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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Complicated Masculinity of Rebecca Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair

          William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has been dubbed a “principle founder”[1]in Victorian novels. The text propelled Thackeray into the writing spotlight, but there was something in the text—maybe even on the cover—that many readers were missing. Vanity Fair has a semi-famous subtitle: A Novel Without a Hero. As the novel gained notoriety critics began to latch on to that little subtitle, and from there an entire area of study emerged. People wanted to know if Vanity Fair was telling the truth about the complete lack of a hero. 
            The motherless Rebecca Sharp and passive Amelia Sedley meet at Miss Pinkerton’s academy, and they leave together to try and break into the social climbing life of Vanity Fair. It is clear from the beginning that Amelia has a general distaste for the values that she must embrace to survive in this world, and it is also clear that Becky embraces the values with open arms. The women both marry, but are greeted only by trouble. Both George and Rawdon, the respective husbands, are cut off from their families because of their marriages. Despite this fact, the two couples decide to try their hand and tough it out. Soon, both Amelia and Becky give birth to sons. 

            Becky loses her family due to some questionable decisions, but she starts to accumulate some money. Amelia, a loving mother, is forced to give up her child due to her lack of money. Becky decides to leave for a while, and when she comes back she brings nothing but trouble. She steals all of Joseph Sedley’s money, and then…he dies. Becky, though, now has enough money to live in Vanity Fair—and in a strange, out of character, moment, she tells Amelia that Dobbin is a man deserving of her love.
            Vanity Fair is almost entirely interested in the search for wealth and social elitism by two leading female characters. Thackeray, though, is clever in his presentation of the two extremes. On the one hand, you have Amelia (Emmy) Sedley who seems to happily fulfill the ‘angel in the house’, gendered role. On the other hand, you have Rebecca (Becky) Sharp who is interested—almost solely—in her social status and value. Thackeray’s use of female characters for these roles is of great interest to many scholars. 
            According to John Hagan a “perennial topic in criticism of Vanity Fair is the problem of Thackeray’s attitude toward Becky Sharp. Does he like her? Does he dislike her?...The radically different answers given to these questions have divided critics since the novel’s first appearance” (479). Hagan groups previous critics’ into three main categories based on their arguments: “the view that Thackeray’s attitude toward Becky is inconsistent; that it is ambiguous; and that it is predominantly sympathetic or admiring” (480). Hagan argues that the views of the critics that fall into these three categories are inadequate and, well, false. 
            Hagan spends an incredible amount of time detailing where these critics have gone wrong, but not nearly as much time on his own argument; which, he explains, is of a secular nature. He states that once the reader, 
grant[s] this religious perspective, not only the argument from circumstance but all the others too which have been used to urge our sympathy for Becky must crumble…. Becky has not only failed to gain the happiness she sought, she has irremediably corrupted herself as well. This, I would argue, is Thackeray’s final verdict, whether modern critics like it or not. (502-503).
Hagan’s argument is reliant on other critics being wrong, religious presence in the novel, and Becky’s choices throughout; but what Hagan and many other critics tend to ignore is the affect that her sexuality—or, gender—plays in these choices. 
The question of Thackeray’s attitude toward Becky Sharp has occupied the minds of critics in the past, but the attitude of the reader toward Becky, and their general reception of her, has been sidelined. There has also been a flood of scholarship surrounding Becky’s representation of the female in the novel, but without the addition of masculinity it is incomplete. This essay will show that Becky Sharp embodies conventionally male attributes through a thorough investigation and application of manliness, masculinity, and female masculinity to William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
In his article, “What Should Historians Do with Masculinity? Reflections on Nineteenth-Century Britain,” John Tosh examines and defines manliness. According to Tosh manliness is not a physical attribute, instead it is “both a psychic and a social identity. … It is the uneasy complex relation between these two elements which explains masculinity’s power to shape experience and action, often in ways beyond the conscious grasp of the participants” (198). For Tosh, manliness is an identity, rather than a physical appearance or attitude. This idea of the masculine identity, then, can be applied to women. In fact, Tosh details the importance of studying men and women together. No study is complete if men are studied “in isolation from women,” especially because it will “obscur[e] the crucial relational quality of all masculinities” (183). 
Tosh uses a powerful quote by Natalie Zemon Davies in his study, and it is appropriate—if not necessary—to mention it in this essay as well:
It seems to me that we should be interested in the history of both women and men, that we should not be working only on the subjected sex any more than an historian of class can focus entirely on peasants. Our goal is to understand the significance of the sexes, of gender groups in the historical past. (90)
This quote embodies the idea that it is a necessity to study gender as a whole rather than two opposite poles. Following this explanation, it is clear that even feminists should be including gendered studies of men in their projects, and men should be doing the same with gendered studies of women.  
            The study then turns to the idea of manliness and masculinity as a social status, and how this effects the difference in upbringing between boys and girls. Michelle Rosaldo, author of, “Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” agrees with Tosh and she explains that girls grow up and become women by following after their mothers and emulating what they do, but there “must be a break in a man’s experience.” She takes this a step further and states, “for a boy to become an adult, he must prove himself—his masculinity—among his peers” (28). Boys, though, learn from their fathers, so when they are growing into adults they are emulating their fathers the same way that a girl emulates her mother. This, then, is where they learn masculinity. 
            What happens, though, when a little girl grows up without a mother? This is exactly the case for Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Becky’s mother, an “opera-girl,” passes away when Becky is still a child, and she’s left with her father who had a “great propensity for running into debt, and a partiality for the tavern” (Thackeray 11). He was an abusive drunk, but Becky took advantage of his drunken state and would stay in the room and visit with her father and his friends. During those meetings Becky learned quite a lot—without her mother there, the only person she was around often enough to emulate was her father. 
            It is clear that Becky grew up in a home without a great role model, but something can be said for what she learns from the model that she does have around. Becky’s father has a knack for losing his money, and she seems to resent that. In fact, she sets out from Miss Pinkerton’s with a set goal in mind—make money and climb the social ladder. So, Becky may have learned to be clever, and to swindle folks, from her father, but she also learned how to do it with more success. 
            John Tosh’s study, when applied to, or, even, when transposed over, Vanity Fair,may provide the answers that many critics have been puzzling over. His argument that manliness is “both a psychic and a social identity” gives it the freedom to be applied to female characters as well. Becky Sharp, the motherless, want-to-be-socialite, learns and embraces the manliness exuded by the only parental figure in her life—her father. 
            Her father was the only one around, and he typically kept all male company, and this meant that Becky was constantly surrounded by men. There is a myth that surrounds masculinity, and Tosh and Eve Sedgewick both delve into this. This myth, according to Tosh, is, “that masculinity is about the exclusive company of men” (187). Well, this is ideal, because Becky was breaking that all male barrier, and she was learning through these encounters. Sedgewick, in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, also argues that this is a myth. She asserts that these all male settings—especially in the work place—were seen as a masculine privilege, but they were really just “operating within clear limits” in order to “protect the key patriarchal institution of marriage” (3). There was this idea that work places, offices, etc. needed to be exclusively male, but this was because menwere only allowing other men to embrace this idea of manliness and masculinity. 
            Judith Halberstam argues that masculinity isn't only for males. In “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity Without Men,” she actually coins the term “female masculine.” The study of the female masculine, according to Halberstam, is extremely productive because it may provide us with a new understanding of the construction of masculinity in discourse. She states that masculinity “inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege” (356). The female masculine, though, challenges the traditional construct of masculinity, and it provides a term that allows females to embrace the masculine as well. 
            Becky Sharp absolutely embodies the female masculine. The women around her, and of her time, were not necessarily interested in the social climb the same way that she was. Becky was never interested in falling in love—rather, she was interested in “husband-hunting” (Thackeray 19). At this point in the novel Becky decidesthat she is going to try and charm Joseph Sedley because she thinks he is rich. In fact, she outright asks Amelia “whether her brother was very rich,” because that’s what is important to her. “‘If Mr Joseph is rich and unmarried, why should I not marry him? I have only a fortnight, to be sure, but there is no harm in trying’. And she made a laudable attempt” (55). It is clear, then, that Becky is acutely aware of her financial situation—something that the man of the house is typically in charge of. By no means was Becky planning on fulfilling the role of ‘angel in the house’, but she knows she cannot stay single without being ostracized or scorned. Marriage is just a means to an end, because the only way for a woman to progress in life is through a man—and his apparent masculinity. So, Becky “subverts the Victorian ideal of femininity to impersonate…the female masculine, a man (in cultural terms) in a woman’s body” (Halberstam 356). 
            Becky’s thirst for power is demonstrated most apparently once she becomes a mother. Becky ends up marrying Rawdon, not Joseph, and the two produce a son—little Rawdon. Becky has absolutely no interest in motherhood, and, in this way, she’s also demonstrating her female masculinity. Becky is a cold, distant, cruel mother: “as [Rawdon] grew to be about eight years old, his attachments may have said to ended. The beautiful mother-vision had faded away after a while. During near two years she had scarcely spoken to the child. She disliked him” (Thackeray 444). While Becky treats Rawdon with such contempt, Rawdon senior treats him with intense affection. This is where Thackeray flips the masculine and the feminine onto the opposite characters. Where Becky is disinterested in motherhood, Rawdon is intensely interested in fatherhood; and where Becky in interested in improving social status, Rawdon is happy and content with his little family. Rawdon senior is somewhat feminized in his care for little Rawdon, and Becky embraces the female masculine with her disinterest in child care and search for wealth. 
Eventually, Becky’s coldness grows stronger until one day she “struck him [little Rawdon] violently a couple of boxes on the ear. …After this incident, the mother’s dislike increased to hatred” (Thackeray 444). This incident snowballs into something much larger and things start to look bad for Becky. Rawdon is sick of Becky’s contempt toward their child: “‘he’s the finest boy in England,’ the father said, in a tone of reproach to her, ‘and you don’t seem to care for him, Becky, as much as you do for your spaniel’” (445). Becky is more concerned with Lord Steyne and his expensive gifts than she is with the relationships of her family. She knows that a flirtatious friendship with Lord Steyne is a valuable relationship to have, and her child does nothing but cost her money. Beck embodies the female masculine once again in order to get ahead, but this time it costs her dearly.  
“I will pay Briggs, who was kind to the boy, and some of the debts. You will let me know where I shall send the rest to you. You might have spared me a hundred pounds, Becky, out of all this—I have always shared with you” (Thackeray 534). Rawdon catches Becky in a compromising position, and, in his rage, he ransacks her room. He finds checks and valuables that she had hidden away from him in a locked drawer, and is blown away by her selfish nature. He takes the money, and their son, and leaves without another word. The most astonishing part about this entire blow up is Rawdon’s shock. Becky has always been pretty blatant about her desire for wealth and her distaste for motherhood, but when Rawdon is finally confronted with the selfishness he can no longer stand it. By the end of this scene, in fact, Becky is perplexed: “What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not; but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips; or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure?” (535). The reaction of her husband is confusing. He is acting out emotionally due to her encounter with Lord Steyne, but she was only doing what she thought was right for them financially. Here, again, you can see a reversal of gender roles in the characters. Becky embraces the female masculine, and she uses her body in order to get ahead; but Rawdon acts out emotionally and leaves her, along with little Rawdon—who he will have to care for as a single parent. 
Following the demise of her family, Becky travels around Europe. She would make friends and get settled, but then, “somebody came and swept it down rudely, and she had all her work to begin all over again. It was very hard: very hard: very lonely, and disheartening” (Thackeray 642). Becky is living like a vagabond, and she begins to resemble her father. She’s lost in this world where women don’t work, and now men are writing her off because of the reputation she cannot seem to escape. Becky has to leave Brussels because, 
She owed three months’ pension to Madame de Borodino, of which fact, and of the gambling, and of the drinking, and of the going down on her knees to the Reverend,…and borrowing money,…and of a hundred other knaveries, the Countess de Borodino informs every English person who stops at her establishment, and announces that Madame Rawdon was no better than a vipére. (644-645)
Becky is gambling, drinking, and taking advantage of the people around her. She embraces the trickery she learned from her father long ago, and begins to emulate the man who raised her. Her gender, unfortunately, is keeping her from real work; so, she feels that gambling is one of the only ways to stay afloat. There are brief moments of light when she can get a gig teaching music lessons, but her bad reputation is never far behind. The female masculine is all she knows.
            Finally, in Pumpernickel, Becky is reunited with the Joseph Sedley. Becky, noticing that Joseph is clearly still smitten with her, decides to play one last trick. She plays the victim card, and she does it very convincingly. She laments, “I was the truest wife that ever lived, though I married my husband out of pique, because somebody else—but never mind that. I was true, and he trampled upon me, and deserted me.” And if that wasn’t enough, she then tells him, “I was the fondest mother. I had but one child, one darling, one hope, one life, my prayer, my—my blessing; and they—they tore it from me—tore it from me” (655). Becky learns from the best, and it works to her advantage. Joseph is so convinced by her act that he entreats Amelia to come see her, and, eventually, let her move into their home.
            This is a bad move for Joseph. Becky’s final ploy is to get Joseph to leave half of his inheritance to her. Where Joseph goes Becky follows, but this means that Joseph’s family will not follow. The Sedley’s, though, are worried when they hear that Joseph has taken out a hearty life insurance policy. Amelia sends Dobbin to investigate, and they find out that Becky has “tended him through a series of unheard of illnesses” (685). Dobbin is alarmed and begs him to leave her, but Joseph truly believes she is innocent. Three months after Dobbin’s visit, Joseph Sedley dies. After his death: 
All his available assets were the two-thousand pounds for which his life was insured, and which were left equally between his beloved ‘sister Amelia, wife of &c., and his friend and invaluable attendant during sickness, Rebecca, wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Rawdon Crawley, C.B.’ (686)
It seems, then, that the reader is meant to assume that Becky had something to do with the death of Joseph Sedley. This final trick lands her a small inheritance that will propel her back into the upper realms of Vanity Fair. This last move is her final embrace of the female masculine in the novel.
            Becky, a motherless child, grows up with an abusive drunk for a father. With no one else to look up to, she must learn a thing or two from the model she is stuck with. As John Tosh explains, “All gender identities are unstable because the growing infant has to negotiate a path through a dual identification—with both parents” (195). Becky is able to embrace the female masculine because she is a woman with only a masculine—male—parent. Becky regularly upset the patriarchal all-male meetings that her father was part of by staying in the room and listening to what they would talk about. In these moments Becky is absorbing the conversation, and ideas, that the men focus on; and through these experiences she is able to nurture her femininity and masculinity.
William Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair,is identified as one of the first Victorian novels. It is this novel that earned Thackeray his fame in the writing world. The full title, though, was a hang up for many people—Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. The subtitle was cause for talk among the crowds reading the novel, but people couldn’t seem to decide what they thought about it. Critics were arguing over whether or not it—the lack of a hero—was a fact, when they should have been discussing why Thackeray believed the novel didn’t have a hero. Rebecca Sharp is one of the main characters in the novel, and she is someone who could be considered the protagonist—if it were not for her very obvious flaws. 
Becky is selfish, ‘career’ driven, intensely interested in her social status, and lacks pretty much all the attributes of the women of her time. She is not afraid to use her body to get ahead, and this makes people mad. This, though, is a result of the way she was raised. Becky grows up in a one parent household, and that one parent is an abusive drunk father. Although her home is really anything but homely, she does what she can to learn and absorb the skills of the men around her. It is in these moments of male dominated conversation and meetings that Becky learns about masculinity. 
Becky never had a mother to husband-hunt or to teach her what it ‘means’ to be a woman, so, instead, she learns—in a complicated way—what it means to be a man. This is the knowledge that she embraces and applies to her female person. Becky Sharp is a solid example of what Judith Halberstam terms the female masculine. She is a woman in every sense of the word, but she didn’t accept the role that society predetermined for her. She picks up masculine habits, and uses them to get ahead in life; she has a son with a feminized man, but she rejects motherhood with all of her being; and finally, she avoids love and, instead, chooses lust and trickery. Becky Sharp embraces her gender and applies the privileged attitude of masculinity to it, and through this process she becomes the masculine female character in Vanity Fair.


Works Cited
Davies, Natalie Zemon. “‘Women’s History’ in Transition: the European Case.” Feminist 
Studies,1975, pp. 90.
Hagan, John. “‘Vanity Fair’: Becky Brought to Book Again.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 7, no. 4, 
1975, pp. 479-506. 
Halberstam, Judith. “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity Without Men.” The 
Masculinity Reader, 2002, pp. 355-375.
Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Norton and Company, 1994.
Tosh, John. “What Should Historians Do with Masculinity? Reflections on Nineteenth-Century 
Britain.” History Workshop, no. 38, 1994, pp. 179-202.
Rosaldo, Michelle. “Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview.” Woman Culture 
and Society, 1974, pp. 28.
Sedgewick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York, 
1985. 
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. Pearson Education, 2009. 


[1]See John Sutherland’s The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction.

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