A book that changed me

KATHY LETTE on William Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? At 16, while in Hippie Mode on a commune where our reading material was strictly limited to tarot cards and palms.

Why did it strike you so much? It was a literary antidote to all the wet and wimpy fictional female characters I'd been brought up on. They were like human musak: Canada on legs; the Taj Mahal of mediocrity. They were polite and one-dimensional and invariably got rescued by something tall, dark and bankable. And then there was Becky Sharp. With tongue in chic and lashings of chutzpah, she was the Madonna of her day, flouting tradition and challenging hypocritical sexual mores. And what a survivor.

After the nuclear holocaust, all that will be left are a couple of cockroaches and Becky.

OK, she had a few minor faults. Snobbery and sexual kleptomania (Becky climbed the social ladder - lad by lad); husband-hunting (she wasn't interested in Mr Right, but Lord Right or the Duke of Right at the very least). But we're talking about 1810. With no vote, no union, no welfare, no fixed wage, no contraception - what options were available to women? Apart from factory work, governessing or domestic service, it was prostitution or marriage (often a tautology in those days).

Her major fault, the San Andreas of her faults, was the dismissive cruelty she showed towards her son. Personally I put it down to post-natal depression; the longest case known to medical science. Besides, children were not a precious commodity in Regency England. They were shoved up chimneys and down mines. More concern was voiced over the pit ponies. It was the custom of the upper classes - and still is - to prefer pets to people. They keep their dogs at home and send their kids off to high-class kennels, called Eton and Harrow.

Have you re-read it? I'm about to re-read it. All my own female characters have been underdogs. Ms Sharp is an over-dog, yet still sympathetic. I want to see how Thackeray did it.

Do you recommend it to other people, or is it a private passion? Required reading for post-feminists. Vanity Fair demonstrates that, just as all men should be taken with a packet of salt, a woman must learn to stand on her own two stilettos. Becky Sharp's motto also has a pre-millennial resonance - that life's too short to be subtle.

Kathy Lette's latest book is 'Mad Cows', Picador pounds 5.99

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