Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair | Chapters 8–11 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 8: Private and Confidential

In this chapter, readers hear Becky Sharp's voice for more than a few sentences at a time as she writes a long letter to her "dearest, sweetest Amelia," detailing life at Queen's Crawley. She opens by contrasting her lonely isolation to the happiness of being near Amelia Sedley and sharing her happy days in London. Then she paints an unattractive picture of the Crawleys. Sir Pitt Crawley's estate is large and rich with timber, but he manages it with an iron fist. He even orders his manager, Mr. Hodson, to whip two little boys collecting fallen branches. Sir Pitt's younger brother, Reverend Bute Crawley, is the estate's parson. Sir Pitt wishes his brother would hurry up and die so he can stop giving him his tithe of crops. The mansion is old-fashioned and gloomy, and Sir Pitt won't allow anyone the expense of a candle after 11 p.m., yet he also won't allow anyone to open the shutters.

Sir Pitt's second wife is Rose Dawson, now Lady Crawley. Lady Crawley and her daughters, Rosalind and Violet, are all thin, pale, and quiet. Sir Pitt's older son, also named Pitt Crawley, is a pious, snobby man who largely ignores Becky. At dinner, Pitt tries to add a refined air to the scene, but Sir Pitt's insistence on hearing his butler tell which sheep provided the mutton makes it difficult to raise the tone. By the time the lengthy evening prayers are said, Sir Pitt is clearly drunk, and everyone retires. The narrator closes the chapter by reminding readers that while Becky is clearly smart and funny, she is an inhabitant of Vanity Fair, where "all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretentions" are common.

Chapter 9: Family Portraits

The narrator gives more information about the Crawleys in this chapter. Sir Pitt's first wife was a lady of nobility whom he hated, so when he married again, he chose a tradesman's daughter. Families of wealth who hoped to marry into the estate resent the second Lady Crawley. Her parents' common friends envy her, and the Crawleys themselves snub her as beneath them. Alone and lacking Becky's rebellious spirit, Lady Crawley is a "mere machine in her husband's house." Had she but stayed away from the enticements of Vanity Fair, however, she could have been a cheerful, lively wife. Her daughters at least find some happiness playing with the servants' children.

Pitt Crawley, having recently completed his university training, is too staid and proper, but at least imposes some discipline in his father's slipshod household. It is his idea to hire a governess and to train the staff in polite ways. His younger brother, Rawdon, often beat him up at school, but now he is becoming a country gentleman and dabbles in politics. A deeply religious man, Pitt subjects the household to long sermons and prayers daily, and hopes to take his father's seat in Parliament soon. The second seat has been sold because the estate is poor.

Sir Pitt is a tireless but careless owner, whose various attempts to shore up the estate often fail because of incompetence and mistrust. Nowhere in England is there a "more cunning, mean, selfish, foolish, disreputable old man," the narrator insists as he muses that in Vanity Fair, a man like this is "a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state." Finally, the narrator gives the portrait of Sir Pitt's sister, Miss Matilda Crawley, a wealthy spinster whose will is not settled, and hence is the family favorite wherever she goes.

Chapter 10: Miss Sharp Begins to Make Friends

Stung by her failure with Jos Sedley, Becky studies the Crawleys, and begins to ingratiate herself with each family member. She ignores the passive Lady Crawley and lets her daughters do what they like, whether reading French plays or picking berries. She gratifies Pitt's desire to be admired and respected by complimenting his political writings. But Becky works hardest to win over Sir Pitt, serving as his secretary, playing backgammon with him, and gradually displacing John Horrocks as his confidante. She is careful not to offend the servants, either—she learned this hard lesson at the Sedleys' house. She also learns that Pitt and Rawdon despise each other, and take care not to be home at the same time. Rawdon, a soldier and man of action, is the favorite nephew of Matilda Crawley, Sir Pitt's wealthy half-sister. She paid for his years at Cambridge University and when he was expelled, bought his military commission. She finds Pitt a pious prig, and he deems her a godless libertine. Matilda is indeed radical in her beliefs, a consumer of French political philosophy, and a free spirit.

Chapter 11: Arcadian Simplicity

This chapter mixes narrative with letters and introduces Mrs. Bute Crawley—sometimes known as Martha—the Reverend Bute Crawley's wife, and a woman on a mission (namely, to inherit a chunk of Miss Matilda Crawley's money). Bute Crawley is a large, outdoorsy man, popular among his flock as an avid hunter and gambler. He preaches sermons his wife writes for him, and lives large, dining with friends often, which suits Mrs. Bute Crawley because it spares their budget. She's a savvy manager, yet Bute's gambling debts keep outrunning her careful planning. Mrs. Crawley has spent years plying Sir Pitt's servants with good ale and other treats to keep up with what is going on at the estate, so she soon learns of Becky's success at inserting herself into the family's life. Worried that the "artful hussy" will woo Sir Pitt, Mrs. Crawley writes a flattering letter to Miss Jemima Pinkerton, bringing up fond memories of her own years at Chiswick, and asks advice for a friend who wants to hire a governess, like the one her brother-in-law just hired. Miss Pinkerton takes the bait and writes a quick reply, to which she adds a postscript about Becky, about whom she has "nothing to say of her disfavor," except that her appearance is distasteful, her parentage is disgraceful, and while she is talented and thus far correct in her behavior, her improper mother, the opera-dancer, may have passed down her poor morals to Becky.

Becky also writes a letter to Amelia about recent events at "Humdrum Hall," her nickname for boring Queen's Crawley, where each day is "like its neighbor." Lady Crawley is ill, and the doctor who attends her becomes smitten with Becky and proposes. She rejects him harshly because she is aiming much higher, she hints. But some excitement has come to the mansion at last with the arrival of Miss Matilda Crawley. When Miss Crawley is in town, the family hosts dinner parties and outings, and everyone is on his or her best behavior. "What a charming reconciler and peace maker money is!" Becky writes sarcastically. Even Miss Crawley knows the attention lavished on her is a front, but she enjoys it nevertheless. And Captain Rawdon Crawley has arrived, too, to visit his aunt. Tall, generous, and talkative, he entertains friends and insists on dancing with Becky. Becky closes her letter by hinting that the gowns Amelia gave her are wearing out.

The narrator takes over again as the chapter closes to report that as they returned to the Rectory, Mr. and Mrs. Bute Crawley express their contempt for Rawdon and their hope that Miss Crawley will die soon. They discuss their children's futures anxiously, despairing at the thought that a scoundrel like Rawdon might inherit the fortune. Meanwhile, Becky ingratiates herself with Miss Crawley, who enjoys long gossip sessions and makes the revolutionary argument that birth and merit are unrelated—music to Becky's ears. Becky and Rawdon take long walks to the Rectory, run into each other surprisingly often, and raise Sir Pitt's suspicions. But Horrocks assures his employer that "Miss Sharp's a match" for Rawdon, and the narrator comments, "And so, in truth, she was—for father and son too."

Analysis

Chapter 9 gives readers a break from the powerful narrator's voice, and allows William Makepeace Thackeray to reveal a good deal about the state of affairs at Queen's Crawley. Readers meet Pitt Crawley, the eldest son and heir, a prissy particular man who bullies those around him in a completely different manner from his father. They also meet the shadow of a woman who is Lady Crawley. They see that the people with whom Sir Pitt Crawley is most comfortable are his employees and servants, who willingly carry out his hard-handedness. But readers also learn more about Becky Sharp. They observe how she shapes her words not merely to report information, but to manipulate her audience. She appeals to Amelia Sedley's softhearted pity. She works in a dig at John, the groom, for his impudent behavior. She hints at Amelia's hopes of marrying George Osborne. She holds back any comment on Jos Sedley until her closing lines, where she asks about his health and scolds, "O dear! How men should beware of wicked punch!" Her intent is to rouse Amelia's pity on her behalf. And readers will notice she hasn't completely given up on Jos.

However, the narrator doesn't let Becky have the last word. He warns readers not to buy too much into her carefully drafted letter, which laughs at the Crawleys as characters whose power to do harm is minor. "My rascals," he assures readers, "are no milk-and-water rascals," and he asks permission to leave the narrator's platform and take the most "wicked and heartless" among them to task. He begins to do this in the next chapter, especially in his long description of the deplorable Sir Pitt Crawley, who beats his thin, sad wife, and who has a tangled relationship with his older son, from whose inheritance Sir Pitt has had to borrow money to keep the estate afloat.

The narrator's willingness to criticize characters continues in Chapter 10, titled "Miss Sharp Begins to Make Friends." She is not making friends but learning to manipulate her environment to her best advantage, again motivated by fear of poverty. She thinks it's unjust that "that little pink-faced chit Amelia" is well-off, while she, with such a better figure and mind, must struggle. Yet the narrator maintains his ambivalence about Becky, whose past experience has led to a self-centered prudence and who, he says again, has no mother to guide her.

When Miss Matilda Crawley and Rawdon Crawley arrive at the estate, Becky has her best shot so far at marrying up. In Chapter 11, money is not an undercurrent but a river flowing through all the characters' plans. Sir Pitt needs to shore up the estate. Pitt wants to take the second seat in Parliament, impossible as long as selling it is bringing in yearly income. Reverend Bute Crawley and Mrs. Bute Crawley worry about their son at college, their son at military school, and their four unattractive daughters. Rawdon is a generous man, spreading tips around and spending freely, but he also has gambling debts. And Becky has nothing—not enough money to replace her worn clothing. These are practical, material concerns, the narrator acknowledges, but they have spiritual consequences. Money transactions are "speculations in life and death ... silent battles" fought by inhabitants of Vanity Fair as they grasp for more.

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