THACKERAY ON THE [OMNI]BUS

Part III (for which chapters twelve through seventeen were read, and then fourteen through seventeen were read again one more time)

My evening commute was interrupted.
My evening commute was interrupted.

Spoiler alert!!! Plots will be disclosed

A little public transportation drama the other evening allowed me to revisit some chapters that I hoped would illuminate a plot twist that Thackeray had sprung on me at the end of chapter fourteen. The omnibus was rumbling at a good pace for about three-quarters of my commute, when suddenly we came to a halt a few yards after making a turn at major intersection.  Another bus was stopped ahead of us.  A fire truck blocked the street.  It was a downed power line.  During this intermission, I turned over in my mind again and again the events in chapters fourteen through seventeen.

The morning of the day before the downed power line drama, as the bus neared my stop,  I  finished chapter fourteen, at the very end of which an astonished Becky exclaims, “Oh, sir I – I’m married already, “ to an even more astonished Sir Pitt, who has just proposed, kneeling, to Becky in the London home of his wealthy, spinster sister, Miss Crawley.  Becky was there to take care of the convalescing Miss Crawley, but Sir Pitt was in London to deal with some business having to do with the death of his second wife, who had just recently died, ignored and alone, while everyone was fussing and being preoccupied with Miss Crawley’s digestive problems caused by a lobster dinner at the Queen’s Crawley rectory. I picked up again as I continued my morning commute on the Metro, and I read  the reactions of Mrs. Firkin and Miss Briggs, who had been spying at the drawing room door and had run up to Miss Crawley to inform her of the scene unfolding on the floor below.  But they are yet ignorant of the really big news, disclosed at the very end of chapter fifteen: that Becky is secretly married to Rawdon Crawley, second son, first marriage of Sir Pitt, and the favorite of his aunt, Miss Crawley.  The train arrived at my station when I got this news, forcing me anxiously to await my evening commute to continue the story.

Thackeray had hinted at it in an earlier chapter when he allowed us to observe a brief, whispered huddle between Amelia and Becky upstairs at Russel Square, but he withholds the details.  Instead, he begins chapter sixteen with, “How they were married is not the of the slightest consequence to anybody.”  Is this withholding of information necessary to the plot?  As a kind of explanation, he offers that we shouldn’t be surprised that a man such as Rawdon would marry a woman such as Becky, or that a woman such as Becky would marry a man such as Rawdon.

What kind of man is a man such as Rawdon? I think his is essentially an appetitive nature: he pursues things that fill his belly and please his sensibility, and for no greater reason than that they fill his belly and please him, although he may sometimes clothe his motivation with loftier reasons.  He is more acted upon than a driver of action in his own right. Such people often fall prey to flattery (in the broadest sense of that term). He is similar in this way to Joseph Sedley. In the end, he was uninteresting to me, and I turned my thoughts to Becky.

What kind of woman is a woman such as Becky?  At the beginning of chapter fourteen, we find her arriving back in London with Miss Crawley at that wealthy spinster’s Park Lane home.  Miss Crawley is convalescing from an illness contracted after eating lobster at the Rectory of Queen’s Crawley.  She would allow Becky to take care of her during her illness.  Becky had successfully insinuated herself into the old lady’s life, much to the annoyance of Miss Crawley’s maid, Mrs. Firkin.  It was during the period of this illness at Queen’s Crawley, that the relationship was cemented between Becky and Rawdon.  Thackeray, as stage manager, leaves out the details, but I suspect the process was very similar to what he allowed us to see of Becky’s tactics with Joseph Sedley, when she was attempting to hitch her wagon to that horse.  Rawdon was nudged on in the process by Mrs. Bute Crawley, who, fresh with intelligence from Miss Pinkerton on Becky Sharp, was trying to drive a wedge between Rawdon and his aunt’s money.  After she turns down Sir Pitt, Becky suffers regret that her impetuousness in marrying Rawdon  prevented her from becoming the Lady Crawley of Queen’s Crawley, but then she gets back to the business of salvaging her and her husband’s relationship with Miss Crawley and her 75,000 pounds.

What kind of a woman is a woman such as Becky?  I want to form a judgment of her, though I am barely through a quarter of the novel, and even though Thackeray, suspended ironically above the action, repeatedly reminds us that we are in Vanity Fair.  I want to understand what motivates her.  To aid in forming my judgment of Becky, I reached back to other examples of memorable women that I have encountered in literature.  They often seem to come in contrasting pairs.  Clearly Becky is paired with Amelia.  Is Amelia a Dolly to Becky’s Anna Karenina?  Or is she a Melanie to Becky’s Scarlett O’Hara?  And then there is that other formidable woman, Isabel Archer, who, though not obviously paired up with another “compare & contrast” female, nevertheless illuminates, in a way the issue of motivation.  With Becky in VANITY FAIR, we are a long way from the Isabel Archer of the forty-second chapter of PORTRAIT OF A LADY  (a passage that I rank as one of the most memorable that I have ever read).  Until that point in the story, I was exasperated with Isabel, repeatedly saying to myself, “what is that girl thinking.”  Well, I certainly did find out what she was thinking in chapter forty-two. But in the end I was still puzzled.  Motivation is the that for the sake of which a character acts within the confines of the plot.  But what exactly is this “that for the sake of which”?  It is whatever the character thinks that it is.  Occasionally they reexamine their motives and come up with something new that replaces their older weltanschauung.

What kind of a woman is a woman such as Becky?  I must suspend my judgment for the time being.   Vanity Fair is a place where amour-propre is the primum movens.

“Betty advanced towards it on tiptoe, as if she were afraid to awake it-looked at it, and round the room, with an air of great wonder and satisfaction; took up the letter, and grinned intensely as she turned it round and over and finally carried it in to Miss Briggs’s room below.”
Image scanned by Gerald Ajam and captions by Tiaw Kay Siang and Sabrina Lim.

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