SPOILER ALERT: This article references events in the novel Vanity Fair.
Becky Sharp is the central character in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1840 novel Vanity Fair. It’s not right to call her the heroine, because the author states that this work is a novel without a hero. Nevertheless, whenever Vanity Fair re-emerges in our consciousness, courtesy of a film or TV adaptation, the character of Becky is seized upon and positioned as a representative of the age and as a role model for women.
We love her pluckiness, her bad-assness, her determination. We admire the way she carves her own path from ignominious beginnings to mixing with the cream of society without needing a man to save her. She is ambitious, whip-smart, ultra-modern. See how she reinvents herself, creates her own brand! She would be all over social media. Just imagine her Instagram account! Hey, she would be a match for Kim Kardashian!
Becky Sharp is undoubtedly a vibrant and compelling creation. We can admire her for many things, not least her ability to captivate and entertain us readers and viewers as well as those she manipulates for her own ends, but to do so without acknowledging the moral emptiness at her core is to distort the totality of her creation.
By embracing her uncritically, we run the risk of missing the complexity of her characterisation, and of, perhaps, placing ourselves more firmly than we would like in Thackeray’s gallery of characters who are shallow, mercenary, selfish and calculating, and too easily taken in by the flashy and tawdry delights of Vanity Fair.
A poor start in life
From birth, Becky has had the cards stacked against her. She comes from a raffish, Bohemian background. Living with her father’s alcoholism and physical violence, entertaining his disreputable friends and dealing with his creditors means that she needs to grow up very quickly. She has ‘been a woman since she was eight years old’.
How fully she deserves to escape from the from the ‘dismal precocity of poverty’ and make for herself the life she wants, a life which depends on acquiring money and a rich husband in the face of snobbish prejudice.
Well, good luck to her, as she takes her place in the roll call of delightful fictional heroines past and present whose stories hinge on such a premise. And props to her cleverness in deploying a wonderful array of flirtatious stratagems.
Cigar box of tricks
As she prepares to hook the very fat, very dense Jos Sedley, officer in the East India Army, she thinks, ‘I must be very quiet, and very much interested in India’. She has a little trick with a cigar which so entrances Rawdon Crawley that she uses it again on George Osborne.
She does the ‘poor friendless orphan’ number at the drop of a hat, and works the ‘sweet humble grateful governess’ schtick to perfection. Every man bar one falls for her. The one who doesn’t is William Dobbin. He has always disliked her and seen through her, and he is the character who, in spite of frequently being presented as ridiculous, comes closest to being the novel’s moral compass.
That’s why we can’t root whole-heartedly for Becky. It is true that Thackeray plays with our responses through his role as narrator, with a tone that ranges from gentle irony and amusement to outright disgust, and with a slipperiness that means we can never be entirely sure of his narrative.
But there is enough doubt cast on Becky’s actions to make us condemn her lack of morality.
Lying, cheating, stealing may be seen as fair game in the war of survival in a world which is venal and corrupt, but it’s Becky’s treatment of those who are close to her which is hard to forgive. She pretends to be Amelia’s best friend, but patronises her to her face and mocks and sneers at ‘that little pink-faced chit’ behind her back. She flaunts her flirtation with Amelia’s husband in front of her nose, and encourages his attentions to the extent that, six weeks into his marriage, he asks Becky to run away with him.
To facilitate an affair with the rich and hideous Lord Steyne, we are led to believe that Becky gets her loyal and loving husband out of the way by having him arrested for debt. She may or may not have hastened or caused the death of Jos Sedley, but the combination of mysterious illnesses and an insurance payout suggests skullduggery.
And yet there are scenes where our enjoyment of the character and the way she is presented lead to a tolerance of ambiguity which may not reflect well on us, but which is a tribute to the novelist’s skill. The stand-out scene must be where, towards the end of the book, Becky has a last-ditch attempt at ensnaring the attentions of Jos Sedley (not a challenging target, it must be said). This is a laugh-out-loud, masterly description of their meeting. Becky is in a vagabond and disreputable way of life (as ever, details hinted at but not disclosed), in a small German town, when their paths cross again.
Becky stage-manages the encounter to present herself as a respectable woman fallen on hard times and mistreated by the world, and who has always harboured a secret affection for Jos.
Hearing Jos approach her room she hurriedly hides a brandy bottle, the sausage she has been eating and a pot of rouge into her bed, on which she places herself in a pretty pose. As Becky launches into her melodramatic tale of woe, reaching a climax as she describes how her darling son, her life, her prayer, her blessing, was torn from her loving arms, the brandy bottle clinks against the plate which holds the sausage. Thackeray observes, ‘Both were moved, no doubt, by the exhibition of so much grief.’ It’s a great line in a great scene, one which tests our perception of Becky by softening our hostile response through humour.
There is no doubt, though, about Becky’s failings when it comes to her and Rawdon’s son. She dislikes him and bullies him. She boxes his ears. We are told that he bores her. For two years, between the ages of six and eight, she hardly speaks to little Rawdon. The child spends his time in the attic or in the kitchen where there is some company. The maid looks after him, and when she leaves, the boy cries through the night until another compassionate housemaid comforts him. ‘It’s my cherub crying for his nurse,’ Becky says to Lord Steyne when the child’s sobs threaten to disrupt her entertainment downstairs. When they go away for a family Christmas, ‘Becky would have liked to leave the little brat behind’. At the gathering, Becky kisses her son in a display of affection, and he says that she never kisses him at home. Rumbled.
We probably need to tug on this thread in the novel to realign ourselves on the side of the angels. The pull of a sparky, clever, good-natured character with a keen eye for self-promotion is dangerously seductive.