Unlike "Dickensian," "Thackerayan" does not sell novels, which is presumably why D. J. Taylor's reworking of Vanity Fair, Derby Day, does not have "Thackerayan" plastered all over its dustjacket. To be fair, other authors creep in as well, notably Charlotte Bronte (the sub-Jane Eyrean governess, Miss Ellington), the very unread R. S. Surtees (the sporting plot), and Charles Dickens (Captain Raff's hallucinatory walk to Epsom Downs, which owes something to both Oliver Twist and Bleak House), with a dash of Wilkie Collins and the sensation novel for good measure. Alert readers will enjoy Taylor's habit of assigning familiar names to completely inappropriate characters, as in the case of the utterly un-Sikes like-Sikes. But the main debt is to Thackeray, especially in the form of Rebecca Gresham, later Happerton, of whom "one or two people had said that she reminded them of that other Rebecca in Mr Thackeray's novel" (10). In other words, Taylor here keeps up his deconstruction of the Victorian novel that he also pursued in Kept--to which Derby Day is linked by the recurring figures of Captain McTurk and his nemesis, the brilliant cracksman Mr. Pardew.
Derby Day is a multiplot novel whose threads converge on a single space, that of Epsom Downs on the day of the Derby. But as the titular allusion to W. P. Frith's "The Derby Day" suggests, the race is far less important than the people. (In a nice bit of anti-climax, we never actually see the race.) The novel's overarching plot tracks the fortunes of the no-good Mr. Happerton, who woos and weds Rebecca Gresham in order to lay his hands on her father's cash. His dastardly plot: initially, to win the Derby with Tiberius, a beautiful and potentially brilliant racehorse; then, to run Tiberius in the Derby to lose, while betting his money on a different horse entirely. Carrying out this plot requires, in addition to Rebecca, Mr. Pardew's skills as a cracksman, as a jeweller must be robbed for additional funds, and Happerton's own skills as a forger, as he buys up all the bills (and creates some of his own) belonging to Mr. Davenant, the encumbered landowner who also owns Tiberius. Meanwhile, Rebecca, a "shrewd woman" interested primarily in "her advantage" (159, 160), plots to advance Happerton's goals in a number of ways unanticipated by that gentleman, while Captain McTurk tries, yet again, to capture Pardew. By novel's end, there have been two suicides, a somewhat puzzling marriage, and one rather key betrayal.
The central mystery of Derby Day, as it happens, rests not with the villainy of Happerton and Pardew, but with Rebecca herself. Characters endlessly debate what Rebecca wants, what she is thinking, and what she means by her enigmatic pronouncements. "Still Mr. Happerton could not make her out" (22), says the narrator, and Happerton remains unable to "make her out" (62) after their marriage. Similarly, her father admits to himself that he does not "know" his daughter "at all" (227). But Rebecca's mysteriousness resides not in her air of "calculation," but the stark purity of her desire for advancement through her husband, a desire so intense that it is virtually incomprehensible to the men around her. Although she never encounters her opposite number, the hapless governess Miss Ellington, Rebecca's single-minded devotion to the "Rebecca Party" (326) stands in clear contrast to Miss Ellington's Jane Eyre impersonation--not because Miss Ellington has no reserves of temper (an anecdote about her vicious response to a mouse suggests that she and Rebecca both have tendencies to violence), but because Miss Ellington wearily embraces her "duty" to others, especially her mentally disabled charge Evie, and Rebecca enthusiastically embraces only her duty to herself. In Miss Ellington's deflated Jane Eyre plot, the house, Scroop Hall, is not so much Gothic as utterly defunct, and the romance with neighboring landowner Mr. Glenister is so unimpassioned as to be unobservable. However, while the rightness of the outcome--"no one knew their places in life until they came upon them and saw that they fitted them" (401)--appears to be the moral, substituting accident for Rebecca's intense plotting, Derby Day is, perhaps, not so sure about that.
Unlike Becky Sharp, the totally amoral Rebecca is not, in fact, much given to deceit, aside from manipulating her father into allowing her to marry Mr. Happerton and, later, saving herself from prosecution by McTurk. This is what makes her so shocking and subversive to the novel's male characters: her "mystery" resides in her complete lack of mysteriousness, her unapologetic quest for wealth, power, and social position. "'Do you wish me to ask Papa for money?" Rebecca says to her husband, which leaves him "astonished" (65); when she inquires later if he wants more money from her father, he is again "surprised at how easily the business was conducted" (124); and still later, when the question of more cash from papa is on the table, he again "looked at her wonderingly" (260). When Rebecca tells her father that she wants Happerton to "distinguish himself in some way," he "marvelled" (230) at her words, while Mr. Dennison, the man who fixes local elections, is "rather alarmed" by her bluntness (294). The stereotypical upper-class Victorian woman, Happerton thinks shortly before the race, "did not behave like this" (329), a conclusion shared by Captain McTurk, who hears Rebecca with "a sense of something very near wonder" (393). Becky Sharp may be the mermaid with the monstrous tail concealed just below the water, but Rebecca is a wonder or a marvel precisely because her persona is not "split" in the same way; other characters find her unreadable because she makes no effort at all to repress her egotism, to "perform" as a good girl--to be, in other words, Miss Ellington. Happerton, who comes to believe (too late) that Rebecca "had his best interests at heart" (376), persists in interpreting her through conventional narratives about female devotion to their lords and masters, whereas Rebecca primarily considers him as a tool for obtaining her own satisfactions, and becomes furious when he refuses to confide all of his machinations to her. She is dangerous because, as a woman, she is entirely unthinkable to the novel's male cast of characters.
Unlike her namesake, however, Rebecca doesn't "lose" (or, at least, is not driven to pretending to be a humble widow engaged in charitable good works), in part because the novel assigns her non-Becky Sharp chunks of the Vanity Fair plot. Like Dobbin finally giving up on Amelia, Rebecca thinks that her "triumphs seemed to her hollow and not worth the having" (326)--with the hollowness in question arising both from Happerton's own conspicuous failings as a "real man" of sorts and his inability to properly understand her desires for social conquest. Moreover, Rebecca betrays Happerton in a full gender-flip of the Becky Sharp-Lord Steyne subplot: instead of Rawdon Crawley bursting in on Becky and Lord Steyne, then breaking open her desk, "kept in a secret place" (ch. 53), to find the ill-gotten money, we have Rebecca breaking into Happerton's desk looking (quite innocently) for money, then discovering that he has a mistress (which promptly seals his doom). When Rawdon searches through Becky's secret desk, he also, in a sense, riffles through the "trumpery" (ch. 53) of her subjectivity, bringing the deepest parts of her self into full view--and these parts turn out, by and large, to consist of cash. The moment is terrifying, not least because of the underlying threat of sexual violence (he has, after all, caught her with another man), but also because it implicitly equates Becky with the "dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck" (ch. 53) that he has unearthed. Is there much more to Becky than this worthless accumulation of portable property? By contrast, Rebecca's discovery of the mistress' note reflects not so much Happerton's secrecy as his ineptitude--he had also left evidence of his attempts to forge Davenant's signature lying about--and while her response echoes Rawdon's attack on Becky's jewels (Rebecca breaks one of her husband's statues), it also results in something much more than a separation. Indeed, the interpretive puzzle posed by Rawdon's discovery (is Becky "innocent," as she claims [ch. 53]? Innocent of what?), recurs differently here: Rawdon assumes that he has uncovered a sexual secret, although the narrative is actually ambiguous about the extent to which Becky has compromised herself with Lord Steyne, whereas Rebecca does not simply uncover her husband's sexual secret, but in fact engages in efficient detective work that rivals McTurk's own endeavors. Regarding everything as a "gigantic puzzle to solve" (370), Rebecca goes through the accumulated documents in her husband's desk and packs them off to McTurk; unlike Rawdon, she is definitely correct in her conclusions, and her agency is just as important as McTurk's in ending Happerton's plot (in both its senses). Rather than Becky facing yet another abrupt end to one of her plots, then, Rebecca's intervention signals her decision to finally seize total control over her own. When she appears in a "dress of the deepest black" (395), like Becky at the end of Vanity Fair, it's when she testifies at her husband's trial, once again flipping Thackeray around (remember, the trouble began because Rawdon was taken up for non-payment of bills).
In other words, this is a novel in which there is room both for Amelia and for Becky Sharp, in which the way of duty yields its successes but so, too, does the way of pure self-interest. At the end of the novel, we find that Rebecca has repaired to Baden (where, of course, Becky Sharp meets up once again with Jos), but far from concealing herself or looking for a man to marry, she revels in her own notoriety. "My name is Happerton," she tells a would-be male interloper. "Do you know who I am?" (404) Posing as a mystery (do you know me?) and ironically announcing her identity as "the wife of the man who owned Tiberius that won the Derby" (404), Rebecca "wins" by finally reducing her husband's plots to her own sole account. In effect, she claims "Happerton" as her name, leaving her jailed husband in an awkward position; her wifehood is clearly on her own terms. Sans father, sans husband, and indeed, sans any man at all, Rebecca can now fully enjoy herself without the aid of any would-be Prince Charmings. Unlike Becky Sharp, who "screamed with laughter" (ch. 67) when her revelation of George's own betrayal comes, after all, a little too late, Rebecca literally gets Derby Day's last laugh--the novel's final words are "she laughed" (404).