Miss Swartz, the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt's, on the day Amelia went away, she was in such a passion of tears that they were obliged to send for Dr. Floss, and half tipsify her with sal volatile [...] Miss Jemima had already whimpered several times at the idea of Amelia's departure; and, but for fear of her sister, would have gone off in downright hysterics, like the heiress (who paid double) of St. Kitt's. Such luxury of grief, however, is only allowed to parlour-boarders. (1.25)
From the very beginning, it's amazing how complex the social ranking of each character is. Here, we've got the mixed-race orphan heiress. She is half-Jewish, half-Jamaican, which lowers her standing (in that racist and anti-Semitic time). However, she is super-rich, which is a social plus, so she is allowed to come to this elite school and allowed special treatment (the doctor, the excess tears). But of course, she has to pay double for this privilege, reinforcing her inferior position.
The humble calling of her female parent Miss Sharp never alluded to, but used to state subsequently that the Entrechats were a noble family of Gascony, and took great pride in her descent from them. And curious it is that as she advanced in life this young lady's ancestors increased in rank and splendour. (2.12)
Though Becky might not allude to it, the narrator does – an "entrechat" is a kind of ballet leap. It may help to realize that at this time, female dancers were considered only a step or two from being prostitutes (see, for example, Degas's paintings of ballerinas).
[Dobbin's] parent was a grocer in the city: and it was bruited abroad that he was admitted into Dr. Swishtail's academy upon what are called "mutual principles"--that is to say, the expenses of his board and schooling were defrayed by his father in goods, not money; [...] The jokes were frightful, and merciless against him. "Hullo, Dobbin," one wag would say, "here's good news in the paper. Sugars is ris', my boy." Another would set a sum--"If a pound of mutton-candles cost sevenpence-halfpenny, how much must Dobbin cost?" and a roar would follow from all the circle of young knaves, usher and all, who rightly considered that the selling of goods by retail is a shameful and infamous practice, meriting the contempt and scorn of all real gentlemen. (5.1-2)
So the class system is so ingrained and important that even kids know the drill and can use it as bullying fodder. There are two funny/ironic things here: 1) England would collapse if not for its merchant class at this time (the 19th century was a time of huge capitalist expansion); and 2) it's Dobbin's dad's awesome tradesman skills that eventually earn him a title.
The argument stands thus--Osborne, in love with Amelia, has asked an old friend to dinner and to Vauxhall--Jos Sedley is in love with Rebecca. Will he marry her? That is the great subject now in hand. We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner. Suppose we had laid the scene in Grosvenor Square, with the very same adventures--would not some people have listened? Suppose we had shown how Lord Joseph Sedley fell in love, and the Marquis of Osborne became attached to Lady Amelia, with the full consent of the Duke, her noble father: or instead of the supremely genteel, suppose we had resorted to the entirely low, and described what was going on in Mr. Sedley's kitchen--how black Sambo was in love with the cook (as indeed he was), and how he fought a battle with the coachman in her behalf; how the knife-boy was caught stealing a cold shoulder of mutton, and Miss Sedley's new femme de chambre refused to go to bed without a wax candle; such incidents might be made to provoke much delightful laughter, and be supposed to represent scenes of "life." Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible, and made the lover of the new femme de chambre a professional burglar, who bursts into the house with his band, slaughters black Sambo at the feet of his master, and carries off Amelia in her night-dress, not to be let loose again till the third volume, we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall. (6.1-2)
It's interesting that Thackeray is pretending that different literary genres would be set on different rungs of the social ladder. Of course, we know that this story actually will at some point feature lords and even a marquis and still will "provoke delightful laughter." At the same time, it will have moments of "thrilling interest" without being set in the servants' chambers. Why then this aside about how tone and rank have to go together?
"Why should I spare him?" Osborne said to his friend's remonstrances, when they quitted the invalid [Jos], leaving him under the hands of Doctor Gollop. "What the deuce right has he to give himself his patronizing airs, and make fools of us at Vauxhall? Who's this little schoolgirl that is ogling and making love to him? Hang it, the family's low enough already, without HER. A governess is all very well, but I'd rather have a lady for my sister-in-law. I'm a liberal man; but I've proper pride, and know my own station: let her know hers." (6.46)
Nice, right? This is our second sharp look at exactly who this George Osborne fellow is. First, Becky catches him looking at himself admiringly in the mirror, and now he's a little too high and mighty to have her for a relative.
But this did not alter Mrs. Blenkinsop's opinion of Miss Sharp. "I don't trust them governesses, Pinner," she remarked to the maid. "They give themselves the hairs and hupstarts of ladies, and their wages is no better than you nor me." (6.73)
This kind of becomes a universal theme in British literature – where do governesses fit in the social ladder? They're kind of like servants, but not really. They're not really moms or wives, but kind of. Check out Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Mary Poppins for some examples of this ambiguity.
Rebecca had never seen a Baronet, as far as she knew, and [...] she began to depict in her own mind what a Baronet must be. "I wonder, does he wear a star?" thought she, "or is it only lords that wear stars? But he will be very handsomely dressed in a court suit, with ruffles, and his hair a little powdered, like Mr. Wroughton at Covent Garden. I suppose he will be awfully proud, and that I shall be treated most contemptuously. Still I must bear my hard lot as well as I can--at least, I shall be amongst GENTLEFOLKS, and not with vulgar city people" [...] When the bell was rung [at the Crawley mansion in London], a head appeared between the interstices of the dining-room shutters, and the door was opened by a man in drab breeches and gaiters, with a dirty old coat, a foul old neckcloth lashed round his bristly neck, a shining bald head, a leering red face, a pair of twinkling grey eyes, and a mouth perpetually on the grin. (7.8-10)
So it's obviously hilarious that this gross old man whom Becky takes to be some kind of under-servant turns out to actually be Sir Pitt himself. It's interesting that although often the reader is looking at the characters from above and laughing at them along with the narrator, in this passage we are right there with Becky wondering about the extremely grand personage we're about to meet. It's a clever shift of point of view that makes the final joke funnier and also gets at the reader's own fascination with and awe of the aristocracy. (We have to be able to think like Becky to go along with her here).
"Is he a presentable sort of a person?" the aunt [Miss Crawley] inquired.
"Presentable?--oh, very well. You wouldn't see any difference," (14.77-78)
An excellent summary of the "looks and manners" style of being a gentleman that George Osborne represents. He can pass for genteel without a hitch.
"Do you suppose a man of my habits can live on his pay and a hundred a year?" George cried out in great anger. "You must be a fool to talk so, Dobbin. How the deuce am I to keep up my position in the world upon such a pitiful pittance? I can't change my habits. I must have my comforts. I wasn't brought up on porridge, like MacWhirter, or on potatoes, like old O'Dowd. Do you expect my wife to take in soldiers' washing, or ride after the regiment in a baggage waggon?" (25.15)
Just so we're clear, Amelia, her mother, her father, and George Jr. end up living on about 100 pounds a year, and it's clearly a pretty poor existence for people used to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Still, this is meant to be an obnoxious statement that indicts George as a petty, entitled jerk.
The sight of the very great company of lords and ladies and fashionable persons who thronged the town, and appeared in every public place, filled George's truly British soul with intense delight. They flung off that happy frigidity and insolence of demeanour which occasionally characterises the great at home, and appearing in numberless public places, condescended to mingle with the rest of the company whom they met there. One night at a party given by the general of the division to which George's regiment belonged, he had the honour of dancing with Lady Blanche Thistlewood, Lord Bareacres' daughter; he bustled for ices and refreshments for the two noble ladies; he pushed and squeezed for Lady Bareacres' carriage; he bragged about the Countess when he got home, in a way which his own father could not have surpassed. He called upon the ladies the next day; he rode by their side in the Park; he asked their party to a great dinner at a restaurateur's, and was quite wild with exultation when they agreed to come. [...] "Well, my dear Blanche," said the mother, "I suppose, as Papa wants to go, we must go; but we needn't know them in England, you know." And so, determined to cut their new acquaintance in Bond Street, these great folks went to eat his dinner at Brussels, and condescending to make him pay for their pleasure, showed their dignity by making his wife uncomfortable, and carefully excluding her from the conversation. This is a species of dignity in which the high-bred British female reigns supreme. To watch the behaviour of a fine lady to other and humbler women, is a very good sport for a philosophical frequenter of Vanity Fair. (28.16-20)
Thackeray is at his best when he does these super-detailed analyses of how people act toward each other. Notice how many factors are at play here. 1) Place: the Bareacres family will speak to George in Brussels, though they are totally going to deny his existence in London. 2) Gender: Count Bareacres can hang out with a wider range of people than the women in the family without damaging his rep. His womenfolk go along because he goes. They in turn can talk to George but make sure to snub Amelia, who seems slightly lower class than he is. 3) Money: George must pay to even get them to speak to him, but they retain their ability to be condescending to prove their higher status. Such a crazily delicate balance!
[Sir Pitt] selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley! Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen's Crawley--nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her [...] O Vanity Fair--Vanity Fair! This might have been, but for you, a cheery lass--Peter Butt and Rose a happy man and wife, in a snug farm, with a hearty family; and an honest portion of pleasures, cares, hopes and struggles--but a title and a coach and four are toys more precious than happiness in Vanity Fair: and if Harry the Eighth or Bluebeard were alive now, and wanted a tenth wife, do you suppose he could not get the prettiest girl that shall be presented this season? (9.1-4)
You got to love that Lady Crawley (formerly Rose Dawson), gets this little mini-novel, don't you? Is she the only one that trades happiness for the fruits of ambition?
At college [Pitt Crawley's] career was of course highly creditable. And here he prepared himself for public life, into which he was to be introduced by the patronage of his grandfather, Lord Binkie, by studying the ancient and modern orators with great assiduity, and by speaking unceasingly at the debating societies. But though he had a fine flux of words, and delivered his little voice with great pomposity and pleasure to himself, and never advanced any sentiment or opinion which was not perfectly trite and stale, and supported by a Latin quotation; yet he failed somehow, in spite of a mediocrity which ought to have insured any man a success. He did not even get the prize poem, which all his friends said he was sure of.
After leaving college he became Private Secretary to Lord Binkie, and was then appointed Attache to the Legation at Pumpernickel, which post he filled with perfect honour, and brought home dispatches, consisting of Strasburg pie, to the Foreign Minister of the day. After remaining ten years Attache (several years after the lamented Lord Binkie's demise), and finding the advancement slow, he at length gave up the diplomatic service in some disgust, and began to turn country gentleman.
He wrote a pamphlet on Malt on returning to England (for he was an ambitious man, and always liked to be before the public), and took a strong part in the Negro Emancipation question. Then he became a friend of Mr. Wilberforce's, whose politics he admired, and had that famous correspondence with the Reverend Silas Hornblower, on the Ashantee Mission. He was in London, if not for the Parliament session, at least in May, for the religious meetings. In the country he was a magistrate, and an active visitor and speaker among those destitute of religious instruction. (9.9-11)
Sure he's boring and self-satisfied, but Pitt is one of the only characters in the novel whose ambition has very little to do with marriage. He is purely career minded throughout the book, and as we learn, he does actually have quite a bit of diplomatic and managerial skills. He ends up being a very successful estate owner, improving Queen's Crawley and getting ahead in parliament.
And now, being received as a member of the amiable family whose portraits we have sketched in the foregoing pages, it became naturally Rebecca's duty to make herself, as she said, agreeable to her benefactors, and to gain their confidence to the utmost of her power. Who can but admire this quality of gratitude in an unprotected orphan; and, if there entered some degree of selfishness into her calculations, who can say but that her prudence was perfectly justifiable? [...] "let us see if my wits cannot provide me with an honourable maintenance, and if some day or the other I cannot show Miss Amelia my real superiority over her. Not that I dislike poor Amelia: who can dislike such a harmless, good-natured creature?--only it will be a fine day when I can take my place above her in the world, as why, indeed, should I not?" Thus it was that our little romantic friend formed visions of the future for herself--nor must we be scandalised that, in all her castles in the air, a husband was the principal inhabitant. Of what else have young ladies to think, but husbands? Of what else do their dear mammas think? "I must be my own mamma," said Rebecca; not without a tingling consciousness of defeat, as she thought over her little misadventure with Jos Sedley. (10.1)
Becky's choice here seems to be to either accept her place as a pathetic, powerless hanger-on and dependent or to break with socially acceptable female behavior and snag herself a husband by being "her own mamma." Even though her thoughts are described as "romantic," she's actually all pragmatism and cold, hard reality as she figures out that no one else is going to go to bat for her. Convention and Victorian ideals would have her pick the first option, but our sympathy lies purely with the second one.
[George] was a little wild: how many young men are; and don't girls like a rake better than a milksop? He hadn't sown his wild oats as yet, but he would soon: [...] his allowance, with Amelia's settlement, would enable them to take a snug place in the country somewhere, in a good sporting neighbourhood; and he would hunt a little, and farm a little; and they would be very happy. As for remaining in the army as a married man, that was impossible [...] He didn't care for himself--not he; but his dear little girl should take the place in society to which, as his wife, she was entitled: and to these proposals you may be sure she acceded, as she would to any other from the same author. Holding this kind of conversation, and building numberless castles in the air (which Amelia adorned with all sorts of flower-gardens, rustic walks, country churches, Sunday schools, and the like; while George had his mind's eye directed to the stables, the kennel, and the cellar), this young pair passed away a couple of hours very pleasantly; (13.29-30)
And by comparison, here are Amelia's dreams, her "castles in the air." Pretty close to Becky's, right? Although of course the difference is that Amelia really is a purely romantic idealist, and her ambitions for George have no basis in reality at all. Becky understands everyone, particularly herself. Amelia meanwhile is totally deluded about life in general, and George and herself in particular.
"A pretty boy, indeed. Haven't I heard of your doings, sir, with Lord Tarquin, Captain Crawley of the Guards, the Honourable Mr. Deuceace and that set. Have a care sir, have a care."
The old gentleman [Mr. Osborne] pronounced these aristocratic names with the greatest gusto. Whenever he met a great man he grovelled before him, and my-lorded him as only a free-born Briton can do. He came home and looked out his history in the Peerage: he introduced his name into his daily conversation; he bragged about his Lordship to his daughters. He fell down prostrate and basked in him as a Neapolitan beggar does in the sun. [...] "You shan't want, sir. The British merchant's son shan't want, sir. My guineas are as good as theirs, George, my boy; and I don't grudge 'em. Call on Mr. Chopper as you go through the City to-morrow; he'll have something for you. I don't grudge money when I know you're in good society, because I know that good society can never go wrong. There's no pride in me. I was a humbly born man--but you have had advantages. Make a good use of 'em. Mix with the young nobility. There's many of 'em who can't spend a dollar to your guinea, my boy. (13.59-63)
Almost every sentence here is an ironic joke. Deuceace's name says as much as we need to know about his favorite pastime, and we already know all about Captain Crawley and his gambling and dueling. These are the exemplars of "good society" that Osborne worships like the sun because they can "never go wrong." Um, OK, right. But of course, it makes sense that if these are the true nobility, George should be able to buy himself into their company without a problem. In a way, Osborne's ambition is a pretty easy one to fulfill, if this is the kind of gentleman he wants his son to become.
Rebecca gave way to some very sincere and touching regrets that a piece of marvellous good fortune should have been so near her, and she actually obliged to decline it. In this natural emotion every properly regulated mind will certainly share. What good mother is there that would not commiserate a penniless spinster, who might have been my lady, and have shared four thousand a year? What well-bred young person is there in all Vanity Fair, who will not feel for a hard-working, ingenious, meritorious girl, who gets such an honourable, advantageous, provoking offer, just at the very moment when it is out of her power to accept it? I am sure our friend Becky's disappointment deserves and will command every sympathy [...] surely, surely we may respect the agonies of a young woman who has lost the opportunity of becoming a baronet's wife. (15.44-47)
Don't you wonder what Becky would have done as Sir Pitt's wife? She's about as good an estate manager as young Pitt will become. Maybe she could really have become an excellent country lady. It's hard not to feel betrayed as a reader that this piece of wish-fulfillment will never happen.
What pride [Mr. Osborne] had in his boy! He was the handsomest child ever seen. Everybody said he was like a nobleman's son. A royal princess had remarked him, and kissed him, and asked his name in Kew Gardens. What City man could show such another? Could a prince have been better cared for? Anything that money could buy had been his son's [...] Had he ever refused a bill when George drew one? There they were--paid without a word. Many a general in the army couldn't ride the horses he had! He had the child before his eyes, on a hundred different days when he remembered George after dinner, when he used to come in as bold as a lord and drink off his glass by his father's side, at the head of the table--on the pony at Brighton, when he cleared the hedge and kept up with the huntsman--on the day when he was presented to the Prince Regent at the levee, when all Saint James's couldn't produce a finer young fellow. And this, this was the end of all!--to marry a bankrupt and fly in the face of duty and fortune! What humiliation and fury: what pangs of sickening rage, balked ambition and love; what wounds of outraged vanity, tenderness even, had this old worldling now to suffer under! (24.35)
One of the frequent criticisms of Thackeray is that his characters are two-dimensional and not presented in a psychologically developed way. But look at the list of emotions Mr. Osborne feels at the news of George's marriage. It's a pretty amazing set of contrasts: love mixed with rage, disappointment for George's ambitions and also pain because of his pride in his son, outrage at the fact that his money could not buy George a permanent place in the aristocracy and pleasure at the memory of how closely George could pass for a lord. That's a pretty complex emotional state – and it rings true to us.
[Amelia] wrote the most piteous accounts of the feast home to her mamma: how the Countess of Bareacres would not answer when spoken to; how Lady Blanche stared at her with her eye-glass; and what a rage Captain Dobbin was in at their behaviour; and how my lord, as they came away from the feast, asked to see the bill, and pronounced it a d---- bad dinner, and d---- dear. But though Amelia told all these stories, and wrote home regarding her guests' rudeness, and her own discomfiture, old Mrs. Sedley was mightily pleased nevertheless, and talked about Emmy's friend, the Countess of Bareacres, with such assiduity that the news how his son was entertaining peers and peeresses actually came to Osborne's ears in the City. (28.21)
Parents' ambitions for their children is a running theme in the novel. This is a pretty amazing bit of crossed communication wires. Amelia is in way over her head in George's social world in Brussels, but her mom can only hear the word "countess" and ignores the actual meaning of the letter because she is conditioned to think "nobility = super awesome."
Rebecca's wit, cleverness, and flippancy made her speedily the vogue in London among a certain class. You saw demure chariots at her door, out of which stepped very great people. You beheld her carriage in the park, surrounded by dandies of note. The little box in the third tier of the opera was crowded with heads constantly changing; but it must be confessed that the ladies held aloof from her, and that their doors were shut to our little adventurer [...] there are men (such as Rawdon Crawley, whose position we mentioned before) who cut a good figure to the eyes of the ignorant world and to the apprentices in the park, who behold them consorting with the most notorious dandies there, so there are ladies, who may be called men's women, being welcomed entirely by all the gentlemen and cut or slighted by all their wives [...] But while simple folks who are out of the world, or country people with a taste for the genteel, behold these ladies in their seeming glory in public places, or envy them from afar off, persons who are better instructed could inform them that these envied ladies have no more chance of establishing themselves in "society," than the benighted squire's wife in Somersetshire who reads of their doings in the Morning Post. Men living about London are aware of these awful truths. You hear how pitilessly many ladies of seeming rank and wealth are excluded from this "society." The frantic efforts which they make to enter this circle, the meannesses to which they submit, the insults which they undergo, are matters of wonder. (37.11-12)
Again, the gradations of social life are multiple and fine-grained. Notice that here again, gender plays a very distinct role in who can associate with whom: men are much freer to be around questionable women like Becky. Also, note that the narrator talks about the masochism necessary to be accepted into the society of women, but there is never much explanation of why this ambition exists in the first place. What is gained by being in this inner circle if no one from the outside can even tell the difference between "men's women" and women in "society"?
"I have brains," Becky thought, "and almost all the rest of the world are fools. I could not go back and consort with those people now, whom I used to meet in my father's studio. Lords come up to my door with stars and garters, instead of poor artists with screws of tobacco in their pockets. I have a gentleman for my husband, and an Earl's daughter for my sister, in the very house where I was little better than a servant a few years ago. But am I much better to do now in the world than I was when I was the poor painter's daughter and wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar and tea? Suppose I had married Francis who was so fond of me--I couldn't have been much poorer than I am now. Heigho! I wish I could exchange my position in society, and all my relations for a snug sum in the Three Per Cent. Consols"; for so it was that Becky felt the Vanity of human affairs, and it was in those securities that she would have liked to cast anchor.
It may, perhaps, have struck her that to have been honest and humble, to have done her duty, and to have marched straightforward on her way, would have brought her as near happiness as that path by which she was striving to attain it. (41.40-41)
Becky is the only character self-aware enough to see through the haze of ambition. She also has a would-be Rose Dawson (a.k.a. Lady Crawley, not the character in Titanic) story about a poor man she could have married, and she understands that the drive to get up the ladder can be questioned rather than just accepted as it is by everyone around her. We also love that she is so honest about being smarter than the rest of the world.
His bulk caused Joseph much anxious thought and alarm; now and then he would make a desperate attempt to get rid of his superabundant fat; but his indolence and love of good living speedily got the better of these endeavours at reform, and he found himself again at his three meals a day. He never was well dressed; but he took the hugest pains to adorn his big person, and passed many hours daily in that occupation. His valet made a fortune out of his wardrobe: his toilet-table was covered with as many pomatums and essences as ever were employed by an old beauty: he had tried, in order to give himself a waist, every girth, stay, and waistband then invented. Like most fat men, he would have his clothes made too tight, and took care they should be of the most brilliant colours and youthful cut. When dressed at length, in the afternoon, he would issue forth to take a drive with nobody in the Park; and then would come back in order to dress again and go and dine with nobody at the Piazza Coffee-House. He was as vain as a girl; and perhaps his extreme shyness was one of the results of his extreme vanity.
We have talked of Joseph Sedley being as vain as a girl. Heaven help us! the girls have only to turn the tables, and say of one of their own sex, "She is as vain as a man," and they will have perfect reason. The bearded creatures are quite as eager for praise, quite as finicky over their toilettes, quite as proud of their personal advantages, quite as conscious of their powers of fascination, as any coquette in the world. (3.30-31)
Whoa, gender bender! There's a whole line of criticism out there wondering about Jos's sexual orientation, and passages like this explain why.
There is no need of giving a special report of the conversation which now took place between Mr. Sedley [Jos] and the young lady [Becky]; for the conversation, as may be judged from the foregoing specimen, was not especially witty or eloquent; it seldom is in private societies, or anywhere except in very high-flown and ingenious novels [...] Almost for the first time in his life, Mr. Sedley found himself talking, without the least timidity or hesitation, to a person of the other sex. Miss Rebecca asked him a great number of questions about India, which gave him an opportunity of narrating many interesting anecdotes about that country and himself. (4.61-62)
Most of the men in the novel need to be managed or handled by women who know how to do it. Here Becky is practicing the art of sealing the deal. She is not in the usual feminine mold, to be sure, but it's interesting how often she is shown to be the aggressor and the men she deals with her victims.
Dobbin was much too modest a young fellow to suppose that this happy change in all his circumstances arose from his own generous and manly disposition: he chose, from some perverseness, to attribute his good fortune to the sole agency and benevolence of little George Osborne, to whom henceforth he vowed such a love and affection as is only felt by children--such an affection, as we read in the charming fairy-book, uncouth Orson had for splendid young Valentine his conqueror. He flung himself down at little Osborne's feet, and loved him. Even before they were acquainted, he had admired Osborne in secret. Now he was his valet, his dog, his man Friday. He believed Osborne to be the possessor of every perfection, to be the handsomest, the bravest, the most active, the cleverest, the most generous of created boys.(5.44)
This is a pretty creepy passage and might also speak to the culture of all-male private schools, which Thackeray was not a fan of. What do we make of this passage? Man crush? An obsession that then leads Dobbin to fall in love with Amelia and try to "become" George by marrying her?
"There's not a finer fellow in the service," Osborne said, "nor a better officer, though [Dobbin] is not an Adonis, certainly." And he looked towards the glass himself with much naiveté; and in so doing, caught Miss Sharp's eye fixed keenly upon him, at which he blushed a little, and Rebecca thought in her heart, "Ah, mon beau Monsieur! I think I have YOUR gauge"--the little artful minx! (5.53)
Not that Jos is the only guy who is vain, of course. We love that George is unable to give a compliment to another man without reassuring himself about his own continuing awesomeness in a nearby mirror. Check out Becky's knowing look at him – that's another nice bit of gender bending as well.
A perfect and celebrated "blood," or dandy about town, was this young officer [Rawdon]. 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. And though he belonged to the household troops, who, as it was their duty to rally round the Prince Regent, had not shown their valour in foreign service yet, Rawdon Crawley had already (apropos of play, of which he was immoderately fond) fought three bloody duels, in which he gave ample proofs of his contempt for death [...] Silly, romantic Miss Crawley, far from being horrified at the courage of her favourite, always used to pay his debts after his duels; and would not listen to a word that was whispered against his morality. "He will sow his wild oats," she would say, "and is worth far more than that puling hypocrite of a brother of his." (10.21-23)
Rawdon is half jock, half born at the right place at the right time. His straightforward masculinity is a nice counterpoint to the "gentleman show" that Jos and George laboriously put on every day.
Stubble and Spooney thought that to be a "regular Don Giovanni, by Jove" was one of the finest qualities a man could possess, and Osborne's reputation was prodigious amongst the young men of the regiment. He was famous in field-sports, famous at a song, famous on parade; free with his money, which was bountifully supplied by his father. His coats were better made than any man's in the regiment, and he had more of them. He was adored by the men. He could drink more than any officer of the whole mess, including old Heavytop, the colonel. He could spar better than Knuckles, the private (who would have been a corporal but for his drunkenness, and who had been in the prize-ring); and was the best batter and bowler, out and out, of the regimental club. He rode his own horse, Greased Lightning, and won the Garrison cup at Quebec races. There were other people besides Amelia who worshipped him. Stubble and Spooney thought him a sort of Apollo; Dobbin took him to be an Admirable Crichton; and Mrs. Major O'Dowd acknowledged he was an elegant young fellow, and put her in mind of Fitzjurld Fogarty, Lord Castlefogarty's second son. (13.3)
Here George tries to display the kind of masculinity that comes naturally to Rawdon. He's pretty good, but only manages to fool basically the most naïve and youngest of the soldiers (Stubble's name implies that he's not shaving yet, and a Spooney is a slang word for a weakling or softy). We get the sense that George is putting on an act from the fact that his behavior is compared to a literary figure ("Don Giovanni," the famous seducer), and the mythological Apollo. He isn't himself, he just reminds people of other, more authentic people. (To Dobbin he is "Admirable" James Crichton, a 16th century intellectual, and he reminds Mrs. O'Dowd of a relative.) On the other hand, Rawdon's more animalistic activities are just described as "wild oats" – he is always simply himself.
Mr. Rawdon's marriage was one of the honestest actions which we shall have to record in any portion of that gentleman's biography which has to do with the present history. No one will say it is unmanly to be captivated by a woman, or, being captivated, to marry her; and the admiration, the delight, the passion, the wonder, the unbounded confidence, and frantic adoration with which, by degrees, this big warrior got to regard the little Rebecca, were feelings which the ladies at least will pronounce were not altogether discreditable to him. When she sang, every note thrilled in his dull soul, and tingled through his huge frame. When she spoke, he brought all the force of his brains to listen and wonder. If she was jocular, he used to revolve her jokes in his mind, and explode over them half an hour afterwards in the street, to the surprise of the groom in the tilbury by his side, or the comrade riding with him in Rotten Row. Her words were oracles to him, her smallest actions marked by an infallible grace and wisdom. "How she sings,--how she paints," thought he. "How she rode that kicking mare at Queen's Crawley!" And he would say to her in confidential moments, "By Jove, Beck, you're fit to be Commander-in-Chief, or Archbishop of Canterbury, by Jove." Is his case a rare one? and don't we see every day in the world many an honest Hercules at the apron-strings of Omphale, and great whiskered Samsons prostrate in Delilah's lap? (16.3)
Rawdon is tamed and housebroken by his marriage, which turns him into a respectable and exemplary man. The novel is pretty consistent in thinking well of people who can be satisfied by a faithful and loving family life. Too bad we've got a severe warning for what's about to happen in that comparison to Samson and Delilah.
[Ensign Stubble]--such was his military ardour--went off instantly to purchase a new sword at the accoutrement-maker's. Here this young fellow [...] had an undoubted courage and a lion's heart, poised, tried, bent, and balanced a weapon such as he thought would do execution amongst Frenchmen. Shouting "Ha, ha!" and stamping his little feet with tremendous energy, he delivered the point twice or thrice at Captain Dobbin. [Then, he and Ensign Spooney] sate down and wrote off letters to the kind anxious parents at home--letters full of love and heartiness, and pluck and bad spelling [...] Seeing young Stubble engaged in composition at one of the coffee-room tables at the Slaughters', and the tears trickling down his nose on to the paper (for the youngster was thinking of his mamma, and that he might never see her again), Dobbin [...] went up and laid his big hand on young Stubble's shoulder, and backed up that young champion, and told him if he would leave off brandy and water he would be a good soldier, as he always was a gentlemanly good-hearted fellow. Young Stubble's eyes brightened up at this, for Dobbin was greatly respected in the regiment, as the best officer and the cleverest man in it. "Thank you, Dobbin," he said, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, "I was just--just telling her I would. And, O Sir, she's so dam kind to me." (24.45-49)
It's always a little jarring in this caustic and cynical novel to come across a gentle, emotional moment like this one. Check out how Stubble is still trying to figure out how to be a man. He plays with weapons (and has enlisted in the army), but he uses his sword like a toy. At the thought of war, his first reaction is to write a letter to his mom, the thought of whom makes him cry. But even through the tears, he is using adult-sounding swear words like "dam."
And herewith honest James's career as a candidate for his aunt's favour ended. He had in fact, and without knowing it, done what he menaced to do. He had fought his cousin Pitt with the gloves. (34.71)
Like Jos, Pitt is always showing us a different way to be a man. Unlike Rawdon, he is all brains and no brawn, and unlike George, he is all strategy without any outward display. But clearly, his style really works for him, as he easily gets rid of Jim Crawley, a kind of George/Rawdon mix in the making.
[Becky] had not been much of a dissembler, until now her loneliness taught her to feign. She had never mingled in the society of women: her father, reprobate as he was, was a man of talent; his conversation was a thousand times more agreeable to her than the talk of such of her own sex as she now encountered. The pompous vanity of the old schoolmistress, the foolish good-humour of her sister, the silly chat and scandal of the elder girls, and the frigid correctness of the governesses equally annoyed her; and she had no soft maternal heart, this unlucky girl, otherwise the prattle and talk of the younger children, with whose care she was chiefly intrusted, might have soothed and interested her; but she lived among them two years, and not one was sorry that she went away. (2.18)
In other words, stinks not to have a mom around. The novel is actually pretty astute (if totally cynical) about what parents teach and don't teach their kids – especially mothers and daughters. Most of Becky's behavior seems to come from the fact that she doesn't have a mom around to set up her engagement, like the other young women around her. Also, check out how Becky's own non-maternal nature is set up from the get-go – it will be what makes the narrator and reader turn on her midway through the novel.
If Miss Rebecca Sharp had determined in her heart upon making the conquest of this big beau [Jos], I don't think, ladies, we have any right to blame her; for though the task of husband-hunting is generally, and with becoming modesty, entrusted by young persons to their mammas. [...] honest Mrs. Sedley has, in the depths of her kind heart, already arranged a score of little schemes for the settlement of her Amelia. (3.26)
More details about the crucial role of a mother in the marriage market. Does Becky refuse to be a mother to Rawdon Jr. because she has already had to mother herself? Has there been something distasteful in having to raise herself?
[Amelia] had, too, in the course of this few days' constant intercourse, warmed into a most tender friendship for Rebecca, and discovered a million of virtues and amiable qualities in her which she had not perceived when they were at Chiswick together. For the affection of young ladies is of as rapid growth as Jack's bean-stalk, and reaches up to the sky in a night. It is no blame to them that after marriage this Sehnsucht nach der Liebe subsides. It is what sentimentalists, who deal in very big words, call a yearning after the Ideal, and simply means that women are commonly not satisfied until they have husbands and children on whom they may centre affections, which are spent elsewhere, as it were, in small change. (4.66)
So, how about a little casual misogyny? Yes, this is the standard Victorian line about women being all about feelings and irrationality (which here combines into immediate BFF status between Amelia and Becky). Although, does the novel really endorse this view of "young ladies" when we have such a clear counter-example as the anti-heroine? Or is Becky so far the extreme that she doesn't seem like a realistic possibility and so we're back to square one with women being silly creatures who just want babies?
Well, the great dinner-bell rang, and we all assembled in the little drawing-room where my Lady Crawley sits. She is the second Lady Crawley, and mother of the young ladies. She was an ironmonger's daughter, and her marriage was thought a great match. She looks as if she had been handsome once, and her eyes are always weeping for the loss of her beauty. She is pale and meagre and high-shouldered, and has not a word to say for herself, evidently [...] "I hope you will be kind to my girls," said Lady Crawley, with her pink eyes always full of tears.
"Law, Ma, of course she will," said the eldest: and I saw at a glance that I need not be afraid of THAT woman. (8.22-26)
Keep in mind that this is Becky's voice – this is the letter she writes to Amelia about Queen's Crawley. She has already learned how to value not just the outward qualities of women (ooh, Lady Crawley with the fancy title!) but their actual social position (no wait, she is the second Lady Crawley and was not born an aristocrat, and besides that her daughters treat her like dirt).
Now, love was Miss Amelia Sedley's last tutoress, and it was amazing what progress our young lady made under that popular teacher. In the course of fifteen or eighteen months' daily and constant attention to this eminent finishing governess, what a deal of secrets Amelia learned, which Miss Wirt and the black-eyed young ladies over the way, which old Miss Pinkerton of Chiswick herself, had no cognizance of! As, indeed, how should any of those prim and reputable virgins? With Misses P. and W. the tender passion is out of the question: I would not dare to breathe such an idea regarding them. Miss Maria Osborne, it is true, was "attached" to Mr. Frederick Augustus Bullock, of the firm of Hulker, Bullock & Bullock; but hers was a most respectable attachment, and she would have taken Bullock Senior just the same, her mind being fixed--as that of a well-bred young woman should be--upon a house in Park Lane, a country house at Wimbledon, a handsome chariot, and two prodigious tall horses and footmen, and a fourth of the annual profits of the eminent firm of Hulker & Bullock, all of which advantages were represented in the person of Frederick Augustus. [...] Miss Maria, I say, would have assumed the spotless wreath, and stepped into the travelling carriage by the side of gouty, old, bald-headed, bottle-nosed Bullock Senior; and devoted her beautiful existence to his happiness with perfect modesty--only the old gentleman was married already; so she bestowed her young affections on the junior partner. [...] This was not the sort of love that finished Amelia's education; and in the course of a year turned a good young girl into a good young woman--to be a good wife presently, when the happy time should come. (12.19-20)
If all marriages were arranged by parents, then young women would be expected to just take anyone who's a good business proposition. This is illustrated nicely by Maria here, who doesn't really care which Bullock she ends up married to; she's marrying the money, not the person. This was a time when the idea of marriage as a purely financial and legal institution was starting to come into conflict with the notion of marriage as a love-based union between companions.
Amelia took the news very palely and calmly. It was only the confirmation of the dark presages which had long gone before. It was the mere reading of the sentence--of the crime she had long ago been guilty--the crime of loving wrongly, too violently, against reason. She told no more of her thoughts now than she had before. She seemed scarcely more unhappy now when convinced all hope was over, than before when she felt but dared not confess that it was gone. So she changed from the large house to the small one without any mark or difference; remained in her little room for the most part; pined silently; and died away day by day. I do not mean to say that all females are so. My dear Miss Bullock, I do not think your heart would break in this way. You are a strong-minded young woman with proper principles. I do not venture to say that mine would; it has suffered, and, it must be confessed, survived. But there are some souls thus gently constituted, thus frail, and delicate, and tender. (18.18)
Amelia sure takes passivity to a whole new level here. The narrator is feeling like it's a bit extreme too, we think – that's why he busts out the imaginary reader who scoffs at Amelia's nonsense. The reader "Miss Bullock" is meant to be funny, but the joke feels like it's meant to prevent us from questioning Amelia and her half-dead affect too closely.
But if a fault may be found with [Mrs. Bute's] arrangements, it is this, that she was too eager: she managed rather too well; undoubtedly she made Miss Crawley more ill than was necessary; and though the old invalid succumbed to her authority, it was so harassing and severe, that the victim would be inclined to escape at the very first chance which fell in her way. Managing women, the ornaments of their sex--women who order everything for everybody, and know so much better than any person concerned what is good for their neighbours, don't sometimes speculate upon the possibility of a domestic revolt, or upon other extreme consequences resulting from their overstrained authority. (19.15)
Is Mrs. Bute just an unsexy version of Becky? She does a lot of the same kind of scheming and is almost as cunning. (She's the only one who sees that Sir Pitt wants to marry Becky, for instance.) She is probably the second most ambitious woman in the novel. What does ambition look like when it's in an unappealing package?
"My sisters say [Miss Swartz] has diamonds as big as pigeons' eggs," George said, laughing. "How they must set off her complexion! A perfect illumination it must be when her jewels are on her neck. Her jet-black hair is as curly as Sambo's. I dare say she wore a nose ring when she went to court; and with a plume of feathers in her top-knot she would look a perfect Belle Sauvage." (20.27)
George is quite the racist, isn't he? What a delightful fellow. By the way, in reference to Miss Swartz, he name-checks La Belle Sauvage (a play about Pocahontas) and the Hottentot Venus (the stage name for Saartjie Baartman, an African woman who became a Dutch slave and was exhibited as a freak show all over Europe because of her supposedly unusual proportions). Meanwhile, what exactly is the narrator's stance? Clearly we're meant to see that George is way out of line with the horrible things he says. But it's just as clear that we are meant to find Miss Swartz's unsuitability to fancy London life funny. Then again, she ends up married to a Scottish nobleman.
How the floodgates were opened, and mother [Mrs. Sedley] and daughter [Amelia] wept, when they were together embracing each other in this sanctuary, may readily be imagined by every reader who possesses the least sentimental turn. When don't ladies weep? At what occasion of joy, sorrow, or other business of life, and, after such an event as a marriage, mother and daughter were surely at liberty to give way to a sensibility which is as tender as it is refreshing. About a question of marriage I have seen women who hate each other kiss and cry together quite fondly. How much more do they feel when they love! Good mothers are married over again at their daughters' weddings: and as for subsequent events, who does not know how ultra-maternal grandmothers are?--in fact a woman, until she is a grandmother, does not often really know what to be a mother is. Let us respect Amelia and her mamma whispering and whimpering and laughing and crying in the parlour and the twilight. (26.7)
Why do girls in Victorian novels cry so much? Oh the other hand, it's pretty clear that Amelia's short burst of married life has come with sexual as well as emotional disappointments. Her mom doesn't seem to be able to help with any of that – and really, from what we see of Mrs. Sedley, she's kind of a dopey, romantic, selfish woman. What else is there to do, really, except cry?
Whilst her appearance was an utter failure (as her husband felt with a sort of rage), Mrs. Rawdon Crawley's debut was, on the contrary, very brilliant. She arrived very late. Her face was radiant; her dress perfection. In the midst of the great persons assembled, and the eye-glasses directed to her, Rebecca seemed to be as cool and collected as when she used to marshal Miss Pinkerton's little girls to church. Numbers of the men she knew already, and the dandies thronged round her. As for the ladies, it was whispered among them that Rawdon had run away with her from out of a convent, and that she was a relation of the Montmorency family. She spoke French so perfectly that there might be some truth in this report, and it was agreed that her manners were fine, and her air distingue. Fifty would-be partners thronged round her at once, and pressed to have the honour to dance with her. But she said she was engaged, and only going to dance very little; and made her way at once to the place where Emmy sate quite unnoticed, and dismally unhappy. And so, to finish the poor child at once, Mrs. Rawdon ran and greeted affectionately her dearest Amelia, and began forthwith to patronise her. She found fault with her friend's dress, and her hairdresser, and wondered how she could be so chaussee, and vowed that she must send her corsetiere the next morning. She vowed that it was a delightful ball; that there was everybody that everyone knew, and only a VERY few nobodies in the whole room. It is a fact, that in a fortnight, and after three dinners in general society, this young woman had got up the genteel jargon so well, that a native could not speak it better; and it was only from her French being so good, that you could know she was not a born woman of fashion. (29.54)
This is probably Becky's cruelest moment, if only because Amelia is so incredibly helpless and easy a victim. Usually when Becky delivers one of her stingers, we are psyched – who doesn't like to see someone like Mr. Wagg or the Countess of Bareacres put down? But here we see the other side of Becky's style. Notice how the language slips into Becky's vernacular. It's the narrator telling us what happened, but the words "dearest," "chaussee," and "very few nobodies" are the ones used by Becky herself. Why does the narrator take on Becky's voice? How is the reader affected by this?
She was small and slight in person; pale, sandy-haired, and with eyes habitually cast down: when they looked up they were very large, odd, and attractive; so attractive that the Reverend Mr. Crisp, fresh from Oxford, and curate to the Vicar of Chiswick, the Reverend Mr. Flowerdew, fell in love with Miss Sharp; being shot dead by a glance of her eyes which was fired all the way across Chiswick Church from the school-pew to the reading-desk. (2.14)
Becky's sexuality is always aggressive and so always takes men unawares. The expectation was that women should be passive recipients of male attention rather than the other way around. All of Becky's conquests are always described in traditionally feminine terms. Here, check out the "fresh" curate named "Flowerdew" – "fresh" is usually a word that's used about girls that have just arrived on the marriage market scene. And flowerdew? That's really driving the point home.
"You don't mind my cigar, do you, Miss Sharp?" Miss Sharp loved the smell of a cigar out of doors beyond everything in the world--and she just tasted one too, in the prettiest way possible, and gave a little puff, and a little scream, and a little giggle, and restored the delicacy to the Captain, who twirled his moustache, and straightway puffed it into a blaze that glowed quite red in the dark plantation, and swore--"Jove--aw--Gad--aw--it's the finest segaw I ever smoked in the world aw," for his intellect and conversation were alike brilliant and becoming to a heavy young dragoon. (11.76)
We promise we're not dirty-minded – or at least not any more than the novel itself. But just do the mental image here and you'll get a sense of what Becky seems to be promising Rawdon. And his weird exclamations? Kind of orgasmic, no?
Rawdon Crawley, Esquire, gave vent to a prodigious whistle, in token of astonishment at this announcement. He couldn't deny it. His father's evident liking for Miss Sharp had not escaped him. He knew the old gentleman's character well; and a more unscrupulous old--whyou--he did not conclude the sentence [...]
When he saw Rebecca alone, he rallied her about his father's attachment in his graceful way. She flung up her head scornfully, looked him full in the face, and said, "Well, suppose he is fond of me. I know he is, and others too. You don't think I am afraid of him, Captain Crawley? You don't suppose I can't defend my own honour," said the little woman, looking as stately as a queen.
"Oh, ah, why--give you fair warning--look out, you know--that's all," said the mustachio-twiddler.
"You hint at something not honourable, then?" said she, flashing out. (14.42-48)
Rawdon doesn't complete the sentence about his father, but we easily can. "Something not honorable" could mean one of two things: 1) Becky becoming Sir Pitt's mistress, which is unlikely, since she's all about putting a ring on it; or 2) getting assaulted by Sir Pitt, which has some traction based on his earlier threat to keep coming to her room every night if she doesn't put her candle out sooner. Either way, Becky's instant coming to the point rather than pretending she doesn't understand what Rawdon is talking about gets him kind of hot and bothered in his jealousy of his father.
"The feller has left you, has he?" the Baronet said, beginning, as he fancied, to comprehend. "Well, Becky--come back if you like. You can't eat your cake and have it. Any ways I made you a vair offer. Coom back as governess--you shall have it all your own way." She held out one hand. She cried fit to break her heart; her ringlets fell over her face, and over the marble mantelpiece where she laid it.
"So the rascal ran off, eh?" Sir Pitt said, with a hideous attempt at consolation. "Never mind, Becky, I'LL take care of 'ee." (15.6-7)
What's amazing about Sir Pitt is how open he is about his desires. Here, of course, what makes his consolation so "hideous" is that he's talking about sexual healing while being an old man who should be over that kind of thing by now, according to propriety.
"'Gad, if Miss S. will have me, I'm her man. I ain't particular about a shade or so of tawny." And the old gentleman [Mr. Osborne] gave his knowing grin and coarse laugh. (24.13)
Not that Sir Pitt has the market cornered on being a dirty old man. Here is Mr. Osborne talking about Miss Swartz's appeal, which is for him more than money, according to the adjectives "knowing" and "coarse."
[Becky] called George Osborne, Cupid. She had flattered him about his good looks a score of times already. She watched over him kindly at ecarte of a night when he would drop in to Rawdon's quarters for a half-hour before bed-time.
She had often called him a horrid dissipated wretch, and threatened to tell Emmy of his wicked ways and naughty extravagant habits. 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. (25.25-26)
Here is clear proof that the cigar thing is an intentional come-on on Becky's part. It seems it works on George, who, like Rawdon, responds with a breathy string of exclamatory adjectives (and then propositions her).
She had mastered this rude coarse nature; and he loved and worshipped her with all his faculties of regard and admiration. In all his life he had never been so happy, as, during the past few months, his wife had made him. All former delights of turf, mess, hunting-field, and gambling-table; all previous loves and courtships of milliners, opera-dancers, and the like easy triumphs of the clumsy military Adonis, were quite insipid when compared to the lawful matrimonial pleasures which of late he had enjoyed. (30.6)
Translation: One-night stands can't compete with good old-fashioned married sex.
Rebecca was a good economist, and the price poor Jos Sedley had paid for her two horses was in itself sufficient to keep their little establishment afloat for a year, at the least; there was no occasion to turn into money "my pistols, the same which I shot Captain Marker," or the gold dressing-case, or the cloak lined with sable. Becky had it made into a pelisse for herself, in which she rode in the Bois de Boulogne to the admiration of all: and you should have seen the scene between her and her delighted husband, whom she rejoined after the army had entered Cambray, and when she unsewed herself, and let out of her dress all those watches, knick-knacks, bank-notes, cheques, and valuables, which she had secreted in the wadding, previous to her meditated flight from Brussels! Tufto was charmed, and Rawdon roared with delighted laughter, and swore that she was better than any play he ever saw, by Jove. And the way in which she jockeyed Jos, and which she described with infinite fun, carried up his delight to a pitch of quite insane enthusiasm. (34.72)
This image of Becky's money-tinged striptease is a very nice way to conflate the interest of those around her (sex) with her own (financial security). This is a literal representation of the constant connection in the novel between the sexual release for men that women bring to relationships and the wealth and material well-being that men bring. Of course, in Becky's case, she has to bring both – and here, she is doing just that.
All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist [Becky Sharp], and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. (2.11)
Another way to put this? Instant karmic retribution. The novel sometimes seems deeply committed to this kind of "eye for an eye" approach. Then again, when you consider the lack of standard punishment/reward at the end, you have to question how seriously the novel takes the idea.
Well, William Dobbin had for once forgotten the world, and was away with Sindbad the Sailor in the Valley of Diamonds, or with Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peribanou in that delightful cavern where the Prince found her, and whither we should all like to make a tour; when shrill cries, as of a little fellow weeping, woke up his pleasant reverie; and looking up, he saw Cuff before him, belabouring a little boy [...] The Fairy Peribanou had fled into the inmost cavern with Prince Ahmed: the Roc had whisked away Sindbad the Sailor out of the Valley of Diamonds out of sight, far into the clouds: and there was everyday life before honest William; and a big boy beating a little one without cause. (5.16-20)
The use of the fairytales is interesting here. Dobbin is learning how to act like a man/hero/gentleman from the way Sinbad goes about his adventures – and gets an immediate chance to apply this knowledge to real life. It's the perfect way to define his moral character: Dobbin is someone who lives his life by as strict a code as heroes in fairy tales do.
Besides being such a fine religionist, Miss Crawley was, as we have said, an Ultra-liberal in opinions, and always took occasion to express these in the most candid manner.
"What is birth, my dear!" she would say to Rebecca--"Look at my brother Pitt; look at the Huddlestons, who have been here since Henry II; look at poor Bute at the parsonage--is any one of them equal to you in intelligence or breeding? Equal to you--they are not even equal to poor dear Briggs, my companion, or Bowls, my butler. You, my love, are a little paragon--positively a little jewel--You have more brains than half the shire--if merit had its reward you ought to be a Duchess--no, there ought to be no duchesses at all--but you ought to have no superior, and I consider you, my love, as my equal in every respect; and--will you put some coals on the fire, my dear; and will you pick this dress of mine, and alter it, you who can do it so well?" So this old philanthropist used to make her equal run of her errands, execute her millinery, and read her to sleep with French novels, every night. (11.61-62)
It's a little heavy-handed, but the point about Miss Crawley not practicing what she preaches is a good one. This little description about how she talks a good game about considering Becky her "equal in every respect," while still treating her like a servant (not to mention the way she kicks Briggs around), is a good indicator of what Miss Crawley will do when she finds out about Rawdon and Becky's unequal marriage. This passage brings up the larger question of abstract values and ethics and the more immediate way in which we live our lives. Dobbin, for instance, sees no distinction between lofty ethical ideals and everyday existence. For Miss Crawley, though, there is a wide gulf between the two.
[V]ery soon, Miss Crawley was so well that she sat up and laughed heartily at a perfect imitation of Miss Briggs and her grief, which Rebecca described to her. Briggs' weeping snuffle, and her manner of using the handkerchief, were so completely rendered that Miss Crawley became quite cheerful, to the admiration of the doctors when they visited her, who usually found this worthy woman of the world, when the least sickness attacked her, under the most abject depression and terror of death. (14.26)
Miss Crawley is quite the hypocrite, isn't she? She's the novel's version of "there are no atheists in foxholes." Brain Snack: this expression means that in a life or death situation, even people who don't believe in God pray, just in case. It comes from World War I, when soldiers at the front would sit in dug-out trenches ("foxholes"), exchanging fire with the enemy and not knowing whether they would survive to the next day.
Of all Sedley's opponents in his debates with his creditors which now ensued, and harassed the feelings of the humiliated old gentleman so severely, that in six weeks he oldened more than he had done for fifteen years before--the most determined and obstinate seemed to be John Osborne, his old friend and neighbour--John Osborne, whom he had set up in life--who was under a hundred obligations to him--and whose son was to marry Sedley's daughter. Any one of these circumstances would account for the bitterness of Osborne's opposition.
When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. 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. From a mere sense of consistency, a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain--otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself. (18.13-14)
We throw this out there as a bit of psychological astuteness on Thackeray's part. The feeling of guilt over his friend's financial ruin is so strong that Osborne needs desperately to start to hate him to feel better. Brain Snack: nowadays this kind of thinking is called "cognitive dissonance" – the idea that your brain will always be able to create some excuses and valid-sounding reasons for why you act the way you do (however wrong or strange your action).
And, as the hatred of vice is always a progress towards virtue, Mrs. Bute Crawley endeavoured to instill her sister-in-law a proper abhorrence for all Rawdon Crawley's manifold sins [...] Mrs. Bute showed a perfect family interest and knowledge of Rawdon's history. She had all the particulars of that ugly quarrel with Captain Marker, in which Rawdon, wrong from the beginning, ended in shooting the Captain. She knew how the unhappy Lord Dovedale, whose mamma had taken a house at Oxford, so that he might be educated there, and who had never touched a card in his life till he came to London, was perverted by Rawdon at the Cocoa-Tree, made helplessly tipsy by this abominable seducer and perverter of youth, and fleeced of four thousand pounds. She described with the most vivid minuteness the agonies of the country families whom he had ruined--the sons whom he had plunged into dishonour and poverty--the daughters whom he had inveigled into perdition. She knew the poor tradesmen who were bankrupt by his extravagance [Mrs. Bute] had not the smallest remorse or compunction for the victim whom her tongue was immolating; nay, very likely thought her act was quite meritorious, and plumed herself upon her resolute manner of performing it. (19.10)
The novel is always very good about layering the moral questions and asking readers to think about who is doing what to whom – and who is most in the wrong. Here we have the following bad ethics: 1) Rawdon's exploits. Clearly bad stuff. Seriously – he killed a guy! 2) Mrs. Bute is purposely digging up all of the dirt on Rawdon to make Miss Crawley hate him. She even exaggerates and lies a little. 3) Mrs. Bute is telling herself that she is doing this out of familial and Christian virtue, and doesn't even feel any "remorse" about her actions. 4) In reality, Mrs. Bute is doing this so that Miss Crawley won't leave Rawdon her money and will instead leave it to the Bute side of the family. 5) Miss Crawley is suddenly horrified by behavior that she was all along endorsing and supporting in her nephew. OK, so who is most in the wrong?
But it may be said as a rule, that every Englishman in the Duke of Wellington's army paid his way. The remembrance of such a fact surely becomes a nation of shopkeepers. It was a blessing for a commerce-loving country to be overrun by such an army of customers: and to have such creditable warriors to feed. And the country which they came to protect is not military. For a long period of history they have let other people fight there. When the present writer went to survey with eagle glance the field of Waterloo, we asked the conductor of the diligence, a portly warlike-looking veteran, whether he had been at the battle. "Pas si bete"--such an answer and sentiment as no Frenchman would own to--was his reply. But, on the other hand, the postilion who drove us was a Viscount, a son of some bankrupt Imperial General, who accepted a pennyworth of beer on the road. The moral is surely a good one. (28.4)
This is the law of reciprocity on a large scale. What does an occupying army owe to the nation where it is stationed? Here, the idea seems to be that England's forces provided some economic advantage to Belgium (rather than simply assuming that its soldiers would be quartered for free, for instance). At the same time, there is a connection here between being a good customer and being a good soldier – or in any case, between cowardice and begging for charity. (The Belgian who says "I'm not that dumb" when asked whether he fought in the war is also a nobleman who has lost his lands and wealth and gladly drinks the cheap beer the narrator buys him.)
The news which that famous Gazette brought to the Osbornes gave a dreadful shock to the family and its chief. The girls indulged unrestrained in their grief. The gloom-stricken old father was still more borne down by his fate and sorrow. He strove to think that a judgment was on the boy for his disobedience. He dared not own that the severity of the sentence frightened him, and that its fulfilment had come too soon upon his curses. Sometimes a shuddering terror struck him, as if he had been the author of the doom which he had called down on his son. (35.2)
Osborne perceives George's death as some kind of punishment for disowning his son, which is scary and guilt-inducing, obviously. But again, this is a very abstract thought for this miserable old man – in his day-to-day life he does nothing to change his ways and continues to pretend Amelia and George Jr. do not exist and that George's marriage never happened.
This was the way, then, Crawley got his house for nothing; for though Raggles had to pay taxes and rates, and the interest of the mortgage to the brother butler; and the insurance of his life; and the charges for his children at school; and the value of the meat and drink which his own family--and for a time that of Colonel Crawley too--consumed; and though 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--and so it was this unlucky Raggles was made the representative of Colonel Crawley's defective capital.
I wonder how many families are driven to roguery and to ruin by great practitioners in Crawlers way?--how many great noblemen rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums and cheat for a few shillings? When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house--and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can't get his money for powdering the footmen's heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady's dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed: as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither. (37.7-8)
Anyone seeing the parallels between this passage and our own recent economic collapse? The rich (or large corporations) get to run out on (or default) huge masses of racked up credit and misspent money they didn't have to spend in the first place. Meanwhile, the petty tradesmen (or small investors, or people swindled into taking out too-large mortgages) are stuck with the bills, ruined, and bankrupted. Of course, the difference is that in Thackeray's time, the credit economy was just starting to be developed and people looked askance at all kinds of borrowing, while we live in an age where credit cards are issued without any questions asked.
"It isn't difficult to be a country gentleman's wife," Rebecca thought. "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year." [...] 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? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so. An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carnage to steal a leg of mutton; but put him to starve, and see if he will not purloin a loaf. Becky consoled herself by so balancing the chances and equalizing the distribution of good and evil in the world. (41.38)
This is probably the single biggest philosophical question of the novel. Is immoral behavior a matter of circumstance (so, poor people steal while rich ones don't, for instance)? Or is it something that innate in a person's character (so a bad poor person might steal while that same person made rich would still commit immoral actions)?
Rebecca Sharp looked like a child. But she had the dismal precocity of poverty. Many a dun had she talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more. She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions--often but ill-suited for a girl to hear. But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old. (2.15)
Becky is obviously naturally very intelligent – but her childhood nightmare forces her to learn to transform this intelligence (which could have been developed into intellectual achievement) into cunning in order to survive.
If Miss Rebecca can get the better of [Jos], and at her first entrance into life, she is a young person of no ordinary cleverness. The first move showed considerable skill. When she called Sedley a very handsome man, she knew that Amelia would tell her mother, who would probably tell Joseph, or who, at any rate, would be pleased by the compliment paid to her son [...] Perhaps, too, Joseph Sedley would overhear the compliment--Rebecca spoke loud enough--and he did hear, and (thinking in his heart that he was a very fine man) the praise thrilled through every fibre of his big body, and made it tingle with pleasure. (3.30-31)
Becky's ability to read people and use their weaknesses against them starts to be revealed here. She is always shown to be very strategic in the way she acts. Check out the language here: "the first move" implies some kind of board game being played.
And before he had time to ask how, Mr. Joseph Sedley, of the East India Company's service, was actually seated tete-a-tete with a young lady, looking at her with a most killing expression; his arms stretched out before her in an imploring attitude, and his hands bound in a web of green silk, which she was unwinding.(4.88)
Symbolism alert, with a flashing neon sign hanging above it! Becky is tying Jos up in a silk web here – like she's a spider and he is the fly!
If mere parsimony could have made a man rich, Sir Pitt Crawley might have become very wealthy--if he had been an attorney in a country town, with no capital but his brains, it is very possible that he would have turned them to good account, and might have achieved for himself a very considerable influence and competency. But he was unluckily endowed with a good name and a large though encumbered estate, both of which went rather to injure than to advance him. He had a taste for law, which cost him many thousands yearly; and being a great deal too clever to be robbed, as he said, by any single agent, allowed his affairs to be mismanaged by a dozen, whom he all equally mistrusted [...] He speculated in every possible way; he worked mines; bought canal-shares; horsed coaches; took government contracts, and was the busiest man and magistrate of his county. (9.15)
Just as Becky's innate intelligence is perverted into a kind of survival cunning, Sir Pitt's natural smarts are also diverted from being useful by his lifestyle. He is probably best labeled "too clever by half" since all of his various schemes tend to end badly.
But it was not only by playing at backgammon with the Baronet, that the little governess rendered herself agreeable to her employer. She found many different ways of being useful to him. She read over, with indefatigable patience, all those law papers, with which, before she came to Queen's Crawley, he had promised to entertain her. She volunteered to copy many of his letters, and adroitly altered the spelling of them so as to suit the usages of the present day. She became interested in everything appertaining to the estate, to the farm, the park, the garden, and the stables; and so delightful a companion was she, that the Baronet would seldom take his after-breakfast walk without her (and the children of course), when she would give her advice as to the trees which were to be lopped in the shrubberies, the garden-beds to be dug, the crops which were to be cut, the horses which were to go to cart or plough. Before she had been a year at Queen's Crawley she had quite won the Baronet's confidence; and the conversation at the dinner-table, which before used to be held between him and Mr. Horrocks the butler, was now almost exclusively between Sir Pitt and Miss Sharp. She was almost mistress of the house when Mr. Crawley was absent, but conducted herself in her new and exalted situation with such circumspection and modesty as not to offend the authorities of the kitchen and stable, among whom her behaviour was always exceedingly modest and affable. She was quite a different person from the haughty, shy, dissatisfied little girl whom we have known previously, and this change of temper proved great prudence, a sincere desire of amendment, or at any rate great moral courage on her part. Whether it was the heart which dictated this new system of complaisance and humility adopted by our Rebecca, is to be proved by her after-history. A system of hypocrisy, which lasts through whole years, is one seldom satisfactorily practised by a person of one-and-twenty; however, our readers will recollect, that, though young in years, our heroine was old in life and experience, and we have written to no purpose if they have not discovered that she was a very clever woman. (10.10)
Confession time – this is one of our favorite descriptions of Becky. Look at what she could have been! She's super-smart, an excellent planner and manager, and just generally on top of her game. Born at another time, free of this silly social-climbing world and all the restrictions the 19th century placed on women, she could have been a CEO!
Mrs. Bute has all of a sudden taken a great fancy to me. "My dear Miss Sharp," she says, "why not bring over your girls to the Rectory?--their cousins will be so happy to see them." I know what she means. 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; but I shall go, as I am determined to make myself agreeable--is it not a poor governess's duty, who has not a friend or protector in the world? (11.33)
This is written in Becky's voice; it's from her letter to Amelia about Queen's Crawley. It's always fun to watch Mrs. Bute and Becky square off. Both are clever women, and neither has the edge over the other. Here, for instance, Becky thinks that Mrs. Bute wants to wring some free music lessons out of her, but Mrs. Bute is actually playing a much longer-term game. She keeps inviting Becky and Rawdon to her house in order to set them up, and thus ruin both of them. Becky doesn't catch on to this gambit until much later.
Sharp watched this graceless bedside [Miss Crawley's] with indomitable patience. Nothing escaped her; and, like a prudent steward, she found a use for everything. She told many a good story about Miss Crawley's illness in after days--stories which made the lady blush through her artificial carnations. During the illness she was never out of temper; always alert; she slept light, having a perfectly clear conscience; and could take that refreshment at almost any minute's warning. And so you saw very few traces of fatigue in her appearance. Her face might be a trifle paler, and the circles round her eyes a little blacker than usual; but whenever she came out from the sick-room she was always smiling, fresh, and neat, and looked as trim in her little dressing-gown and cap, as in her smartest evening suit. (14.35)
Again, Becky's work ethic shines through here. It's too bad it usually has to be put to such nefarious purposes! The idea that she finds "a use for everything" (here meaning the quirks of Miss Crawley's behavior that she can later use for funny anecdotes) is an excellent detail. She's like a person who lived through the Great Depression who doesn't throw anything away.
We have seen how Mrs. Firkin, the lady's maid, as soon as any event of importance to the Crawley family came to her knowledge, felt bound to communicate it to Mrs. Bute Crawley, at the Rectory; and have before mentioned how particularly kind and attentive that good-natured lady was to Miss Crawley's confidential servant. She had been a gracious friend to Miss Briggs, the companion, also; and had secured the latter's good-will by a number of those attentions and promises, which cost so little in the making, and are yet so valuable and agreeable to the recipient [...] Mrs. Bute had told Briggs and Firkin so often of the depth of her affection for them; and what she would do, if she had Miss Crawley's fortune, for friends so excellent and attached, that the ladies in question had the deepest regard for her; and felt as much gratitude and confidence as if Mrs. Bute had loaded them with the most expensive favours. Rawdon Crawley, on the other hand, like a selfish heavy dragoon as he was, never took the least trouble to conciliate his aunt's aides-de-camp, showed his contempt for the pair with entire frankness [...] Whereas, Mrs. Bute consulted her in matters of taste or difficulty, admired her poetry, and by a thousand acts of kindness and politeness, showed her appreciation of Briggs; and if she made Firkin a twopenny-halfpenny present, accompanied it with so many compliments, that the twopence-half-penny was transmuted into gold in the heart of the grateful waiting-maid, who, besides, was looking forwards quite contentedly to some prodigious benefit which must happen to her on the day when Mrs. Bute came into her fortune.
The different conduct of these two people is pointed out respectfully to the attention of persons commencing the world. Praise everybody, I say to such: never be squeamish, but speak out your compliment both point-blank in a man's face, and behind his back, when you know there is a reasonable chance of his hearing it again. Never lose a chance of saying a kind word. (19.1-3)
In the novel's world, there is no reason to do anything nice for niceness's sake because everything you do can be done for profit. So the narrator here points out that it's good policy to just go ahead and butter up every single person you meet because you never know when they'll become useful to you. How does that compare with what we normally consider moral behavior? Is this totally cynical or just clear-sighted?
Rebecca had her revenge now upon these insolent enemies [the haughty Bareacres family.] Lady Bareacres condescended to send her maid to the Captain's wife with her Ladyship's compliments, and a desire to know the price of Mrs. Crawley's horses. Mrs. Crawley returned a note with her compliments, and an intimation that it was not her custom to transact bargains with ladies' maids.
This curt reply brought the Earl in person to Becky's apartment; but he could get no more success than the first ambassador [...] What will not necessity do? The Countess herself actually came to wait upon Mrs. Crawley on the failure of her second envoy. She entreated her to name her own price; she even offered to invite Becky to Bareacres House [...] Rebecca laughed in her face [...] It was while enjoying the humiliation of her enemy that Rebecca caught sight of Jos [...] He too wanted to fly, and was on the look-out for the means of escape. "HE shall buy my horses," thought Rebecca, "and I'll ride the mare." [...] Rebecca asked him to come into her room, whither he followed her quite breathless to conclude the bargain. Jos seldom spent a half-hour in his life which cost him so much money. Rebecca, measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos's eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back [...] Jos ended by agreeing, as might be supposed of him. The sum he had to give her was so large that he was obliged to ask for time; so large as to be a little fortune to Rebecca. (32.34-54)
This is pure capitalism, a neat little lesson on the laws of supply and demand. When supply runs low (there aren't enough horses for everyone to get the heck out of Dodge), and the demand is high (but everyone really wants to escape Napoleon's marauding army), then the price will keep going up and up and up. Here, the price of horses is first offered in social currency: an ever-higher-ranked assortment of people coming to bargain with Becky and then finally an invitation to the Bareacres' house. Then the price switches to actual money and ends up securing a nice little nest egg for business-headed Becky. How do capitalist ethics work in the private world here? And why does social status as currency not really work in this case?
Now Crawley, from being only a brilliant amateur, had grown to be a consummate master of billiards. Like a great General, his genius used to rise with the danger, and when the luck had been unfavourable to him for a whole game, and the bets were consequently against him, he would, with consummate skill and boldness, make some prodigious hits which would restore the battle, and come in a victor at the end, to the astonishment of everybody--of everybody, that is, who was a stranger to his play. Those who were accustomed to see it were cautious how they staked their money against a man of such sudden resources and brilliant and overpowering skill.
At games of cards he was equally skilful; for though he would constantly lose money at the commencement of an evening, playing so carelessly and making such blunders, that newcomers were often inclined to think meanly of his talent; yet when roused to action and awakened to caution by repeated small losses, it was remarked that Crawley's play became quite different, and that he was pretty sure of beating his enemy thoroughly before the night was over. Indeed, very few men could say that they ever had the better of him. His successes were so repeated that no wonder the envious and the vanquished spoke sometimes with bitterness regarding them. And as the French say of the Duke of Wellington, who never suffered a defeat, that only an astonishing series of lucky accidents enabled him to be an invariable winner; yet even they allow that he cheated at Waterloo, and was enabled to win the last great trick: so it was hinted at headquarters in England that some foul play must have taken place in order to account for the continuous successes of Colonel Crawley. (36.7-8)
We're so used to Rawdon always being called an idiot that it's sort of a shock to find that he's actually quite clever about some things. Here, of course, the moral problem is that gambling is supposed to be a matter of luck. If all the players are simply relying on the way the cards run, then it's a fair game. But when you play with Rawdon, you're dealing with a card shark who is really good and knows how to cheat really well (as well as pull a good money hustle, from the sound of it). So does this make Rawdon morally suspect? Or is gambling itself already so ethically problematic that Rawdon's cheating doesn't really matter?
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind [...] What more has the Manager of the Performance to say?--To acknowledge the kindness with which it has been received in all the principal towns of England through which the Show has passed, and where it has been most favourably noticed by the respected conductors of the public Press, and by the Nobility and Gentry. He is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire. The famous little Becky Puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints, and lively on the wire; the Amelia Doll, though it has had a smaller circle of admirers, has yet been carved and dressed with the greatest care by the artist; the Dobbin Figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner; the Little Boys' Dance has been liked by some; and please to remark the richly dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared, and which Old Nick will fetch away at the end of this singular performance. (Introduction.1-4)
Why does the novel begin this way? What happens to our sense that the characters are real if they are dismissed as puppets and dolls? Is the narrator of a novel like the stage manager of a play?
At the little Paris theatres, on the other hand, you will not only hear the people yelling out "Ah gredin! Ah monstre:" and cursing the tyrant of the play from the boxes; but the actors themselves positively refuse to play the wicked parts, such as those of infames Anglais, brutal Cossacks, and what not, and prefer to appear at a smaller salary, in their real characters as loyal Frenchmen.
There is a theme running through the novel having to do with the distinction between real life and performance, and how the two often blend together. Here there is literally no difference, as the French actors are afraid that by playing negative characters, their own personalities will be somehow tainted. Is it odd that the audience doesn't seem to realize that putting on a persona is not the same thing as adopting that persona in real life?
"If [Rawdon] had but a little more brains," [Becky] thought to herself, "I might make something of him"; but she never let him perceive the opinion she had of him; listened with indefatigable complacency to his stories of the stable and the mess; laughed at all his jokes; felt the greatest interest in Jack Spatterdash, whose cab-horse had come down, and Bob Martingale, who had been taken up in a gambling-house, and Tom Cinqbars, who was going to ride the steeplechase. When he came home she was alert and happy: when he went out she pressed him to go: when he stayed at home, 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 don't know how much they hide from us: how watchful they are when they seem most artless and confidential: how often those frank smiles which they wear so easily, are traps to cajole or elude or disarm--I don't mean in your mere coquettes, but your domestic models, and paragons of female virtue. Who has not seen a woman hide the dulness of a stupid husband, or coax the fury of a savage one? 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; (17.23)
Wow. What makes for a good wife is being totally fake all the time and making sure her husband never finds out the truth? Talk about "life as theater."
Be cautious then, young ladies; be wary how you engage. Be shy of loving frankly; never tell all you feel, or (a better way still), feel very little. See the consequences of being prematurely honest and confiding, and mistrust yourselves and everybody. Get yourselves married as they do in France, where the lawyers are the bridesmaids and confidantes. At any rate, never have any feelings which may make you uncomfortable, or make any promises which you cannot at any required moment command and withdraw. That is the way to get on, and be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair. (18.23)
In the universe of the novel, real feelings and authentic lives are to be as hidden and repressed as possible, because showing anyone what's really going on in your psyche will leave you vulnerable. But of course, this is also meant to be a funny, outrageous aside from the narrator, who is throwing up his hands at the universe he is describing and drawing whatever sad morals from it he can for our amusement.
Sick-bed homilies and pious reflections are, to be sure, out of place in mere story-books, and we are not going (after the fashion of some novelists of the present day) to cajole the public into a sermon, when it is only a comedy that the reader pays his money to witness. But, without preaching, the truth may surely be borne in mind, that the bustle, and triumph, and laughter, and gaiety which Vanity Fair exhibits in public, do not always pursue the performer into private life, and that the most dreary depression of spirits and dismal repentances sometimes overcome him. Recollection of the best ordained banquets will scarcely cheer sick epicures. Reminiscences of the most becoming dresses and brilliant ball triumphs will go very little way to console faded beauties. Perhaps statesmen, at a particular period of existence, are not much gratified at thinking over the most triumphant divisions; and the success or the pleasure of yesterday becomes of very small account when a certain (albeit uncertain) morrow is in view, about which all of us must some day or other be speculating. O brother wearers of motley! Are there not moments when one grows sick of grinning and tumbling, and the jingling of cap and bells? (19.8)
There is something about the theatricality of the novel that causes the narrator to go off on these rants and raves, which are themselves very theatrical, no? Can't you just picture him throwing his hands up and rolling his eyes? It seems hard to take these warnings seriously because, after all, they are coming from a world that is not entirely like our own. Or does that somehow make the narrator's asides all the more meaningful?
There is little doubt that old Osborne believed all he said, and that the girls were quite earnest in their protestations of affection for Miss Swartz. People in Vanity Fair fasten on to rich folks quite naturally [...] Their affections rush out to meet and welcome money. Their kind sentiments awaken spontaneously towards the interesting possessors of it [...] And the proof is, that the major part of the Osborne family, who had not, in fifteen years, been able to get up a hearty regard for Amelia Sedley, became as fond of Miss Swartz in the course of a single evening as the most romantic advocate of friendship at first sight could desire. (21.3)
What is fascinating here is that the Osbornes are actually making friends with money but are able to convince themselves that they are befriending a person. Whom are we meant to pity most in this sad little drama? Mr. Osborne, who wants his son to marry this woman only because she's rich? His daughters, who have been brought up to only look at the size of someone's bank account as a measure of character? Or Miss Swartz, who is being conned into some kind of relationship?
George meanwhile, with his hat on one side, his elbows squared, and his swaggering martial air, made for Bedford Row, and stalked into the attorney's offices as if he was lord of every pale-faced clerk who was scribbling there. He ordered somebody to inform Mr. Higgs that Captain Osborne was waiting, in a fierce and patronizing way, as if the pekin of an attorney, who had thrice his brains, fifty times his money, and a thousand times his experience, was a wretched underling who should instantly leave all his business in life to attend on the Captain's pleasure. He did not see the sneer of contempt which passed all round the room, from the first clerk to the articled gents, from the articled gents to the ragged writers and white-faced runners, in clothes too tight for them, as he sate there tapping his boot with his cane, and thinking what a parcel of miserable poor devils these were. The miserable poor devils knew all about his affairs. They talked about them over their pints of beer at their public-house clubs to other clerks of a night. Ye gods, what do not attorneys and attorneys' clerks know in London! Nothing is hidden from their inquisition, and their families mutely rule our city. (26.19)
George's gentleman act only works on those who want to be fooled by him. Here, inside the machinery of capitalism (where the sausage is actually made), everyone sees right through him. Notice, though, how George is frequently unaware of the people around him and unable to read their expressions. Here it's the sneers, elsewhere it's General Tufto. For a guy who looks in the mirror so much, he's not very good with human faces.
"What a humbug that woman is!" honest old Dobbin mumbled to George, when he came back from Rebecca's box, whither he had conducted her in perfect silence, and with a countenance as glum as an undertaker's. "She writhes and twists about like a snake. All the time she was here, didn't you see, George, how she was acting at the General over the way?"
"Humbug--acting! Hang it, she's the nicest little woman in England," George replied, showing his white teeth, and giving his ambrosial whiskers a twirl. (29.38-39)
Dobbin is the only character who is immune to Becky's charms and her appealing performance. To him, she is acting like a snake, both because he can see her fakeness and because he is attracted to passive, inert women like Amelia. Think about the way he responds to the equally aggressive Glorvina O'Dowd later.
So Mrs. Bute, after the first shock of rage and disappointment, began to accommodate herself as best she could to her altered fortunes and to save and retrench with all her might. She instructed her daughters how to bear poverty cheerfully, and invented a thousand notable methods to conceal or evade it. She took them about to balls and public places in the neighbourhood, with praiseworthy energy; nay, she entertained her friends in a hospitable comfortable manner at the Rectory, and much more frequently than before dear Miss Crawley's legacy had fallen in. From her outward bearing nobody would have supposed that the family had been disappointed in their expectations, or have guessed from her frequent appearance in public how she pinched and starved at home. Her girls had more milliners' furniture than they had ever enjoyed before. They appeared perseveringly at the Winchester and Southampton assemblies; they penetrated to Cowes for the race-balls and regatta-gaieties there; and their carriage, with the horses taken from the plough, was at work perpetually, until it began almost to be believed that the four sisters had had fortunes left them by their aunt, whose name the family never mentioned in public but with the most tender gratitude and regard. I know no sort of lying which is more frequent in Vanity Fair than this, and it may be remarked how people who practise it take credit to themselves for their hypocrisy, and fancy that they are exceedingly virtuous and praiseworthy, because they are able to deceive the world with regard to the extent of their means. (39.2)
It's interesting that Mrs. Bute does pretty much the same thing as Becky after Miss Crawley dies. Both women do their best to act like they got a bunch of money in the will. Becky does this overseas, so that Rawdon's credit doesn't run out, and Mrs. Bute does it in the country, so that people will think her daughters have a dowry. Mrs. Bute is frequently a shadow of Becky. Why make a middle-aged married woman an echo of our anti-heroine?
Has the beloved reader, in his experience of society, never heard similar remarks by good-natured female friends; who always wonder what you CAN see in Miss Smith that is so fascinating; or what COULD induce Major Jones to propose for that silly insignificant simpering Miss Thompson, who has nothing but her wax-doll face to recommend her? What is there in a pair of pink cheeks and blue eyes forsooth? [...] It is quite edifying to hear women speculate upon the worthlessness and the duration of beauty. (12.2)
Another unkind moment about women and their innate jealousy of each other. But then again, if marriages are contracted in the manner of business arrangements, of course competing merchants are going to run each other down.
"What sort of a person is this Miss Sharp, Firkin? I little thought, while enjoying my Christmas revels in the elegant home of my firm friends, the Reverend Lionel Delamere and his amiable lady, to find a stranger had taken my place in the affections of my dearest, my still dearest Matilda!" (14.24)
Briggs is probably the novel's most pathetic character. She is employed as a companion – which is kind of like a governess, except for old people. She is abused, kicked around, and stepped on by Miss Crawley. And after all that, she has to sit back and watch Becky become Miss Crawley's favorite. Do we feel bad for laughing at the affected speech patterns that show signs of the terrible, terrible poetry she must have written and published?
Captain Rawdon got an extension of leave on his aunt's illness, and remained dutifully at home. He was always in her antechamber. (She lay sick in the state bedroom, into which you entered by the little blue saloon.) His father was always meeting him there; or if he came down the corridor ever so quietly, his father's door was sure to open, and the hyena face of the old gentleman to glare out. What was it set one to watch the other so? A generous rivalry, no doubt, as to which should be most attentive to the dear sufferer in the state bedroom. Rebecca used to come out and comfort both of them; or one or the other of them rather. Both of these worthy gentlemen were most anxious to have news of the invalid from her little confidential messenger. (14.32)
There are really no normal father-son relationships in the novel. Osborne is obsessed with and lives vicariously through his son. Sedley is ashamed of and then becomes pathetically dependent on his son. Here, Rawdon and Sir Pitt feel sexual jealousy toward each other, both with good reason, as they each know the other's reputation with the ladies. But still, ew.
When Sir Pitt Crawley heard that Rebecca was married to his son, he broke out into a fury of language, which it would do no good to repeat in this place, as indeed it sent poor Briggs shuddering out of the room; and with her we will shut the door upon the figure of the frenzied old man, wild with hatred and insane with baffled desire. (16.49)
The novel unsurprisingly values beauty and youth, so the idea of an old man being this crazed with lust is meant to be an unpleasant image.
[W]ith a purple choking face, [Mr. Osborne] then began. "How dare you, sir, mention that person's name before Miss Swartz to-day, in my drawing-room? I ask you, sir, how dare you do it?"
"Stop, sir," says George, "don't say dare, sir. Dare isn't a word to be used to a Captain in the British Army."
"I shall say what I like to my son, sir. I can cut him off with a shilling if I like. I can make him a beggar if I like. I WILL say what I like," the elder said.
"I'm a gentleman though I AM your son, sir," George answered haughtily. "Any communications which you have to make to me, or any orders which you may please to give, I beg may be couched in that kind of language which I am accustomed to hear."
Whenever the lad assumed his haughty manner, it always created either great awe or great irritation in the parent. Old Osborne stood in secret terror of his son as a better gentleman than himself; and perhaps my readers may have remarked in their experience of this Vanity Fair of ours, that there is no character which a low-minded man so much mistrusts as that of a gentleman. (21.35-39)
Osborne has worked all his life to make a gentleman of his son, but when George actually starts acting like one, he doesn't like what he sees. George takes on not just the outward qualities of a gentleman – good looks, good manners, and money – he also sometimes busts out the whole "honor" thing. This is extremely threatening to Osborne, most likely because honor and smart business practices don't really mix. When George talks about his gentlemanly honor, Osborne feels his son is overstepping him socially and cannot help but be envious of his creation.
"Talk about kenal boats; my dear! Ye should see the kenal boats between Dublin and Ballinasloe. It's there the rapid travelling is; and the beautiful cattle. Sure me fawther got a goold medal (and his Excellency himself eat a slice of it, and said never was finer mate in his loif) for a four-year-old heifer, the like of which ye never saw in this country any day." And Jos owned with a sigh, "that for good streaky beef, really mingled with fat and lean, there was no country like England."
"Except Ireland, where all your best mate comes from," said the Major's lady; proceeding, as is not unusual with patriots of her nation, to make comparisons greatly in favour of her own country. (28.11-12)
Mrs. O'Dowd is a wonderful character, and her reverse jealousy of England is one of the hilarious stand-bys in the novel. No matter what comes up in conversation, she is bound to insist that its Irish counterpart is bigger, faster, and generally better in every way. But she does all of this so calmly and unemotionally that she is kind of the antithesis of jealousy.
She gave George the queerest, knowingest look, when they were together, a look which might have been interpreted, "Don't you see the state of affairs, and what a fool I'm making of him?" But he did not perceive it. He was thinking of his own plans, and lost in pompous admiration of his own irresistible powers of pleasing.
The curses to which the General gave a low utterance, as soon as Rebecca and her conqueror had quitted him, were so deep, that I am sure no compositor would venture to print them were they written down. They came from the General's heart; and a wonderful thing it is to think that the human heart is capable of generating such produce, and can throw out, as occasion demands, such a supply of lust and fury, rage and hatred. (29.35-36)
Here yet again is George not understanding what's happening around him. He doesn't notice General Tufto's crush on Becky, and he doesn't catch her hinting about what's going on either. Meanwhile, Becky knows how to play the General's jealousy like a finely tuned instrument (nowadays she'd be called a tease). The novel is full of these sexually frustrated old men.
It must not be imagined that Mr. Pitt Crawley's artifices escaped the attention of his dear relations at the Rectory at Queen's Crawley. Hampshire and Sussex lie very close together, and Mrs. Bute had friends in the latter county who took care to inform her of all, and a great deal more than all, that passed at Miss Crawley's house at Brighton. (34.15)
Thackeray's power of understatement, the double negative ("must not be imagined" that Pitt's doings "escaped" notice), and the "dear" make this really funny. He's basically saying, "Did you think Mrs. Bute had written off the money? Think again. She's crazy and has spies everywhere."
Pitt was in the room with Miss Crawley when the lad [James Crawley] was announced, and looked very blank when his name was mentioned. The old lady had plenty of humour, and enjoyed her correct nephew's perplexity. She asked after all the people at the Rectory with great interest; and said she was thinking of paying them a visit. She praised the lad to his face, and said he was well-grown and very much improved, and that it was a pity his sisters had not some of his good looks; and finding, on inquiry, that he had taken up his quarters at an hotel, would not hear of his stopping there, but bade Mr. Bowls send for Mr. James Crawley's things instantly; "and hark ye, Bowls," she added, with great graciousness, "you will have the goodness to pay Mr. James's bill."
She flung Pitt a look of arch triumph, which caused that diplomatist almost to choke with envy. Much as he had ingratiated himself with his aunt, she had never yet invited him to stay under her roof, and here was a young whipper-snapper, who at first sight was made welcome there. (34.28-29)
Like Becky, Miss Crawley enjoys toying with men's jealousy. Obviously she has no sex appeal to exploit, so she has to rely on her fat bank account instead. It ends up amounting to the same kind of thing, though – the pleasure of seeing someone squirm with envy.
[Amelia's] sensibilities were so weak and tremulous that perhaps they ought not to be talked about in a book. I was told by Dr. Pestler (now a most flourishing lady's physician, with a sumptuous dark green carriage, a prospect of speedy knighthood, and a house in Manchester Square) that her grief at weaning the child was a sight that would have unmanned a Herod. He was very soft-hearted many years ago, and his wife was mortally jealous of Mrs. Amelia, then and long afterwards.
Perhaps the doctor's lady had good reason for her jealousy: most women shared it, of those who formed the small circle of Amelia's acquaintance, and were quite angry at the enthusiasm with which the other sex regarded her. For almost all men who came near her loved her; though no doubt they would be at a loss to tell you why. She was not brilliant, nor witty, nor wise over much, nor extraordinarily handsome. But wherever she went she touched and charmed every one of the male sex, as invariably as she awakened the scorn and incredulity of her own sisterhood. I think it was her weakness which was her principal charm--a kind of sweet submission and softness, which seemed to appeal to each man she met for his sympathy and protection. (38.17-18)
Amelia creates jealousy of a different sort. She is the permanent damsel in distress whom men tend to want to save, much to their wives' chagrin. Sadly, though (or maybe not?), Amelia doesn't really understand her powers and so can't benefit from their effects. In this, she is not very well-equipped for the world of Vanity Fair.
"I am here to speak French with the children," Rebecca said abruptly, "not to teach them music, and save money for you. Give me money, and I will teach them."
Minerva [Miss Pinkerton] was obliged to yield, and, of course, disliked her from that day. "For five-and-thirty years," she said, and with great justice, "I never have seen the individual who has dared in my own house to question my authority. I have nourished a viper in my bosom."
"A viper--a fiddlestick," said Miss Sharp to the old lady, almost fainting with astonishment. "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."
It was in vain that the old lady asked her if she was aware she was speaking to Miss Pinkerton? Rebecca laughed in her face, with a horrid sarcastic demoniacal laughter, that almost sent the schoolmistress into fits. "Give me a sum of money," said the girl, "and get rid of me--or, if you like better, get me a good place as governess in a nobleman's family--you can do so if you please." And in their further disputes she always returned to this point, "Get me a situation--we hate each other, and I am ready to go." (2.19-23)
Although (or maybe because) Becky is the novel's best actress, she also knows how to be plainspoken. She is the only one who can cut through the bull in almost any social situation and just tell it like it is. Here, her declaration to Miss Pinkerton is shockingly inappropriate, but it also totally hits the nail on the head.
Whatever Sir Pitt Crawley's qualities might be, good or bad, he did not make the least disguise of them. He talked of himself incessantly, sometimes in the coarsest and vulgarest Hampshire accent; sometimes adopting the tone of a man of the world. (7.38)
Why does Sir Pitt speak in a low-class accent when he knows better? How does this bit of info help us understand his character?
"What have we for dinner, Betsy?" said the Baronet.
"Mutton broth, I believe, Sir Pitt," answered Lady Crawley.
"Mouton aux navets," added the butler gravely (pronounce, if you please, moutongonavvy); "and the soup is potage de mouton a l'Ecossaise. The side-dishes contain pommes de terre au naturel, and choufleur a l'eau."
"Mutton's mutton," said the Baronet, "and a devilish good thing. What SHIP was it, Horrocks, and when did you kill?" "One of the black-faced Scotch, Sir Pitt: we killed on Thursday.
"Who took any?"
"Steel, of Mudbury, took the saddle and two legs, Sir Pitt; but he says the last was too young and confounded woolly, Sir Pitt."
"Will you take some potage, Miss ah--Miss Blunt? said Mr. Crawley.
"Capital Scotch broth, my dear," said Sir Pitt, "though they call it by a French name."
"I believe it is the custom, sir, in decent society," said Mr. Crawley, haughtily, "to call the dish as I have called it"; and it was served to us on silver soup plates by the footmen in the canary coats, with the mouton aux navets. (8.29-37)
Ha! Should we unpack some of the humor in this funny scene? So, they're eating really sad peasant food: mutton (old sheep) and turnips. Ew. But they're serving it super fancy-style, and the butler insists on using French words for the food to class it up. Meanwhile, Sir Pitt is swearing ("devilish" was a mild swear word back then) and talking in his low-class country accent ("ship" is how he says "sheep").
When the young men went upstairs, and after Osborne's introduction to Miss Crawley, he walked up to Rebecca with a patronising, easy swagger. He was going to be kind to her and protect her. He would even shake hands with her, as a friend of Amelia's; and saying, "Ah, Miss Sharp! how-dy-doo?" held out his left hand towards her, expecting that she would be quite confounded at the honour.
Miss Sharp put out her right forefinger, and gave him a little nod, so cool and killing, that Rawdon Crawley, watching the operations from the other room, could hardly restrain his laughter as he saw the Lieutenant's entire discomfiture [...] the Lieutenant, by way of beginning the conversation, agreeably asked Rebecca how she liked her new place.
"My place?" said Miss Sharp, coolly, "how kind of you to remind me of it! It's a tolerably good place: the wages are pretty good--not so good as Miss Wirt's, I believe, with your sisters in Russell Square [...] You can't think what a difference there is though. We are not so wealthy in Hampshire as you lucky folks of the City. But then I am in a gentleman's family--good old English stock. I suppose you know Sir Pitt's father refused a peerage. And you see how I am treated. I am pretty comfortable. Indeed it is rather a good place. But how very good of you to inquire!" (14.86-93)
Again, Becky turns the tables in a social situation by cutting through the bull and calling it like she sees it. George is trying to be all condescending, but Becky knows he isn't really an aristocrat, and she out-condescends him mercilessly. And at this point, we are totally on Team Becky, so this scene pretty much rocks.
Rebecca was a young lady of too much resolution and energy of character to permit herself much useless and unseemly sorrow for the irrevocable past; so, having devoted only the proper portion of regret to it, she wisely turned her whole attention towards the future, which was now vastly more important to her. And she surveyed her position, and its hopes, doubts, and chances.
In the first place, she was MARRIED--that was a great fact. Sir Pitt knew it. She was not so much surprised into the avowal, as induced to make it by a sudden calculation. It must have come some day: and why not now as at a later period? He who would have married her himself must at least be silent with regard to her marriage. How Miss Crawley would bear the news--was the great question. Misgivings Rebecca had; but she remembered all Miss Crawley had said; the old lady's avowed contempt for birth; her daring liberal opinions; her general romantic propensities; her almost doting attachment to her nephew, and her repeatedly expressed fondness for Rebecca herself. She is so fond of him, Rebecca thought, that she will forgive him anything: she is so used to me that I don't think she could be comfortable without me: when the eclaircissement comes there will be a scene, and hysterics, and a great quarrel, and then a great reconciliation. At all events, what use was there in delaying? the die was thrown, and now or to-morrow the issue must be the same. And so, resolved that Miss Crawley should have the news, the young person debated in her mind as to the best means of conveying it to her; and whether she should face the storm that must come, or fly and avoid it until its first fury was blown over. (15.48-49)
Why does Becky, who is a master of communication, blow this? Is it because she is forced to reveal the information not on her own terms but as a result of Sir Pitt's unexpected proposal? How could she so misread Miss Crawley's character that she leaves the house where she has been ruling the roost? There are a few moments where Becky's mistakes seem artificially planted in the text just to make the plot move forward. This seems like one of them to us. What do you think?
The night before, Mr. Clump and Dr. Squills had had a consultation (over a bottle of wine at the house of Sir Lapin Warren, whose lady was about to present him with a thirteenth blessing), regarding Miss Crawley and her case.
"What a little harpy that woman from Hampshire is, Clump," Squills remarked, "that has seized upon old Tilly Crawley. Devilish good Madeira."
"What a fool Rawdon Crawley has been," Clump replied, "to go and marry a governess! There was something about the girl, too."
"Green eyes, fair skin, pretty figure, famous frontal development," Squills remarked. "There is something about her; and Crawley was a fool, Squills."
"A d---- fool--always was," the apothecary replied.
"Of course the old girl will fling him over," said the physician, and after a pause added, "She'll cut up well, I suppose."
"Cut up," says Clump with a grin; "I wouldn't have her cut up for two hundred a year."
"That Hampshire woman will kill her in two months, Clump, my boy, if she stops about her," Dr. Squills said. "Old woman; full feeder; nervous subject; palpitation of the heart; pressure on the brain; apoplexy; off she goes. Get her up, Clump; get her out: or I wouldn't give many weeks' purchase for your two hundred a year." And it was acting upon this hint that the worthy apothecary spoke with so much candour to Mrs. Bute Crawley. (19.30-37)
Another great exchange. Because these two doctors couldn't care less about Miss Crawley, Becky, Rawdon, or anyone else that we know in the novel, they are able to talk about their dramatic and horrendous actions in the most brutally honest, most dispassionate tone possible. Is this meant to also be indicative of how removed from their patients' emotional lives doctors are?
Mr. Dobbin went to seek John Sedley at his house of call in the City, the Tapioca Coffee-house, where, since his own offices were shut up, and fate had overtaken him, the poor broken-down old gentleman used to betake himself daily, and write letters and receive them, and tie them up into mysterious bundles, several of which he carried in the flaps of his coat. I don't know anything more dismal than that business and bustle and mystery of a ruined man: those letters from the wealthy which he shows you: those worn greasy documents promising support and offering condolence which he places wistfully before you, and on which he builds his hopes of restoration and future fortune. My beloved reader has no doubt in the course of his experience been waylaid by many such a luckless companion. He takes you into the corner; he has his bundle of papers out of his gaping coat pocket; and the tape off, and the string in his mouth, and the favourite letters selected and laid before you; and who does not know the sad eager half-crazy look which he fixes on you with his hopeless eyes? (20.9)
In a way, Sedley's sad little stacks of neat useless documents are an echo of the other kinds of bundles of documents we see in the novel: Amelia's bunch of letters from George that she cannot bear to send back to him, Mr. Osborne's collection of George's various school writings, and Becky's stash of money and checks in the locked drawer of the little desk Rawdon breaks open. In each case, the bundle of papers is a reminder of things that are not to be.
The recognition was immediate. Rebecca flew into the arms of her dearest friend. Crawley and Osborne shook hands together cordially enough: and Becky, in the course of a very few hours, found means to make the latter forget that little unpleasant passage of words which had happened between them. "Do you remember the last time we met at Miss Crawley's, when I was so rude to you, dear Captain Osborne? I thought you seemed careless about dear Amelia. It was that made me angry: and so pert: and so unkind: and so ungrateful. Do forgive me!" Rebecca said, and she held out her hand with so frank and winning a grace, that Osborne could not but take it. By humbly and frankly acknowledging yourself to be in the wrong, there is no knowing, my son, what good you may do. I knew once a gentleman and very worthy practitioner in Vanity Fair, who used to do little wrongs to his neighbours on purpose, and in order to apologise for them in an open and manly way afterwards--and what ensued? My friend Crocky Doyle was liked everywhere, and deemed to be rather impetuous--but the honestest fellow. Becky's humility passed for sincerity with George Osborne. (22.40)
Compare this to the earlier scene of Becky telling George off for talking down to her as a governess. She has learned even more communication styles than she knew before – here, she demonstrates the effectiveness of the earnest apology. Now she doesn't need to actually be a truth-teller; she just has to seem like one.
Rawdon sate down, and wrote off, "Brighton, Thursday," and "My dear Aunt," with great rapidity: but there the gallant officer's imagination failed him. He mumbled the end of his pen, and looked up in his wife's face. She could not help laughing at his rueful countenance, and marching up and down the room with her hands behind her, the little woman began to dictate a letter, which he took down [...] "She won't recognise my style in that," said Becky. "I made the sentences short and brisk on purpose." And this authentic missive was dispatched under cover to Miss Briggs.
Old Miss Crawley laughed when Briggs, with great mystery, handed her over this candid and simple statement. "We may read it now Mrs. Bute is away," she said. "Read it to me, Briggs."
When Briggs had read the epistle out, her patroness laughed more. "Don't you see, you goose," she said to Briggs, who professed to be much touched by the honest affection which pervaded the composition, "don't you see that Rawdon never wrote a word of it. He never wrote to me without asking for money in his life, and all his letters are full of bad spelling, and dashes, and bad grammar. (25.70-83)
This again seems like a silly mistake for Becky to have made. Hasn't she seen Rawdon's bad writing before? After all, he used to write her notes at Queen's Crawley. Why would she write a grammatically correct letter when she is usually so good at figuring out the right tone and communication style for any given situation? This plot element is frustrating.
Many timid remonstrances had she uttered to George in behalf of her brother, but the former in his trenchant way cut these entreaties short. "I'm an honest man," he said, "and if I have a feeling I show it, as an honest man will. How the deuce, my dear, would you have me behave respectfully to such a fool as your brother?" (31.2)
This is George's attempt to cut through the bull. The problem is, he does it to the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. Mostly he does it to people he perceives as inferior in order to lower them even further, when the better way to use this skill would be as a leveler for those higher. That's what Becky does, and that's why we love it when she does it.