Some thoughts on Becky Sharp
"You poor little earthenware pipkin, you want to swim down
the stream along with the great copper kettles." Lord Steyne
addressing Becky, Vanity Fair 
Ive just finished reading
William Thackerays 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 Johnsons
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. 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 Pinkertons 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 Beckys 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 womens husbands to watch the emotional
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 dont 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
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 Sharps 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. 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 surgeons 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
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 nephews
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 shes 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!
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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
revised 22nd April 2012
to Occasional essays