[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 four instalments.]
26 May 2020
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.