14th Apr 2011
Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair
“It is all vanity to be sure, but who will not own to liking a little of it?”
Becky Sharp taught me how to flirt. I still have my original dog-eared copy of Vanity Fair, full of post-it notes and pencil. If you were only to read the passages my fifteen-year-old self chose to highlight throughout the text, Vanity Fair reads like a charm master-class, a ruthlessly satirical how-to guide in the art of seduction.
From the moment Becky Sharp flung “Johnson’s Dixionary” out of her carriage window and announced that “revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural. I’m no angel,” my fifteen-year-old self was utterly beguiled.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be her, or even to know her, but more that Thackeray’s comedy of manners spelt out a recipe for flirtation in the most minute, pain-stacking detail, mocking both the artist and her victims, and crucially (for me, a gawky fifteen-year-old) giving a very detailed appraisal of the ways in which charm can be constructed and exploited.
“Flattery!?!” I have written in the margins of Chapter Ten, as if the notion of flattery had never occurred to me before, and was a faintly surprising suggestion.
Thackeray writes, wryly, of Becky consulting a male victim – Mr Crawley - on “passages of French she could not understand, though her mother was a Frenchwoman”, and taking great interest in “his pamphlet on malt”.
Of course this dissembling respect and obedience is nothing to be applauded, but we’ve all nodded along to equivalent monologues, spoken by someone we wanted something from, haven’t we?
Nobody ever said ambition was simple. Becky is a swindler, to be sure, but to use Beckyisms in moderation is just good tactics. She gets what she wants, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“The world is a looking-glass,” Thackeray explains, “and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” This is both sweeping morality and a very specific example of why Becky is my favourite character in literature.
She gets her just deserts, but she also makes her own path in the world and does so with élan. If she walks into a room, she knows what she wants from its occupants, and has a plan of how to get it. I’ve never walk into a room with that sort of confidence, which only increases my Becky-fascination. She acts the part, and then becomes it.
Yet my favourite aspect of Becky’s character is that when her guile and charm pay off and she successfully scales the heights of society, only to find it full of weakness and vanity, she has the guts to admit she is unhappy.
While Amelia clings to bland romantic ideals, and Dobbin to false hope, Becky does not buckle on discovering that even at the pinnacle of society, life is nothing but a circus. She ploughs on and it’s this honesty that I find so likeable.
The subtitle of Vanity Fair was ‘a novel without a hero’, but Becky’s honesty (to herself, although never to others!) is strangely heroic. I didn’t know it when I was fifteen and reading Vanity Fair for the first time, but the chase is half the pleasure – the planning, the ambition, the flirtation – while realizing your ambitions is a double edged sword. Nothing is enough, but that shouldn’t make the trying any less fun.
By the end of the novel, Becky’s subterfuge might be exposed and murder very much insinuated, but the reader is left distinctly uncomfortable because nobody inside or outside the novel has remained uncharmed by Becky’s intelligence and tenacity.
She might be ambitious for the wrong things, but the audacity of her desires are enviable all the same. Just as the devil has all the best lines in Paradise Lost, so too is Becky a painfully charming anti-heroine who lures the reader into her trap as she lures her men.
Becky is ruthless, cruel and verges on the absurd, yet while her tips on successful flirtation probably haven’t made me a better person, she’s still my favorite lady in literature.
(Image from the 2004 film adaptation)