Study Guide

Vanity Fair Women and Femininity

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Women and Femininity

[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?