Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 19–22 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 19: Miss Crawley at Nurse

Mrs. Bute Crawley installs herself at Miss Matilda Crawley's London home as her nurse and confidante, part of her campaign to divert part of the family fortune to her numerous sons and daughters. Miss Briggs and Mrs. Firkin, who have long been in Miss Crawley's pay as trusted household spies, are glad to assist Mrs. Bute and spurn Rawdon Crawley, who has always treated these servants with disdain (so did Miss Crawley, to be fair, but Rawdon gladly joined in).

Mrs. Bute fears Miss Crawley will miss Rawdon and Becky Sharp (whose liveliness and charm she enjoys)—Mrs. Bute's own children are hardly charming or entertaining, she admits. So, she insists Miss Crawley is very ill and isolates her in her bed, overmedicating and coddling her, and reading her religious tracts that cause her to fear death. Mrs. Bute wishes her husband, Reverend Bute Crawley, were a clever man who could preach Miss Crawley into disowning Rawdon in favor of her children, but she does her best to remind Miss Crawley of every bad thing Rawdon has ever done. Some events she relates are true enough to condemn Rawdon, but Mrs. Bute also invents new sins for the young man. She speaks often of Becky's low birth and immoral behavior, going so far as to get letters and other documents from Miss Jemima Pinkerton. Her sleuthing yields a summary judgment against Becky and Rawdon, "a lost woman ... married to a lost man."

But Mrs. Bute overreaches and nearly drives Miss Crawley to a premature death with her nursing and informing. The apothecary (a person who prepares and sells medicines), Mr. Clump, and Dr. Squills warn her to ease off, to let Miss Crawley have fresh air and company. But Mrs. Bute worries Miss Crawley might see Rawdon if she goes out in her carriage, and tells Mr. Clump, "She shall not go out as long as I remain to watch over her." Mr. Clump grasps the situation and warns Mrs. Bute that Miss Crawley won't live long enough to revise her will. Later that evening, Clump and Squills talk over wine and predict Miss Crawley will die within months if the "little harpy ... from Hampshire" keeps nursing her.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bute approaches Miss Crawley directly about revising her will and, rebuffed again by the terrified old lady, decides she must take her out for fresh air to raise her spirits—perhaps to church, where Rawdon and Becky aren't likely to be seen. They finally tour the suburbs, but Mrs. Bute can't quit her campaign, and talks nonstop about Rawdon's evil ways. Secretly, Miss Crawley considers Mrs. Bute her tormentor and wants to get away from her. But when they do see Rawdon and Becky out driving one day, Miss Crawley spurns her nephew's greeting, and triumphant Mrs. Bute decides a holiday at the seaside resort of Brighton might cheer up Miss Crawley.

Chapter 20: In Which Captain Dobbin Acts as the Messenger of Hymen

William Dobbin, oddly enough, is the reason Amelia finally marries George Osborne—although he dislikes facing this bitter fact. Dobbin accepts the painful duty of acting as go-between for Hymen, god of marriage in Greek mythology, because he believes Amelia will otherwise die of heartbreak. Amelia is happy to be in George's arms again, while George accepts her worshipful love, "Sultan as he was," as his due. But Amelia's parents are opposed to her marrying George. Mrs. Sedley promotes the match, but she fears Mr. Sedley's hatred of Mr. John Osborne means he would "never, never, never, never consent." Dobbin suspects Mr. Osborne will be the greater obstacle, and hints that Amelia and George could elope as Becky and Rawdon did. Or perhaps George will distinguish himself in combat and impress his father.

Dobbin seeks out Mr. John Sedley at a coffee shop that serves as his temporary office. Sedley is changed—worn down, bitter, and slovenly dressed. He greets Dobbin as if the captain were his superior, and complains that Napoleon has destroyed his investments and his life. Dobbin assures him the army will take care of Napoleon once and for all, and Sedley turns his bilious anger against Osborne, the "purse-proud villain" he once aided and now longs to see ruined. Dobbin insists George is as affectionate toward the Sedleys as ever, unlike his father, and urges Mr. Sedley not to oppose the marriage, which will proclaim to the world the falseness of the rumors Osborne has spread about Sedley. The chance to get back at his enemy through this marriage appeals to Mr. Sedley.

Meanwhile, George and Amelia enjoy a long, gossipy chat about Miss Swartz, one of his sisters' friends. A wealthy orphan and heiress to a Jewish plantation magnate in the West Indies, Miss Swartz just completed school at Chiswick but is considered socially ungainly and physically unattractive—it is implied that she is the daughter of a slave, as she has dark skin and curly dark hair, which George says is "wool." The "Black Princess," as George insultingly calls her, surely wears a nose ring to court. Alert to others' appearances and his own as always, George complains of having to hobnob with his father's friends, "money-grubbing vulgarians," rather than with gentlemen and "men of the world and fashion." Amelia is a natural lady, he assures her, and Dobbin is glad to find her happy and singing at the piano when he returns.

Chapter 21: A Quarrel About an Heiress

Chapter 21 brings to a head the conflict between George and his father about an appropriate marriage. Mr. Osborne has pushed his daughters to befriend wealthy Miss Swartz and now imagines the opportunities marriage to the heiress would bring his only son, who could quit the army, earn a seat in Parliament, ennoble the Osborne name by using their combined incomes to purchase a title, and sire a line of baronets. He uses his connections at the stock exchange to verify that Miss Swartz's fortune is sound, and promises Mrs. Haggistoun, Miss Swartz's guardian, a large check as a kind of dowry, and then orders George to marry the heiress. George, newly smitten by Amelia's sweet manners and beauty, abhors the thought of being seen with—much less marrying—the "mahogany charmer." Father and son clash stubbornly. When George uses the excuse of deployment to dodge the issue, Osborne warns some other man will get the prize, and a man who could receive "ten thousand a year by staying ... home, was a fool to risk his life abroad." They part in anger, but George is told to show up at Russell Square the next day to dine with Miss Swartz.

Miss Swartz has already begun to fall for George, a handsome man whom she romantically imagines harbors "passions, secrets, and private harrowing griefs." She is already attached to his sisters, too, and assumes everyone likes her for who she is, not for her money. George arrives for dinner, having spent hours in Amelia's company, and is repulsed by the bright-colored jewelry, dress, and feathers Miss Swartz has worn just for him. When she learns that Amelia, her friend from school, is nearby, Miss Swartz is thrilled. However, Mr. Osborne doesn't allow the Sedley name to be spoken in the house. George bucks this rule, escorting Miss Swartz to the table as he gushes over Amelia. Later, in the drawing room, father and son argue ferociously over Amelia. George defends her and is injured by his father's public and vicious campaign against the Sedleys. John Osborne threatens to cut his son off if he doesn't do what he is told. Captain Osborne leaves his father's house in a rage, and tells Dobbin he has decided to elope with Amelia the next day.

Chapter 22: A Marriage and Part of a Honeymoon

Mr. Osborne is confident George will return and obey him soon—the young man needs his allowance, after all. But days pass, and April is nearing its end when George, dressed handsomely but pale and tired, meets Dobbin at the coffee-house. Dobbin, also well dressed, has been waiting anxiously, even biting his nails to the quick. They go by carriage through heavy rain to meet Jos Sedley and then to the church, where Amelia and Mrs. Sedley await. The narrator claims to have learned details of the wedding from Dobbin himself. The ceremony is brief, the guests few; Dobbin sees the newlyweds off and is soon alone and sadder than he has been since he was a bullied student at school. The couple honeymoons in Brighton; Jos goes along on the trip and meets Becky and Rawdon there. The men dine and ogle girls while Amelia and Becky shop, and Jos cuts a splendid figure in his fancy clothes and fine carriage. Amelia shares her concerns about what Mr. Osborne will do when he learns of the marriage, and Becky laughs about fooling creditors who chase her and Rawdon down for payment, because he is still cut off from the family's money. After some happy days, Dobbin arrives with unwelcome news: the army is being deployed to Belgium next week.

Analysis

In Vanity Fair, who knows whom and who can call in favors go a long way toward material success. The narrator explains clearly—if cynically—the importance of currying favor with people high and low, even if it means engaging in white lies or outright acting. Becky Sharp understands this lesson well, as does Mrs. Bute Crawley, but Rawdon Crawley, accustomed to class and gender superiority, does not. The narrator uses two metaphors in Chapter 19 to describe how the successful resident of Vanity Fair treats others: parsnips and acorns. He attacks a proverb—"Fine words butter no parsnips"—by pointing out how far a few flattering words and generous gestures, which cost the giver next to nothing, go toward forming alliances. Life is full of parsnips—bitter moments that kind words, even if both speaker and hearer know are insincere, make more palatable. And, the narrator adds, people must take the long view, like the nobleman who carried acorns to plant on every bare patch on his grounds: "An acorn costs nothing; but it may sprout into a prodigious bit of timber." The narrator is quite direct: ambitious people should praise others widely and loudly, in their presence and to others, regardless of whether they believe what they say. Hypocrisy is useful, and relationships are transactional in Vanity Fair.

Chapter 19 is also notable for its humorous descriptions of Mrs. Bute's over-the-top treatment of Miss Matilda Crawley. To modern sensibilities, her actions cross the line into elder abuse. She essentially holds Miss Crawley prisoner in her own home, keeping her just sick enough that she can't revolt. The narrator classes Mrs. Bute with "managing women" who praise themselves for their self-sacrifice, but, in fact, are seeking back channels to control their lives and the lives of others. Becky, Mrs. Bute, and female characters that readers meet later in the novel employ these back channels because they are socially handicapped in the race toward wealth and influence in Vanity Fair.

Chapters 20, 21, and 22 tell the story of Amelia Sedley and George Osborne's marriage, an event several characters have hoped for since the novel's first chapter. Yet these chapters are anything but happy or romantic. The narrator never lets readers forget the competing interests of residents in Vanity Fair, or the flaws of the main characters, which foreshadow difficult times for the newlyweds and their friends.

Readers notice, for example, that although George appreciates Amelia more than before, he is in love more with her devoted affection than with her. When Amelia reunites with George, she weeps as if she has done wrong and seeks his forgiveness, with "prostration and sweet unrepining obedience." George's "soul ... thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power" over this "slave," and like a wealthy, powerful king, grants her wish.

The marriage fulfills other functions—most of them unsavory—for other characters, too. It crushes William Dobbin, who serves Amelia's happiness, not his own, as a go-between. To bitter Mr. John Sedley, it's a weapon to wound his enemy, Mr. John Osborne, deeply and permanently. For George, the marriage is an affirmation of his independence from his father's control.

The subject of marriage in general brings out the worst in most residents of Vanity Fair. It awakens a "great dream of ambition," for example, in John Osborne. The same desire to enter the nobility that corrupts George affects his father as well. His family, name, and future are tied up with marriage, and his hope that his son will be the first of "a glorious line of baronets" leads him to feign true regard for wealthy Miss Swartz, and to insist that his children share his hypocrisy. The family's racism is atrocious; Mr. Osborne's willingness to swallow his contempt to gain Miss Swartz's money makes him seem even worse. Yet Mr. Osborne, who pushes the marriage of his son and a woman whom his social circle will never accept, mocks Rawdon Crawley for marrying a governess, and maligns Amelia publicly because of her father's financial failure. Only one criterion matters to Osborne—"no beggar-marriages in [this] family." Amelia may behave as nicely as a high-born lady, but her family's poverty trumps her kind and adoring heart.

Chapter 22 presents a few happy days for the newlyweds and Jos Sedley in Brighton. Becky and Rawdon live high in Brighton, renting fine apartments, enjoying the best foods and wines, and amusing themselves with questionable entertainments such as billiards and cards. Yet they have no cash flow—only Rawdon's family name to secure their many loans, and the hope that Miss Matilda Crawley will soon welcome her nephew home. They carry off their sham wealth because Rawdon has "a manly appearance, faultless boots and clothes, and a happy fierceness of manner" that signal wealth. What lulls creditors and allows the couple to live so well is mere force of appearance and the confidence to pull off the sham without flinching.

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