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Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero is a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, first published in 1847–48, satirizing society in early 19th-century Britain. The book's title comes from John Bunyan's allegorical story The Pilgrim's Progress, first published in 1678 and still widely read at the time of Thackeray's novel. Vanity Fair refers to a stop along the pilgrim's progress: a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity, which is meant to represent man's sinful attachment to worldly things. The novel is now considered a classic, and has inspired several film adaptations.

The story opens with Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, where the protagonists Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley have just completed their studies and are preparing to depart for Amelia's house in Russell Square. Becky is portrayed as a strong-willed and cunning young woman determined to make her way in society, and Amelia Sedley as a good-natured, lovable though simple-minded young girl.

At Russell Square, Miss Sharp is introduced to the dashing and self-obsessed Captain George Osborne (to whom Amelia has been betrothed from a very young age) and to Amelia's brother Joseph Sedley, a clumsy and vainglorious/boastful but rich civil servant fresh from the East India Company. Hoping to marry Sedley Becky entices him, but she fails because of warnings from Captain Osborne, Sedley's own native shyness, and his embarrassment over some foolish drunken behaviour of his that Becky had seen.

Now, Becky Sharp says farewell to Sedley's family and enters the service of the crude and profligate baronet Sir Pitt Crawley, who has engaged her as a governess to his daughters. Her behaviour at Sir Pitt's house gains his favour, and after the premature death of his second wife, he proposes marriage to her. Then he finds she is already secretly married to his second son, Rawdon Crawley.

Sir Pitt's elder half sister, the spinster Miss Crawley, is very rich, having inherited her mother's fortune of £70,000. How she will bequeath her great wealth is a source of constant conflict between the branches of the Crawley family who vie shamelessly for her affections; initially her favourite is Sir Pitt's younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. For some time, Becky acts as Miss Crawley's companion, supplanting the loyal Miss Briggs in an attempt to establish herself in favour before breaking the news of her elopement with Miss Crawley's nephew. However, the misalliance so enrages Miss Crawley that she disinherits her nephew in favour of his pompous and pedantic elder brother, who also bears the name Pitt Crawley. The married couple constantly attempts to reconcile with Miss Crawley, and she relents a little, but she will only see her nephew and refuses to change her will.

While Becky Sharp is rising in the world, Amelia's father, John Sedley, is bankrupted. The Sedleys and Osbornes were once close allies, but the relationship between the two families disintegrates after the Sedleys are financially ruined, and the marriage of Amelia and George is forbidden. George ultimately decides to marry Amelia against his father's will, pressured by his friend Dobbin, and George is consequently disinherited. While these personal events take place, the Napoleonic Wars have been ramping up. George Osborne and William Dobbin are suddenly deployed to Brussels, but not before an encounter with Becky and Captain Crawley at Brighton. The holiday is interrupted by orders to march to Brussels. Already, the newly wedded Osborne is growing tired of Amelia, and he becomes increasingly attracted to Becky who encourages his advances.

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