The Price of Vanity

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I’ve read Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery twice, and seen the Reece Witherspoon movie once (movie pretty poor adaptation, but as a gusty, flawed heroine, Witherspoon is exactly as I imagined Becky to be), and though it didn’t resonate with me the same way Gone With the Wind/Scarlett did, Becky Sharp remains to me one of the few gutsy, flawed anti-heroines to have existed in fiction.

Becky is the absolute opposite of a Mary Sue. She’s ambitious and does absolutely nothing to help other people if it doesn’t help herself. When she’s taken on at a boarding school in return for cleaning and tutoring – and deal which exploits Becky to begin with – and the headmistress discovers she can speak fluent French, Becky flat-out refuses to teach the girls for free so the headmistress can save the salary of a paid tutor. She wanted to get paid for her services; sounded reasonable to me. But this does not endear Becky to the headmistress, who considers Becky to be an ungrateful opportunist.

To put her situation into context; she was orphaned at a young age, and at the mercy of the English welfare system of the nineteenth century, which was somewhat nonexistent. She had to rely on her wits, and rely on her wits she did. But the headmistress of the school considered herself to be highly generous in letting Becky pay for her food and board by working from dusk til dawn cleaning and teaching.

Becky has other ideas, and leaves the school as soon as she’s old enough to work as a paid governess. She stays briefly with her friend Amelia, and falls for Amelia’s brother, Joss, who returns her infatuation. But Amelia’s fiancee, George, is a snob and tells Joss he will not marry Amelia if Joss marries Becky. So Becky is sent packing. Mind you, George didn’t see anything wrong with propositioning her later; basically, she’s good enough to sleep with, but not nearly good enough for anyone he knows to marry.

Becky ends up marrying another young man from a wealthy background, who is promptly cut off from his family. So that’s one love interest who’s been scared off because Becky is common as dirt, and a husband who’s been cut off for the same reason. By this point, I couldn’t really blame Becky for being a little bitter that so many people saw fit to turn their noses down at her for no better reason than they’d had money in their family for hundreds of years and she came from dirt.

Uh, don’t these people realise that often it’s the people who’ve known poverty who are determined to make a fortune by any means necessary? Ed Harris said something to this effect in Buffalo Soldiers; I’ve come from dirt, I’m not keen to go back. IMHO, it’s the very fact that people who’ve come from the bottom of the food chain that makes them so determined to have money and respect. I think this is illustrated by the fact that many of the European aristocratic families are now bankrupt, with nothing of value by their names, and no self-respecting self-made millionaire gives a toss about that. The people who were once at the top of the food chain and felt no need to hustle themselves a living are now broke for that very reason. But I guess that’s a very modern view to take, and something which probably didn’t occur to Thackery.

Nonetheless, I found myself very sympathetic to Becky. She’s very unsympathetic, makes Scarlett O’Hara look like a saint. But like Scarlett, she has intense loyalty to her friends. She continually looks after Amelia, even though Amelia is pretty stupid at times. And I found it easy to understand the root of her bitterness. From the moment she is orphaned as a young child, she is exploited by people who think they are better than her for no better reason than they have a little money.

And she is very much in love with her husband, and always faithful to him – physically and emotionally, which is more then can be said for Scarlett. At one point, she embarks on a social-climbing quest, wanting to be accepted by high society. She is mentored by the Marquess of Steyne, who is enamoured with her because she is highly intelligent and ambitious, a refreshing changed from his own family, whose ambitions and intellects have been dulled by generations of security that they will always be at the top of the food chain. There’s a line I love from the movie “˜I thought she was a social climber, but it turns out she’s a mountaineer’. As bad a social climbing is, this shows to me a healthy determination to get what you want, rather than sit down and cry for it until a man gives it to you.

I honestly believe that she never realised what the Marquess expected of her in return for his patronage, that she thought he was just being nice and seeing her as a kindred spirit. When she realises that he expects her to become his mistress in return for his “˜kindness’, she shows an absolute determination not to betray her husband. If the Marquess wants her, he will have to violently rape her, ‘coz she’ll fight him every inch of the way for her fidelity.

But her husband doesn’t see it that way. He blames her for his interest – although I didn’t understand why she was to blame, beyond being too naive to see what the Marquess really wanted from her. He turns to his sister-in-law, a good Old Fashioned Virgin who believes her place was to support the men of the family. Perhaps that’s where Becky failed in his eyes. He leaves her, and once more she is left to fend for herself.

And fend for herself she does. She does some pretty rotten things, but all the way through the book I was thinking “˜but fair being fair, social conditions drove her to it’. I honestly felt that I may very well have done the same things in the same circumstances, because Becky is an extremely self-preserving woman, and so am I. That’s probably why I related to the Bitches.

To be fair, as far as Becky/Scarlett comparisons go, while they were written in roughly the same period, VF was written in the actual 1860s by a man while GWtW was written in the 1930s (after the first wave of feminism) by a woman. Scarlett certainly seems more sympathetic for more or less the same actions. I struggled to relate to Becky even as I understood her reasons, while I shamelessly rooted for Scarlett. I believe this is a result of seventy years of feminist thinking and first wave feminism.

But still, it both infuriates me and inspires me to see a novel like Vanity Fair. Thackery portrayed Becky as a cold, hard bitch. But he portrayed her in the 1870s as an English writer (y’know, that time and place that has earned the name “˜Victorian era’ with much contempt from anyone remotely liberal) – it was very much his place and time. And having said that, for Victorian England, it’s very enlightened, if only in the sense that it tells the story from the anti-heroine’s perspective, and at times almost sympathises to her.

I guess this is the best I can do at a critical analyses of Becky. She extremely difficult to like or relate to, even more so than Scarlett. But I also understood the circumstances that made Becky the woman she was. In that way she was probably more like Anne Bolyn than Scarlett O’Hara.

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