Mira Nair's film of Vanity Fair has barely reached its seventh minute before the distinguished Indian director declares her hand. Readers of William Thackeray's original (first published in 1847-8) may recall that the novel's first real crisis point comes on a Regency-era summer's evening when the conniving governess Becky Sharp pays a visit to the Vauxhall Gardens with her fast friend Amelia Sedley, the latter's supercilious fiancé designate, George Osborne, and Amelia's fat and timorous brother Jos. The plan is that, lured to this semi-genteel middle-class pleasure ground, Jos will propose. Instead he drinks too much rack punch and is carried home drunk, forcing Becky to re-plan her career.
In Nair's interpretative grasp, on the other hand, Vauxhall Gardens - where cockney tradesmen took their wives for an hour or two's festive jollity - has been altogether transformed into a kind of Oriental fantasy park, complete with knowing, brown-skinned attendants, raga rhythms and exotically costumed jugglers. Once introduced, the theme is remorselessly kept up. At the grand entertainment convened at the Marquis of Steyne's house in Mayfair, in the presence of King George IV, Becky (feistily played by Reese Witherspoon) sinuously uncoils herself in front of a line of nautch girls in a dance routine straight out of Bollywood. With breezy disregard for Thackeray's sour-sweet ending, the film closes in some minaret-strewn Eastern citadel with Becky and Jos going off to pursue their joint destiny aboard an elephant.
However exaggerated some of its gestures - and even the late Edward Said, author of the classic Orientalism, gets name-checked in the publicity hand-out - the cultural grounding of this take on a 160-year-old English classic can hardly be faulted. India - remote, enticing, exotic, sinister - lies near the heart of the early Victorian consciousness. Thackeray himself is a fine example of the kind of Victorian Englishman whose sensibilities had been irrevocably influenced by early exposure to the mysterious East. Born in Calcutta, the son of a wealthy colonial administrator - there is a family picture by the celebrated Eastern portraitist, George Chinnery - he was sent home by sea at the age of five.
The books he began to write 20 years later are full of the things that India had stamped on his mind: lost riches, ghostly revenants come back from the subcontinent to wreak havoc in the old world, fragments of Hindi slang, scraps of Imperial history going back to the days of Clive and Hastings. It is not going too far to say that the long trek home in the company of his young cousin Richmond Shakespear and a native servant named Lawrence Barlow was one of the defining events in Thackeray's life - bearing him away from his first home, and the memory of his dead father, taking him en route to a tiny island in the Mediterranean where, behind a palisade fence, a short, dumpy-looking man could be seen stalking the pathways of an enclosed garden. The island was St Helena. The prisoner was Napoleon Bonaparte.
The effect that India had on Thackeray, who to the end of his days nurtured a dream of returning there with his daughters, was reproduced in many a middle-class Victorian household. To the average mid-19th century bourgeois, the reality of India would have been manifest in half-a-dozen areas of his or her daily life. Most obviously there was the constant two-way traffic between London and Calcutta. India was a great employment market, the place to which colonial jurists and army subalterns were despatched in the first flush of optimistic youth, to return 30 years later with their livers wrecked by long exposure to brandy-pawnee, or sometimes not to come back at all. In 1853, for instance, Charles Dickens wrote a whimsical paragraph or two about a visit to India House, where he brooded about "the boys who went to India, and who, immediately, without being sick, smoked pipes like curled-up bell-ropes, terminating in a large cut-glass sugar basin upside down." Browsing among the outfitting shops he recorded "the kind of things that were necessary for an India-going boy, and when I came to 'one brace of pistols', thought what happiness to be reserved for a such a future." The piece was oddly prophetic. Dickens' son Walter, sent out to India as a 16-year-old East India Company cadet in 1857, died there at only 22.
The boats returning to Southampton harbour brought equally large cargoes: Anglo-Indian officials such as Jos Sedley, the Boggleywallah tax-collector, home on furlough, but also legions of children sent back for schooling. Mrs Pipchin's select establishment where Paul Dombey is sent to board in Dombey and Son finds its pupils among the progeny of absent Indian parents. If nothing else, India has a place in the history of the English public school system. From India, too, came more disquieting phenomena: disease - notably the great cholera epidemics of the 1830s and 1840s - and financial melt-down. Memories of the collapse of the Indian banking houses in the 1830s, in which most of Thackeray's patrimony was irretrievably swallowed up, hung over the early-Victorian economic landscape. When Colonel Newcome in Thackeray's The Newcomes becomes a director of the newly-founded "Bundelcund Bank" it is as if a cowled figure bearing a scythe has just wandered on to the stage. Sure enough, the funds fail and the Colonel is ruined.
To fiscal chicanery could be added the hint of sexual irregularity. For the young men sent east to work in the Calcutta counting houses or regiments of East India Company sepoys, native mistresses were as common as tradesmen's bills. Thackeray's father Richmond had sired a half-caste daughter, a Mrs Blechynden, whose allowance his son agonised over and whose own daughter embarrassed her English relatives by turning up in London in the late 1840s and presuming to address Thackeray's mother as "Dear Grandmamma". A land of opportunity, offering the chance to live a cheap but gentlemanly life in the sun and amass lakhs of rupees to fund a comfortable Home Counties retirement, India could also bequeath a closet rattling with the most unwelcome emotional skeletons.
However characteristic Thackeray's anxieties over the behaviour of young Miss Blechynden, such anecdotes don't quite convey the sheer scale of India's impact on the specimen Victorian life. Oriental food - curries, peppers, sherbert - came to England with the returning colonial servants. So did oriental horticulture, such as the fronds of Indian balsam first introduced from the Himalayas in 1839. Eastern dress styles had been crowding out the milliners' shops since the end of the previous century: the highly-prized cashmere shawls, which could fetch as much as £30, had first arrived in London in 1768. For the less well-to-do there were India muslin gowns or kincob silks. The grand, and less grand, old ladies in Vanity Fair conceal their bald heads beneath turbans. Even at the lowest rung of the domestic and commercial ladder, the task of securing stray papers had now been made easier by the new-fangled India rubber bands.
Dominating this landscape, a fixture of the comic newspapers, colonising whole areas of London such as the area north of Oxford Street known as "Tyburnia", was the figure of the Anglo-Indian. With his tawny skin, his Hindi oaths, his fondness for recherché foodstuffs and his addiction to hookah pipes, he wanders everywhere in the early-Victorian world, and is never so prominent as when making additions to the word-hoard. English lexicography, it is fair to say, received a jolt from the eastern reaches of the Empire from which it never recovered. The denizens of Tyburnia and Russell Square, where the East India merchants had their mansions, took tiffin instead of tea, referred to their domestics as kitmutgars and cansomahs or qui-his (from the Hindi expression 'Is anyone there?'), put jodhpurs on their legs when attending gymkhanas, thought anyone socially inferior to them chi-chi and soon rechristened a heavy wagon a juggernaut (from the enormous carts that bore effigies of Krishna in procession).
Above all, Anglo-Indians were responsible for introducing what, with the exception of a few West Indian crossing-sweepers and Creole heiresses, were some of the first black faces to be seen in Britain. Jos Sedley brings back an Indian servant to prepare his pilaus and pipes; Major Bagstock in Dombey tyrannises over the silent, put-upon figure of "the native". Royalty was not immune to this innovation. Queen Victoria, in the last years of her reign, employed an Indian, the ever-so-slightly dubious Abdul Karim, as her confidential secretary, and in doing so struck a considerable blow for race relations. The Queen deplored discrimination on grounds of skin colour and even so mighty a dignitary as Lord Salisbury was forced to apologise for talking about "black men".
Inevitably this process of gradual saturation had a profound effect on English cultural life. Mid-19th century pictorial art is full of fanciful visions of dusky, snake-dancing charmers. In poetry the emotional temperature invariably rose a degree or two by way of allusion to the mysterious East ("Raise me a dais of silk and down/ Hang it with vair and purple dyes/ Carve it in doves and pomegranates/ And peacocks with a hundred eyes" - Christina Rosetti). The genteel ladies of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford are, if they did but know it, everywhere in thrall to the idea of India. Peter Jenkyns, the rector's scapegrace son, disappears to the East, from which refuge he sends back "rare and delicate India ornaments", including a costly shawl which, arriving on the day after his mother's death, forms her burial shroud. In his absence his doting sister plans a circus visit with the aim of seeing an elephant, "in order that she might the better imagine Peter riding on one". Meanwhile Signora Brown, the travelling magician's wife, mourns her six lost children who "died off, like little buds ripped untimely, in that cruel India". At one point the east comes literally to Cranford in the shape of a cousin's "Hindoo body servant". Miss Matilda's servant girl is transfixed by the white turban and brown complexion, while her employer shies away from him as he waits at table and later asks her guest, does he not remind her of Bluebeard?
Ominously enough, Cranford first appeared in 1853, five years after Vanity Fair and four years before the climacteric in 19th-century Anglo-Indian relations. The majority of mid-century Victorians held two views about India: administrative and romantic. On the one hand they believed that its governance, still conducted by the East India Company under licence, was anachronistic and would be better brought under direct control. As Dickens put it in 1853, when the Company's charter came up for renewal by parliament, "Mr [John] Bull has a fine India property, which has fallen into some confusion, and requires good management and just stewardship." On the other hand, allowing for the inevitable prejudice against brown skins, they were respectful of Indian heritage, tradition, language and social arrangements. All this changed irrevocably in 1857 in the course of the Indian mutiny, with the massacres at Meerut, Jhansi, Delhi and Cawnpore and the brutal deaths of hundreds of white Europeans.
For decades thereafter, although native regiments continued to fight valiantly alongside British soldiers, the average Indian was regarded as a treacherous and superstitious barbarian whose loyalty would always be questionable. As for the country itself, Queen Victoria's feeling that "India should belong to me" was widely shared. The administration was promptly transferred to the Crown under a council. A new royal title, "Empress of India", soon followed. Efficiently subdued, its civil servants taking their orders from Whitehall, the standard Imperial template everywhere in operation, India had by the end of the century lost much of its mystery. Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads (1892), for example, are a world away from Thackeray's enigmatic revenants and his India heiresses with their lakhs of mohurs.
No doubt John Bull's romantic Orientalism was exploitation by another name - one of those eternal western travesties of what is essentially a culture held captive by the person doing the travestying. But as Mira Nair shows in this spirited collision of Bollywood and a single early-Victorian mind, these visions ran very deep: their exposure tells us something not only about the early Victorians but also about ourselves.
'Vanity Fair' is released on 14 January