The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair

by Lisa Jadwin
The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair
Lisa Jadwin
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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SEL 32 (1992) ISSN 0039-3657

The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair


Early in Vanity Fair,Thackeray calls the reader's attention to a female duplicity that is both socially sanctioned and commonplace:

The best of women (I have heard my grandmother say) are hypocrites. We don't know how much they hide from us: how watchful they are when they seem most artless and confidential: how often those frank smiles which they wear so easily, are traps to cajole or elude or disarm. I don't mean in your mere coquettes, but your domestic models, and paragons of female virtue.'

The "traps" set by "watchfuln women, the narrator hints, are the weapons of a dangerous duplicity that is not entirely neutralized by the euphemism "hypocrisy." Thackeray implies that the enforced indirection designed to discredit or silence women instead (ironically) serves to familiarize some of them with the anarchic powers of "bearing tales." "The best of women," he implies, are indirection artists, expert at beguiling listeners into supplying the "unspeakable" truths decorum forbids women to declare directly. Their very subjection may in fact teach women to see beyond patriarchal "truth" to infinite alternative realities that resist the containment of definition.

Thackeray emphasizes that this discourse of acquiescent duplicity, which I call "female double-discourse," is a universal female genderlect, spoken by "coquettes," "domestic models," and "paragons of female virtue" alikee2 Yet different women use this

Lisa Jadwin teaches English at St. John Fisher College. This essay is part of a larger study of the relationship between female duplicity, mimesis, and literary influence in Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, and Villette.


discourse differently. The "true believer," exemplified in Vanity Fair by Amelia Sedley, believes wholeheartedly in the totalizing myth of female inferiority that is enforced by the self-abnegating behavior and discourse standardized as "feminine" "virtue." As "paragon of virtue" she buys approval at the cost of independence; as a "domestic model" she becomes objectified in the suffocating silence of her childhood home. Amelia accomplishes her primary conquest-her seduction of Dobbin-only unconsciously, and under the illusion of a patriarchal myth of fidelity that binds her to the memory of her unworthy husband.

The rebels of Vanity Fair put female double-discourse to a different use. Contemporary linguists argue that women have traditionally discovered their exclusion from the phallogocentric linguistic order when they recognize that challenging men in "masculine" terms leads to almost certain vilification and defeat. Yet they are also aware that the discredited and devalued speech of the true believer serves to enforce female subordination. Ambitious women thus have little choice but to refashion "virtuous" discourse by reinflecting and exaggerating its rhetoric and concealing their unacceptable ideas beneath an acceptable surface. They substitute "coquetryv-withholding, understatement, irony, euphemism, and hyperbole-for the declarative and imperative modes reserved for masculine utterance. In short, these women mimic the discourse of the "paragon of virtue," deliberately enlisting the true believer's acquiescent, self-minimizing discourse to camouflage their disbelieving defiance and to achieve power denied them by the masculine declarative discourses they are forbidden to use.

In her analysis of women's problematic entry into symbolic discourses that actively exclude them, Luce Irigaray notes that "in the initial phase, [there is] perhaps only one 'path' [open to women], the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry [mirne'ti~me]."~Only by assuming the feminine role deliberately in this initial phase, she asserts, can women begin "to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it."4 Mimesis, for an astute woman, is not simply an expressive artifice: it is a survival strategy that allows her "to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it."5 Mimicking ideal femininity allows her

to resubmit herself . . . to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic . . . so as to make "visible," by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It also means "to unveiln the fact that, if women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply resorbed in this function. They ako remain elsewhe~e.~

In Vanity Fair, the "mimetistn who manages to subvert oppression by imitating its effects is exemplified by Becky Sharp; the novel can feasibly be viewed as an unorthodox Kunstlerroman chronicling her education in mime'tisme and her ensuing conquest of her social world. Becky spends years perfecting her technique, learning to deploy double-discourse in two primary ways: as a trap and as a weapon. Her "trap" mode is a carefully choreographed confidence game designed to evoke and exploit a dupe's predictable reaction. The trap is characteristically sub-linguistic- minimalistic or even silent-and often takes the form of a series of standard, theatricalized gestures or poses calculated to generate a certain response. To seduce Jos Sedley, for example, Becky manipulates her hands and eyes to effect a "persecuted paragon" image:

she gave him ever so gentle a pressure with her little hand, and drew it back quite frightened, and looked first for one instant in his face, and then down at the carpet rods; and I am not prepared to say that Joe's heart did not thump at this little involuntary, timid, gentle motion of regard on the part of the simple girl.

(P. 34)

Becky uses double-discourse as a weapon when she needs an aggressive and yet socially sanctioned strategy for attacking or warding off an opponent. When she is furious at George Osborne for frustrating her plans to ensnare Jos Sedley, for example, she responds: "My place? . . . how kind of you to remind me of it!" (p. 173), inflecting "true believer" diction with just enough exaggeration to telegraph disapproval. Though George hears the hostility in her speech, he cannot criticize the ostensibly deferential surface of her utterance. Nor can he reasonably credit this mere slip of a governess with the ability to perceive (let alone generate) irony, a classical trope reserved for male rhetoricians.

Thackeray attributes the mimetist's radical skepticism to her upbringing. He devotes the second chapter of Vanity Fair to a detailed account of Becky's unconventional and poverty-stricken childhood, a childhood that rapidly immunizes her to the myth of chivalric benevolence towards "helpless" women and children, Her apprenticeship in imitation (her father was an artist) and sexual manipulation (her mother was a French "opera-girl") trains Becky both to recognize and to mistrust the power of illusion. At Miss Pinkerton's school, she learns that credulity and deference to authority only invite exploitation. Respect for the phallogocentric order proves equally dangerous; at the Sedleys' Becky gets a humiliating lesson in dqfkrance when she mistakes a "chilin for something "delightfully chilly" at dinner (pp. 29-30). Becky quickly finds that her negligible social status makes direct application for redress impossible. Alternately exploited and impeded by a culture that offers women only a submissive route to self-betterment, she learns to entrap and confound her oppressors below and beyond the surface of signification.

It is important to note that Vanity Fair focuses on male as well as female chicanery. Both male and female characters seek illicit sexual conquests; Lord Steyne attempts to buy Becky's favors with money and jewels, and George Osborne offers to commit adultery during his honeymoon. Thackeray locates male duplicity in the realm of economics rather than linguistics by focusing on the demise of the medieval masculine honor code that valued a man's "word" as collateral for the exchange of material goods. Lawrence Stone has remarked that, in the feudalistic world regulated by this code,

the worst thing a man could say about another man was that he was a liar. "Giving the lien inevitably resulted in a challenge to a duel in genteel circles, and in a fight in peasant or artisan circles.'

In Vanity Fair the male honor code has crumbled; the central chapters "How to Live on Nothing a Year" and "The Subject Continued" are an ironic primer for capitalizing on the gullibility of merchants who too readily extend credit to cheats. But on the margins of that masculine mercantile center of trade and debased monetary credit, Becky Sharp busily exploits the weaknesses of a different system of exchange: the debased and precarious symbolic order of language. Becky successfully lies her way to the top without appearing unvirtuous because her culture deems female duplicity not merely permissible but compulsory. Stone is careful to point out that the female feudalistic honor code traditionally deemphasized the significance of a woman's "word":

The worst thing a woman could say about another woman was that she was unchaste, which might well result in a lawsuit for slander in an ecclesiastical court. Thus a man's honour depended on the reliability of his spoken word; a woman's honour on her reputation for cha~tity.~

For centuries, female "virtue" and "honor" have denoted not truthfulness but "chastity, purity, ~irginity."~

As the male honor code forbids men to lie to other men, the female honor code forbids women to "lie" with (other) men. Yet each code's reliance on a single criterion effectively downplays the significance of other ethically questionable behaviors. We all recognize the sexual "double standard" that extends to men a sexual freedom it denies women. We are slower to acknowledge the existence of a parallel linguistic double standard that permits women to play with the word in ways men cannot. When a man's unchastities are regarded as relatively insignificant and tacitly forgivable, a woman's lies are likely to be considered equally inconsequential, equally forgivable. His license to "lie" with other women is matched by her license to "lie" about her motives, designs, and ambitions.'O

"True believer" and "mimetist" are more than rhetorical stances; they are epistemological positions, strategies for circumventing the limitations men have traditionally imposed upon women. Thackeray was writing Vanity Fair at a time of revolutionary unrest in Europe and feminist agitation in England, when, despite a decade of hard-won political and intellectual gains, British women found themselves increasingly defined as avatars of silence, submission, and domestic servitude. Victorian "femininity" required women to impersonate passivity and helplessness, and by definition prevented them from voicing discontent. Consequently female double-discourse became the lingua franca of Victorian women, so commonplace that male writers began to laugh admiringly at its resourceful charm. Thackeray parodies this attitude in the series of Chesterfieldian essays entitled "Mr. Brown's Letters to a Young Man About Town" (1853),in which his narrator boasts:

[Your wife] knows your weaknesses, and ministers to them in a thousand artful ways. . . . Every woman manages her husband: every person who manages another is a hypocrite. Her smiles, her submission, her good-humour, for all which we value her, what are they but admirable duplicity? We expect falseness from her, and order and educate her to be dishonest. Should he upbraid, 1'11 own that he prevail; say that he frown, 1'11 answer with a smile; what are these but lies, that we exact from our slaves? lies, the dexterous performance


of which we announce to be the female virtues; brutal Turks that we are! I do not say that Mrs. Brown ever obeyed me-on the contrary: but I should have liked it, for I am a Turk like my neighbor."

This is no indictment of female duplicity, but a celebration of its "dexterous" (implicitly, righteous) powers. The narrator concedes that men have only themselves to blame for the power reversal effected by "admirable duplicity," since men themselves "order and educate [women] to be dishonestn; the narrator can only attribute women's hypocrisy to their fear of male retaliation. Yet his leap to affirm his participation in this patriarchal culture of violence-"I should have liked it [if Mrs. Brown had obeyed me], for I am a Turk like my neighborv-is undercut by his admission of the inefficacy of his masculine linguistic privilege-"I do not say that Mrs. Brown ever obeyed me." Most important, this blustering dominance frames an oddly imitative locution: "Should he upbraid, I'll own that he prevail; say that he frown, 1'11 answer with a smile." The narrator/husband's voice slips into the nameless wife's discourse without tag or quotation marks, in a shift that reveals his own suspicious mastery of the "admirable duplicity" he has described with apparent disinterest. His narrative fiction so resembles the mimetist's social fictions that "Mr. Brown" is able to speak her language as Becky Sharp is said to speak French-"with purity and a Parisian accent" (p. 16).

Vanity Fair celebrates the powers of female double-discourse first by focusing on the hypocrisy of chaste "virtue," which women maintain by carefully bartering their sexual favors for financial support. Second, it suggests that certain young women develop fluency in double-discourse in order to transcend the purely material imperative to seduce. They become artists who perform for the adulation of audiences eager to view the sly entrapment and destruction of overconfident patriarchs. In presenting this scenario, the narrator/implied author/character who calls himself the "Manager of the Performance" simultaneously calls into question his own "quackery" and rhetorical sleight-of-hand as he deftly manipulates the "Becky Puppet," "Amelia Doll," and "Dobbin Figure" before us (p. 2). Though he declares himself overcome "with a profound feeling of melancholy in his survey of the bustling place," and demurely pretends to "retire . . . [as] the curtain rises," the reader may begin to recognize a startling complicity between the Manager of the Performance and the anti-heroine whose artful lying is the traffic of his stage. Female double-discourse, we shall see, "makes up" not only the content but the form of the novel without a hero.


How and why did Thackeray begin to recognize and then to appropriate female double-discourse as a mimetic strategy? Though Thackeray was born and educated as a gentleman, he was a curious combination of clubman and iconoclast who retained a sense of psychological exile from his culture even as he enjoyed its spotlight. Born in India, shunted from household to household during his school days, physically abused (in ordinary public school ways) at Charterhouse, and made miserable by the separation from his mother, who had remained in India, Thackeray developed a lifelong affinity for people less privileged than himself. Yet Thackeray did not share Dickens's or Gaskell's self-consciously politicized preoccupation with the lot of the poor. Instead he was fascinated by servants, "the awful kitchen inquisition which sits in judgment in every house, and knows everything" (Vanity Fair,p. 561), whose proximity to the secret lives of their masters endowed them with an impressive omniscience.

Thackeray spent his freelance years developing a host of characters/voices, epitomized by the cockney footman Charles Jearnes Yellowplush, who mocks his hypocritical "betters" indirectly and ironically. Like a good Victorian wife, Yellowplush is paid to be decorous, loyal, and obedient, and he makes certain that the surface of his behavior leaves nothing to be desired. Yellowplush's ressentiment takes the form of an obsession with debunking "fashnable" language. He consistently highlights the slippage between signifier and signified, enlisting comic and revealing mispronunciations, malapropisms, and literal spellings to strip away the mystique of upper-class diction and accent. His habit of defamiliarizing discourse enables him to defamiliarize other aspects of his master's life, to contrast idealities with realities, and thus to encourage the reader to challenge the social hierarchy enforced through labels like "aristocrat." Thackeray's Yellowplush, like so many Victorian wives, grew increasingly adept at expressing his contempt in superficially decorous terms.'"

Thackeray signaled the depth of his involvement with the voices of Yellowplush, Ikey Solomons, Sam and Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Major Goliah Gahagan, and others by adopting their names as pseudonyms. Thackeray wrote pseudonymously for more than a decade before finally publishing under his real name, a common practice during the 1830s and 1840s, when pseudonyms insulated "gentlemanly" writers from the notoriety of professional writing as they helped protect women writers from sexist attacks by the literary establishment. Certainly a satirist's norm de plumes also helped diffuse the impact of the inevitable counterattacks his work


provoked. But by masquerading as a scribbling servant-almost a male Pamela-Thackeray also heightened his audience's sense of his narrators' reality while he vastly increased his own apparent distance from the text, a strategy that effectively deconstructed the boundary between C.J. Yellowplush and W.M. Thackeray. Thus Thackeray pushed back the borders of narrative decorum to develop what one critic has called a "narrational presence," a narrator neither omniscient nor limited, but indeterminate, flexible, shape-shifting.13 His contemporaries were quick to sense that this ectoplasmic narrator needed monitoring; G.H. Lewes said critics should "watch very narrowly the doctrines which the

jester desires to disseminate," as if the author's playful upending of critical moral issues were too clearly ~ubversive.'~

Others bluntly impugned Thackeray's motives:

The advantage of using such a mouthpiece, if it be an advantage, is this, that it gives an opportunity of saying things more vulgar, biting, and personal, than a man's self-respect or shame would allow him to say out of his own mouth. It is a quasi shifting of the responsibility.15

His decade of experimentation apparently convinced Thackeray that cockney footmen (as characters) were ultimately too limited by their gender and social class. Women, on the other hand (as every reader of Pamela knows) enjoyed a unique potential for social mobility through hypergamy, or marrying up; they could put their talent for imitating innocent ideality to the service of their material ambitions. But the indignant reception of Catherine in 1839 taught Thackeray the dangers of promoting the careers of insurrectionary women; it was a sore subject among men, as Richardson had learned a hundred years earlier from Fielding.16 Thackeray apparently knew that he must educate his male reader about these touchy matters indirectly, in polite, ironic terms, merely hinting at the realities of female subversion. (The female reader, presumably recognizing her own linguafranca, would have little trouble following along.) Thus, in the first few numbers of Vanity Fair, the narrator calls attention to himself as a "man and a brother" to the male reader, pretends to despise his social-climbing heroine, and goes out of his way to affirm male supremacy:

A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don't know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

(p 34)

The narrator, adopting the rhetoric of male supremacy, appears to exult that women are too stupid to exercise their right to marry up. But "the darlings," an appositive inflated with precisely the kind of male vanity Thackeray aims to puncture, highlights the dangers of underestimating "the darlings." Becky's seductive conquests confirm the mimetist's indisputable prowess; though Amelia degenerates somewhat during the course of the novel into a dumb "beast of the field," she maintains a stranglehold over Dobbin, its most worthy male protagonist and the lone survivor of his cohort. The novel without a hero will show how George, Rawdon, King George IV, "Agamemnon," Lord Steyne, Jos Sedley, and Dobbin are quietly disarmed and ambushed by two women, disguised (for different reasons) as foolish "beasts of the field."

This passage invokes Vanity Fair's unifying trope: the conflation of women's linguistic mobility and their social mobility in a mirroring formal fiction that the narrator/implied author/ character fashions around these themes. Female duplicity, hypergamy, and formal fiction are all potentially disruptive social forces, immune to censure precisely because they are culturally sanctioned. They function paradoxically, by presenting their limitations as strengths. (For example, those excluded from masculine linguistic "credibility" are not bound by its laws, and may exploit the infinite possibilities of the "word" with impunity.) Hypergamy offsets women's literally nonexistent legal status by exploiting it;" a woman cannot be limited by an identity she does not possess. Finally, the novelistic lie is designed deliberately to convey hidden truth, to deliver a sermon without sermonizing (with all the rhetorical difference that entails). Vanity Fair conflates social and linguistic mobility and formal mimesis by attacking the related monological myths of marriage and of discourse. A social critique masquerading as fiction, it enlists women's social fictions to critique the masquerades staged by two women-very different-who are not simply unable to be monogamous, but who actually prove fatal to men (as if to bear witness to the historian Ann

Jones's observation that "if marriage is a woman's only career, it might as well be her profession""). Neither woman settles for a single husband, and both engage in prolonged conquests of resisting males. In the meantime, both enjoy a certain amount of "male" sexual control and "female" verbal freedom while maintaining the appearance of propriety.

Thackeray was not the first male writer to frame these issues in an organic form.lg Richardson had preceded him a hundred years earlier with Pamela and Clarissa, novels more explicitly focused on the mimetic implications of seduction than Vanity Fair. Thackeray's


gender, like Richardson's, enabled him to expose and admire the female double-discourse women writers like Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell understandably feared would be identified as "women's writing," tagged "manipulative," "deceitful," and "frivolous" and used against them. Perhaps recalling the anti- Pamelists' attacks on Richardson, Thackeray decided not to use Becky as a first-person narrator,20 but instead mediated her exploits with the commentary of an omniscient narrator whose cagy discourse corroborates Becky's by echoing it. Thus Thackeray combines "masculine" omniscience and "feminine" mimetistic rhetoric to create a picaresque "comic epic in prosen that promotes the fortunes of a female renegade who manages to evade containment by her patriarchal culture. The resulting hybrid, which Thackeray only pretended to minimize as a "domestic comedy," is "in some sense palimpsestic . . . [a novel] whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning." Though these are the terms Gilbert and Gubar have used to describe the characteristic subversive strategies of nineteenth-century women writers, they could as easily be talking about Thackeray when they conclude that "these authors managed the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standard^."^' Thackeray's female competitors were quick to recognize the radical political implications of Vanity Fair. Charlotte Bronte went so far as to dedicate the second edition ofJane Eyre to the man she called "the first social regenerator of the day-the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of thing^."^'


Miss Pinkerton's school for wives is a school for readers as well, establishing the implied readers' roles and rehearsing the Enlightenment values Vanity Fair will enlist only to reject. Though the opening chapters of the novel fix primarily on Becky's and Amelia's careers at and departures from Chiswick Mall, they also introduce two seemingly incidental but critical characters, a female writer and a male reader.23 Thackeray presents these characters both visually and verbally, the better to drive home the contrast between form and content that their discourses will present. Chapter I opens with the portrait of the headmistress, Miss Pinkerton, whom the narrator satirically apostrophizes as "that majestic lady[,] the Semiramis of Hammersmith, the friend of Doctor Johnson, the correspondent of Mrs. Chapone" (p. 3).The beturbaned Miss Pinkerton sits rigidly at her writing-desk,

composing a "billetn affirming Amelia's readiness to enter the "polished and refined circle" of her parents' society. The inflated, absurd appositives of the text match the inflated, absurd turban of the drawing: both ask the reader to reconsider the writer's presentation of a social realm that is implicitly equally absurd and inflated (one of the definitions of "vanity"). Though Thackeray uses the true-believing Miss Pinkerton to undercut the female writer, it is important to note that Vanity Fair begins with a woman's written presentation of a social world-however fallen-in which Becky, like the headmistress, will need to learn how to "write her own ticket." Miss Pinkerton's weakness (and it is the weakness of the other women writers of Vanity FaiP4) lies in her willingness to accept this patriarchal world at face value-to remain blind to its absurdity.

Thackeray follows this presentation of a woman writing with an equally instructive portrait of a man reading. "Jones," the clubman- reader whom Thackeray places in the receptive (and literally second) position of reader, is a beginning student of female double-

discourse, and so must only hope to keep Jones peeps into his novel as if it were a mirror; the illustration "mirrorsn him outward to us, just as the accompanying narrative intrusion reflects Jones's values back at him in his own rhetoric:

All which details, I have no doubt, Jones, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather flushed with his joint of mutton and half-pint of wine), taking out his pencil and scoring under the words "foolish, twaddling," &c, and adding to them his own remark of "quite true." Well, he is a lofty man of genius, and admires the great and heroic in life and novels; and so had better take warning and go elsewhere.

(P. 8)

By encouraging Jones to write in the margin, to put the book down, to go elsewhere, the narrator seems to incite mutiny against himself. But this apparent retreat disguises an invasion, for the narrator is inviting Jones to leave his own club. The only space left for this self-styled "lofty man of geniusn to write in is the margin; everything else has been taken up by women, who have exiled

Jones to the traditionally feminine position of reader. Thus the Manager of the Performance will be able to transform turf staked out by "great and heroic" males into a place where the "foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimentaln will reign to such a degree that even die-hard traditionalists may find themselves writing "quite true" next to the very best scenes. Women, the ultimate unclubbables, are about to take over the Club.

Thackeray ambushes Jones by preempting his objections, coyly minimizing the women's preparations as "foolish," "twaddling," "ultra-sentimental.'' Then he unexpectedly turns the cracked mimetic mirror out into the darkened audience to catch Jones almost snoozing, ingloriously "flushed with his joint of mutton and half-pint of wine." The distinctly unheroic image of Jones Thackeray silently reflects out to us is sufficiently discrepant to curtail our respect for Jones's heroic aesthetic. At this decisive

juncture, the narrator has either evicted the clubman or transformed him into the "man with a reflective turn of mind" of "Before the Curtain" (p. 3),an open-minded reader respectful of the powerful duplicity that buttresses the charm of "coquettes . . . domestic models, and paragons of female virtue" alike. Oddly enough, this newly skeptical reader will indeed find himself "writing in the margins" of Vanity Fair as he reconstructs meanings only implied in the text's double-discourse.


Thackeray wants his readers not to be true-believing disciples like Jones and Miss Pinkerton, but themselves disaffected "mimetists," equipped (in Quintilian's famous terms) to evaluate whether the delivery, the character of the speaker, or the nature of the subject matches the assertion at hand. When Thackeray's drawing of Jones reveals what the text elides-that supposedly heroic Jones is a self-satisfied snob-the skeptical reader of either gender rejects Jones's aesthetic standards and judgment as well. Likewise, the difference between Miss Pinkerton's genteel language and her grasping intent signals her unreliability. Readers cognizant of the gaps in both the visual and verbal representations of the male reader and the female writer begin to accept Vanity Fair's inverted hierarchy of linguistic authority: lexicographers who insist that meaning inheres in symbols shall yield to "wretched unidea'd girls" who are eager to exploit the creative potential of linguistic instability. The opening chapters of Vanity Fair help transform true-believing readers into mimetists ready to discard the comforting security of absolute truths for the responsibility of generating multiple meanings.

Miss Pinkerton's school is a repository of Enlightenment values, a run-down postlapsarian garden where Becky and Amelia learn from Barbara and Jemima that women can either use language to bamboozle others or expect to be hoodwinked by slick rhetoricians.


The Pinkerton sisters, Barbara and Jemima, represent two kinds of true believers. The former places her faith in patriarchal discourse; the latter hopes that her kindness will serve as an antidote to her sister's paternalistic discipline. Jemima Pinkerton's behavior is as homely as her speech. Against Barbara's will, she swipes a "Dixonary" for Becky, thrusts a basket of sandwiches into the coach, and weeps genuine tears to see Amelia depart. But generous sincerity is not a negotiable virtue in Vanity Fair; it signals a vulnerability that her ruthless sister Barbara readily abuses, bullying Jemima and obliging her to do "the bills, and the washing, and the mending, and the puddings, and the plate and crockery" (p. 7). The narrator underlines Jemima's wifelike powerlessness (a warning to us of Amelia's fate) by abandoning her at the Chiswickian gates: "But why speak about her? It is probable that we shall not hear of her again from this moment to the end of time" (p. 7).

Miss Barbara Pinkerton, in contrast, dominates her sister and her pupils with an unconsciously hyperbolic version of elevated language that betrays her as a Johnson-worshiper.26 But the center of Miss Pinkerton's "intolerably dull, pompous, and tedious" discourse does not hold (p. 9); her letters (and Thackeray is playfully echoing Johnson here) "are to be trusted no more nor less than churchyard epitaphs" (p. 6). The narrator soon reveals that Miss Pinkerton is as much a true believer as Jemima; she differs only in that she takes an implicitly masculine absolutist rhetoric as her linguistic model. The greatest achievement of "the Semiramis of Hammersmith" will be her inability to supervise her star pupil Becky Sharp, who repays the compliment by taking Miss Pinkerton as a practice target and ultimately outstripping her true- believing mentor.

At Miss Pinkerton's school, while Amelia muddles her way through singing, dancing, embroidery, spelling (and the rather mysterious uses of the globes and the backboard), day-pupil Becky swiftly masters that curriculum and sharpens her performing skills as well, entertaining her father and his bohemian friends by using a doll (donated by the well-meaning Jemima) to mimic Miss Pinkerton. Her expertise at manipulating her Miss Pinkerton doll enables her to manipulate Miss Pinkerton herself into granting her room, board, and education-Becky's first successful seduction for material gain. (Thackeray emphasizes the importance of this training, in a chapter devoted to Becky's education, by depicting it visually as well as verbally, as if quietly to confirm the complicity between his own "Manager of the Performance" and Becky as puppet-mistress.) Becky's acting steadily becomes less a pastime than a survival skill:

Rebecca Sharp looked like a child. But she had the dismal precocity of poverty. Many a dun had she talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good humour, and into the granting of one meal more.

(P 17) "Coaxing" and "wheedling" keep food on the table and a roof over her head; can the reader condemn the lies of an impoverished child who "had been a woman since she was eight years old" (p. 17), even when "woman" is implicitly defined as "seducer"? The material value of Becky's dissimulations becomes clear when Becky's ability to "perform the part of the inge'nue" convinces Miss Pinkerton she is "the meekest creature in the world," and gains Becky admittance as an articled pupil after her father's death (p. 17). But once admitted to Miss Pinkerton's school, Becky despises the narrowness of the roles it offers her: "the pompous vanity of the old schoolmistress, the foolish good humour of her sister, the silly chat and scandal of the elder girls, and the frigid correctness of the governesses" (p. 19). Becky determines to "get free from the prison in which she found herself, and now began to act for herself, and for the first time to make connected plans for the future" (p. 19), polishing her duplicitous skills, and even experimenting with the shock value of occasional truth-telling. When Miss Pinkerton tries to increase her teaching load, Becky refuses bluntly: "'I am here to speak French with the children,' Kebecca said abruptly, 'not to teach them music, and save money for you. Give me money, and I will teach them"' (p. 20). Effectively duped by Brcky's so-far ingenuous facade, Miss Pinkerton is overwhelmed by her sudden lack of deferential naivetC. Such lessons teach Becky that honesty is merely a rhetorical strategy, with no greater or lesser moral value than duplicity. Becky showcases her successful cortipletion of "the little course of study" (p. 19) when she vanquishes Miss Pinkerton by addressing her in yet another indirect discourse, French (Becky's mother's tongue and her "mother tongue"), a language the headmistress only pretends to know. The scene is staged before an audience of schoolgirls whose delight in Miss Pinkerton's comedown is left to the reader's imagination. Ignoring Miss Pinkerton's proffered hand and scowl of displeasure, Becky demurely mounts the carriage steps, arid tlie narrator assents: "In fact, it was a little battle between tlic young lady and the old one, and the latter was worsted" (p. 10). Her final gesture is to heave the "Dixonary" Jemima has


secretly given her back into the garden, where it belongs. Having bested Miss Pinkerton and defenestrated Dr. Johnson, the graduate is ready to define the wor(1)d in her own terms.


And Becky both defines and conquers. Despite early setbacks- timid Jos eludes her at first, and she irretrievably miscalculates by marrying Rawdon-Becky eventually manages to seduce all of Vanity Fair. She systematically overtakes all targets: Amelia, Lady Crawley, Rawdon, Sir Pitt, George Osborne, Lord Steyne, and the King himself at the Gaunt House charades, where her "ghastly performance" becomes both overtly formal and metaphorical. In the Gaunt House scenes, Thackeray superficially minimizes the mythopoeic implications of this significantly silent "feminine" discourse by historicizing and trivializing it as a "charade." But Becky/Clytemnestra literally and figuratively gets the last word; no Orestes emerges to avenge his father's death. The inherent weakness of the charades' patriarchs is underscored by the "murder" that concludes both the performance and Agamemnon's life. Becky's noble audience, like the reader, is both frightened and fascinated by her performance:

[Becky] saw fortune, fame, fashion before her. Lord Steyne was her slave; followed her everywhere, and scarcely spoke to any one in the room beside; and paid her the most marked compliments and attention. . . . She passed by Lady Stunnington with a look of scorn. She patronized Lady Gaunt and her astonished and mortified sister-in-law; she tcrastd all rival charmers.

(pp. 652-53)

Becky's Gaunt House triumph simply confirms the extent to which her informal performances have already been rewarded throughout the novel. Yet, because this massive and comprehensive conquest only serves to bore her, Thackeray heads off the moralists by punishing her. Rawdon abandons her after discovering her with Lord Steyne; she leaves England for the Continent; and in Chapter LXIV the narrator plunges Becky into a literally unspeakable "abattement and degradation," announcing his plans to "submerge" her in deference to readerly modesty. At this point he also stigmatizes her as a siren, a demonic seductress, exhorting us to "be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better" (p. 813). But "be sure" for "be assured" has two distinctly resonant meanings: while it reassures us, it also exhorts us to "be sure to

envision Becky's illicit exploits vividly!"-to imagine an even more horrendous spectacle than the one "politenessn proscribes.

Moreover, the narrator concludes his long intrusion by describing Becky not as a monster but as a siren's victim herself, "a man who goes overboard [and] hangs on to a spar whilst any hope is left, and then flings it away and goes down, when he finds that struggling is in vainn (p. 813). It appears that in exposing Becky's "tailn the narrator has exposed his own "talen:

In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and caioling, 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? (pa 812) ---.-.--I Do "singing and smiling.

0 (7 0'


---7--. ---. I cozing and cajolingn modify

- \ =:-"this siren" or "the author"? Not only has Thackeray already literally drawn the



"monster's tail above water" -7)gIi:. in Chapter XLIV, but since



--Ty/-the opening chapters

-- the


narrator has reminded


readers that the "monster's talen shall become evident even below the signified ?icen of the narrative. In

I the siren's mirror. the narrator's accusing finger points back at himself.

Both sirens dive down

-below the surface to conclude their tale at a deeper and more self-consciously

3-L-nonverbal level than before'.




- In the final auarter of Vanitv Fair,~hackera~'s

illustrations go where the text fears to


Gead to confirm Becky's final triumphs. The order and proximity of the two illustrations "Becky in Her Second Appearance as


Clytemnestra" (see Figure 1) and "Virtue Rewarded: A Booth in Vanity Fair" (see Figure 2) hint silently at the cause-and-effect relationship textually authenticated by the circumstantial evidence implicating Becky in Jos Sedley's murder. The correspondences between the two drawings, such as the curtains that ironically separate and shadow Becky on the right-hand, traditionally "good" side of each drawing from the agitated top-hatted Dobbin at the left of each, confirm that Becky's bogus "virtuen has been handsomely rewardede2' Becky has redeemed her early failure to capture her first victim by murdering Jos for his insurance money. But the enormity of this misdeed is somewhat offset by an only apparently more generous deed: Becky finally offers Amelia proof of George's unworthiness and convinces her of Dobbin's virtue, making possible their ensuing marriage. In doing so she enforces the completion of Amelia's twelve-year-long seduction of Dobbin, the lone surviving Odysseus. Amelia, it gradually becomes clear, is a domestic siren, a "tender little parasiten destined to throttle the "rugged old oak to which it clings" (p. 871). As Amelia greets Dobbin on his return from the sea, Thackeray renders her as a mermaid from whose "dripping white shawl" emerge "two little hands" that disappear into Dobbin's coat, ensuring that he "will never go again" (pp. 870-71).


The narrator has hinted at his complicity with Becky from the start, pretending to fear that the reader "might fancy it was I who was sneering at the practice of devotion, which Miss Sharp finds so ridiculous; that it was I who laughed good-humouredly at the reeling old Silenus of a baronet-whereas the laughter comes from one who has no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success" (p. 96). Both narrator and protagonist are seducers, shape-shifters, mimetists. While Becky uses female double-discourse to punish her detractors and to trap providers, Thackeray uses female double-discourse to punish his detractors (who, like George Osborne, don't "get it") and to trap providers into buying his next number, his first edition, his next series."

Moreover, the narrator's discourse is not simply similar but often virtually identical to Becky's. Like Becky, he shifts voices without warning. Is he a pimp or a chaperon, a panderer or a moralist? As Becky uses her Miss Pinkerton puppet to mock her headmistress, the narrator deploys each individual's language as a weapon against him or her, addressing Jones as "lofty and heroic," deferring to Miss Pinkerton as "that majestic lady." Coquettishly he "plays hard to get" by promising and then withholding information: "I know that the tune that I am piping is a very mild one (although there are some terrific chapters coming presently)"

(p. 60). And, as his heroine does with Miss Pinkerton, the narrator handily employs truth for shock effect, as in the famous ending of the ninth number: "No more firing was heard at Brussels-the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart" (p. 406).

The only thing Thackeray has over Becky is moral purpose, a sense of "truth &Justice and kindness as the great ends of our professi~n"~~

which purportedly increased as he completed the novel. He told Mark Lemon in 1847: "a few years ago I should have sneered at the idea of setting up as a teacher at all . . . but I have got to believe in the business. . . . And our profession seems to me to be as serious as the Parson's What Thackeray intended to teach in Vanity Fair is notoriously difficult to determine, since the response he sought from the reflective reader was ambivalence par excellence: "When you come home, you sit down, in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind, and apply yourself to your books or your business" (p. 1). I can only conclude that Thackeray's personal and authorial ambivalence reflected a submerged radicalism hidden beneath his bluff clubman demeanor, a radicalism based on his ability to see and appreciate the viewpoints of renegades. A cousin, Richard Bedingfield, recalled:

[Thackeray] would shake hands with many an outcast and an outlaw, male and female; and he once told me that a class to whom one can only refer by a glance at the "woman" forgiven by a great authority many centuries ago, he believed to be "very good pe~ple."~'

'The closing woodcut "Finis" bears out Thackeray's good opinion of such female outlaws. He inverts the myth of Pandora and salutes the (sex-)war-heroines of his heroless novel by putting two young girls in charge of shutting up the story-a toy-box containing upright Amelia, Dobbin, and Janey puppets. The pudgy Jos puppet is upended against the side of the box, as if to acknowledge its recent demise. The narrator facetiously minimizes the impact of closure: "Let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out" (p. 878). Yet the illustrator does not ''shut up" the Becky puppet at all. To the right of the toy box, the narrator's

jester's stick lies side-by-side with the Becky puppet, its motley

flung over her in an ambiguous embrace that suggests both

partnership and conque~t.~'


'William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, ed. and intro. John Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 208; all further references to Vanity Fair are to this edition and are cited parenthetically by page number.

4To my knowledge, Elaine Showalter is the coiner of &genderlectn: '[tlhere is no mother tongue, no genderlect spoken by the female population in a society, which differs significantly from the dominant languagen (pp. 25455). 'Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," in Elaine Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theo~y (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), pp. 243-70.

'Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), p. 76. 'Irigaray, This Sex, p. 76.

'Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Mam'age in England 1500-1800(New

York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 503.


'Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "virtuen and "honour."

''See Keith Thomas's "The Double Standard," Journal ofthe Histo? of1dea.s

20, 2 (April 1959): 195-216.

"William Makepeace Thackeray, "Mr. Brown's Letters to a Young Man

About Town," in William Makepeace Thackeray, Collected Works, vol. 6,

Biographical Edition (London: Harper and Bros., 1898), p. 658.

I2In an interesting parallel, C.J. Yellowplush eventually transforms himself

into Fitzjeames Yellowplush, moving up the social scale by altering his ancestry

as Becky does in the course of Vanity Fair: "The humble calling of her female

parent, Miss Sharp never alluded to, but used to state subsequently that the

Entrechats were a noble family of Gascony, and took great pride in her

descent from them. And curious it is, that as she advanced in life this young

lady's ancestors increased in rank and splendour" (p. 16).

''Catherine Peters, Thackeray's Universe: Shifting Worlds ofZmagination and Reality (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 82.

"G.H. Lewes, review of Book of Snobs in the Morning Chronicle, 6 March 1848, rprt. in Geoffrey Tillotson and Donald Hawes, eds., Thackeray: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968) pp. 44-49, 45.

I5W.C. Roscoe, "W.M. Thackeray, Artist and Moralist," rprt. in Tillotson and Hawes, pp. 265-85, 276.

16For a discussion of Fielding's influence on Thackeray, see Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: The Uses ofAdversity, 1811-1846(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), pp. 225-26.

"Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries influenced English


jurisprudence throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, declared a married woman a "femme coverte," whose "very being or legal existence . . . is suspended during marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing." Commentaries on the Laws of England, 11 th edn. (London: 1791), book 1, chap. 15, p. 442.

IsAnn.Jones, Women Who Kill (New York: Fawcett, 1981), p. 129. In her history of female murderers in the United States, Jones argues that the materialist imperative of marriage, combined with a double standard that excluded "virtuousn women from legal prosecution, helped secure the acquittals of several nineteenth-century upper-middle-class women who killed their relatives (and particularly their husbands) for money.

IgColeridge used "organic form" to describe a unity of form and content.

"Though it is unclear whether Thackeray intended Vanity Fair to be an epistolary novel narrated by Becky, he wrote Chapters 14, 6, 9-10, and the text of Becky's letter (without its accompanying narrative frame) in Chapter 8 well in advance of the rest of the book, probably in February 1845, and conceived Dobbin and the "novel without a heron subtitle later, in 1846. J.A. Sutherland, Thackeray at Work (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 23-


"Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), both citations p. 73. Gilbert and Gubar also note: "men have always accused women of the duplicity that is essential to the literary strategies we are describing here . . . . [I]n publicly presenting acceptable facades for private and dangerous visions women writers have long used a wide range of tactics to obscure but not obliterate their most subversive impulses" (p. 74).


22Charlotte Bronte, "Author's Preface to the Second Edition of Jane Eyre,"

p. 2, in Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1971), pp. 1-2.

29Thackeray himself created the almost 200 illustrations (incidental woodcuts, full-page tableaux, and pictorial capitals) published in the serial and the volume editions of Vanity Fair.

24The women writers of Vanity Fair, such as Miss Pinkerton and Mrs. Bute Crawley (who ghostwrites her husband's sermons), use their writing abilities to affirm rather than to question patriarchal values. Consequently they pose a hazard to social climbers like Becky, whose seductive ambitions they aim to squelch.

25'yones, at his club" is the first of a bevy of male readers in Vanity Fair. Thackeray's illustrations confirm that men who fail to take women's writing (and, by implication, "artfulness") seriously do so at their own peril. ceorg&, who thinks Becky is the "nicest little woman in England" (p. 352), is pictured using Amelia's letters as cigar-lighters (p. 141); the box of letters suggests both Pandora's box and the Manager's box of puppets. Thackeray subtly promotes the fortunes of men who treat women's writing respectfully. Dobbin, for example, neglects his schoolmates to read The Thowand and One Nights, the tales used by Scheherazade to beguile her misogynistic husband (p. 51), a book Becky has also read in childhood (p. 26). Likewise, an early drawing of Rawdon shows him contentedly reading one of Becky's letters, addressed to his female pseudonym, "Eliza Styles" (p. 188). Though Dobbin and Rawdon are both deceived by women in Vanity Fair, their assiduous reading enables them (to some extent) to see through female "artfulness," as when Rawdon, imprisoned in the "Spunging House," recognizes the deceit in Becky's Frenchified letter refusing him aid (pp. 672-73).

Vanity Fair's female readers, in contrast, are presumably already experts in female double-discourse. Thackeray pictures several female reader-critics resisting "texts" designed to control them. In two illustrations, doubled female children reading (echoing Becky and Amelia?) are shown menaced by an external threat (pp. 107, 596), implying that reading endangers women, though at the conclusion two girls, one fair and one dark, are pictured masterfully "shutting up the boxn in "Finisn (see illustration at the close of my essay).'ln chapter 8, Thackeray pictures Becky scrutinizing the portraits of the former Ladies Crawley for help in plotting to capture Sir Pitt. Moreover, at least one other female character expertly cuts through the duplicitous writings of other women: Miss Crawley recognizes Becky's handiwork behind Rawdon's suspiciously well-spelled letter of appeal.

26Thackeray's critique of ~ohnsonian values~focuses on the work where Johnson's "absolute languagen (see below) most clearly reflected and enforced his patriarchal ideology: the Dictionary, where the lexicographer aimed to codify a socially ratified, etymologically based usage, but ironically ended up with something more like the mixture of fact and opinion found in Boswell's admiring Life of Samuel Johnson.

Mikhail Bakhtin coined "absolute language" to describe discourse that is not dialogized-that is, relativized, stripped of its linguistic privilege, aware of its own instability. Undialogized language considers itself authoritative, hence "absolute." For a discussion of absolute language in the novel, see Gary Saul Morson's "Tolstoy's Absolute Languagen in Gary Saul Morson, ed., Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 12344.

"My readings of these illustrations have been influenced by Judith Law Fisher, "Siren and Artist: Contradiction in Thackeray's Aesthetic Ideal," Nineteenth-Centun: Fiction 39. 4 (March 1985): 392419. I would also like to

, \

thank Fisher for her comments on this essay. 281n1845, Thackeray described Vanity Fair as "the scheme by wh I expect to make a great deal of money." Ray, p. 384. %Thackeray to Mark Lemon, editor of Punch, 24 February 1847. Ray, pp.

385-86, 385.

'OIbid., pp. 385-86.

"Ibid., p. 283.

521am indebted to conversations with U.C. Knoepflmacher for his insights about this and other illustrations in Vanity Fair.

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