“…a great Victorian novel, written and published deep in the middle of a great age of English fiction. Indeed, so commanding was Thackeray at the height of his powers that Charlotte Brontë even dedicated Jane Eyre to the author of Vanity Fair.
One hundred years after the publication of Clarissa…Vanity Fair was published in serial form (including some memorable cliff-hangers, for instance Becky Sharp’s revelation of her marriage to Rawdon Crawley) from January 1847 to June 1848. Thackeray, on top form, cheerfully exploited an ebullient tradition, transcending all his previous efforts as a writer …Early drafts of the book, which had the working title “a novel without a hero” lacked the all-important figure of William Dobbin, a thoroughly good and likable character who owes much to Thackeray himself. “Vanity Fair”, a title that came in a eureka moment to the author in bed one night, actually derives from Pilgrim’s Progress and refers to the fair set up by the devils Beelzebub and Apollyon in the town of Vanity. Unlike Bunyan, Thackeray was hardly a die-hard Christian, but rather a man who relished a life of pleasure and luxury, and who, on the evidence of his letters, found much of the Bible either ludicrous or distasteful. As a title, however, “Vanity Fair” set the tone of the novel in its depiction of a society, rather as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” did for Tom Wolfe (who also illustrated his own work) in 1987.
Thackeray’s intention was satirical and realistic. Writing mid-century, he set his masterpiece in Regency England during the Napoleonic wars, intending the lessons of his tale to be applied equally to his own times. In contemporary terms that would be like a modern literary novelist setting their scene during the second world war, or the blitz.
The climax of the novel comes with the battle of Waterloo. Unlike Tolstoy, whose War and Peace was influenced by Vanity Fair, Thackeray was squeamish about military matters, and chose to leave most of the fighting off-stage.
Thackeray was highly conscious of his audience and repeatedly breaks off from his story to buttonhole and tease his readers (“the present chapter (8), is very mild. Others – but we will not anticipate those”). The tale, however, will not be denied for long. Upwardly mobile Becky Sharp, and her sweet, devoted friend, Amelia Sedley, are perfectly matched by the caddish rake, George Osborne, and clumsy, decent William Dobbin. The social trajectory of each pair gives the narrative an almost perfect symmetry.
The key to the novel’s magic, in addition to the delight it takes in the Regency pageant, probably lies in the contrast between scheming Becky, one of fiction’s great female protagonists and awkward, dutiful William whose unwavering love for Amelia mirrors Thackeray’s own passion for another man’s wife.”
Becky Sharp (Mrs Rawdon Crawley): “the little adventuress”… “artful little minx” …”a wicked woman, a heartless mother, a false wife…her soul is black with vanity.”
Amelia Sedley (Mrs George Osborne): “her artless kindness” …”her nature to sacrifice herself and to fling all that she had at the feet of the beloved object… a poor-spirited, despicable little creature… O you poor women!”
XII – Quite a Sentimental Chapter – Amelia (Sedley/Osbourne)
We must now take leave of Arcadia, and those amiable people practising the rural virtues there, and travel back to London, to inquire what has become of Miss Amelia.
“We don’t care a fig for her,” writes some unknown correspondent with a pretty little handwriting and a pink seal to her note. “She is fade and insipid,” and adds some more kind remarks in this strain, which I should never have repeated at all, but that they are in truth prodigiously complimentary to the young lady whom they concern.
Has the beloved reader, in his experience of society, never heard similar remarks by good-natured female friends; who always wonder what you CAN see in Miss Smith that is so fascinating; or what COULD induce Major Jones to propose for that silly insignificant simpering Miss Thompson, who has nothing but her wax-doll face to recommend her? What is there in a pair of pink cheeks and blue eyes forsooth? these dear Moralists ask, and hint wisely that the gifts of genius, the accomplishments of the mind, the mastery of Mangnall’s Questions, and a ladylike knowledge of botany and geology, the knack of making poetry, the power of rattling sonatas in the Herz-manner, and so forth, are far more valuable endowments for a female, than those fugitive charms which a few years will inevitably tarnish. It is quite edifying to hear women speculate upon the worthlessness and the duration of beauty.
But though virtue is a much finer thing, and those hapless creatures who suffer under the misfortune of good looks ought to be continually put in mind of the fate which awaits them; and though, very likely, the heroic female character which ladies admire is a more glorious and beautiful object than the kind, fresh, smiling, artless, tender little domestic goddess, whom men are inclined to worship—yet the latter and inferior sort of women must have this consolation—that the men do admire them after all; and that, in spite of all our kind friends’ warnings and protests, we go on in our desperate error and folly, and shall to the end of the chapter. Indeed, for my own part, though I have been repeatedly told by persons for whom I have the greatest respect, that Miss Brown is an insignificant chit, and Mrs. White has nothing but her petit minois chiffonne, and Mrs. Black has not a word to say for herself; yet I know that I have had the most delightful conversations with Mrs. Black (of course, my dear Madam, they are inviolable): I see all the men in a cluster round Mrs. White’s chair: all the young fellows battling to dance with Miss Brown; and so I am tempted to think that to be despised by her sex is a very great compliment to a woman.
The young ladies in Amelia’s society did this for her very satisfactorily. For instance, there was scarcely any point upon which the Misses Osborne, George’s sisters, and the Mesdemoiselles Dobbin agreed so well as in their estimate of her very trifling merits: and their wonder that their brothers could find any charms in her. “We are kind to her,” the Misses Osborne said, a pair of fine black-browed young ladies who had had the best of governesses, masters, and milliners; and they treated her with such extreme kindness and condescension, and patronised her so insufferably, that the poor little thing was in fact perfectly dumb in their presence, and to all outward appearance as stupid as they thought her. She made efforts to like them, as in duty bound, and as sisters of her future husband. She passed “long mornings” with them—the most dreary and serious of forenoons. She drove out solemnly in their great family coach with them, and Miss Wirt their governess, that raw-boned Vestal. They took her to the ancient concerts by way of a treat, and to the oratorio, and to St. Paul’s to see the charity children, where in such terror was she of her friends, she almost did not dare be affected by the hymn the children sang. Their house was comfortable; their papa’s table rich and handsome; their society solemn and genteel; their self-respect prodigious; they had the best pew at the Foundling: all their habits were pompous and orderly, and all their amusements intolerably dull and decorous. After every one of her visits (and oh how glad she was when they were over!) Miss Osborne and Miss Maria Osborne, and Miss Wirt, the vestal governess, asked each other with increased wonder, “What could George find in that creature?”
How is this? some carping reader exclaims. How is it that Amelia, who had such a number of friends at school, and was so beloved there, comes out into the world and is spurned by her discriminating sex? My dear sir, there were no men at Miss Pinkerton’s establishment except the old dancing-master; and you would not have had the girls fall out about HIM? When George, their handsome brother, ran off directly after breakfast, and dined from home half-a-dozen times a week, no wonder the neglected sisters felt a little vexation. When young Bullock (of the firm of Hulker, Bullock & Co., Bankers, Lombard Street), who had been making up to Miss Maria the last two seasons, actually asked Amelia to dance the cotillon, could you expect that the former young lady should be pleased? And yet she said she was, like an artless forgiving creature. “I’m so delighted you like dear Amelia,” she said quite eagerly to Mr. Bullock after the dance. “She’s engaged to my brother George; there’s not much in her, but she’s the best-natured and most unaffected young creature: at home we’re all so fond of her.” Dear girl! who can calculate the depth of affection expressed in that enthusiastic SO?
. …How was she to bare that timid little heart for the inspection of those young ladies with their bold black eyes? It was best that it should shrink and hide itself. I know the Misses Osborne were excellent critics of a Cashmere shawl, or a pink satin slip; and when Miss Turner had hers dyed purple, and made into a spencer; and when Miss Pickford had her ermine tippet twisted into a muff and trimmings, I warrant you the changes did not escape the two intelligent young women before mentioned. But there are things, look you, of a finer texture than fur or satin, and all Solomon’s glories, and all the wardrobe of the Queen of Sheba—things whereof the beauty escapes the eyes of many connoisseurs. And there are sweet modest little souls on which you light, fragrant and blooming tenderly in quiet shady places; and there are garden-ornaments, as big as brass warming-pans, that are fit to stare the sun itself out of countenance. Miss Sedley was not of the sunflower sort; and I say it is out of the rules of all proportion to draw a violet of the size of a double dahlia.
. . .
Meanwhile matters went on in Russell Square, Bloomsbury, just as if matters in Europe were not in the least disorganised. The retreat from Leipsic made no difference in the number of meals Mr. Sambo took in the servants’ hall; the allies poured into France, and the dinner-bell rang at five o’clock just as usual. I don’t think poor Amelia cared anything about Brienne and Montmirail, or was fairly interested in the war until the abdication of the Emperor; when she clapped her hands and said prayers—oh, how grateful! and flung herself into George Osborne’s arms with all her soul, to the astonishment of everybody who witnessed that ebullition of sentiment. The fact is, peace was declared, Europe was going to be at rest; the Corsican was overthrown, and Lieutenant Osborne’s regiment would not be ordered on service. That was the way in which Miss Amelia reasoned. The fate of Europe was Lieutenant George Osborne to her. His dangers being over, she sang Te Deum. He was her Europe: her emperor: her allied monarchs and august prince regent. He was her sun and moon; and I believe she thought the grand illumination and ball at the Mansion House, given to the sovereigns, were especially in honour of George Osborne.
…It is in the nature and instinct of some women. Some are made to scheme, and some to love; and I wish any respected bachelor that reads this may take the sort that best likes him.
XXXVI – How to Live Well on Nothing a Year – Becky Sharp / Mrs. Crawley
But before she went to join her husband in the Belgic capital, Mrs. Crawley made an expedition into England, leaving behind her her little son upon the continent, under the care of her French maid.
The parting between Rebecca and the little Rawdon did not cause either party much pain. She had not, to say truth, seen much of the young gentleman since his birth. After the amiable fashion of French mothers, she had placed him out at nurse in a village in the neighbourhood of Paris, where little Rawdon passed the first months of his life, not unhappily, with a numerous family of foster-brothers in wooden shoes. His father would ride over many a time to see him here, and the elder Rawdon’s paternal heart glowed to see him rosy and dirty, shouting lustily, and happy in the making of mud-pies under the superintendence of the gardener’s wife, his nurse.
Rebecca did not care much to go and see the son and heir. Once he spoiled a new dove-coloured pelisse of hers. He preferred his nurse’s caresses to his mamma’s, and when finally he quitted that jolly nurse and almost parent, he cried loudly for hours. He was only consoled by his mother’s promise that he should return to his nurse the next day; indeed the nurse herself, who probably would have been pained at the parting too, was told that the child would immediately be restored to her, and for some time awaited quite anxiously his return.
In fact, our friends may be said to have been among the first of that brood of hardy English adventurers who have subsequently invaded the Continent and swindled in all the capitals of Europe. The respect in those happy days of 1817-18 was very great for the wealth and honour of Britons. They had not then learned, as I am told, to haggle for bargains with the pertinacity which now distinguishes them. The great cities of Europe had not been as yet open to the enterprise of our rascals. And whereas there is now hardly a town of France or Italy in which you shall not see some noble countryman of our own, with that happy swagger and insolence of demeanour which we carry everywhere, swindling inn-landlords, passing fictitious cheques upon credulous bankers, robbing coach-makers of their carriages, goldsmiths of their trinkets, easy travellers of their money at cards, even public libraries of their books—thirty years ago you needed but to be a Milor Anglais, travelling in a private carriage, and credit was at your hand wherever you chose to seek it, and gentlemen, instead of cheating, were cheated. It was not for some weeks after the Crawleys’ departure that the landlord of the hotel which they occupied during their residence at Paris found out the losses which he had sustained: not until Madame Marabou, the milliner, made repeated visits with her little bill for articles supplied to Madame Crawley; not until Monsieur Didelot from Boule d’Or in the Palais Royal had asked half a dozen times whether cette charmante Miladi who had bought watches and bracelets of him was de retour. It is a fact that even the poor gardener’s wife, who had nursed madame’s child, was never paid after the first six months for that supply of the milk of human kindness with which she had furnished the lusty and healthy little Rawdon. No, not even the nurse was paid—the Crawleys were in too great a hurry to remember their trifling debt to her. As for the landlord of the hotel, his curses against the English nation were violent for the rest of his natural life. He asked all travellers whether they knew a certain Colonel Lor Crawley—avec sa femme une petite dame, tres spirituelle. “Ah, Monsieur!” he would add—”ils m’ont affreusement vole.” It was melancholy to hear his accents as he spoke of that catastrophe.
Rebecca’s object in her journey to London was to effect a kind of compromise with her husband’s numerous creditors, and by offering them a dividend of ninepence or a shilling in the pound, to secure a return for him into his own country. It does not become us to trace the steps which she took in the conduct of this most difficult negotiation; but, having shown them to their satisfaction that the sum which she was empowered to offer was all her husband’s available capital, and having convinced them that Colonel Crawley would prefer a perpetual retirement on the Continent to a residence in this country with his debts unsettled; having proved to them that there was no possibility of money accruing to him from other quarters, and no earthly chance of their getting a larger dividend than that which she was empowered to offer, she brought the Colonel’s creditors unanimously to accept her proposals, and purchased with fifteen hundred pounds of ready money more than ten times that amount of debts.
Mrs. Crawley employed no lawyer in the transaction. The matter was so simple, to have or to leave, as she justly observed, that she made the lawyers of the creditors themselves do the business. And Mr. Lewis representing Mr. Davids, of Red Lion Square, and Mr. Moss acting for Mr. Manasseh of Cursitor Street (chief creditors of the Colonel’s), complimented his lady upon the brilliant way in which she did business, and declared that there was no professional man who could beat her.
Rebecca received their congratulations with perfect modesty; ordered a bottle of sherry and a bread cake to the little dingy lodgings where she dwelt, while conducting the business, to treat the enemy’s lawyers: shook hands with them at parting, in excellent good humour, and returned straightway to the Continent, to rejoin her husband and son and acquaint the former with the glad news of his entire liberation. As for the latter, he had been considerably neglected during his mother’s absence by Mademoiselle Genevieve, her French maid; for that young woman, contracting an attachment for a soldier in the garrison of Calais, forgot her charge in the society of this militaire, and little Rawdon very narrowly escaped drowning on Calais sands at this period, where the absent Genevieve had left and lost him.
And so, Colonel and Mrs. Crawley came to London: and it is at their house in Curzon Street, May Fair, that they really showed the skill which must be possessed by those who would live on the resources above named.
. . .
Sometimes—once or twice in a week—that lady visited the upper regions in which the child lived. She came like a vivified figure out of the Magasin des Modes—blandly smiling in the most beautiful new clothes and little gloves and boots. Wonderful scarfs, laces, and jewels glittered about her. She had always a new bonnet on, and flowers bloomed perpetually in it, or else magnificent curling ostrich feathers, soft and snowy as camellias. She nodded twice or thrice patronizingly to the little boy, who looked up from his dinner or from the pictures of soldiers he was painting. When she left the room, an odour of rose, or some other magical fragrance, lingered about the nursery. She was an unearthly being in his eyes, superior to his father—to all the world: to be worshipped and admired at a distance. To drive with that lady in the carriage was an awful rite: he sat up in the back seat and did not dare to speak: he gazed with all his eyes at the beautifully dressed Princess opposite to him. Gentlemen on splendid prancing horses came up and smiled and talked with her. How her eyes beamed upon all of them! Her hand used to quiver and wave gracefully as they passed. When he went out with her he had his new red dress on. His old brown holland was good enough when he stayed at home. Sometimes, when she was away, and Dolly his maid was making his bed, he came into his mother’s room. It was as the abode of a fairy to him—a mystic chamber of splendour and delights. There in the wardrobe hung those wonderful robes—pink and blue and many-tinted. There was the jewel-case, silver-clasped, and the wondrous bronze hand on the dressing-table, glistening all over with a hundred rings. There was the cheval-glass, that miracle of art, in which he could just see his own wondering head and the reflection of Dolly (queerly distorted, and as if up in the ceiling), plumping and patting the pillows of the bed. Oh, thou poor lonely little benighted boy! Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children; and here was one who was worshipping a stone!
Now Rawdon Crawley, rascal as the Colonel was, had certain manly tendencies of affection in his heart and could love a child and a woman still. For Rawdon minor he had a great secret tenderness then, which did not escape Rebecca, though she did not talk about it to her husband. It did not annoy her: she was too good-natured. It only increased her scorn for him. He felt somehow ashamed of this paternal softness and hid it from his wife—only indulging in it when alone with the boy.
. . .
Rebecca was fond of her husband. She was always perfectly good-humoured and kind to him. She did not even show her scorn much for him; perhaps she liked him the better for being a fool. He was her upper servant and maitre d’hotel. He went on her errands; obeyed her orders without question; drove in the carriage in the ring with her without repining; took her to the opera-box, solaced himself at his club during the performance, and came punctually back to fetch her when due. He would have liked her to be a little fonder of the boy, but even to that he reconciled himself. “Hang it, you know she’s so clever,” he said, “and I’m not literary and that, you know.” For, as we have said before, it requires no great wisdom to be able to win at cards and billiards, and Rawdon made no pretensions to any other sort of skill.
XLI – In Which Becky Revisits the Halls of Her Ancestors – Mrs. C
It seemed as if she was not an imposter any more, and was coming to the home of her ancestors.
. . .
One day followed another, and the ladies of the house passed their life in those calm pursuits and amusements which satisfy country ladies. Bells rang to meals and to prayers. The young ladies took exercise on the pianoforte every morning after breakfast, Rebecca giving them the benefit of her instruction. Then they put on thick shoes and walked in the park or shrubberies, or beyond the palings into the village, descending upon the cottages, with Lady Southdown’s medicine and tracts for the sick people there. Lady Southdown drove out in a pony-chaise, when Rebecca would take her place by the Dowager’s side and listen to her solemn talk with the utmost interest. She sang Handel and Haydn to the family of evenings, and engaged in a large piece of worsted work, as if she had been born to the business and as if this kind of life was to continue with her until she should sink to the grave in a polite old age, leaving regrets and a great quantity of consols behind her—as if there were not cares and duns, schemes, shifts, and poverty waiting outside the park gates, to pounce upon her when she issued into the world again.
“It isn’t difficult to be a country gentleman’s wife,” Rebecca thought. “I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. I could dawdle about in the nursery and count the apricots on the wall. I could water plants in a green-house and pick off dead leaves from the geraniums. I could ask old women about their rheumatisms and order half-a-crown’s worth of soup for the poor. I shouldn’t miss it much, out of five thousand a year. I could even drive out ten miles to dine at a neighbour’s, and dress in the fashions of the year before last. I could go to church and keep awake in the great family pew, or go to sleep behind the curtains, with my veil down, if I only had practice. I could pay everybody, if I had but the money. This is what the conjurors here pride themselves upon doing. They look down with pity upon us miserable sinners who have none. They think themselves generous if they give our children a five-pound note, and us contemptible if we are without one.” And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations—and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so. An alderman coming from a turtle feast will not step out of his carriage to steal a leg of mutton; but put him to starve, and see if he will not purloin a loaf. Becky consoled herself by so balancing the chances and equalizing the distribution of good and evil in the world.
The old haunts, the old fields and woods, the copses, ponds, and gardens, the rooms of the old house where she had spent a couple of years seven years ago, were all carefully revisited by her. She had been young there, or comparatively so, for she forgot the time when she ever WAS young—but she remembered her thoughts and feelings seven years back and contrasted them with those which she had at present, now that she had seen the world, and lived with great people, and raised herself far beyond her original humble station.
“I have passed beyond it, because I have brains,” Becky thought, “and almost all the rest of the world are fools. I could not go back and consort with those people now, whom I used to meet in my father’s studio. Lords come up to my door with stars and garters, instead of poor artists with screws of tobacco in their pockets. I have a gentleman for my husband, and an Earl’s daughter for my sister, in the very house where I was little better than a servant a few years ago. But am I much better to do now in the world than I was when I was the poor painter’s daughter and wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar and tea? Suppose I had married Francis who was so fond of me—I couldn’t have been much poorer than I am now. Heigho! I wish I could exchange my position in society, and all my relations for a snug sum in the Three Per Cent. Consols”; for so it was that Becky felt the Vanity of human affairs, and it was in those securities that she would have liked to cast anchor.
It may, perhaps, have struck her that to have been honest and humble, to have done her duty, and to have marched straightforward on her way, would have brought her as near happiness as that path by which she was striving to attain it. But—just as the children at Queen’s Crawley went round the room where the body of their father lay—if ever Becky had these thoughts, she was accustomed to walk round them and not look in. She eluded them and despised them—or at least she was committed to the other path from which retreat was now impossible. And for my part I believe that remorse is the least active of all a man’s moral senses—the very easiest to be deadened when wakened, and in some never wakened at all. We grieve at being found out and at the idea of shame or punishment, but the mere sense of wrong makes very few people unhappy in Vanity Fair.
XLV – Between Hampshire and London – Rebecca Carawley
Lady Jane’s sweetness and kindness had inspired Rebecca with such a contempt for her ladyship as the little woman found no small difficulty in concealing. That sort of goodness and simplicity which Lady Jane possessed annoyed our friend Becky, and it was impossible for her at times not to show, or to let the other divine, her scorn. Her presence, too, rendered Lady Jane uneasy. Her husband talked constantly with Becky. Signs of intelligence seemed to pass between them, and Pitt spoke with her on subjects on which he never thought of discoursing with Lady Jane. The latter did not understand them, to be sure, but it was mortifying to remain silent; still more mortifying to know that you had nothing to say, and hear that little audacious Mrs. Rawdon dashing on from subject to subject, with a word for every man, and a joke always pat; and to sit in one’s own house alone, by the fireside, and watching all the men round your rival.
In the country, when Lady Jane was telling stories to the children, who clustered about her knees (little Rawdon into the bargain, who was very fond of her), and Becky came into the room, sneering with green scornful eyes, poor Lady Jane grew silent under those baleful glances. Her simple little fancies shrank away tremulously, as fairies in the story-books, before a superior bad angel. She could not go on, although Rebecca, with the smallest inflection of sarcasm in her voice, besought her to continue that charming story. And on her side gentle thoughts and simple pleasures were odious to Mrs. Becky; they discorded with her; she hated people for liking them; she spurned children and children-lovers. “I have no taste for bread and butter,” she would say, when caricaturing Lady Jane and her ways to my Lord Steyne.
“No more has a certain person for holy water,” his lordship replied with a bow and a grin and a great jarring laugh afterwards.
So these two ladies did not see much of each other except upon those occasions when the younger brother’s wife, having an object to gain from the other, frequented her. They my-loved and my-deared each other assiduously, but kept apart generally, whereas Sir Pitt, in the midst of his multiplied avocations, found daily time to see his sister-in-law.
On the occasion of his first Speaker’s dinner, Sir Pitt took the opportunity of appearing before his sister-in-law in his uniform—that old diplomatic suit which he had worn when attache to the Pumpernickel legation.
Becky complimented him upon that dress and admired him almost as much as his own wife and children, to whom he displayed himself before he set out. She said that it was only the thoroughbred gentleman who could wear the Court suit with advantage: it was only your men of ancient race whom the culotte courte became. Pitt looked down with complacency at his legs, which had not, in truth, much more symmetry or swell than the lean Court sword which dangled by his side—looked down at his legs, and thought in his heart that he was killing.
When he was gone, Mrs. Becky made a caricature of his figure, which she showed to Lord Steyne when he arrived. His lordship carried off the sketch, delighted with the accuracy of the resemblance. He had done Sir Pitt Crawley the honour to meet him at Mrs. Becky’s house and had been most gracious to the new Baronet and member. Pitt was struck too by the deference with which the great Peer treated his sister-in-law, by her ease and sprightliness in the conversation, and by the delight with which the other men of the party listened to her talk. Lord Steyne made no doubt but that the Baronet had only commenced his career in public life, and expected rather anxiously to hear him as an orator; as they were neighbours (for Great Gaunt Street leads into Gaunt Square, whereof Gaunt House, as everybody knows, forms one side) my lord hoped that as soon as Lady Steyne arrived in London she would have the honour of making the acquaintance of Lady Crawley. He left a card upon his neighbour in the course of a day or two, having never thought fit to notice his predecessor, though they had lived near each other for near a century past.
In the midst of these intrigues and fine parties and wise and brilliant personages Rawdon felt himself more and more isolated every day. He was allowed to go to the club more; to dine abroad with bachelor friends; to come and go when he liked, without any questions being asked. And he and Rawdon the younger many a time would walk to Gaunt Street and sit with the lady and the children there while Sir Pitt was closeted with Rebecca, on his way to the House, or on his return from it.
The ex-Colonel would sit for hours in his brother’s house very silent, and thinking and doing as little as possible. He was glad to be employed of an errand; to go and make inquiries about a horse or a servant, or to carve the roast mutton for the dinner of the children. He was beat and cowed into laziness and submission. Delilah had imprisoned him and cut his hair off, too. The bold and reckless young blood of ten-years back was subjugated and was turned into a torpid, submissive, middle-aged, stout gentleman.
And poor Lady Jane was aware that Rebecca had captivated her husband, although she and Mrs. Rawdon my-deared and my-loved each other every day they met.
LXIV – A Vagabond Chapter
We must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley’s biography with that lightness and delicacy which the world demands—the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name. There are things we do and know perfectly well in Vanity Fair, though we never speak of them: as the Ahrimanians worship the devil, but don’t mention him: and a polite public will no more bear to read an authentic description of vice than a truly refined English or American female will permit the word breeches to be pronounced in her chaste hearing. And yet, madam, both are walking the world before our faces every day, without much shocking us. If you were to blush every time they went by, what complexions you would have! It is only when their naughty names are called out that your modesty has any occasion to show alarm or sense of outrage, and it has been the wish of the present writer, all through this story, deferentially to submit to the fashion at present prevailing, and only to hint at the existence of wickedness in a light, easy, and agreeable manner, so that nobody’s fine feelings may be offended. I defy any one to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not been presented to the public in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner. In describing this Siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster’s hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the waterline, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the Siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking-glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it, those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
If we were to give a full account of her proceedings during a couple of years that followed after the Curzon Street catastrophe, there might be some reason for people to say this book was improper. The actions of very vain, heartless, pleasure-seeking people are very often improper (as are many of yours, my friend with the grave face and spotless reputation—but that is merely by the way); and what are those of a woman without faith—or love—or character? And I am inclined to think that there was a period in Mrs Becky’s life when she was seized, not by remorse, but by a kind of despair, and absolutely neglected her person and did not even care for her reputation.
. . .
“You leave me under the weight of an accusation which, after all, is unsaid. What is it? Is it unfaithfulness to my husband? I scorn it and defy anybody to prove it—I defy you, I say. My honour is as untouched as that of the bitterest enemy who ever maligned me. Is it of being poor, forsaken, wretched, that you accuse me? Yes, I am guilty of those faults, and punished for them every day. Let me go, Emmy. It is only to suppose that I have not met you, and I am no worse to-day than I was yesterday. It is only to suppose that the night is over and the poor wanderer is on her way. Don’t you remember the song we used to sing in old, dear old days? I have been wandering ever since then—a poor castaway, scorned for being miserable, and insulted because I am alone. Let me go: my stay here interferes with the plans of this gentleman.”