[This 1848 novel was originally published in twenty monthly instalments. I’m reading two of these at a time, and writing about them as I go. So far I’ve covered ten instalments.]
26 May 2020
I-II, Chapters 1-7
Having read this ‘novel without a hero’ a very long time ago, all I remember is the unapologetically anti-heroic nature of Becky Sharp’s project. Thackeray’s urbane narrator explains it from the start, and uses these early chapters to take us through her first (failed) attempt to carry it out. Will her decidedly mercenary attempt to make her way in the world continue to be the main driver of everything in it? We’ll have to wait and see.
So far, ‘Rebecca’ isn’t presented as any kind of villain. We’re being offered a satire of life in England in the 19th Century, and this author isn’t in the business of condemning a young woman who has to fend for herself in a harshly unfair world. He gives us two young women from very different backgrounds, and he wants to remind us how, without the support of either a loving family or their money, the one who isn’t the daughter of a stockbroker is in a very hostile environment. Whatever it takes for her to survive—in fact, it’s about prospering rather than merely surviving—Thackeray is going to present the case for her defence. As his non-heroine reaches the endgame in her attempt to catch a wealthy suitor, we get this: ‘ah! how Rebecca now felt the want of a mother!’ She, a mother, ‘would have managed the business in ten minutes….’
Not that we should take little asides like this at face value. Becky Sharp, by this time, has shown that she can get on perfectly well without anybody’s help at all, and Thackeray’s mock-sentimental reference to her orphaned state is really a veiled reminder to the reader of exactly this. At the same time he’s reminding us that mothers, in this world, are the most mercenary of all. Becky is staying with her innocent friend Amelia Sedley, the stockbroker’s daughter. When Amelia’s father tells his wife that Becky is ‘setting her cap’ at their son, the mother is outraged. There must be somebody better in the marriage market for hm, she thinks… until Sedley reminds her that as a shy ‘collector’ in an Indian backwater he’s much more likely to end up with a black wife, and they will end up with a dozen dark grandchildren. Perish the thought—by the morning, she’s forgotten her objections.
Any reader knows how it works, of course, and Thackeray is poking fun at it by way of the man-of-the-world persona he’s been presenting since the start. When George Osborne arrives, the son of a wealthy neighbour and someone Amelia first met as a child, their futures could not be more clearly set out. They kiss, but this narrator can’t be doing with any false sentiment. In fact, he’s merciless: ‘if I should say that they fell in love with each other at that single instant of time, I should perhaps be telling an untruth, for the fact is that these two young people had been bred up by their parents for this very purpose, and their banns had, as it were, been read in their respective families any time these ten years.’ It might not be pretty, but he knows, and he knows that we know too, that this is how the world works.
That’s how Thackeray does it. The satire isn’t savage but, from the opening chapter set in a mediocre finishing-school for girls run by a self-serving battleaxe of a woman, he lets us in on every little absurdity. Becky, the daughter of the art teacher and his deceased French opera-girl wife, likes to make ‘Miss Pinkerton’ uncomfortable with her perfect French. The silly woman doesn’t speak a word of it, but we’re on Becky’s side because the headmistress is so pretentious. And she treats her own sister badly, taking the credit for the tedious hours the downtrodden woman spends keeping the place running. It’s the first time we see one of the ways that Thackeray gets us on Becky’s side: people usually deserve the treatment they get from her.
Becky’s father has been killed off by his own drinking problem some time before the novel opens, and since then Becky has been offered board and lodging for teaching French. She hates it, especially teaching the little ones—a detail that seems to have been included so that when she later speaks of how much she loves little children, even innocent Amelia is surprised. She can’t wait to leave the school, and she shortens her agreed period of employment by speaking to Miss Pinkerton as she has never been spoken to before. Like the narrator, Becky enjoys telling it like it is. ‘You took me because I was useful. There is no question of gratitude between us. I hate this place, and want to leave it. I will do nothing here but what I am obliged to do.’
Luckily, Amelia is leaving too and, equally luckily, she is incapable of disliking anybody and has become the only friend that Becky has ever made at the school. Becky is to start a new job as governess to a baronet’s children in a week’s time, but until then she can be a valued guest—and be offered her first opportunity to embark on her project. We’re prepared for it, up to a point, by the title of Chapter 2, ‘In Which Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign.’ We’ve been reading long enough—seven or eight pages, maybe—to know what the campaign must be. ‘The world is before the two young ladies,’ as we’ve just read in the previous chapter’s final sentence, and ‘the world’ is where the campaign will be fought. Amelia’s, of course, is already won—we see it a chapter or two later with the arrival of George Osborne. But Becky isn’t going to have it so easy…
…and we see how single-mindedly she goes about levelling the playing-field. Nobody suffers as a result of her pursuit of Joseph Sedley, the incorrigibly fat, incorrigibly dull older brother. We might wonder why on earth she would set her sights so low—the idea of outliving him doesn’t seem to have occurred to her—but Thackeray reminds us of her lack of experience. It’s in a different context that he tells us to ‘remember that she is but nineteen as yet’—she’s just told the easily detectable untruth about her love of children—but it helps to explain her almost unthinking gung-ho approach. Not that it matters—as Thackeray reminds us, Becky’s attempt has to end in failure. He even tells us what will bring it about, when Joseph orders a bowl of rack punch on the night he is supposed to propose. ‘That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history. And why not a bowl of rack punch as well as any other cause?’ We know before we read it that Joseph, already drunk, will soon be in no fit state to make the proposal that Becky has so carefully engineered.
Not that it’s the only cause. Becky has had to work very hard indeed to bring about a situation in which a wealthy, public school-educated man is about to propose to the orphaned daughter of a penniless artist. One of the key drivers of this novel is class, as in class differences, and it’s what finally ends Becky’s chances. George Osborne, perfectly affable young man that he appears to be, is also a terrible snob. When Joseph is hung-over and feeling in disgrace next morning, George makes his move to prevent ‘a mésalliance with a little nobody,’ as he puts it to himself, a woman who would never be a fit sister-in-law for him. When Becky, expecting a visit from Joseph, receives a letter instead, it tells her he’s leaving town for good. Osborne probably helped him write it.
So far, as I’ve described it, it’s a cynical old world that Becky is having to deal with. The only entirely innocent character is Amelia, and her innocence is more of an absence of adult, human connection than a positive virtue. She’s never had to learn any lessons because her path through life has been entirely without setbacks. But there’s an important character I haven’t mentioned, a big, clumsy man who was at school with Joseph and Osborne. This is Dobbin, the butt of jokes for years at the school. His name, inevitably ‘Heigh-ho Dobbin,’ the slowness of mind that kept him back, surrounded in class by smaller, younger boys, his awkward size. Worst of all, his father is in trade, a supplier of groceries for the school who pays for his son’s tuition in goods. His simple guilelessness strikes the boys as childish and stupid—even Osborne, much younger than this clown of the school, joins in the general derision. Meanwhile Dobbin, never seeming to understand why they are being so pointlessly cruel, has no thought of responding to their taunts. Instead of fighting back, he withdraws into himself.
This is how everything is on the day when everything changes. While the other boys play, Dobbin has retreated into The Arabian Nights, ‘away with Sindbad the Sailor in the Valley of Diamonds’ and the rest—until his peace is disturbed by the noise of some particularly nasty bullying. Cuff, the cock of the school, is punishing a young boy who has accidentally broken the bottle he’s just spent a terrifying time bringing to him: ‘you blundering little thief. You drank the shrub, and now you pretend to have broken the bottle. Hold out your hand, sir.’ He brings down a cricket stump on to one hand, then the other, and then…
…Thackeray pretends he needs to go through an elaborate explanation of the extraordinary thing that happens next. He’s already told us that the younger boy is Osborne, ‘the lad who had peached upon him about the grocer’s cart’—that is, bringing a lot of taunts on Dobbin’s head about his father’s business—but ‘he bore little malice, not at least towards the young and small.’ Thackeray pauses the narrative because, for nearly five chapters, he’s been presenting a very particular world, in which nobody (aside from Amelia, who somehow doesn’t count) acts for anybody’s benefit but their own. The imagined readers he’s addressing inhabit this world—and if we don’t, we haven’t been paying attention. He, Thackeray as worldly narrator, pretends to rack his brains: ‘I can’t tell what his motive was. Torture in a public school is as much licensed as the knout in Russia. It would be ungentlemanlike (in a manner) to resist it. Perhaps Dobbin’s foolish soul revolted against that exercise of tyranny; or perhaps he had a hankering feeling of revenge in his mind, and longed to measure himself against that splendid bully and tyrant…’ and so on.
Dobbin has done the unthinkable. He’s ‘started up’ to make a protest, an act so unprecedented that… etc. I don’t need to go on, beyond suggesting that there’s a reason for Thackeray to spend so much time and energy on signalling Dobbin’s special status. Here is a young man, clownish and low-status as he might be, who thinks for himself. Whatever the consensus, he acts according to a higher law—and Thackeray the author rewards him for it. Cuff insists on a formal fist-fight of a sort he’s always wins—but, having to learn how as he goes, Dobbin eventually beats him. His status in the school immediately rockets, he discovers in himself new abilities—he might be a slow reader and no classicist, but his mathematical prowess turns out to be astonishing. And, if we fast-forward to the present…
…his family’s star has risen too. His father is now an Alderman and—a not unconnected fact—his company is highly successful. Dobbin, like Osborne, is in the army and doing well. He is a participant in the events of the fateful night of Joseph’s non-proposal, an evening at the Vauxhall pleasure grounds, but in a minor, in fact subservient, role. As they arrive, Osborne blithely tells him to ‘just look to the shawls and things, there’s a good fellow,’ which he does all night, and he finds himself talking to the professional hermit because everyone else has paired off. Poor old Dobbin. Thackeray seems to be preparing us to dislike Osborne when, later—and this isn’t long before he steps in to prevent the proposal—he snatches Amelia’s shawl from him. ‘Good Heavens! Dobbin, where have you been? … Make yourself useful, and take charge of Jos here’—Jos being the almost comatose Joseph. We need to remember Dobbin.
Her chance gone, there’s nothing left for Becky but to pack her things—the servants, who had loved her when she was to be Joseph’s new wife, making sly, disparaging comments about her honesty now—and make her way to where she’s meeting her new charges. The groom is as rude to her as everybody else now, knowing there’ll be con come-back—and no tip—and, at ‘Gaunt Street,’ she isn’t impressed by the man who helps her take her things into the house. Ought we to have guessed that this is ‘Sir Pitt Crawley of Queen’s Crawley’? I didn’t, and Thackeray is sardonic about him and his family history. An ancestor got lucky with Elizabeth I, they represent a ‘rotten borough’ in parliament, which provides a welcome income, miser that he is—and he is always taking people to court. Becky spends a night at the place, in the huge bed in which Lady Crawley died, as he’s told her—not that it bothers her. She’s sharing it with the downtrodden housekeeper (if that’s what she is), which also doesn’t bother her… and, next morning, she’s on the coach to Queen’s Crawley.
I realise I haven’t really said anything about Becky’s upbringing, as the only daughter of an artist living a bohemian life in Soho, and the racy company she became used to. As a precocious child she charmed them all. Nor have I really described the faultless performance she puts on for the Sedleys, all becoming modesty and shy reticence. No need, really. She does what she has to do, and if people eventually catch her out, so be it. The prize was snatched from her when it was in her grasp—but Joseph Sedley wasn’t much of a prize anyway, and maybe the next one will be more interesting.
III-IV, Chapters 8-14
Becky—I’m going to keep calling her that, although the narrator never does—arrives at Sir Pitt’s crumbling country estate, and stays there for the third instalment. ‘Instalment’ is right, because she installs herself very comfortably indeed, making an excellent impression on everybody who matters. Sir Pitt matters, but his fading second wife, the mother of the two girls Becky is in charge of, definitely doesn’t. The girls themselves only matter up to a point: if she can keep them busy, doing more or less whatever they like—one with her nose in books, the other with her nose into everything on the estate farm—she won’t really be bothered. Mr Pitt Crawley, the eldest son, only matters up to a point too. He’s solemn, religious and dull, but Becky does whatever is necessary to make him think she’s sound. If this involves going to occasional sermons he preaches and reading his tracts, then so be it.
But more interesting than the details of the plot are the shifting sands of the novel’s moral tone. I deliberately refer to its narrator, rather than to a notional ‘Thackeray’, because it seems fairly pointless at this stage to try to second-guess Thackeray’s own thoughts and opinions from what the narrator presents us with. Thackeray the author is playing all sorts of narrative games, forcing us as readers to do a lot of the moral heavy lifting. Becky is presented as a kind of witty mischief-maker—and yet, at times, her behaviour is little short of monstrous. I never feel that I’m being asked to forgive her bad behaviour. Instead, I let this narrator entertain me by undermining the received norms of how heroes and heroines should be perceived. As readers, we are forced to hold multiple versions of ‘Rebecca’ in our head at the same time. She’s a self-centred monster. She’s clever and funny. She is so good at judging what people want from her that she never fails to provide it, sacrificing her time, offering her companionship, bringing her capable mind to bear on whatever needs to be dealt with. Fine. But if people aren’t useful for her, she will trample all over them. How on earth can we possibly be on her side? Good question.
Meanwhile, the second son is in the army and, though at first the narrator says nothing explicitly about what Becky thinks, he sounds much more interesting than his grimly judgmental brother. He’s Rawdon Crawley, since and he’s with his regiment in London, she only hears reports about him and his lifestyle. After some strong hints of what this might be, the narrator comes out with it: ‘A perfect and celebrated “blood,” or dandy about town, was this young officer. Boxing, rat-hunting, the fives court, and four-in-hand driving were then the fashion of our British aristocracy; and he was an adept in all these noble sciences.’ He’s always running up gambling and other debts—although we later hear how much he wins from George Osborne, whose naivety he feels duty-bound to exploit. Luckily for Roydon, there’s somebody in the Crawley family who loves his roguish ways—and not only does she have money, independent of Sir Pitt, she uses some of it to make sure her nephew never goes short.
She is Sir Pitt’s ‘unmarried half-sister who inherited her mother’s large fortune’—no unnecessary back-story, just that single useful fact. And she’s old enough, and immoderate enough in her habits, for Sir Pitt to look forward to her imminent death and, he hopes, the legacy that will come out of it. The only way he can get her on his side, he thinks, is to spare no expense when entertaining her at Queen’s Crawley. He knows she likes luxury, so puts on a big show for the four weeks of her visit around Christmas—all of which offers the narrator plenty of opportunities for tut-tuttingly lamenting the hold that Vanity Fair has over him and plenty of others like him. He’s right, of course—but, also of course, at the same time he’s satirising the moralistic stance of writers who like to take such a tone….
Whatever, when this useful personage arrives at Queen’s Crawley, Becky immediately sees to it that she becomes her favourite. We would expect nothing less, after she has already spent months making herself indispensable to Sir Pitt, pulling the wool over his eldest son’s eyes, and ingratiating herself with the Bute Crawleys—Sir Pitt’s cleric brother and his wife. The last of these had seemed to be prepared in advance to rebuff her. She ‘refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pas to a tradesman’s daughter.’ She is of good family herself, but this seems to be as much about strategy as about snobbery. She has spent years getting her feckless husband’s affairs in order, so the interesting subjects of Sir Pitt’s property—she feels her husband has been cheated out of his true rights—and the old spinster’s will are both crucial to her. It ‘cannot be supposed that the arrival of such a personage as Rebecca at Queen’s Crawley, and her gradual establishment in the good graces of all people there, could be unremarked by Mrs. Bute Crawley.’ No. She has her spies in the servants’ quarters, knows everything (she thinks), and we might wonder if Becky has met her match.
Of course she hasn’t. True, Becky’s blithe references to her ancestors the Montmorencys—whose aristocratic roots, she says, long pre-date the French Revolution—aren’t going to get her anywhere with Mrs Bute Crawley. She’s from a solid middle-class family, and knows from Miss Pinkerton—by way of a fishing expedition in the form of a letter about something else—that she is the daughter of a bankrupted artist and a disreputable opera singer. But so? Becky just has to make sure that her actual parentage comes to be seen an unimportant. Miss Pinkerton does not deny Becky’s capabilities and, in fact, when Mrs Bute sees her talents she thinks she’d quite like to use them, free, for her own daughters’ education. Thackeray shows how easily Becky sees through this by having her say it for herself, in a letter to Amelia: ‘Signor Clementi did not teach us the piano for nothing; at which price Mrs. Bute hopes to get a professor for her children. I can see through her schemes, as though she told them to me.’ Good of him—Thackeray, not Signor Clementi—to let us see her working so transparently…
…which he’s done before, in the first chapter of this instalment, in exactly the same way. It’s entirely through a long, satirical letter to Amelia that we get or first impression—and, more interestingly, Becky’s carefully modulated version of her own—of the set-up at Queen’s Crawley. I said before that Thackeray plays games with the narrative, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that what we’re presented with is always reliable. An omniscient narrator could tell us what Becky is thinking without all this hedging but, I realise, that wouldn’t suit his project. What we seem to be presented with, in this instalment and the next—we see it with our own eyes, don’t we?—is how Becky Sharp has made herself unstoppable. She seems never to put a foot wrong, building on what she’d learnt at the Sedleys’—the Rebecca of those chapters really does seem like a novice by comparison—but…. Never mind. The impression lasts all the way to the end of the fourth instalment, and I’m not there yet.
I haven’t even finished with the third—whose last chapter sets up the main business of the fourth. The wealthy, self-indulgent Miss Matilda Crawley arrives at her half-brother’s for her annual stay, and Becky’s life is transformed. It isn’t only because for these weeks Sir Pitt stops living like the old skinflint he is. Becky immediately sees how she can operate with the old woman, feeding her vanity with sly little digs—not little at all, once she gets into her stride—about absolutely everybody. Miss Crawley loves it because, as Becky sees from the start, she cares about nobody but herself. All Becky has to do is keep her entertained, which is easy for her because all she has to do is be herself. From the first day, the woman wants the company of nobody else. And meanwhile…
…Rawdon Crawley is there too. He’s only come because his aunt is there—confirming for both Becky and the reader everything we’d supposed about him. He’s also, she realises, not the brightest man she’s ever met, and we watch with a kind of fascination as she spins her webs around him. He leaves any encounters with her, especially if he’s tried to be clever, ‘routed’. But… his aunt has let it be known that he will get the bulk of her estate when she dies, so Becky’s motive seems fairly clear. He hasn’t got a chance against her, either at Queen’s Crawley or in London, which is where we return in the fourth instalment. Not that we find ourselves at Miss Crawley’s Park Lane address straight away—first we get two chapters of catch-up at the Sedleys’ and, more tellingly, at the Osbornes’. George’s family, as we might already have guessed, is utterly besotted by the charms of Vanity Fair. I’ll come back to all of them, but for now…
…I’ll fast-forward to the arrival of Miss Crawley’s carriage at Park Lane, where Thackeray plays a little game over the identity of a ‘young lady who accompanied the heap of cloaks’ which turns out to be the old woman. There’s another ‘discontented’-looking woman with them, and we soon see what her problem is. She is the lady’s maid, and Becky has been merciless in supplanting her at Queen’s Crawley—as she now goes about doing to the companion who has been with her for 23 years. There’s nothing likeable about Becky in Thackeray’s presentation of her offhand treatment of both women, as we immediately start to see. Next day, the ‘person,’ as she is for two or more pages, takes tea with the disconsolate companion, Miss Bridges.
‘“It is a pity you take on so, Miss Briggs,” the young lady said, with a cool, slightly sarcastic, air. … “But why, why won’t she see me again?” Miss Briggs bleated out. “Oh, Matilda, Matilda, after three-and-twenty years’ tenderness! is this the return to your poor, poor Arabella?” … “Don’t cry too much, poor Arabella,” the other said (with ever so little of a grin); “she only won’t see you, because she says you don’t nurse her as well as I do.” Ouch. And her pretence of ennui—no pretence at all, of course—is another twist of the knife: “It’s no pleasure to me to sit up all night. I wish you might do it instead.”
So much for them. She’s as merciless with Rawdon Crawley, who takes leave of absence to be at Park Lane, where Miss Crawley is recovering from what is really, as Becky tells him, no more than over-indulgence. Soon, starting with his stay at his father’s, that pesky old ‘barbed shaft of love had penetrated his dull hide. Six weeks—appropinquity—opportunity—had victimised him completely.’ At Queen’s Crawley he had ‘made a confidante of his aunt at the Rectory,’ we now find out, and we see how thoroughly Becky had fooled her, too. She thought of her as ‘the most clever, droll, odd, good-natured, simple, kindly creature in England. Rawdon must not trifle with her affections, though—dear Miss Crawley would never pardon him for that; for she, too, was quite overcome by the little governess, and loved Sharp like a daughter.’ What was I saying about unstoppable?
In fact, she misses a trick. Or, I suppose, Thackeray can’t let her have it all her own way, so the trick is the one he plays on her. While she’s been away, Sir Pitt has been realising just how indispensable she had become. He hadn’t minded his half-sister taking Becky away while she recovered, but days soon stretch into weeks. She thinks that he only keeps calling at Park Lane because he’s missing her secretarial duties, but this turns out to be what might be her first big mistake. It’s understandable enough—she doesn’t know she’s in a novel. It turns out that the second Lady Crawley, sickening in bed while doctors were fussing over Miss Crawley’s supposed illness, was about to suffer one of those quiet deaths Victorian authors find so useful. Which is why Sir Pitt’s final visit of the fourth instalment is so urgent, and so catastrophic for Becky. When he asks her to marry him—oh, yes—‘Rebecca started back a picture of consternation. In the course of this history we have never seen her lose her presence of mind; but she did now, and wept some of the most genuine tears that ever fell from her eyes. “Oh, Sir Pitt!” she said. “Oh, sir—I—I’m married already.”
That’s all right, isn’t it? She must have got Rawdon to marry her secretly, knowing he’ll never want for money. Except… she doesn’t know, or not fully enough, what the people around Miss Crawley know. And what our wise narrator knows about the rich, and their perfect awareness of why they are surrounded by so-called friends. ‘I am not sure that … the shrewd old London lady, upon whom these treasures of friendship were lavished, had not a lurking suspicion all the while of her affectionate nurse and friend. It must have often crossed Miss Crawley’s mind that nobody does anything for nothing.’ This warning comes much earlier, and I’m speculating now—Becky’s anguished admission to Sir Pitt ends the instalment, so I don’t know what will happen next—but I suspect the old woman will be ready to cast them both off. She’s had her fun, and she’ll do what we have been told she always does. She’ll leave them both behind.
But what about the Sedleys and Osbornes? The first two chapters are mostly about them, and Becky makes sure they come inside the sphere of her Park Lane protector… and we get a lot more ugly insights into the Vanity Fair that is middle-class London. Only two characters come out well—although Amelia is so painfully naïve she’ll be lucky to survive, especially when her father’s investments go belly-up, as they appear to be doing… and Dobbin is generous to a fault, almost as easy to mock now, as an army captain—not that anyone ever says anything against him—as he was at school. To Rawdon Crawley, once he’s remembered who he is, he’s the ‘lanky gawky fellow, tumbles over everybody.’ His main role seems to be to shield Amelia from George Osborne’s thoughtless behaviour, and to shield Osborne from his own worst habits…
…of which there are plenty. Mainly, he is selfish, arrogant and seems to take Amelia’s unswerving devotion to him as proof of his own worth. ‘Some cynical Frenchman has said that there are two parties to a love-transaction: the one who loves and the other who condescends to be so treated.’ Thackeray shows us a couple of examples. Dobbin comes looking for him at the family home, where his appalling sisters tell him George is at Amelia’s as ever. It’s hard for poor Dobbin to hide his embarrassment—he’s just come from Amelia’s, assuming he would be there, and she complains that he only visits her rarely. ‘He hadn’t sown his wild oats as yet, but he would soon,’ and he spends his time in disreputable clubs—where he loses money to the sons of lords and gentlemen—and in the company of women. When Dobbin tells George he should go and see Amelia, he says he wishes he had some money for a nice present, borrows a handful of pound notes—and uses them to buy himself a shirt-pin. She, poor girl, ‘thought his diamond shirt-pin (which she had not known him to wear before) the prettiest ornament ever seen.’
Those sisters of his are a torture for Amelia when she has to spend time with them. They are as snobbish as their brother, and there’s the additional issue of their jealousy. Our worldly narrator riffs on the ways of women in the company of anyone deemed pretty. ‘I see all the men in a cluster round Mrs. White’s chair: all the young fellows battling to dance with Miss Brown; and so I am tempted to think that to be despised by her sex is a very great compliment to a woman.’ Which is all well and good, but Amelia has no resources for dealing with such behaviour, is flustered by their pointed questions, and by seeming so unworldly confirms for them that they are right to sneer. Earlier, I’d assumed that when ‘Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign’—the campaign of making their way in the world, Amelia had already won. But it seems not…
…because, as I’ve mentioned, her father’s investments are looking very insecure. George’s father knows this, and when he sees Amelia in his own house, he does not look kindly at her. More discomfiture for her—and, after George has finally arrived for dinner, late, and the women have withdrawn, we find out just how insecure she is. The old man gets down to business. ‘What I want to know, George, … what I want to know is, how you and—ah—that little thing upstairs, are carrying on?’ George is confused. ‘Why, sir, didn’t you order me to marry her, and ain’t I a good boy? Haven’t our Papas settled it ever so long?’ Of course they have, but times change, and old Osborne is the biggest snob of them all: ‘Whenever he met a great man he grovelled before him, and my-lorded him as only a free-born Briton can do.’ And now, after some chat about how well George is carrying on the tradition, he wants to ‘return to the other business about Amelia: why shouldn’t you marry higher than a stockbroker’s daughter, George—that’s what I want to know?’ Which is when he explains that he doesn’t like the look of her father’s finances.
It’s dog-eat-dog, not that our suave narrator would put it so crudely. But old Osborne does: ‘that’s flat—unless I see Amelia’s ten thousand down you don’t marry her. I’ll have no lame duck’s daughter in my family.’ He has already confirmed that George can pick his allowance up as usual—he sees it an investment to keep him in the company of those ‘great’ men he’s so fond of—and the young man leaves the room knowing both this, and that the marriage might well not be taking place. Is he devastated? Our narrator isn’t going to tell us, although he pretends to speculate. ‘He hurried upstairs to Amelia in the highest spirits. What was it that made him more attentive to her on that night than he had been for a long time—more eager to amuse her, more tender, more brilliant in talk? Was it that his generous heart warmed to her at the prospect of misfortune; or that the idea of losing the dear little prize made him value it more?’ Having seen the way his sister has chosen to go after the son of the man who seems to have the most money in their father’s business circle, simply because the old man is already married, we might guess.
Anything else? Plenty, including a visit George makes to Park Lane—to be thoroughly ‘routed’ by Becky the moment he attempts to patronise her. And the clever imitations she does of Miss Bridges and others that Miss Crawley finds so droll. And… and the thought that if this were a Dickens novel, Amelia and Dobbin would definitely be living happily ever after before the end of the final instalment. Perhaps they will anyway—any moral ambivalence in the narration is to be treated with suspicion. We know who we do and don’t like.
Except Becky Sharp, of course. She’s different.
V-VI, Chapters 15-22
This is a glorious book. And for some unaccountable reason, the character I find the most perfectly drawn in these instalments is Mrs Bute Crawley, relentlessly determined to keep the newlyweds in the mire where they belong. Thackeray has her conspiring with Briggs and Mrs Firkin, the lady’s maid—he calls them the ‘conspirators’ a least twice—and they keep the poison about Becky and Rawdon bubbling away. The one who’s most assiduous in dropping it into Miss Crawley’s ear is ‘Mrs Bute’, both the cleverest and the one with most to gain. That’s what makes her useful in keeping the plot going—the narrator has reminded us that if the old woman were to forgive her errant nephew there would be no novel, the kind of nudge to the reader that we first encountered at Vauxhall—but there’s much more to it than that. He presents this self-serving would-be beneficiary, through his default tone of ironic admiration, as a good Christian doing no more than her moral duty. I’ll come back to Mrs Bute.
Becky spends the first chapter of the fifth instalment engaged in heavy-duty damage limitation. She couldn’t have known that an unkind author would make the health of the second Lady Crawley quite so fragile—‘Who would have dreamed of Lady Crawley dying so soon? She was one of those sickly women that might have lasted these ten years’—so her carefully-laid plan to bring Miss Crawley round to the idea of her marriage to Rawdon is suddenly in shreds. She had been genuinely shocked by Sir Pitt’s proposal but, being ‘of too much resolution and energy of character to permit herself much useless and unseemly sorrow’ she makes the most of Sir Pitt’s not having revealed that she is married. Nobody in Park Lane knows it, and she is happy to let them speculate about her refusal, nurturing the romantic fantasy of a previous ‘attachment’ that takes root among them.
But she can’t keep that up for long. She writes to Rawdon, telling him to rent a place out of town, while she spends another day or so at Park Lane. Miss Crawley thinks it’s all wonderful, assumes Becky is engaged to some poor nobody, and daydreams about setting him up in a little shop or whatever. Becky pleads with her to ‘love me always—promise you will love me always,’ and ‘this promise was solemnly given by Miss Crawley, who left her little protege, blessing and admiring her as a dear, artless, tender-hearted, affectionate, incomprehensible creature.’ This is when the narrator muses on what good outcomes might have come about if Rawdon had been there with Becky to beg forgiveness—but ‘that good chance was denied to the young couple, doubtless in order that this story might be written.’ Becky is keeping Rawdon out of the way, thinking this is for the best just now.
By the end of the next day she’s done all she can. She has decided to leave in the night to join Rawdon, and thinks a letter to Briggs will be the best way to let Miss Crawley know about her marriage. The same unkind author as before—I remember how in his preface his characters are ‘puppets’—makes sure this, and everything else she does, counts against her. If a perfect storm is one in which every circumstance comes together to bring about a catastrophe, then that is what Thackeray has conjured up. He’s been laying the ground for some time, both in terms of the plot and Becky’s own limitations. She can manipulate men with ease, for instance, but she isn’t nearly so clever with women. She’s had plenty of success, she thinks, pulling the wool over Mrs Bute Crawley’s eyes and turning herself into Miss Crawley’s favourite. But she isn’t really that great at it, perhaps because the aspects of women’s behaviour the narrator delights in satirising—the jealousies, the resentments—are not ones she particularly shares.
Meanwhile, Firkin had written to Mrs Bute Crawley as soon as she heard of the refusal, so it can be presented almost as an inevitability that she arrives at exactly the moment Mrs Firkin hears, from the excitable maid, that ‘Miss Sharp have a gone and run away with the Capting, and they’re off to Gretney Green!’ Meanwhile Briggs, still in her night-clothes and curling-papers, goes to meet the visitor. Becky’s letter to her, the one she’s still clutching, is in similar style to the ones she writes to Amelia, and we can see from its first line onwards that it’s never going to work: ‘the kindest heart in the world, as yours is, will pity and sympathise with me and excuse me….’ Oh yeh? We might guess before she does that instead of mediating on her behalf, Briggs is going to make the most of her new knowledge by bringing the upstart down with a crash. Becky simply doesn’t get how some women can see exactly what she’s been up to.
Thackeray has added, for Mrs Bute Crawley at least, the galling knowledge that, to some extent, she had underestimated the danger Becky presented. But she sees it now—she had always known that she could be clever and manipulative—and realises the chance to wreck her plans has fallen into her lap. She and the other conspirators keep Miss Crawley in the dark until she has brought herself to a high pitch of anxiety, and then they present Becky’s actions in the worst possible light. They seem to know instinctively—or it’s an instinct Thackeray endows them with for this particular coup—how to get the timing exactly right:
‘She decamped last night, Ma’am,’ cried Mrs. Bute.
‘She left a letter for me,’ Briggs exclaimed. ‘She’s married to—’
‘Prepare her, for heaven’s sake. Don’t torture her, my dear Miss Briggs.’
‘She’s married to whom?’ cries the spinster in a nervous fury.
‘To—to a relation of—’
‘She refused Sir Pitt,’ cried the victim. ‘Speak at once. Don’t drive me mad.’
‘O Ma’am—prepare her, Miss Briggs—she’s married to Rawdon Crawley.’
Their double-act works perfectly. Miss Crawley can’t string a sentence together: ‘Rawdon married Rebecca—governess—nobod— Get out of my house, you fool, you idiot—you stupid old Briggs…’ and so on until, Mrs Bute having delivered the coup de grace—‘Her mother was an opera girl, and she has been on the stage or worse herself—’ the old woman ‘gave a final scream, and fell back in a faint.’ Mrs Bute has got her project off to the best possible start… and she builds on it over the next days. She encourages Miss Crawley, who has immediately retired to her bed, to stay there. And through a mixture of treating her as an invalid, telling hair-raising tales of Rawdon’s appalling behaviour over years, and by refusing all letters from the newlyweds, she seems to be winning. She even goes to see Miss Pinkerton in order that she can add lurid details about Becky’s unsavoury background to her appalling secrecy and scheming….
In fact, she almost overdoes it as she gets stuck into Becky and Rawdon’s sinfulness ‘For though she worked up Miss Crawley to a proper dislike of her disobedient nephew, the invalid had a great hatred and secret terror of her victimizer.’ Miss Crawley’s two doctors realise that at this rate, the old woman will be dead of an apoplectic fit within weeks, and a large portion of their income will disappear. One of them warns Mrs Bute to change tack, telling her the old woman needs changes of scene, not the four walls of a sick-room. She doesn’t want to listen, proudly telling him about the sacrifices she’s making—until he reminds her that as things stand, the reprobate nephew will inherit almost everything. She realises the doctor is right, and this moves things on nicely. At first, Mrs Bute tries to avoid the fashionable parks where Rawdon and Becky will be lying in wait. But the old lady hates the dull suburban drives, so the parks it has to be—which means that Becky and Rawdon can start their campaign of making Miss Crawley notice them again. OK, it still hasn’t worked by the end of the sixth instalment, either in London or Brighton, where Mrs Bute takes the old woman to evade them, but it’s early days yet.
In fact, all this only takes up half the fifth instalment, and a single chapter of the sixth. Thackeray spends at least as much time on the way things work in ‘Vanity Fair’, the name he gives to the world of the English middle classes. And in order to do it, he turns his attention to the novel’s other lovers—and, more tellingly, to the way their fathers conduct themselves. He starts with a favourite scene, the auctioning off of most of the worldly goods of a ruined man. (The same scene is played out in Dombey and Son, being published at the same time.) We hardly need the little clues he drops for us that ‘Dives’, his unflattering catch-all name for the newly rich—and, in this case, newly poor—is actually old Sedley. Dobbin is there, bidding for Amelia’s old piano so that he can send it to her at the ‘baby-house’-sized villa of an old employee she and her parents are staying with. Rawdon and Becky are bidding for it too, representatives of another aspect of Vanity Fair—those who live almost entirely on credit.
And, all the while, this narrator is implicating the reader. He’s done it before, just as he’s referred to Vanity Fair before but, in both cases, he does it more than ever in these chapters. At one point, I notice, ‘Vanity Fair’ appears three times in a single paragraph. We often get this sort of thing, as (in this case) the narrator seeks to explain why people turn against those who once did them good, but are now brought low: ‘To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime. It is not that you are selfish, brutal, and angry at the failure of a speculation—no, no—it is that your partner has led you into it by the basest treachery and with the most sinister motives.’
The plot development he’s accounting for is the appalling way old Osborne turns against Sedley, the man who set him up in business in the first place. It goes alongside a raft of other appalling things he and his two daughters are guilty of, all to do with making their way in Vanity Fair. First, he tells George and his sisters they aren’t to mention the Sedleys in his house, and that the engagement to Amelia is off. We watch how the two young women are perfectly happy with this—they always presented Amelia as the empty-headed one they couldn’t understand their brother having any time for—and how George himself, though saddened, is not distraught. Later, in the chapter entitled ‘A Quarrel about an Heiress,’ we read about how the sisters, in the most natural way possible—cue wry jokes about just how natural and therefore unremarkable it is—are instantly on bosom-friend, first-name terms with a rich young woman we’ve met before, at Miss Pinkerton’s. ‘Miss Swartz’—the clue is in the name—is from the Caribbean, the daughter of a German Jew and his black wife…
…and, miraculously, they do not appear to notice her colour at all. But the narrator does, constantly remarking on it and, when Osborne tells George he is to propose to her, so does the young man. (I’m not going to remark on the hilariousness or otherwise of Thackeray’s black characters. The Sedleys’ factotum is, until the crash, a certain Sambo—and we remember the way Sedley had persuaded his wife to accept Becky as a possible daughter-in-law because, well, she just needed to think of the black alternative Jos might find in India.)
And there’s another complication by now. Dobbin, of course, would never drop Amelia like the Osbornes have done, as we see from the way he would have paid any price for the piano. He has visited the Sedleys in Finchley among the other tiny houses—the narrator satirises their smallness, knowing that we perfectly understand that, in fact, it’s the snobbishness of Vanity Fair he’s really satirising—and finds Amelia pining away. ‘Inexpressible grief, and pity, and terror pursued him, and he came away as if he was a criminal after seeing her.’ There’s only one thing he can do, speak to George. He’s in sentimental mood, having been made wretched by the package of little gifts from him to her that her father forces her to return. When Dobbin tells him he has found her he makes ‘hot and anxious inquiries regarding the poor child. How was she? How did she look? What did she say?’ Dobbin’s response seals George’s fate. He looks him in the face and tells her what he firmly believes: ‘“George, she’s dying,” … and could speak no more.’ The next time we see George is when he goes to see Amelia, and their reconciliation is complete.
Good old Dobbin. But how can it end? The main business in the sixth instalment is to do with the complete rift between the two families—presented as a commonplace and perfectly normal state of affairs in this world after a crash, and compounded when Amelia’s now rather pathetic father tells Dobbin he is the one calling the shots by forbidding her any contact with any Osborne. One evening, old Osborne brings the issue to a head, telling George that he will marry Miss Swartz or he will cut him off forever. George refuses, returning to Dobbin to say he would happily marry Amelia next day. The narrator lets us know that her ‘prostration and sweet unrepining obedience exquisitely touched and flattered George Osborne’ so, with Jos Sedley giving Amelia away in an ill-attended ceremony, they do the deed. It couldn’t have happened without the selfless Dobbin, who only does it for Amelia’s sake. He is the ‘constant messenger of Hymen,’ as one chapter title has him, who only longs for the moment when he can see her again. ‘They were married, and happy, he prayed God. Never since he was a boy had he felt so miserable and so lonely.’
And the thing I’m wondering is, what can a clever author do now? Amelia, no more than a ‘child’—the narrator calls her this more than once in these chapters—has chosen the self-centred, snobbish one, while the best man in London pines away…. Thackeray, arch-plotter that he is, has provided himself with a possible solution by the end of the instalment. The same event that has brought Osborne’s sure-fire French investments crashing down—the ‘escape’ of Bonaparte from Elba—also leads, as we’ve always known it would, to the call to arms of our captains’ regiment. I can’t imagine that this author will conveniently and simply kill anybody off… but I might be wrong, and anyway, it’s this sort of speculation that keeps us readers interested. The news of the return to barracks ends the sixth episode.
What else? Plenty. We’ve only caught little glimpses of Becky since her disappearance from Park Lane, always with Rawdon, and always being the perfect ‘hypocritical’ wife to him. In the narrator’s presentation, such hypocrisy is the mark of the best wives, as he tells us in one of those passages where he makes us work hard to unpack the layers of irony. In fact, it’s as though there’s no irony at all, and we might feel wrong-footed. ‘“If he had but a little more brains,” she thought to herself, “I might make something of him;” but she never let him perceive the opinion she had of him…’ and we get a list of the anecdotes of his that she pretends to be enthralled by. She ‘played and sang for him, made him good drinks, superintended his dinner, warmed his slippers, and steeped his soul in comfort. The best of women (I have heard my grandmother say) are hypocrites. … We accept this amiable slavishness, and praise a woman for it: we call this pretty treachery truth. A good housewife is of necessity a humbug.’ Surely he can’t believe this? Except, how can we disagree with a word of it?
Whatever, Rawdon is very pleased with her. In Brighton, where the episode ends, they are living in comfort on the credit he has always been assured of, and especially so now that he has a new ally. ‘He vowed with a great oath that there was no woman in Europe who could talk a creditor over as she could’—‘she’ being Becky, of course. And the presence of George Osborne and Jos Sedley in Brighton, the latter vowing not to have any more games of billiards just now but, Rawdon hopes, probably open to buying a horse from him instead, means that their cash-flow has been eased somewhat. Everybody is in the town, Miss Crawley for the air, Rawdon and Becky for Miss Crawley, George and Amelia for their honeymoon and Jos for the company. And then Dobbin arrives, looking ‘very pale and grave’ because of the news he brings. ‘We’re ordered to Belgium. All the army goes—guards and all.’
VII-VIII, Chapters 23-29
Dobbin gets more space in these chapters than he has before… and why not? Last time, I was calling him the best man in London, and he just keeps on giving. We get no weddings, no new catastrophes—but what we do get are characters tending to confirm everything about them that we already know. Dobbin is more selfless than ever, always feeling guilty he hasn’t done enough for other people. George Osborne really is as careless and arrogant as we’ve always known—while Amelia, baffled by his thoughtless behaviour, really is an innocent child. George takes her for granted until, only a week or two into the marriage—the narrator keeps reminding us how short a time it is—she feels completely lost. ‘Love had been her faith hitherto; and the sad, bleeding disappointed heart began to feel the want of another consoler.’
What we also get are contrasts in characters. And it isn’t only the contrast with Amelia that begins to reveal how much of a monster Becky has become. We could laugh along with her when her victims deserved what she was giving them, but her way of cheating so-called ‘creditors’—mostly tradesmen just trying to make a living—hasn’t been funny for a long time, and the way she blithely suggests to Rawdon that they leave the inn at Brighton without paying is too much even for his flexible moral sense. He pays with some of the winnings George has had to pay him. At the ball in Brussels, and one particular visit to the opera, Amelia is perpetually left stranded by George, who is only interested in cutting a fine figure. By the time Becky has finished with her—and her near-seduction of George is part of her campaign—the humiliation of the young ‘Mrs Osborne’ seems complete. Only the army’s marching orders prevent Becky’s triumph—George can’t follow up the billet-doux he’s passed to Becky at the ball.
But I need to rewind… which is what Thackeray does at the beginning of the seventh instalment. While the others enjoy themselves in Brighton, Dobbin ‘proceeds on his canvass,’ as the subtitle of Chapter 23 has it. Of course, never for his own advancement. ‘What is the secret mesmerism which friendship possesses, and under the operation of which a person … becomes wise, active, and resolute, in another’s behalf?’ Even Dobbin seems to realise he has been his own worst enemy. ‘He felt that George would have parted from Amelia … without a mortal pang. Amelia, too, might have recovered the shock of losing him. It was his counsel had brought about this marriage, and all that was to ensue from it. And why was it? Because he loved her so much that he could not bear to see her unhappy.’
This thought comes later, and whatever his motive had been, it’s too late now. But his determination to help George really does transform him. He decides he will have a better chance bringing round George’s sisters to the idea of the marriage than his father: ‘They can’t be angry in their hearts, thought he. No woman ever was really angry at a romantic marriage.’ The reader, knowing this cynical pair far better than Dobbin does, might not be so sure, and things look tricky when it almost immediately becomes perfectly clear that Jane Osborne, the older one, thinks he’s arrived to make a proposal of his own to her. She knows how the world works, she’s perfectly happy with the idea, and is ‘prepared eagerly to listen.’
Does Dobbin understand his error? His introduction of his real purpose is stumbling at best: ‘it’s not about marriage that I came to speak—that is that marriage—that is—no, I mean—my dear Miss Osborne, it’s about our dear friend George.’ Her reply— ‘About George?’—is ‘said in a tone so discomfited that Maria and Miss Wirt laughed at the other side of the door.’ They are her sister and their equally worldly governess-cum-ladies’ maid, and it seems that no, Dobbin isn’t unaware of why she made her mistake: ‘he was not altogether unconscious of the state of affairs: George having often … said, “Hang it, Will, why don’t you take old Jane? She’ll have you….”’ Dobbin is becoming less clumsy as the novel goes on, it seems—and, perhaps to the reader’s surprise, he manages to persuade Jane that her brother’s marriage really is rather romantic. ‘“Would a man, think you, give you up if you were poor?” This adroit question touched the heart of Miss Jane Osborne not a little….’
Dobbin sees the advantage he’s gained, and tells her (and her sister, listening outside the door) the whole story of the proposal and wedding. After he leaves, her sister and Miss Wirt join Jane, and ‘neither of the sisters was very much displeased. There is something about a runaway match with which few ladies can be seriously angry, and Amelia rather rose in their estimation…. As they debated the story, and prattled about it, and wondered what Papa would do and say.’ We might wonder too, but we’ll never know—it becomes one of Thackeray’s little teases about what might have happened, but didn’t. Frederick Bullock, the son of one of Osborne’s cronies and a clone of the whole bunch of them—he is, or hopes to be, the younger sister’s fiancé—knocks on the door and punctures the bubble. Is it his mentioning of the fortune that will be coming their way if Osborne disowns George—they ‘had never thought of the money question up to that moment’—that makes them forget all their romantic notions? I couldn’t possibly comment.
Dobbin’s work isn’t done yet: ‘having prepared the sisters’—oh dear—‘Dobbin hastened away to the City to perform the rest and more difficult part of the task which he had undertaken.’ The clerks at Osborne’s firm look at him at best patronisingly, and at worst with contempt as he arrives to have words with the old man. He doesn’t notice them—and, when he gets to see George’s father he seems so confident of his ground that the old man thinks he’s about to hear good news. ‘I’m glad you’ve brought him round. I know it’s you, Dobbin. You’ve took him out of many a scrape before. Let him come. I shan’t be hard.’ Oh dear, again. There’s nothing that this ‘ambassador’ for George can do but speak with sincerity and from the best principles—exactly the things that will get nowhere with Osborne. Dobbin reminds him of his former friendship with Sedley, of George’s ‘previous engagements’—which, of course, Osborne pretends not to understand.
It comes to a head when Osborne suggests Amelia would have gone to George’s bed without any marriage. The coarse insult to the love of his life is a trigger. ‘“Sir,” said Dobbin, starting up in undisguised anger; “no man shall abuse that lady in my hearing, and you least of all.”’ Osborne’s response confirms it’s a hopeless case. ‘Stop, let me ring the bell for pistols for two. Mr. George sent you here to insult his father, did he?’ All Dobbin can do is tell Osborne that the woman he’s insulting is now his son’s wife, leaving the old man to sink dumbstruck into his chair. One of his clerks chases after Dobbin. ‘For God’s sake, what is it? … The governor’s in a fit. What has Mr. George been doing?’ And Dobbin tells him.
This chapter is the one ‘in which Mr Osborne Takes Down the Family Bible’, and we can guess where it’s going. Osborne has made his decision, spends the day with his lawyer, and cuts George off from everything except a couple of thousand his mother left him. Looking almost ill with a mixture of anger and something more troubling, he spends a glowering evening with his daughters and Fred Bullock before, alone, he takes down the Bible and does exactly what we would expect. He carefully crosses out George’s name on the page where all family details are written, and puts it back on the shelf of unread books. But, ‘though he said his mind would be easy, the means which he had taken to secure quiet did not seem to have succeeded as yet, and the events of the past two days had visibly shattered him.’ If he weren’t such an unlikeable monster he might be a tragic figure.
In Brighton, you can guess how George receives the news of Dobbin’s lack of success. He reads the lawyer’s letter, which he had assumed would contain good news. He looks ‘savagely’ at Dobbin, spitting out, ‘A pretty way you have managed the affair.’ Soon, he’s apologising for his boorishness, and Dobbin is telling him not to worry… but now George knows the score. He’ll need to live differently now. Dobbin thinks he might, and Amelia thinks they will both manage, but everybody else knows it isn’t going to happen. And it doesn’t.
In fact, Brighton is the location for the rest of the instalment. What to say? No unexpected developments with the new Mr and Mrs Osborne, beyond George being played for a fool by Rawdon Crawley. And by Mrs Crawley. It’s she who makes sure George pays up: ‘Rawdon dear—don’t you think—you’d better get that—money from Cupid, before he goes?’ Cupid, if we hadn’t guessed, is George. She calls him that, and ‘had flattered him about his good looks a score of times already.’ The £140 he owes would have been little more than small change to George all his adult life, because a gentleman never has to think about money. His father has trained him too well for him to have any concept of living according to his means.
We’ve only seen Becky a handful of times since her departure from Miss Crawley’s, but she’s got at least two schemes in place in Brighton. One is to do with making sure Rawdon gets as much as he can from George and Jos Sedley, who has been hanging on to the coat-tails of the most glamorous people he’s ever known. Thackeray lets us see how Becky sets herself up as bait for the gullible George, in order to get him to keep coming to play cards at their fashionable inn. It goes way beyond that, in fact—she seems to be actively seducing him. ‘She brought his cigar and lighted it for him; she knew the effect of that manoeuvre, having practised it in former days upon Rawdon Crawley. He thought her gay, brisk, arch, distinguee, delightful. In their little drives and dinners, Becky, of course, quite outshone poor Emmy…’
…as we see, again and again, in the next instalment. But in Brighton, she also has her eyes on a bigger prize—Miss Crawley. She’s still in thrall to Mrs Bute, who is just about to tighten her iron grip further. She is on the point of getting rid of Briggs and Firkin, when Thackeray gets rid of her instead. He’s tactful enough, this time, not to draw attention to how the plot needs a little shake-up—but what he does is shake Mrs Bute’s husband right out of his saddle. He ‘fell with his horse and broke his collar-bone. Fever and inflammatory symptoms set in, and Mrs. Bute was forced to leave Sussex’—vowing, of course, to return as soon as he’s well enough.
Except everyone is delighted by the turn of events. Miss Crawley can go back to doing what she wants, drinking as much as she wants—and Briggs and Firkin will do what they can to make sure she never lets Mrs Bute back in again. And now, of course, Becky is in with a real chance. She doesn’t just knock on the door, she lies in wait for Briggs, literally, as she takes her customary morning sea-bathe. Becky knows all about it because she’s been keeping her eyes open, and even knows which bathing-box she uses. ‘Rebecca wore a kind, tender smile on her face, and was holding out her pretty white hand as Briggs emerged from the box. What could Briggs do but accept the salutation?’ It gets better, because Becky has planned every move and, ‘with a sudden impulse’—I love that—‘flinging her arms round Briggs, kissed her affectionately.’
During Mrs Bute’s reign of holy terror, Briggs has come to realise that there are worse people than ‘Mrs Crawley,’ as she remembers to call her. And Becky has her way in—but Thackeray isn’t going to make it easy for her. Miss Crawley is worldly enough to know what’s going on, and while she might be willing to see her errant nephew (significantly, without Becky), she isn’t going to forgive and forget. She tells him he will be able draw a sum on her account—and it’s only £20. Becky thinks this is hilarious—maybe Rawdon’s discomfort is enough to offset the inconvenience of being strapped for cash. And anyway, she’s much more interested in getting on with what she’s good at. It isn’t her fault if her presence makes Amelia feel uneasy—but, more than once, the narrator lets us know how Amelia’s mind ‘somehow misgave her about her friend. Rebecca’s wit, spirits, and accomplishments troubled her with a rueful disquiet.’ She might be too unworldly to understand what’s troubling her, but the reader isn’t.
We’re in the eighth instalment now, in London and Chatham to begin with. Everybody in the novel gets on with making their mark in Vanity Fair—George is particularly proud of the smart new outfit he definitely can’t afford—except for Amelia and Dobbin, who don’t know how it works and wouldn’t care, if only it didn’t cause them so much anxiety. I suppose the main thread, both in Chatham and Belgium, is George’s pursuit of—what?—while Amelia suffers and Dobbin looks on, ever more uneasily. While George absents himself, and Becky goes after her own ambitions with unwavering certainty, Amelia has no inner resources to rely on. She ‘took her opinions from those people who surrounded her, such fidelity being much too humble-minded to think for itself.’ Not good, when people are only interested in themselves.
Meanwhile, minor characters like Jos, Fred Bullock in a brief appearance (when George goes to pick up his small legacy) and comic grotesques like ‘Mrs major O’Dowd’ confirm everything we know about Vanity Fair, and are useful for moving things along. Jos, when they do get to Belgium—despite being no more than a hanger-on—dresses like a military man and loves it when his foreign servant calls him ‘my lord.’ Mrs O’Dowd disparages everything she sees because it isn’t Irish, and because no capital city in the world can match the elegance of Dublin. But she is useful to George because she keeps Amelia company while he goes in his thoughtless pursuit of glamour and Rebecca…. And the top British toffs in Belgium for this brief season are the Bareacres, prepared to ‘mingle with the rest of the company whom they met there’ because, as they tell themselves, ‘we needn’t know them in England, you know.’ (They don’t wait, in fact. When George attempts to renew their acquaintance at the ball, he gets a taste of what it feels like to be ignored. The sons of City men shouldn’t ever think they’re really players.)
What’s Becky up to, exactly? She’s in Belgium with Rawdon—the Crawley name has been enough to land him an easy job with the chief of the regiment, far from any fighting, so she knows they’re safe. She focuses on being the woman everybody admires—and much more. At the opera, when George spies her and leaves Amelia on her own, she is making General Tufto very happy. She leaves him for a while, because can—and because she wants to make George think he means something to her. She seems to confirm this when she sees and clearly accepts the billet-doux at the end of the ball. And Thackeray keeps reminding us of her treatment of Amelia, in her shadow and pining because she is almost literally the last person her new husband is thinking about. ‘Women only know how to wound so. There is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon. Our poor Emmy, who had never hated, never sneered all her life, was powerless in the hands of her remorseless little enemy.’
Thank goodness for those marching orders. Even trivial-minded, superficial George is brought up short by the thought of what might happen. Walking back to the hotel, where Amelia has returned hours ago, he is ashamed of himself. ‘He thought over his brief married life. In those few weeks he had frightfully dissipated his little capital. How wild and reckless he had been! Should any mischance befall him: what was then left for her? How unworthy he was of her.’ Well, yes—but I’m not at all convinced. Amelia pretends to be asleep, and ‘he could see her sweet, pale face…. Good God! how pure she was; how gentle, how tender, and how friendless! and he, how selfish, brutal, and black with crime!’ Yes, again—but something big is going to have to happen at Waterloo to transform him into somebody worthwhile.
I mentioned contrasts earlier, and there’s always been Dobbin showing what true honour, love and selflessness are about. It isn’t about feeling bad for being a bit thoughtless. These instalments, for me, have been darker in tone than anything earlier—old Osborne’s self-destructive vindictiveness, Becky’s total disregard for everybody, George’s immaturity and self-centredness—and I wonder where Thackeray is going to take it. It’s still a comic novel—it has far more of the features of farce than of tragedy—but it’s looking into some very murky corners.
IX, Chapters 30-32
Some time ago, I was wondering about Amelia. She had ‘chosen the self-centred, snobbish one, while the best man in London pines away…. I can’t imagine that this author will conveniently and simply kill anybody off.’ Hah. Here is George on the field at Waterloo, ‘lying on his face, dead.’ Unsurprisingly, the ‘bullet through his heart’ is a big enough event to bring the ninth instalment to a close, and I’m pausing there.
Sometimes the convenient solutions are the best, I suppose, Thackeray leaving himself free to grapple with the task of bringing Amelia round to the idea of Dobbin. He, Thackeray, was never going to manage it with George around, but even with him gone it’s going to be a huge task. When he places Amelia and Rebecca side-by-side, it has never been simply to show Rebecca in a poor light by comparison. In fact, Amelia has often been presented as something of a fool, to expend all her love on one man—not because he is vain, selfish and arrogant but because it’s little more than a quick fix for the life of the emotions. And it’s been made absolutely plain—Thackeray is explicit about it—that it doesn’t work.
The first crisis had come when George stopped seeing her following her father’s bankruptcy. Under socially-imposed (or Vanity Fair-imposed) house arrest in Fulham, she pines away. ‘Her heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise. … How many suspicions of selfishness and indifference had she to encounter and obstinately overcome…’ and so on. All she can do now is make excuses for this unworthy man, knowing (at some level) that she is deceiving herself by doing it: ‘she had misgivings and fears which she dared not acknowledge to herself, though she was always secretly brooding over them.’
Dobbin rescues her, because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Like Amelia, he makes a life-choice and sticks by it, putting an end to Amelia’s unhappiness by bringing George back to her. Again like Amelia, he has to deny what he really knows in order to convince himself his choice really was the right one. And just as Amelia is going to be punished for her wrong-headed faith in George, so is Dobbin. He has to watch as George marries the woman that he, Dobbin, knows he doesn’t love as much as he does. And then they both have to watch as George carries on behaving as selfishly and thoughtlessly as he always has. Dobbin can remonstrate with George, as he has done all their lives, but it gets him nowhere. Thackeray is happy for us to speculate, alongside Dobbin, that Amelia would probably have recovered from the loss had he not intervened.
It brings on the second crisis for Amelia. This is all to do with the way Rebecca never thinks twice about tempting George into her own company, and Amelia’s growing unhappiness about it. It starts in Brighton, leading to that unformed sense of unease in Amelia, and it never stops until those snatched moments before he marches off to his death. We’ve seen how, by the end of the eighth instalment, Amelia’s unhappiness is almost complete. She doesn’t know about the billet-doux—Rebecca is able to confirm this for herself when she visits Amelia—which, of course, means that she doesn’t know that George’s betrayal was complete. But Rebecca knows, and wonders how she might at some future time be able to make use of the little note which, of course, she has kept.
Except, most unexpectedly for Rebecca, she is made to come face-to-face with the enormity of her own betrayal. It’s during that same visit to Amelia, which becomes one of the most crucial set-piece encounters of the novel. For the first time in her life, Amelia lets another person know that their behaviour towards her is unacceptable. ‘His love was everything to me. You knew it, and wanted to rob me of it. For shame, Rebecca; bad and wicked woman—false friend and false wife.’ My goodness. For her part, Rebecca resorts to the literal truth: ‘Amelia, I protest before God, I have done my husband no wrong’—but we know as well as she does that only the marching orders prevented it. She is delighted that Amelia doesn’t contradict her—‘She knows nothing, Rebecca thought’—and the conversation nearly ends there.
But it doesn’t, quite. Amelia, in a way we’ve never seen before, shows the kind of passion for George that Rebecca has never seen either, and ‘before which the latter was quite dumb.’ She is seeing in Amelia she has never felt in herself—I’ll come back to how Thackeray demonstrates this—unconditional love for another human being. ‘“You took him away. Are you come to fetch him from me?” she continued in a wilder tone. “He was here, but he is gone now. There on that very sofa he sat. Don’t touch it. We sat and talked there. I was on his knee, and my arms were round his neck, and we said ‘Our Father.’ Yes, he was here: and they came and took him away, but he promised me to come back.”’ The thought settles her, and Rebecca leaves. But she is chastened: ‘Rebecca walked, too, silently away. “There should be somebody with her… I think she is very unwell”: and she went away with a very grave face.’
It might be a crucial moment, the beginning of some kind of growth for both of them, but it isn’t transformative. Amelia does not do well as the noise from two battles reaches the city, alongside rumours—fed by deserting Belgians—of imminent defeat for the British and their allies. We see little of her, sequestered away with the only person in Brussels who seems capable of looking after her, Mrs O’Dowd. Jos is comically useless as he concentrates all his energy on finding a way out—and Rebecca has realised she had better not come anywhere near her again. Instead, she does the other thing she’s good at, not seduction this time but making careful calculations about how she is going to survive.
She starts early, as she talks to Jos in the hotel before she goes to Amelia’s room. Thackeray turns her utterly cynical manipulation of Jos into a comedy set piece to set alongside the drama of the conversation with Amelia that follows it. We have seen how calmly she responds to Rawdon having left, in direct contrast with his own genuine feelings of loss at the parting. She has a good few hours’ sleep, but with Jos it’s convenient for her to pretend otherwise. ‘You men can bear anything.… Parting or danger are nothing to you.’ This nonsense is normal for her, and she carries on with more of it. ‘Own now that you were going to join the army and leave us to our fate. I was so frightened, when the thought came into my head … that I ran off immediately to beg and entreat you not to fly from us.’
Thackeray clearly feels he can dispense with his usual ironic tone: ‘This speech might be interpreted, “My dear sir, should an accident befall the army, and a retreat be necessary, you have a very comfortable carriage, in which I propose to take a seat.”’ The gloves have been off for some time as far as his presentation of Rebecca is concerned—he has been casting her in a very dim light since Brighton at least. Now this… and, as she hears the same rumours as everyone else, he lets us know precisely how scheming she is. Not only does she calculate to the nearest pound every item of decent clothing of Rawdon’s, and every item of jewellery of her own; after she has sold Rawdon’s horses at an extortionate price to Jos—Brussels in a panic is the epitome of the seller’s market—she contemplates what life will be like for a well set-up widow in Europe.
We await with interest what the next instalment will bring. George left Amelia with enough hope following that final parting for her to be thoroughly devastated by his death. Meanwhile, I’m guessing that Rebecca is going to have to recalibrate her calculations, because I can’t imagine Rawdon getting a bullet through the heart too. She has been feeling something like contempt for him for some time, not that he has a clue about it, so it will be interesting to watch. And so will Dobbin, last heard of making sure all the wounded of his company would be safely lodged in Brussels before his return. A novel without a hero? I don’t think so.
X, Chapters 33-35
As Thackeray reaches the half-way point, there’s a definite sense of him moving things on to the next stage. It’s a process he started in the previous instalment, and I don’t only mean through George’s death. Amelia, slowly slowly, seems to be on the way towards learning how to become an adult. Dobbin goes beyond merely being the unthinking, pining lover Amelia will seemingly never recognise. Rebecca… what about Rebecca? She has turned her money-making schemes and scams into a career, and it’s made her far from lovable. But there’s that tiny sign, following Amelia’s unanswerable tirade, that she is not without some moral understanding.
But that was then, and time passes. Rawdon has gained himself great honours, and a position as Lieutenant Colonel, and his new fame and Rebecca’s charms make them the darlings of Parisian society. I’ll come back to that—and to Amelia, who disappears into her grief for two chapters until the birth of baby George. They come later, because Thackeray returns to the ‘number of persons living peaceably in England who have to do with the history at present in hand.’ He’s talking almost exclusively about the Crawley family, and particularly the way all of them but Sir Pitt want to keep reminding Miss Crawley of their existence.
It’s cynical stuff, dealt with in this narrator’s default tone of transparent irony. ‘Miss Crawley’s relatives afar off did not forget their beloved kinswoman, and by a number of tokens, presents, and kind affectionate messages, strove to keep themselves alive in her recollection.’ This is in the context of a description of how she’s been getting on since the departure of Mrs Bute. ‘The spinster had … rallied considerably; as was proved by the increased vigour and frequency of her sarcasms upon Miss Briggs…’ which leads to a worldly discourse by our narrator about the particular cruelties of women towards one another. I’m sure papers have been written about the way he keeps coming back to this: George’s sisters to Amelia, Rebecca to Amelia, Rebecca to Briggs, Miss Crawley to Briggs…. There are definite victims in this little female world of Thackeray’s, suffering ‘those daily repeated shafts of scorn and cruelty with which poor women are riddled by the tyrants of their sex.’ I’m mentioning it because, maybe, Amelia will one day break out of the loop. Maybe.
There’s other stuff going on within the Crawley family, and it must be important because Thackeray spends most of two chapters on it. While Sir Pitt is making a fool of himself with Miss Horrocks, the butler’s daughter—Mrs Bute is mortified by the idea that he will marry her—his oldest son, Pitt Crawley, is inveigling his way into his aunt’s company. Like Mrs Bute, Pitt is highly religious, and is always certain of the rightness of his own behaviour. He wouldn’t dream of using his long-term closeness to a noble family in Brighton, and the widowed Lady Southdown to whose dreary daughter he is engaged, to give him an entrée. But her Ladyship is a writer of improving tracts and, as he is concerned for the eternal soul of his aunt—yes, we’re there again—it is only right that they should be introduced. There’s another daughter, who takes her mother’s evangelical ways to an extreme, and the ‘diplomatic’ Pitt—he really was in politics once—decides she won’t be necessary for the first introduction.
It could not go better. Unsurprisingly, the old woman isn’t hugely taken by her Ladyship, but she sees Lady Jane, the daughter, as a new diversion. Miss Crawley likes them passive—Becky was the only exception, it seems, and she made up for it in a hundred other ways—and ‘she had taken a liking at first sight, as she always did for pretty and modest young people.’ She tells Pitt to bring her again, but not her mother, who is ‘stupid and pompous, like all your mother’s family, whom I never could endure.’ During one of these later visits Lady Jane nails it. The old woman had been wishing she knew someone who would play piquet with her and, after blushing ‘to the tips of little her ears,’ Lady Jane admits that she does.
Meanwhile, back in the rectory, Mrs Bute has been haranguing her husband for the riding accident that put an end to all her hopes. She has no way back into the aunt’s house because she’s hated by everybody below stairs as well as above, and the only possible envoy might be their son, currently studying at Oxford. We know from the title of the chapter that it’s a mistake: ‘James Crawley’s Pipe Is Put Out.’ James is the typical Oxford student in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair universe. Miss Crawley finds most of his bad habits rather refreshing, and Pitt’s efforts to get him so drunk on port and madeira that he will make a fool of himself come to nothing. But…
…he does himself in. The bill at the low-life inn where he had spent his first night includes a vast amount of gin, consumed mostly, in fact, by his low-life acquaintances—‘Had he drunk a dozen bottles of claret, the old spinster could have pardoned him’—but that alone wouldn’t have been the end. But James, drunk, lights a pipe upstairs, forgetting that the draught will take the hated smoke all the way to Miss Crawley’s nostrils. ‘The pipe of tobacco finished the business: and the Bute-Crawleys never knew how many thousand pounds it cost them.’ By the end of the chapter, Pitt and Lady Jane are married, are living with Miss Crawley, and are the main beneficiaries of her will. Lady Southdown, living next door, is in charge, so Pitt suffers ‘the humours of his aunt on one side, and of his mother-in-law on the other.’ And, perhaps surprisingly, Thackeray lets us know it’s all up for Miss Crawley. ‘Peace to thee, kind and selfish, vain and generous old heathen!—We shall see thee no more.’
Before this, we have been taken to Paris to see how the other Mr and Mrs Crawley are getting on. Very well indeed, of course, and Thackeray can add some international features of Vanity Fair to those that we saw in Brussels. Becky is a big hit with the French aristos, many of whom spent a couple of decades in England following the revolution. One of them says she knew Miss Crawley, and thinks she’s doing Becky a favour by sending a letter of recommendation. Inevitably, it has the opposite effect from what she had hoped—the Frenchwoman had not made a lot of friends in England, not that she realised this—and she receives a frosty reply. As ‘the Duchess of X … had only been twenty years in England, she did not understand a single word of the language,’ and she tells Becky it ‘was full of benevolent things for Mrs. Crawley, who began seriously to have hopes that the spinster would relent.’ The old woman’s decision to make Pitt the main beneficiary comes soon after.
Then comes the final chapter of the instalment, ‘Widow and Mother.’ This refers to Amelia, of course, but it’s as much about old Sedley as it is about her. And, more than ever, he would be tragic if he wasn’t so dreadful—if Thackeray has given him any redeeming features I haven’t spotted them. His brooding temperament is, unsurprisingly, made only more so by the news of George’s death, and he finds it intolerable that ‘his son should have gone out of the reach of his forgiveness, or that the apology which his own pride expected should have escaped him.’ He’s an unattractive figure because, among other things, all his actions are governed by his pride. His son might have been estranged from him, but show demands that his daughters, if not he, should wear full and expensive mourning, as should all the servants. Soon, in the local church, appears one of the sad little memorials put up by parents at the time. Thackeray mocks how the walls of St Paul’s, for instance, ‘are covered with hundreds of these braggart heathen allegories.’
He’s like a lost soul. He makes his way to Belgium, throwing his guineas around to get soldiers to show him where his son was killed and where he is buried. As ever in Vanity Fair, all that anybody is interested in is how they can squeeze more money out of him—the first soldier having told his pals ‘what a free-handed generous gentleman he was.’ Fine—not that he gains any comfort from seeing his son’s grave in unconsecrated ground. ‘It seemed a humiliation to old Osborne to think that his son, an English gentleman, a captain in the famous British army, should not be found worthy to lie in ground where mere foreigners were buried.’ Unsurprisingly, this man ‘did not speculate much upon the mingled nature of his feelings, and how his instinct and selfishness were combating together.’ Thackeray goes much further, describing how it is men like Osborne who hold sway in the world. ‘He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?’ We’re still asking the question in 2020.
His catching sight of Amelia, in Jos’s carriage and escorted by Dobbin, has no positive effect on him. ‘Her face was white and thin. Her pretty brown hair was parted under a widow’s cap—the poor child. Her eyes were fixed, and looking nowhere. They stared blank in the face of Osborne.’ Dobbin rides after him, and achieves nothing by giving him a letter from George, and telling him that his son’s last plea to him before the battle was to look after Amelia: ‘I don’t know his widow, sir. Let her go back to her father.’ Dobbin stays calm, and tells Osborne how much she has suffered. And more: ‘She will be a mother soon. Will you visit the parent’s offence upon the child’s head? or will you forgive the child for poor George’s sake?’
Guess which of these Osborne chooses, after his ‘rhapsody of self-praise and imprecations.’ (Such things existed before Twitter, clearly.) So, in time—Thackeray fast-forwards through the months of Amelia’s hopelessness and despair—after she gives birth to George’s son she is living with her parents in Fulham. Her life is saved by the child: ‘What a miracle it was to hear its first cry! How she laughed and wept over it—how love, and hope, and prayer woke again in her bosom as the baby nestled there. She was safe.’ If this were a Dickens novel, I think we could take this at face value: Amelia had been lost, but now she is saved. But his is Thackeray, and it’s impossible not to read it, at one level at least, as Amelia’s limited nature manifesting itself again. What do people like her do in a crisis? Find a new fix to make up for the one they’ve lost.
This is the new obstacle for Dobbin, to replace the one that had been so strangely (and conveniently) removed by that bullet through George’s heart. Amelia is doing that thing we’re familiar with from a lot of 19th Century novels, regarding the would-be lover with the deepest sisterly affection possible. For six months Dobbin comes to visit, several times a week, and Thackeray is explicit about what it obviously means: ‘I suppose Amelia’s father and mother saw through the intentions of the Major, and were not ill-disposed to encourage him….’ But his intentions are opaque to the only person in the world who matters, and when he tells the little daughter of the landlord that he wants to speak to Amelia alone, she ‘looked up rather astonished, and laid down the infant on its bed.’
We’re reaching the end of the instalment, but if we’re guessing we might know what he needs to tell her in private, we’re wrong.
‘I am come to say good-bye, Amelia,’ said he, taking her slender little white hand gently.
‘Good-bye? and where are you going?’ she said, with a smile.
‘Send the letters to the agents,’ he said; ‘they will forward them; for you will write to me, won’t you? I shall be away a long time.’
‘I’ll write to you about Georgy,’ she said. ‘Dear William, how good you have been to him and to me. Look at him. Isn’t he like an angel?’
And if that little exchange hasn’t convinced us that one monomania has been replaced by another, her final words as he leaves surely must: ‘Hush! Don’t wake Georgy!’ The instalment ends with Dobbin’s cab clattering away, unheard, because ‘she was looking at the child, who was laughing in his sleep.’
XI-XII, Chapters 36-42
Now, beyond the halfway point, Thackeray moves things on more briskly. Seven years have passed by the end of these chapters and, mostly, everything we’ve learnt in the first half is confirmed as we move into the second. Becky Sharpe is ruthless and manipulative—even though somehow, after we’ve given her up as no better than a crook, Thackeray reminds us that she’s far and away the most interesting character in Vanity Fair. Meanwhile Amelia is still one of the most dull, not that it stops young men from buzzing around her whenever she makes one of her rare appearances out of doors. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two people who develop in any way. Rawdon still defers to Becky on every important matter, but he is determined to show their son the kind of affection that she is incapable of. If he has to do it half-secretly, so be it…. And meanwhile his brother Pitt, having received all but a few thousand of their aunt’s capital, then comes into his full inheritance. He’s Sir Pitt now, the old one only becoming more like his rakish self than ever until a stroke brings him down.
Even more than ever (if that’s possible), it’s all about money. Chapters 36 and 37 are ‘How to Live Well on Nothing a Year,’ a mock self-help idea that had passed into common usage long before I first read the book. There’s nothing admirable about Mr and Mrs Crawley in these two chapters. We only hear about their lives second-hand as it were, from a narrator who doesn’t want us to be seduced into condoning their behaviour. In Paris, where they stay on for three years or more, Rebecca carries on with her well-practised method of attracting the young men in—in the very act of pretending to warn them away, of course—while Rawdon takes their money at the card table. But this, and the Opera, and the same old faces become a bore. Besides, their reputation is suffering….
We find out how Rebecca paves the way for their return to London by offering a small fraction of what they owe to their creditors—lawyers can only gasp at the way they are left with no choice but to accept it, or nothing at all—but again, Thackeray only tells us about it. We aren’t there, in the room, as she outmanoeuvres them. It’s only later, when she is just as diligent in outmanoeuvring the Pitt Crawleys (in order to re-establish herself and Rawdon with the only people who could help Rawdon’s career), that we can’t help but be impressed. She is tireless.
But that’s much further on. In the ‘Nothing a Year’ chapters, Thackeray wants to remind us of something he made plain in a much earlier instalment, as she and Rawdon left unpaid bills in Brighton: the losers are hard-working people who don’t deserve it. It might seem that he is going to make light of it, for instance by presenting the plight of the Parisian hotel owner as a mocking anecdote—he would forever after bore everyone around him with the story of the cheating English who came close to ruin him…
…but he takes a very different tack with the family they cheat out of their livelihood in London. After some pages of describing how a former servant and cook had saved carefully all their lives, he takes us through the painstaking stages of their slow accretion of enough money to buy a high-status, furnished house. We know what’s coming when the butler-turned-shopkeeper lets the house to Mr and Mrs Crawley, but not the cruelty of it. ‘He was a good man; good and happy.’ But he ‘loved and adored the Crawley family as the author of all his prosperity,’ and that’s his downfall. Thackeray makes no bones about it: ‘the poor wretch was utterly ruined by the transaction, his children being flung on the streets, and himself driven into the Fleet Prison: yet somebody must pay even for gentlemen who live for nothing a year….’ Oh yes. Not many people in this book are described as ‘good’—I can’t think of any, in fact—and this is what happens to good people in Vanity Fair. It’s Thackeray’s most straightforward moral point yet. Meanwhile, I haven’t even mentioned how Rebecca farms out her new-born to a wet-nurse, and even when he lives at home with them in London she only ever visits him, in all her pomp, a couple of times a week. We’re not very fond of Rebecca at this point.
Meanwhile, the Sedley family have carried on being themselves too. Amelia is still besotted with Georgy in such a perfectly opposite way from Rebecca’s aloof indifference to young Rawdon that we know Thackeray wants us to notice. Whilst Rebecca’s lack of response seems inhuman, Amelia’s infatuation with the boy who seems more like his father every day has stopped her from any kind of adult development. At the same time, we can’t help noticing how Rebecca’s calculation of every last detail of the relationship she has with anybody contrasts with Amelia’s brand of guilelessness that really, really doesn’t do her any favours. Maybe the point of these contrasts is to highlight the danger of extremes. Sociopath or moron? There might be a middle way.
If Georgy is the absolute core of Amelia’s life—and he is exactly that—there are things happening around the edges of it that even she can’t help noticing occasionally. Young Rawdon and Georgy meet in the park, with old Sedley accompanying—Thackeray setting something up for later, no doubt, because it isn’t the only time the two boys meet in these instalments—and, a long way in the background, is poor Dobbin. Sedley is made suspicious by the close way Dobbin, from a distance, has been managing what was left of George Osborne’s money. It turns out, of course, that Dobbin has sent many times George’s pitiful £100 over the years. Amelia knows nothing of this. To her the arrival of ‘George’s’ money is as unremarkable as the sun rising, simply one of those things that just happen.
Dobbin. His heroism, far offstage—he’s been posted to some absurdly-named station in India—isn’t all that links him to Amelia. She hears through his sisters, who have always hated the way such an empty-headed young woman as she is can be so much more popular than they are, let her know that Dobbin is going to marry ‘Glorvina O’Dowd … who had gone out to join Lady O’Dowd at Madras—a very beautiful and accomplished girl, everybody said.’ I’ll bet they did. Amelia takes the news as you would expect from her type of self-effacing , know-nothing romantic heroine. One of the things she knows nothing of is her own interior life—shades of the sisterly love Florence thinks she feels for Walter in Dombey and Son—so she thinks she is happy for him…
…but the narrator, and the reader, know better: ‘Amelia was very happy indeed. But she supposed Glorvina could not be like her old acquaintance, who was most kind—but—but she was very happy indeed. And by some impulse of which I cannot explain the meaning, she took George in her arms and kissed him with an extraordinary tenderness. Her eyes were quite moist when she put the child down; and she scarcely spoke a word during the whole of the drive—though she was so very happy indeed.’ Oh yes. And we might remember how Amelia keeps two dates sacred, the anniversaries of her wedding to the man little George resembles so much, and of his death. What was I saying about her not being able to develop into proper adulthood? She has laid down some strict markers for herself, and nothing anybody does will move her from them. The only time we see her angry in these chapters—it’s only the second time in her life—is when her mother dares to give the little boy some medicine that Amelia doesn’t like. Her mother’s no better than Amelia herself—it leads to a lifelong resentment on her part.
Enough of the Sedleys. Once old Sir Pitt is dead, Rebecca sees a chance to make something of Rawdon. He, Rawdon, can’t understand her glee when she hears of it—he had expected that she, like him, wouldn’t even want to attend the funeral. But she sees it, as the title of Chapter 41 has it, as a way to revisit ‘the Halls of Her Ancestors.’ Her ancestors? It’s astonishing how some well-placed mentions of ‘my brother’ and ‘my sister’ can suddenly appear in a person’s conversation—but it’s her way of ingratiating herself with the right people that marks her out. And this time, Thackeray takes us through it step-by-step. How to get on the right side of Pitt’s fanatically religious mother-in-law, who had threatened to leave the house if Rebecca entered it? A few carefully placed references to some of the awful tracts she had lent her in Brighton, a willingness to play Handel and sing the right hymns, a sincere regard for the old woman’s advice, and an equally sincere gratitude for having been shown the correct path in life…. Such nonsense is second nature to her. First nature, if there is such a thing.
It’s absurd, of course, but we’re happy to go along with it because the old countess really is such a pompous fool. As is Pitt, who Becky had always kept onside during her time as governess by pretending to take him seriously, all she has to do now is carry on in the same vein. He has made a definite decision to be the noble paterfamilias, letting even his mother-in-law that he’s the head of the family now. But he’s still easy prey for Rebecca, because he’s as vain a he ever was, despite his newly-polished self-image. (As I think about it, I’ve changed my mind about his development as a character. He’s as bad as ever.) For her, there are harder things in life than spending comfortable days, that turn into weeks, with nothing to do but sew, chat and play the part of the upstanding, Christian, upper class woman. Thackeray allows her to be the mouthpiece for some subversive thoughts. It’s easy if you’re rich, she thinks, starting off wistfully: ‘I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year….’
This isn’t just a witty observation, because Thackeray has her turn it into a serious point concerning money and morality. ‘This is what the conjurors here pride themselves upon doing. They look down with pity upon us miserable sinners who have none. They think themselves generous if they give our children a five-pound note, and us contemptible if we are without one.’ These are her words, but now the author joins in: ‘And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations—and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman?’ This doesn’t work, of course—Rebecca might be ‘right in her speculations,’ but she is dishonest not because she’s poor but because she wants to live well on nothing—but the point has been made. And whilst this narrator might feel duty-bound to make light of it—‘An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carriage to steal a leg of mutton’—the poor are nonetheless real, and injustice exists in Vanity Fair: ‘put him to starve, and see if he will not purloin a loaf.’
Money. As I said, it’s everywhere in these instalments, and a final chapter focused on the Osborne family is all about how a relentless pursuit of it does not lead to joy. Maria is married, as expected, to Fred Bullock, and you should just hear how close the Bullocks came to calling the whole thing off when they thought the marriage portion was too small. It gives Jane, the other daughter, the opportunity to ‘condole,’ to use the Vanity Fair term for the crowing that Thackeray loves to satirise in women. ‘“I always told you, Maria, that it was your money he loved and not you,” she said, soothingly.’ And it gives Fred the chance to say the right thing, convincing nobody. ‘It was his father, he said, who would not hear of the match, and had made the difficulties; he was most anxious to keep the engagement.’
But this is nothing compared to the misery of her father and sister. He, like almost everybody else, has become more and more entrenched in his own dour nature, always suspecting the worst of everybody, seeking only status, and having to bear a round of dinner parties with dull men and their wives because he doesn’t get invited to the higher-class parties his married daughter can put on with the better-placed Bullocks. Meanwhile ‘Jane Osborne scarcely ever met a man under sixty,’ and her life is utterly dull. Only one thing ever happened ‘to disturb the monotony of this awful existence … a secret in poor Jane’s life which had made her father more savage and morose than even nature, pride, and over-feeding had made him’. It had been the art teacher, encouraged by the companion, and after Osborne has thrown out both him and Miss Wirt, Jane is on her own and without a hope of ever marrying.
It’s a kind of living hell for both of them, and there seems no hope of any kind of redemption. Except, at the very end of the chapter, there’s a tiny possibility of—of what? Jane has been out and seems upset as she sits silently, as usual, with her father at their lonely dinner. Even he, in a better mood than usual because of a killing he’s made on the markets that day, can’t help but notice. ‘“What’s the matter, Miss Osborne?” he deigned to say. “Oh, sir,” she said, “I’ve seen little George. He is as beautiful as an angel—and so like him!” The old man opposite to her did not say a word, but flushed up and began to tremble in every limb.’ All these years later, Osborne never speaks of his son, whose portrait lies unseen in some garret in the house. Maybe something’s got to give at last.