Study Guide

Vanity Fair Language and Communications

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Language and Communications

"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.