Some thoughts on Becky Sharp

David Wheldon

 

 


"You poor little earthenware pipkin, you want to swim down the stream along with the great copper kettles." Lord Steyne addressing Becky, Vanity Fair [1]

 

I’ve just finished reading William Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair. Rebecca Sharp, the main character, captured me quickly with her green gaze, her slim form, her determination and her courage.

She is an orphan girl, taken on at a ladies’ academy because she can speak fluent, high-class French (her mother was a Parisienne). She also marshals the little pupils for church. She is, however, treated as a nobody because of her background; she is disregarded, and is unloved by all except Amelia Sedley, a tender-hearted pupil her own age.

Becky resolves to make something of herself in life. She wishes a position in society and the security of wealth. On leaving the academy she insults the principal and the vice principal, furiously flinging her parting gift (a copy of Johnson’s dictionary) out of the coach window. All the years of frustration and near-abuse ripen into hatred at that moment.

So I was immediately rooting for Miss Sharp. Intelligent, witty, pretty, musical, perceptive, valiant, decisive: what more gifts would a girl need as she left school?
And then we realize that there is another side to Miss Sharp. There is an incident in her childhood which makes us reconsider her character. While still alive, her father kept bad company. Becky used to amuse these men with her wit.[2] She had a glove-puppet which she painted and dressed in the likeness of Miss Pinkerton, the principal of the ladies’ academy, and she would have a hilarious dialogue with this puppet, ridiculing and satirizing the principal in effigy. All very well: the principal had been harsh with her. But Becky is given another puppet, whose face she paints in the likeness of Miss Pinkerton’s timid but kindly sister, a woman who personally has been generous to Becky, giving her food, money and encouragement. But Becky treats this kindly woman, in effigy, with as much scorn and ridicule as she does the principal.

A small event, but prognostic of the future course of events. Before too long we discover that Becky’s perceptive acumen is rarely used for benign purposes. Becky is out for herself. If you are of use to her, she will befriend you. If you get too close to her she will amuse herself by playing with your emotions. She flirts with other women’s husbands to watch the emotional fall-out.

In short, we discover that Becky is an unsavoury person.

Yet, even after 160 years there is something about Miss Sharp that still intrigues, beguiles, seduces. And, as you continue in this large, rambling book, you find that Becky does stay her hand when she has the opportunity to be cruel. In one incident she financially ruins a well-meaning woman — Miss Briggs — who she then keeps on as a companion, providing her with food and lodging. As one of her friends (the callous Lord Steyne) remarks: ‘why don’t you turn her out?’ But is penniless Miss Briggs housed and fed to act as a chaperone to keep up appearances? Perhaps Becky's most merciful act is to save simple Amelia Sedley from two unscrupulous hustlers with designs upon her. Becky says: "I tell you they are rascals: men fit to send to the hulks. Never mind how I know them. I know everybody." But does she send these imposters packing to gain more time to exert total emotional control over Joseph, Amelia's wealthy brother? She certainly succeeds in this. As his illness worsens, Becky becomes his nurse. He is terrified of her.

And, of course, Becky is a player in a larger game; the author is writing about the bubble of an unfair section of society where wealth and title are respected above morality and learning.

And this is Miss Sharp’s downfall. For all her perception, for all her intelligence, for all her courage, she fails to see that she is entering a world of illusion. To her a high place in society, even if it has to be maintained by credit or fraud, is the ultimate goal. She pretends that her mother was descended from the noble Entrechat family.[3] The day of her presentation to the Prince Regent was one of the finest days of her life. And the dissolute Prince Regent and his court were the pinnacle of this bubble-world. This empty bubble-world remains with us, if in a different form: one only need look at the contemporary scramble for the shallow fame of celebrity.

In the end, we think: poor Becky. Near the beginning of the book a young, good-looking country surgeon proposed marriage to her. She turned him down with a laugh, writing to Amelia: ‘as if I were born to be a country surgeon’s wife!’

Ah, Becky! How much happier you might have been, assisting a hard-working man, respected in your community not for your wealth but your kindness: and you would have been reasonably well-off.

But of course this would not have been possible. Becky was an adventuress who could never stay long in one place. And her worst fault was that she could not bond with other people in an emotional way. She never knew real affection, real love for another person, not even for her own son: in public she was the perfect mother: in private she was cold and even abusive, boxing his ears for no reason. She could play with love, but could not understand it; and, in the end, she was ignorant of the fact that she could not understand love. There are strong hints of what we would now term a psychopathic personality disorder; in fact the signs of such a disorder are so clear that it seems possible that Thackeray modelled Becky's character on someone he knew.

Most of Becky's plans failed in the end (the Greeks would have called this hamartia); as each failed she would pick herself up, and, learning nothing, would cheerfully begin another deceitful enterprise.

Becky is often far too clever for her own good. An example of this may be seen in the cozening letter she dictated to her husband; this letter was sent to his fabulously wealthy but frail aunt. But the old lady at once knew the identity of the composer of the letter: the perfection of the spelling and the grammar were way beyond her nephew’s capabilities.[4]

The book ends with a pious and wealthy Becky, now widowed, who ‘hangs about Bath and Cheltenham’ and who does great charity work. But Bath and Cheltenham are hardly poverty-stricken places. They are Society haunts. Rebecca is up to something. When she’s good, Rebecca is always up to something. Although her son sends her a regular remittance, this would hardly be enough to keep her in high style with servants (a footman is said to accompany her to church.) So what does she live on? You get my drift.

How fortunate a man that country surgeon was!


[1] Lord Steyne almost certainly alludes to one of Aesop's Fables. The riverbank crumbles beneath two vessels and they both fall into the swiftly-flowing water. One of these vessels is of earthenware; the other of cast bronze. The earthenware vessel says to the bronze one: "whether I collide with you in the swirling waters, or you collide with me - the result will be the same: it is I that must be broken." It is curious that the most vile character in Vanity Fair should understand Vanity Fair the best.

[2] This early association with men of disreputable character may explain why, throughout the novel, the adult Becky is perfectly at ease in such company. She finds Sir Pitt's company amusing as they sit before the fire in his huge but squalid London house. She flirts with and tricks the unspeakable Lord Steyne (at least until they fall out.) She is easy in the company of two very unpleasant continental fraudsters.

[3] Ever the satirist, Thackeray chooses names with great care. And the choice of Entrechat is no exception. It is a movement in ballet: during a jump the legs are rapidly crossed and uncrossed at the lower calf, sometimes repeatedly. The word is likely derived from the Italian Intrecciare meaning to braid or weave. And this is exactly what Becky does, all through the book.

[4] This incident is one of the funniest in the book. Becky is far more intelligent than her husband, and dictates the letter while marching up and down the room, her hands behind her back.

 "I have come hither," Rebecca insisted, with a stamp of her foot, "to say farewell to my dearest and earliest friend. I beseech you before I go, not perhaps to return, once more to let me press the hand from which I have received nothing but kindnesses all my life.". . . "You old booby," Rebecca said, pinching his ear and looking over to see that he made no mistakes in spelling—"beseech is not spelt with an a, and earliest is."

When this plan fails, Becky laughs at herself.

"Though it told against themselves, the joke was too good, and Becky burst out laughing..."

This quick ability to laugh at herself almost redeems her.

 

uploaded 13th February 2012
revised 22nd April 2012

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