Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 47–50 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 47: Gaunt House

The narrator learns about Lord Steyne, the marquis who has become close with Becky Sharp, from a character named Tom Eaves. Tom shares this background with the belief that people of wealth and status, like Lord Steyne, are more miserable than most, compounded by others competing over who will inherit the wealth. Lord Steyne lives in an imposing mansion near the Crawleys, although he owns many lavish properties. The noble line of his family stretches far back through history, and although he is married, it is not a loving marriage. Lord Steyne and Lady Steyne are rarely spotted together except for at the necessary social functions; therefore, many rumors abound about their relationship and family. His wife, Tom Eaves claims, is repeatedly forced to spend time with Lord Steyne's mistresses. Lady Steyne is very pious, but she is Catholic and has married into a Protestant household; it is a source of grief that her children do not share her faith. One son suffers from a mental illness, inherited through Lady Steyne's side of the family, which causes Lord Steyne shame and worry about his own sanity. These aspects of their family also contribute to the rumors and gossip about secrets surrounding them in London.

Chapter 48: In Which the Reader Is Introduced to the Very Best of Company

Becky's charm and manipulations toward Pitt finally pay off when she worms her way into being presented to the king, because it is almost an initiation rite for women who have made it in society. The narrator notes, "From that august interview they come out stamped as honest women." In the game of life, this is the ultimate challenge and trophy for Becky—she even receives a certificate for it. Pitt and Lady Jane take Becky with them to court. Becky is dressed in so rich a dress that Lady Jane can hardly believe she could afford it; what she doesn't know is that Becky sewed it herself using brocade fabric and lace she stole from their home while helping to renovate it. Becky is also wearing diamonds, including a small clasp Pitt has given her—something he has neglected to tell Lady Jane about. When Rawdon asks her about them, she says that most are rented and "a dear friend" gave her the clasp a long time ago. (In truth, the rest of the diamonds are gifts from Lord Sterne.) Becky's ensemble is eventually described in the newspapers, which Mrs. Bute Crawley reads about, causing her to seethe and lament her own ugly daughters. And the narrator claims to be unworthy of describing Becky's meeting with the king, although she afterwards describes him as "charming."

Lord Steyne's wife and daughter-in-law leave their cards for Becky after her court appearance, indicating their willingness to pursue an acquaintance. Lord Steyne himself then pays Becky a visit, and reminds her that even with his assistance in introducing her to high society, she is a nobody if she doesn't have money. Lord Steyne is irritated by Miss Briggs's presence (she acts as chaperone during his visit) and tells Becky to get rid of her. Becky reveals to him she has taken a great deal of money from Miss Briggs—nearly double the amount she has actually borrowed—and therefore can't let her go. She lies and tells him the amount she has borrowed is much higher than the actual amount. Yet Becky's calculations and confession to Lord Steyne pay off—deeply concerned over her finances, he sends her a large check. But instead of using it to pay off any debts, she pays a small amount to Charles Raggles and their coachman to keep creditors at bay, and then puts the rest of the money in a locked box.

Chapter 49: In Which We Enjoy Three Courses and a Dessert

The narrator brings the reader back to earlier in the morning on the same day Lord Steyne pays Becky a visit, which reveals that the invitation to dine with Lady Steyne and Lady Gaunt was forced upon them by Lord Steyne himself. The women are appalled at the invitation; although Lady Steyne does not openly object in her husband's presence, Lady Gaunt, her daughter-in-law, does. Lady Gaunt is the daughter of Lady Bareacres, whom Becky insulted in Brussels. Together, the women concoct an idea of how to let Becky know she is not welcome. At the dinner, part of the conversation is conducted in French, but Becky shocks the women by speaking it better than they do. This, in turn, causes the men at the table to admire her, thus causing the women to become infuriated. When the men separate for drinks and cigars after dinner, the women snub Becky, until Lady Steyne, taking pity on her, asks Becky to play and sing to her. Lady Steyne is so moved by Becky's renditions of Mozart songs that she is momentarily transported back to her childhood. And when the men come back, they are all enchanted with Becky's performance, and the other women are left on the sidelines.

Chapter 50: Contains a Vulgar Incident

The narrator returns the reader to Amelia's plight—whether to allow Georgy to live with the Osbornes. She desperately tries to figure out how she can acquire money in order to prevent this from happening, but none of her ideas—sewing, selling her paintings, or becoming a governess—pan out. Finally, she writes to Jos, begging him to send money, believing he stopped sending it long ago. What Amelia doesn't know, but which Mr. Sedley finally reveals to her, is that Jos still sends money—but the entire sum goes to paying off their creditors. This news causes Amelia to realize she has exhausted all of her options, and must send Georgy to live with the Osbornes. Her reaction to this decision is severe—she plans to kill herself, believing she will then be able to watch over Georgy from heaven. She tries to prepare her son for the transition, but is saddened when he seems excited rather than upset by the news.

Mr. Osborne is elated by Amelia's decision, and has his son's empty room prepared for Georgy's arrival. He provides money for Amelia's family to live on, and Georgy still comes to visit her, although the boy becomes increasingly haughty and imperious amid his new riches. Amelia skulks around the Osbornes' house and Georgy's school in order to watch him, which further increases her misery.

Analysis

The narrator's depiction of Lord Steyne's life and family in Chapter 47 comes across as satirical and critical. Through this lens, William Makepeace Thackeray seems to be offering a criticism of those who inherit their wealth and titles of nobility, because it seems to leave its recipients feeling entitled to their vanity but no happier for it. The public's respect for Lord Steyne offers a potential reason for this: despite the rumors and ill repute swirling around the aristocrat, and the fact that his wife's unhappiness is widely known, people in society still fight to get into his good graces because of his standing.

Becky Sharp's presence at court finally gives her the sense of acceptance she has yearned for throughout the novel. Becky's decision to hide the money Lord Steyne gives her is telling—she doesn't use it for anything practical and doesn't reveal it to her husband. The locking away of the money may be a vestige of her poor beginnings: a belief that, no matter what, her good luck can't hold. The narrator also drops hints that Becky's deceptions are beginning to catch up to her—more and more people are beginning to suspect something is going on between her and Lord Steyne. Becky's own behavior seems to grow more brazen over time as well; she cares less about maintaining the goodwill of those who have helped her on her way, and she recklessly opens herself up to gossip.

Becky's chance to finally show her talents and charms to society's elite comes in the form of Lady Steyne's dinner invitation, and Becky achieves all she sets out to do—even winning over Lady Steyne, who has plotted and planned as to how she can make Becky feel like an outsider. Even though she wins over none of the other women at the dinner, Becky doesn't seem to mind because, as usual, the men adore her. Yet the narrator hints that this routine may not hold up for long if she continues to alienate and attract the ire of the wives—the women who hold much of the social power in these circles.

Amelia Sedley's decision in Chapter 50 to send Georgy to the Osbornes is full of heartbreak, although it is perhaps the most adult decision she has ever made for his own good. Georgy begins to resemble the arrogant Osborne side of his family the more he is exposed to it, even beginning to grow condescending to his mother. By painting young Georgy in this unflattering light, the narrator highlights Amelia's ongoing naïveté in being unable to realize the faults of her deceased husband. It is also an argument against the strength of family ties: Georgy has been raised with all the love and attention his mother can shower on him, but his life with her can't compare to the excitement of having money, fine clothes, and a pony.

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