel, you may be disappointed…
Book: The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp by Sarra Manning
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided by NetGalley for fair review.
So, my master plan on this was to read the two novels in tandem – a section of Vanity Fair first, then the corresponding events in The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp. This worked well until the middle of the books, when a lot of subplots that had been cut from the retelling took centre stage in the original, so there was a large skip to the final scenes (which to be honest, was fine by me as I found Vanity Fair overly long).
Vanity Fair is a novel which relies heavily on social satire, so it was fascinating to me to see the correspondences that Manning created, and I thought that the translation to modern times was very well done. Of course, there’s much less of a concept of ‘nobility’ now, so the fame and fortune of the characters is shown through the medium of celebrity, instead. Super clever. Becky and Amelia meet on Big Brother, not at school; Sir Pitt Crawley is an aging film star, not a peer; Rawdon Crawley is an up-and-coming movie hunk, not a noble dandy; George Osborne (renamed to George Wylie, presumably to avoid confusion with the real politician) is a media-courting MP in the vein of Boris Johnson, not a soldier. Becky, rather than becoming the darling of dinner parties, becomes an Instagram influencer. It’s all very clever.
Becky Sharp feels like an effortless translation of Vanity Fair. The way that Manning sketches the world and tweaks the plot points of Vanity Fair to make sense to modern audiences is pretty much flawless. The fact that so much of the story is played out in the press is a nice analogue for the gossip that fueled social standing, and helps Becky’s rise and fall to play out with the same amount of weight that it would have done in the Regency. I was impressed that even without the background of the Napoleonic War, which looms large over the middle section of Vanity Fair (since most of the men are in the army), Manning was still able to engineer the same meet-ups and events that I was expecting.
Of course, everything is a lot more overt than in the original. Everyone swears a lot, and the affairs that are hinted at are played out less subtly. Rawdon’s vices are changed from gin to cocaine, and from gambling to fighting men in bars, and to be honest, it was at this point that I kind of checked out from enjoying Becky Sharp in its own right. His coke-fuelled assault which serves as the reason he is arrested (rather than just being in debt) took this to a point where I actively didn’t care. It was too obvious. Add to that the fact that Rawdon and Becky never have a child (the timing is condensed hugely), and Rawdon has nothing redeeming about him.
I also didn’t like the divergence from the original plot-line of George not dying. Partly because I hated his character in both versions, and partly because we then got an extremely tedious new plot-line about George and Amelia’s marriage going south, and Amelia becoming a much stronger woman and divorcing him. I can see why Manning felt the need to make Amelia a bit more exciting, since I have never seen a wetter or more pathetic character, but I felt that this diverged too far.
I should probably mention that I’ve never actually gotten round to picking up any of Manning’s adult books, so I can’t judge this against her tone there, but comparing it to the sensitive, spot-on descriptions of being a teen that I remember from her work, The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp feels like an entirely different beast. There’s none of that heart that I loved about her writing – everyone is horrible all the time. This is true to the original Vanity Fair, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not what I was expecting from a Sarra Manning novel. Perhaps I just can’t relate to the life of celebrity, but I found the satire more clever and damning in Vanity Fair – in Manning’s version, it felt like everyone was just mean and awful and there was no humour.
I’m also not sure if this stands on its own as a novel. Becky is the central character, and does not disappear off-page for ages as she does in Vanity Fair, and that keeps the narrative tighter, which is kind of a blessing and a curse. In a way, the various subplots of the original served to make her look less cut-throat and less ridiculous, whereas without all that motivation, Becky just comes off as unlikeable and bitchy. She comments towards the end that her only crime was being ambitious, female, and working-class, and I believe this of Vanity Fair’s Becky, but not of Manning’s.
On the whole, I’m really struggling for a star rating, because I think this works extremely well as a curiosity – a retelling of a social novel in an entirely different society. However, I find it a bit pointless when the original exists, and is funnier, and cleverer. I think it gets three cats, with the caveat that people with a higher tolerance for bitchy celeb tabloid gossip may enjoy it much more!