William Makepeace Thackeray
William Makepeace Thackeray
born July 18, 1811, Calcutta, India
died Dec. 24, 1863, London, Eng.
English novelist whose reputation rests chiefly on Vanity Fair
(1847–48), a novel of the Napoleonic period in England, and The History
of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), set in the early 18th century.
Thackeray was the only son of Richmond Thackeray, an administrator in
the East India Company. His father died in 1815, and in 1816 Thackeray
was sent home to England. His mother joined him in 1820, having married
(1817) an engineering officer with whom she had been in love before she
met Richmond Thackeray. After attending several grammar schools
Thackeray went in 1822 to Charterhouse, the London public (private)
school, where he led a rather lonely and miserable existence.
He was happier while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge
(1828–30). In 1830 he left Cambridge without taking a degree, and during
1831–33 he studied law at the Middle Temple, London. He then considered
painting as a profession; his artistic gifts are seen in his letters and
many of his early writings, which are amusingly and energetically
illustrated. All his efforts at this time have a dilettante air,
understandable in a young man who, on coming of age in 1832, had
inherited £20,000 from his father. He soon lost his fortune, however,
through gambling and unlucky speculations and investments. In 1836,
while studying art in Paris, he married a penniless Irish girl, and his
stepfather bought a newspaper so that he could remain there as its
correspondent. After the paper’s failure (1837) he took his wife back to
Bloomsbury, London, and became a hardworking and prolific professional
Of Thackeray’s three daughters, one died in infancy (1839); and in
1840, after her last confinement, Mrs. Thackeray became insane. She
never recovered and long survived her husband, living with friends in
the country. Thackeray was, in effect, a widower, relying much on club
life and gradually giving more and more attention to his daughters, for
whom he established a home in London in 1846. The serial publication in
1847–48 of his novel Vanity Fair brought Thackeray both fame and
prosperity, and from then on he was an established author on the English
Thackeray’s one serious romantic attachment in his later life, to
Jane Brookfield, can be traced in his letters. She was the wife of a
friend of his Cambridge days, and during Thackeray’s “widowerhood,” when
his life lacked an emotional centre, he found one in the Brookfield
home. Henry Brookfield’s insistence in 1851 that his wife’s passionate
but platonic friendship with Thackeray should end was a grief greater
than any the author had known since his wife’s descent into insanity.
Thackeray tried to find consolation in travel, lecturing in the
United States on The English Humorists of the 18th Century (1852–53;
published 1853) and on The Four Georges (1855–56; published 1860). But
after 1856 he settled in London. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament
in 1857, quarreled with Dickens, formerly a friendly rival, in the
so-called “Garrick Club Affair” (1858), and in 1860 founded The Cornhill
Magazine, becoming its editor. After he died in 1863, a commemorative
bust of him was placed in Westminster Abbey.
The 19th century was the age of the magazine, which had been developed
to meet the demand for family reading among the growing middle class. In
the late 1830s Thackeray became a notable contributor of articles on
varied topics to Fraser’s Magazine, The New Monthly Magazine, and,
later, to Punch. His work was unsigned or written under such pen names
as Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Fitz-Boodle, The Fat Contributor, or
Ikey Solomons. He collected the best of these early writings in
Miscellanies, 4 vol. (1855–57). These include The Yellowplush
Correspondence, the memoirs and diary of a young cockney footman written
in his own vocabulary and style; Major Gahagan (1838–39), a fantasy of
soldiering in India; Catherine (1839–40), a burlesque of the popular
“Newgate novels” of romanticized crime and low life, and itself a good
realistic crime story; The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great
Hoggarty Diamond (1841), which was an earlier version of the young
married life described in Philip; and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844;
revised as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, 1856), which is a historical
novel and his first full-length work. Barry Lyndon is an excellent,
speedy, satirical narrative until the final sadistic scenes and was a
trial run for the great historical novels, especially Vanity Fair. The
Book of Snobs (1848) is a collection of articles that had appeared
successfully in Punch (as “The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves,”
1846–47). It consists of sketches of London characters and displays
Thackeray’s virtuosity in quick character-drawing. The Rose and the
Ring, Thackeray’s Christmas book for 1855, remains excellent
entertainment, as do some of his verses; like many good prose writers,
he had a facility in writing light verse and ballads.
With Vanity Fair (1847–48), the first work published under his own name,
Thackeray adopted the system of publishing a novel serially in monthly
parts that had been so successfully used by Dickens. Set in the second
decade of the 19th century, the period of the Regency, the novel deals
mainly with the interwoven fortunes of two contrasting women, Amelia
Sedley and Becky Sharp. The latter, an unprincipled adventuress, is the
leading personage and is perhaps the most memorable character Thackeray
created. Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” the novel is deliberately
antiheroic: Thackeray states that in this novel his object is to
“indicate . . . that we are for the most part . . . foolish and selfish
people . . . all eager after vanities.”
The wealthy, wellborn, passive Amelia Sedley and the ambitious,
energetic, scheming, provocative, and essentially amoral Becky Sharp,
daughter of a poor drawing master, are contrasted in their fortunes and
reactions to life, but the contrast of their characters is not the
simple one between moral good and evil—both are presented with
dispassionate sympathy. Becky is the character around whom all the men
play their parts in an upper middle-class and aristocratic background.
Amelia marries George Osborne, but George, just before he is killed at
the Battle of Waterloo, is ready to desert his young wife for Becky, who
has fought her way up through society to marriage with Rawdon Crawley, a
young officer of good family. Crawley, disillusioned, finally leaves
Becky, and in the end virtue apparently triumphs, Amelia marries her
lifelong admirer, Colonel Dobbin, and Becky settles down to genteel
living and charitable works.
The rich movement and colour of this panorama of early 19th-century
society make Vanity Fair Thackeray’s greatest achievement; the narrative
skill, subtle characterization, and descriptive power make it one of the
outstanding novels of its period. But Vanity Fair is more than a
portrayal and imaginative analysis of a particular society. Throughout
we are made subtly aware of the ambivalence of human motives, and so are
prepared for Thackeray’s conclusion: “Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us
is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire, or having it, is
satisfied?” It is its tragic irony that makes Vanity Fair a lasting and
insightful evaluation of human ambition and experience.
Successful and famous, Thackeray went on to exploit two lines of
development opened up in Vanity Fair: a gift for evoking the London
scene and for writing historical novels that demonstrate the connections
between past and present. He began with the first, writing The History
of Pendennis (1848–50), which is partly fictionalized autobiography. In
it, Thackeray traces the youthful career of Arthur Pendennis—his first
love affair, his experiences at “Oxbridge University,” his working as a
London journalist, and so on—achieving a convincing portrait of a
much-tempted young man.
Turning to the historical novel, Thackeray chose the reign of Queen
Anne for the period of The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., 3 vol. (1852).
Some critics had thought that Pendennis was a formless, rambling book.
In response, Thackeray constructed Henry Esmond with great care, giving
it a much more formal plot structure. The story, narrated by Esmond,
begins when he is 12, in 1691, and ends in 1718. Its complexity of
incident is given unity by Beatrix and Esmond, who stand out against a
background of London society and the political life of the time. Beatrix
dominates the book. Seen first as a charming child, she develops beauty
combined with a power that is fatal to the men she loves. One of
Thackeray’s great creations, she is a heroine of a new type, emotionally
complex and compelling, but not a pattern of virtue. Esmond, a
sensitive, brave, aristocratic soldier, falls in love with her but is
finally disillusioned. Befriended as an orphan by Beatrix’ parents, Lord
and Lady Castlewood, Henry initially adores Lady Castlewood as a mother
and eventually, in his maturity, marries her.
Written in a pastiche of 18th-century prose, the novel is one of the
best evocations in English of the atmosphere of a past age. It was not
well received, however—Esmond’s marriage to Lady Castlewood was
criticized. George Eliot called it “the most uncomfortable book you can
imagine.” But it has come to be accepted as a notable English historical
Thackeray returned to the contemporary scene in his novel The
Newcomes (1853–55). This work is essentially a detailed study of
prosperous middle-class society and is centred upon the family of the
title. Col. Thomas Newcome returns to London from India to be with his
son Clive. The unheroic but attractive Clive falls in love with his
cousin Ethel, but the love Clive and Ethel have for each other is fated
to be unhappily thwarted for years because of worldly considerations.
Clive marries Rose Mackenzie; the selfish, greedy, cold-hearted Barnes
Newcome, Ethel’s father and head of the family, intrigues against Clive
and the Colonel; and the Colonel invests his fortune imprudently and
ends as a pensioner in an almshouse. Rose dies in childbirth, and the
narrative ends with the Colonel’s death. This deathbed scene, described
with deep feeling that avoids sentimentality, is one of the most famous
in Victorian fiction. In a short epilogue Thackeray tells us that Clive
and Ethel eventually marry—but this, he says, is a fable.
The Virginians (1857–59), Thackeray’s next novel, is set partly in
America and partly in England in the latter half of the 18th century and
is concerned mostly with the vicissitudes in the lives of two brothers,
George and Henry Warrington, who are the grandsons of Henry Esmond, the
hero of his earlier novel. Thackeray wrote two other serial novels,
Lovel the Widower (1860) and The Adventures of Philip (1861–62). He died
after having begun writing the novel Denis Duval.
In his own time Thackeray was regarded as the only possible rival to
Dickens. His pictures of contemporary life were obviously real and were
accepted as such by the middle classes. A great professional, he
provided novels, stories, essays, and verses for his audience, and he
toured as a nationally known lecturer. He wrote to be read aloud in the
long Victorian family evenings, and his prose has the lucidity,
spontaneity, and pace of good reading material. Throughout his works,
Thackeray analyzed and deplored snobbery and frequently gave his
opinions on human behaviour and the shortcomings of society, though
usually prompted by his narrative to do so. He examined such subjects as
hypocrisy, secret emotions, the sorrows sometimes attendant on love,
remembrance of things past, and the vanity of much of life—such
moralizing being, in his opinion, an important function of the novelist.
He had little time for such favourite devices of Victorian novelists as
exaggerated characterization and melodramatic plots, preferring in his
own work to be more true to life, subtly depicting various moods and
plunging the reader into a stream of entertaining narrative,
description, dialogue, and comment.
Thackeray’s high reputation as a novelist continued unchallenged to
the end of the 19th century but then began to decline. Vanity Fair is
still his most interesting and readable work and has retained its place
among the great historical novels in the English language.
For many, the defining moment of Vanity Fair occurs in its
opening chapter. Becky Sharp, prospective governess, emerges
from Miss Pinkerton's academy and flings her parting gift of
Doctor Johnson's Dictionary back through the gates. This "heroical
act" is our first indication of Becky's irreverent power to
shape her own destiny, but in dispensing with that monument of
eighteenth-century control and classification, Thackeray also
symbolically, if not literally, inaugurates Victorian fiction.
Thackeray's novel is historical: set in the Regency period, it
explores the limits of that world, as well as the constitutive
conditions laid down for its own. Becky is central to this
achievement, as her literary creation draws on the dualistic
possibilities of that transitional moment. A constantly
calculating adventuress who, devoid of all sentimentality, is
thus the perfect mistress of a society in which everything is
for sale and nothing possesses lasting value. Yet our perception
of the way in which she operates sets her quite apart from any
of the satirical heroines of contemporary literature. She is
seductive because of her constant power to surprise, balancing
often conflicting emotions such as ambition, greed, and
selfishness, with poise, warmth, and admiration. Becky makes her
way through a hollow world with the battle of Waterloo at its
center, diagnosing the hypocrisies she exploits as well as
acting as a foil to illuminate the few moments of generosity
that are in evidence, her own included. As a result, she not
only makes possible Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, formed directly
under Thackeray's influence, but also Eliot's Gwendolen Harleth
and Hardy's Sue Bridehead. Placed at the shifting heart of
Vanity Fair, she causes its universe to be glitteringly
compelling, and uncomfortably familiar.
VANITY FAIR: A Novel Without a Hero
Type of work: Novel
Author: William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
Type of plot: Social satire
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
Locale: England and Europe
First published: 1847-1848 (serial), 1848 (book)
Thackeray's most famous novel, Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero
is intended to expose social hypocrisy and sham. Moralistic and
sentimental, the work also has redeeming strengths: its panoramic
sweep—especially the scenes ofthe battle of Waterloo—and its creations
of lifelike characters, chief among them Becky Sharp.
Rebecca Sharp, called Becky, an intelligent, beautiful, self-centered,
grasping woman whose career begins as an orphaned charity pupil at Miss
Pinkerton's School for Girls and continues through a series of attempted
seductions, affairs, and marriages which form the background of the
novel. Unscrupulous Becky is the chief exponent of the people who
inhabit Vanity Fair—the world of pretense and show—but she is always
apart from it because she sees the humor and ridiculousness of the men
and women of this middle-class English world where pride, wealth, and
ambition are the ruling virtues.
Amelia Sedley, Becky Sharp's sweet, good, gentle schoolmate at Miss
Pinkerton's school. Although married to George Osborne, who subsequently
dies in the Battle of Waterloo, Amelia is worshiped by William Dobbin.
Amelia does not notice his love, however, so involved is she with the
memory of her dashing dead husband. Eventually some of Amelia's
goddesslike virtue is dimmed in Dobbin's eyes, but he marries her anyway
and transfers his idealization of women to their little girl, Jane.
Captain William Dobbin, an officer in the British Army and a former
schoolmate of George Osborne at Dr. Swishtail's school. He idolizes
Amelia Sedley, George's wife, and while in the background provides
financial and emotional support for her when she is widowed. After many
years of worshipping Amelia from afar, he finally marries her.
George Osborne, the dashing young army officer who marries Amelia
despite the fact that by so doing he incurs the wrath of his father and
is cut off from his inheritance. George, much smitten with the charms of
Becky Sharp, slips a love letter to Becky on the night before the army
is called to the Battle of Waterloo. He is killed in the battle.
George Osborne, called Georgy, the small son of Amelia and George.
Captain Rawdon Crawley, an officer of the Guards, the younger son of Sir
Pitt Crawley. He marries Becky Sharp in secret, and for this deception
his aunt cuts him
out of her will. Charming but somewhat stupid, he is a great gambler and
furnishes some of the money on which he and Becky live precariously. He
lets Becky order their life, and even though she flirts outrageously
after they are married, he does not abandon her until he discovers her
in an intimate scene with the Marquis of Steyne. He dies many years
later of yellow fever at Coventry Island.
Rawdon Crawley, the son of Rawdon and Becky. He refuses to see his
mother in her later years, though he gives her a liberal allowance. From
his uncle he inherits the Crawley baronetcy and estate.
Joseph Sedley, called Jos, Amelia's fat, dandified brother, whom Becky
Sharp attempts unsuccessfully to attract into marrying her. A civil
servant in India, the Collector of Boggley Wollah, Jos is rich but
selfish and does nothing to rescue his father and mother from
bankruptcy. Persuaded by Dobbin, finally, to take some family
responsibility, he supports Amelia and her son Georgy for a few months
before Dobbin marries her. For a time he and Becky travel on the
Continent as husband and wife. He dies at Aix-la-Chapelle soon after
Amelia and Dobbin's marriage. His fortune gone from unsuccessful
speculations, he leaves only an insurance policy of two thousand pounds,
to be divided between Becky and his sister.
Sir Pitt Crawley, a crusty, eccentric old baronet who lives at Queen's
Crawley, his country seat, with his abused, apathetic second wife and
two young daughters, Miss Rosalind and Miss Violet. Immediately after
Lady Craw-ley's death Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky. His offer
leads to the disclosure of her secret marriage to Rawdon Crawley, his
younger son. Later, grown more senile than ever, Sir Pitt carries on an
affair with his butler's daughter, Betsy Horrocks, much to the disgust
of his relatives. He eventually dies, and his baronetcy and money go to
Pitt, his eldest son.
Miss Crawley, Sir Pitt's eccentric sister, a lonely old maid. Imperious
and rich, she is toadied to by everyone in the Crawley family and by
Becky Sharp, for they see in her the chance for a rich living. She
finally is won over by young Pitt Crawley's wife, Lady Jane, and her
estate goes to Pitt.
Pitt Crawley, the older son of Sir Pitt Crawley. A most proper young man
with political ambitions, he marries Lady Jane Sheepshanks, and after
his brother's secret marriage so endears himself to Miss Crawley, his
rich, domineering aunt, that he gains her money as well as his father's.
Lady Jane, Pitt Crawley's wife. Like Amelia Sedley, she is good, sweet,
and kind, and is, above all else, interested in her husband's and their
The Reverend Bute Crawley, the rector of Crawley-cum-Snailby and Sir
Pitt's brother. His household is run by his domineering wife.
Mrs. Bute Crawley, who dislikes Becky Sharp because she recognizes in
her the same sort of ambition and craftiness that she herself possesses.
She fails in her plans to gain Miss Crawley's fortune.
James Crawley, the son of the Bute Crawleys. For a time it looks as if
this shy, good-looking young man will win favor with his aunt, but he
ruins his prospects by getting very drunk on his aunt's wine and later
smoking his pipe out the window of the guest room. Miss Crawley's maid
also discovers that James has run up a tremendous bill for gin (to which
he treated everyone in the local tavern in one of his expansive moods),
and this fact combined with his smoking tobacco puts an end to the Bute
Crawleys' prospects of inheriting Miss Crawley's money.
Horrocks, Sir Pitt Crawley's butler.
Betsy Horrocks, the butler's daughter and old Sir Pitt's mistress. She
is done out of any inheritance by the interference of Mrs. Bute Crawley.
Mr. John Sedley, the father of Amelia and Joseph, a typical middle-class
English merchant of grasping, selfish ways. After his failure in
business his family is forced to move from Russell Square to a cottage
kept by the Clapps, a former servant of the Sedleys. Never able to
accept his poverty, Mr. Sedley spends his time thinking up new business
schemes with which to regain his former wealth.
Mrs. John Sedley, the long-suffering wife of Mr. Sedley, and mother of
Amelia and Joseph. She, like her daughter, is a sweet woman. Her only
expression of wrath in the entire story comes when she turns upon Amelia
after her daughter has criticized her for giving little Georgy medicine
that has not been prescribed for him.
John Osborne, George Osborne's testy-tempered father, provincial,
narrow, and mean. Never forgiving his son for marrying the penniless
Amelia Sedley, Mr. Osborne finally succeeds in getting the widow to give
up her adored Georgy to his care. Amelia regains her son, however, and
when he dies Mr. Osborne leaves to his grandson a legacy of which Amelia
is the trustee.
Jane, Maria, and Frances Osborne, George's sisters, who adore their
young nephew. Maria finally marries Frederick Bullock, Esq., a London
Mr. Smee, Jane Osborne's drawing teacher, who tries to marry her. Mr.
Osborne, discovering them together, forbids him to enter the house.
Lord Steyne, Lord of the Powder Closet at Buckingham Palace. Haughty and
well-born and considerably older than Becky, he succumbs to her charms.
Her husband discovers them together and leaves her.
Wirt, the Osbornes' faithful maid.
Mrs. Tinker, the housekeeper at Queen's Crawley.
Lord Southdown, Lady Jane Crawley's brother, a dandified London friend
of the Rawdon Crawleys.
Miss Briggs, Miss Crawley's companion and later Becky Sharp's. She
fulfills Becky's need for a female companion so that the little
adventuress will have some sort of respectability in the eyes of
Bowles, Miss Crawley's butler.
Mrs. Firkins, Miss Crawley's maid. Like the other servants, she is
overwhelmed by the overbearing old lady.
Charles Haggles, a greengrocer, at one time an assistant gardener to the
Crawley family. Having saved his money, he has bought a greengrocer's
shop and a small house in Curzon Street. Becky and Rawdon live there for
a time on his charity, for they are unable to pay their rent.
Lord Gaunt, son of Lord Steyne. He goes insane in his early twenties.
Major O'Dowd, an officer under whom George Osborne and William Dobbin
serve. He is a relaxed individual, devoted to his witty and vivacious
Mrs. O'Dowd, the Irish wife of Major O'Dowd. She is an unaffected,
delightful female who tries to marry off her sister-in-law to William
Glorvina O'Dowd, the flirtatious sister of Major O'Dowd. She sets her
cap for Dobbin, but because she is only and "frocks and shoulders,"
nothing comes of the match. She marries Major Posky.
General Tufto, the officer to whom Rawdon Crawley at one time serves as
aide-de-camp. He is a typical army man with a mistress and a
Mrs. Tufto, his wife.
Mrs. Bent, his mistress.
Dolly, the housekeeper to the Rawdon Crawleys in London. She is the one
who fends off tradesmen when they come to demand their money.
Mrs. Clapp, the landlady of the Sedleys after their move from Russell
Polly Clapp, a young former servant of the Sedleys. She takes Dobbin to
meet Amelia in the park after the former's ten-year absence in the
Mary Clapp, another daughter of the Clapps and Amelia's friend.
Lady Bareacres, a snobby old aristocrat who cuts Becky socially in
Brussels. Later Becky has her revenge when she refuses to sell her
horses to the old woman so that she may flee from Napoleon's invading
Lady Blanche Thistlewood, Lady Bareacres' daughter and a dancing partner
of George Osborne when they were very young.
Mr. Hammerdown, the auctioneer at the sale of the Sedley possessions.
Major Martindale, Lieutenant Spatterdash, and Captain Cinqbars, military
friends of Rawdon Crawley who are captivated by his charming wife.
Tom Stubble, a wounded soldier who brings news of the Battle of Waterloo
to Amelia Sedley and Mrs. O'Dowd. They care for him until he regains his
Mr. Creamer, Mrs. Crawley's physician.
Miss Pinkerton, the snobbish mistress of the academy for girls at which
Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp met. She dislikes Becky intensely.
Miss Jemima Pinkerton, the silly, sentimental sister of the elder Miss
Pinkerton. She takes pity on Becky and tries to give her the graduation
gift of the academy, a dictionary, but Becky flings it into the mud as
her coach drives off.
Miss Swartz, the rich, woolly-haired mulatto student at Miss Pinkerton's
School. Because of her immense wealth she pays double tuition. Later the
Crawley family tries to marry off Rawdon to her, but he has already
Mr. Sambo, the Sedley's black servant.
The Reverend Mr. Crisp, a young curate in Chis-wick, enamored of Becky
Miss Cutler, a young woman who unsuccessfully sets her cap for Joseph
Mr. Fiche, Lord Steyne's confidential man. After Becky's fortunes have
begun to decline, he tells her to leave Rome for her own good.
Major Loder, Becky's escort in the later phases of her career.
Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley became good friends while they were
students at Miss Pinkerton's School for Girls. It was proof of Amelia's
good, gentle nature that she took as kindly as she did to her friend,
who was generally disliked by all the other girls. Amelia overlooked the
evidences of Becky's selfishness as much as she could.
After the two girls had finished their education at the school, Becky
accompanied her friend to her home for a short visit. There she first
met Joseph Sedley, Amelia's older brother Jos, who was home on leave
from military service in India. Jos was a shy man, unused to women, and
certainly to women as designing and flirtatious as Becky. His blundering
and awkward manners did not appeal to many women, but Becky was happy to
overlook these faults when she compared them with his wealth and social
position. Amelia innocently believed that her friend had fallen in love
with her brother, and she discreetly tried to further the romance.
To this end, she arranged a party at Vauxhall. Becky and Jos, along with
Amelia and her admirer, George Osborne, were present. There was a fifth
member of the group, Captain Dobbin, a tall, lumbering fellow, also in
service in India. He had been in love with Amelia for a long time, but
he recognized that dashing George Osborne was much more suitable for
her. All the maneuvering of the flirtations Becky and the amiable
Amelia, however, was not sufficient to corner Jos, who drank too much
punch and believed that he had made a silly figure of himself at the
party. A day or so later, a letter delivered to the Sedley household
announced that Jos was ill and planned to return to India as soon as
Since there was no longer any reason for Becky to remain with the
Sedleys, she left Amelia, after many tears and kisses, to take a
position as governess to two young girls at Queen's Crawley. The head of
the household was Sir Pitt Crawley, a cantankerous old man renowned for
his miserliness. Lady Crawley was an apathetic soul who lived in fear of
her husband's unreasonable outbursts. Becky decided that she would have
nothing to fear from her timid mistress and spent most of her time
ingratiating herself with Sir Pitt and ignoring her pupils. Becky also
showed great interest in Miss Crawley, a spinster aunt of the family,
who was exceedingly wealthy. Miss Crawley paid little attention to Sir
Pitt and his children, but she was fond of Rawdon Crawley, a captain in
the army and a son of Sir Pitt by a previous marriage. She was so fond
of her dashing young nephew that she supported him through school and
paid all of his gambling debts with only a murmur.
During Becky's stay. Miss Crawley visited Sir Pitt only once, at a time
when Rawdon was also present. The handsome young dragoon soon fell prey
to Becky's wiles and followed her about devotedly. Becky also took care
to ingratiate herself with the holder of the purse strings. Miss Crawley
founded Becky witty and charming and did not attempt to disguise her
opinion that the little governess was worth all the rest of the Crawley
household put together. Becky, therefore, found herself in a very
enviable position. Both Sir Pitt and his handsome son were obviously
interested in her. Miss Crawley insisted that Becky accompany her back
Becky had been expected to return to her pupils after only a short stay
with Miss Crawley; but Miss Crawley was taken ill and refused to allow
anyone but her dear Becky to nurse her. Afterward, there were numerous
other excuses to prevent the governess from returning to her duties.
Certainly, Becky was not unhappy. Rawdon
Crawley was a constant caller and a devoted suitor for Becky's hand.
When the news arrived that Lady Crawley had died, no great concern was
felt by anyone. A few days later, however, Sir Pitt himself appeared,
asking to see Miss Sharp. Much to Becky's surprise, the baronet threw
himself at her feet and asked her to marry him. Regretfully, she refused
his offer. She was already secretly married to Rawdon Crawley.
Following this disclosure, Rawdon and his bride left for a honeymoon at
Brighton. Chagrined and angry, old Miss Crawley took to her bed, changed
her will, and cut off her nephew without a shilling. Sir Pitt raved with
Amelia's marriage had also precipitated a family crisis. Her romance
with George had proceeded with good wishes on both sides until Mr.
Sedley lost most of his money through some unfortunate business deals.
Then George's snobbish father ordered his son to break his engagement to
a penniless woman. George, whose affection for Amelia was never stable,
was inclined to accept this parental command; but Captain Dobbin, who
saw with distress that Amelia was breaking her heart over George,
finally prevailed upon the young man to go through with the marriage,
regardless of his father's wishes. When the couple arrived in Brighton
for their honeymoon, they found Rawdon and Becky living there happily in
Captain Dobbin also arrived in Brighton. He had agreed to act as
intercessor with Mr. Osborne. Nevertheless, his hopes of reconciling
father and son were shattered when Mr. Osborne furiously dismissed
Captain Dobbin and took immediate steps to disown George. Captain Dobbin
also brought the news that the army had been ordered to Belgium.
Napoleon had landed from Elba. The Hundred Days had begun.
In Brussels, the two couples met again. George Osborne was infatuated
with Becky. Jos Sedley, now returned from India, and Captain Dobbin were
also stationed in that city; Captain Dobbin was in faithful attendance
upon the neglected Amelia. Everyone was waiting for the next move that
Napoleon would make; but in the meantime, the gaiety of the Duke of
Wellington's forces was widespread. The Osbornes and Crawleys attended
numerous balls. Becky, especially, made an impression upon military
society, and her coquetry extended with equal effect from general to
private. June, 1815, was a famous night in Brussels, for on that evening
the Duchess of Richmond gave a tremendous ball. Amelia left the party
early, brokenhearted at the attentions her husband was showing Becky.
Shortly after she left, the men were given orders to march to meet the
enemy. Napoleon had entered Belgium, and a great battle was impending.
As Napoleon's forces approached, fear and confusion spread throughout
Brussels, and many of the civilians fled from the city, but Amelia and
Becky did not. Becky was not alarmed, and Amelia refused to leave while
George was in danger. She remained in the city some days before she
heard that her husband had been killed. Rawdon returned safely from the
Battle of Waterloo. He and Becky spent a merry and triumphant season in
Paris, where Becky's beauty and wit gained her a host of admirers.
Rawdon was very proud of the son she bore him.
Amelia also had a child. She had returned to London almost out of her
mind with grief, and only after her son was born did she show any signs
When Becky grew bored with the pleasures of Paris, the Crawleys returned
to London. There they rented a large home and proceeded to live well
with little money. By this time, Becky was a master at this art, and so
they lived on a grander scale than Rawdon's small winnings at cards
would warrant. Becky had become acquainted with the nobility of England
and had made a particular impression on rich old Lord Steyne. At last,
all society began to talk about young Mrs. Crawley and her elderly
admirer. Fortunately, Rawdon heard nothing of this ballroom and
Through the efforts of Lord Steyne, Becky eventually achieved her
dearest wish, presentation at Court. Presented along with her was the
wife of the new Sir Pitt Crawley. The old man had died, and young Sir
Pitt, his oldest son and Rawdon's brother, had inherited the title.
Since then, friendly relations had been established between the two
brothers. If Rawdon realized that his brother had also fallen in love
with Becky, he gave no sign, and he accepted the money his brother gave
him with good grace; but more and more, he felt himself shut out from
the happy life that Becky enjoyed. He spent much time with his son, for
he realized that the child was neglected. Once or twice he saw young
George Osborne, Amelia's son.
Amelia struggled to keep her son with her, but her pitiful financial
status made it difficult to support him. Her parents had grown garrulous
and morose with disappointment over their reduced circumstances. At
length, Amelia sorrowfully agreed to let Mr. Osborne take the child and
rear him as his own. Mr. Osborne still refused to recognize the woman
his son had married against his wishes, however, and Amelia rarely saw
Rawdon was now deeply in debt. When he appealed to Becky for money, she
told him that she had none to spare. She made no attempt to explain the
jewelry and other trinkets she bought. When Rawdon was imprisoned for a
debt, he wrote and asked Becky to take care of the matter. She answered
that she could not get the money until the following day. An appeal to
Sir Pitt, however, brought about Rawdon's release, and he returned to
his home to find Becky entertaining Lord Steyne. Not long afterward,
Rawdon accepted a post abroad, and he never returned to his unfaithful,
Amelia's fortunes had now improved. When Jos Sedley returned home, he
established his sister and father in a more pleasant home. Mrs. Sedley
had died, and Jos resolved to do as much as he could to make his
father's last days happy. Captain Dobbin had returned from India and
confessed his love for Amelia. Although she acknowledged him as a
friend, she was not yet ready to accept his love. It was Captain Dobbin
who went to Mr. Osborne and gradually succeeded in reconciling him to
his son's wife. When Mr. Osborne died, he left a good part of his
fortune to his grandson and appointed Amelia as the boy's guardian.
Amelia, her son, Captain Dobbin, and Jos Sedley took a short trip to the
Continent. This visit was perhaps the happiest time in Amelia's life.
Her son was with her constantly, and Captain Dobbin was a devoted
attendant. Eventually, his devotion was to overcome her hesitation and
they were to be married.
At a small German resort, they encountered Becky once more. After Rawdon
left her, Becky had been unable to live down the scandal of their
separation. Leaving her child with Sir Pitt and his wife, she crossed to
the Continent. Since then, she had been living with first one
considerate gentleman and then another. When she saw the prosperous Jos,
she vowed not to let him escape as he had before. Amelia and Jos greeted
her in a friendly manner, and only Captain Dobbin seemed to regard her
with distrust. He tried to warn Jos about Becky, but Jos was a willing
victim of her charms.
Becky traveled with Jos wherever he went. Although she could not get a
divorce from Rawdon, Jos treated her as his wife, and despite Captain
Dobbin's protests, he took out a large insurance policy in her name. A
few months later, his family learned that he had died while staying with
Becky at Aix-la-Chapelle. The full circumstances of his death were never
established, but Becky came into a large sum of money from his
insurance. She spend the rest of her life on the Continent, where she
assumed the role of the virtuous widow and won a reputation for
benevolence and generosity.
When critics call William Makepeace Thackeray's characters in Vanity
Fair: A Novel Without a Hero "lifelike," they are milking that term for
a subtler meaning than it usually conveys. His people are not true to
life in the sense of being fully rounded or drawn with psychological
depth. On the contrary, readers sometimes find their actions too
farcical to be human (Jos Sedley's ignominious flight from Brussels
after the Battle of Waterloo) or too sinister to be credible (the
implication that Becky poisons Jos to collect his insurance is totally
out of keeping with what readers learned about her in the previous
sixty-six chapters; she may be a selfish opportunists, but she is not a
murderer). Thackeray's characters are "lifelike" if "life" is defined as
a typological phenomenon. When readers shrug their shoulders and say
"that's life," they are indulging in a kind of judgment on the human
race which is based on types, not individuals; on the common failings of
all men and women, not on the unique goodness or evil of some. Insofar
as all men share one another's weaknesses, every man is represented in
Vanity Fair. Our banality levels us all. That is the satirical
revelation that Vanity Fair provides. That is the way in which its
characters are "lifelike."
Thackeray's general approach is comic satire; his method is that of the
theatrical producer, specifically the puppeteer. In his prologue, he
calls himself the "Manager of the Performance" and refers to Becky,
Amelia, and Dobbin as puppets of varying "flexibility . . . and
liveliness." Critics usually interpret this offhanded way of referring
to his principal characters as a vindication of his own intrusions and
asides, as a reminder to the reader that he, the author, is as much
involved in the action as any of his characters. Nevertheless, readers
should probably take a harder look at Thackeray's metaphor: he is a
puppeteer because he must be one; because his people are puppets,
someone must pull the strings. The dehumanized state of Regency and
early Victorian society comes to accurate life through the cynical
vehicle of Thackeray's puppe-teering. Sentimentality and hypocrisy,
closely related social vices, seem interchangeable at the end of the
novel when Thackeray gathers all the remaining puppets: Amelia and
Dobbin, a "tender little parasite" clinging to her "rugged old oak," and
Becky, acting out her newfound saintliness by burying herself "in works
of piety" and "having stalls at Fancy Fairs" for the benefit of the
poor. "Let us shut up," concludes Thackeray, "the box and the puppets,
for our play is played out."
Despite the predictability of all the characters' pup-petlike behavior,
they often exhibit just enough humanity to make their dehumanization
painful. Thackeray wants readers to feel uncomfortable over the waste of
human potential in the vulgar concerns of Vanity Fair. George Osborne
lives like a cad, is arrogant about his spendthrift ways, unfaithful to
his wife, and dies a hero, leading a charge against the retreating
French at Waterloo. The reader is left with the impression that the
heroism of his death is rendered irrelevant by the example of his life.
Such satire is demanding in its moral vision precisely because it
underscores the price of corruption: honor becomes absurd.
Rawdon Crawley's love for his little son slowly endows the father with a
touch of decency, but he is exiled by the "Manager of the Performance"
to Coventry Island, where he dies of yellow fever, "most deeply beloved
and deplored." Presumably the wastrel, separated from his own, dies in a
position of duty. Or are readers to pity him for having been forced, by
his financial situation, to accept the position at Coventry as a bribe
from Lord Steyne? Thackeray is elusive; again, the suggestions of pathos
are touched on so lightly that they hardly matter. The indifference
itself is Vanity Fair's reward. For all of his jocularity and
beef-eating familiarity, the "Manager of the Performance" sets a dark
stage. Vanity Fair is colorful enough: the excitement at Brussels over
Waterloo, the gardens at Vauxhall, the Rhine journey; but it is a
panoply of meretricious and wasteful human endeavor. Readers really do
not need Thackeray's moralizing to convince them of the shabbiness of it
Astonishing is the fact that despite the novel's cynicism, it also has
immense vitality. It is difficult to deny the attractiveness of the
ephemeral—Bunyan made that perfectly clear in Pilgrim's Progress, and
Thackeray simply updates the vision. What was allegory in Bunyan becomes
realism in Thackeray; the modern writer's objectivity in no way detracts
from the alluring effect achieved by Bunyan's imaginary Vanity Fair.
Bunyan still operated in the Renaissance tradition of Spenserian facade;
evil traps man through illusion, as exemplified in the trials of the Red
Cross Knight. Thackeray drops the metaphor of illusion and shows
corruption bared—and still it is attractive.
Becky Sharp is described as "worldliness incarnate" by Louis
Kronenberger, but the reader cannot deny her charms. Thackeray calls his
book "A Novel Without a Hero," but readers know better. Becky's pluck
and ambition are extraordinary; her triumph is even more impressive
because of the formidable barriers of class and poverty she has to
scale. When she throws the Johnson's dictionary out of the coach window
as she leaves Miss Pinkerton's academy, readers are thrilled by her
refusal to be patronized; her destructive and cruel manipulations of the
Crawleys have all the implications of a revolutionary act. Thackeray
actually emphasizes Becky's spirit and power by making virtuous Amelia
so weak and sentimental. Although readers are tempted to see this as a
contradiction of Thackeray's moral intention, they must remember that he
understood very clearly that true goodness must be built on strength:
"clumsy Dobbin" is Thackeray's somewhat sentimental example. The human
tragedy is that most men and women cannot reconcile their energies with
their ideals and that in a fallen world of social injustices, men must
all sin in order to survive. It is ironic that precisely because Becky
Sharp is such an energetic opportunist, readers almost believe her when
she says, "I think I could have been a good woman if I had five thousand
Vanity Fair, the best known of Thackeray's works, has joined the ranks
of the classics, for in it Thackeray has created characters as great as
any in English literature. Most of his people are not good people, but
they were not intended to be. Thackeray shows that goodness often goes
hand in hand with stupidity and folly and that cleverness is often
knavery. A cynical story, this novel was intended to expose social
hypocrisy and sham. Although Thackeray was frankly moralistic, his moral
does not in any way overshadow a magnificent novel or the lifelike
characters he created.