Re-Reading Performative Behaviour in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848): Why Rebecca Sharp is an English Courtesan

Hollie Geary-Jones is a first year PhD Candidate and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester. Her interdisciplinary thesis is titled ‘Dressing the Self: Infectious Performance and the Nineteenth-Century Prostitute’. Her research interests include infection, dress, and prostitution in nineteenth-century France and England. You can follow Hollie on Twitter @HollieGJ1 or contact her at h.gearyjones@chester.ac.uk

Throughout Vanity Fair, Thackeray presents Becky’s sexuality as a purchasable commodity. Her attentions, compliments, and embraces can be procured by money, gifts, and invitations to high society events. By manipulating her physical beauty and behaviour, Becky’s conduct aligns her to the stereotypical, courtesan. As ‘the English language had no way of describing courtesans beyond […] half-hearted [euphemisms]’,[1] analysis will be based on French definitions. Despite the above, Becky never explicitly fulfils the physical requisites of the courtesan role. However, this ambiguity may be attributed to Thackeray’s status as an English author. Required to submit to rigid censorship and abide to regulations of dominant bourgeois ideology, his allusive narrative is highly suggestive of Becky’s venal sexuality.

Degenerative Origins: An Opera Girl and a Drunkard

When we first meet Rebecca Sharp, her lower-class origins appear detrimental to her future social and financial successes. Thackeray situates Becky in the French world of prostitution, performance, and debauchery. Her father was a drunken artist, and her mother was a French opera girl. In England and France, lower-class female performers were constantly tarnished with accusations of prostitution. Alongside her occupation, Thackeray uses her mother’s nationality to imply a familial depravity. In England, ‘xenophobic imagery’ was rife as it ‘played off representations of English morality against the decadence of foreign habits.’[2] Underlining her ‘bohemian’ upbringing, Thackeray devotes a great amount of detail to Becky’s inherited ‘immorality’.

Miss Pinkerton’s Academy: Education in Attraction

Lacking parental money or morality to support an entry into high society, Becky seeks other means of infiltration. As an orphan, she determines to gain access to Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. She manipulates her behaviour for personal gain by performing ‘the part of theingénue’.[3] Cultural historian Catherine Hewitt argues the courtesan ‘possesses an innate understanding of the appropriate protocol for every occasion’.[4] Becky’s recital of fabricated naivety exhibits this awareness as she was granted ‘room, board, and education’.[5] By permeating through the class boundaries of the school, Becky benefits from an education beyond her social and financial status. The Academy was tailored toward establishing the ‘virtues which characterise the young English gentlewoman, those accomplishments which become her birth and station’ (p. 8). The courtesan ‘[o]ften born to poverty, […] would have to be taught many skills in order to play her new role.’[6] Becky is one step ahead of this process as she ‘speedily went through the little course of study which was considered necessary for ladies in those days’ (p. 20). Mimicking the accomplishments of the highborn woman, Becky is instructed in the arts of attracting an upper-class gentleman. Versed in behaviours which connote respectability, morality, and innate femininity, Becky’s performative conduct masquerades her degenerative origins.

Captain Rawdon Crawley: Target Acquired

Leaving the Academy, Becky becomes a governess to the Crawley family. To better her social position, she determines to marry Captain Rawdon Crawley. Cultural historian Julie Peakman asserts the courtesan relied on ‘education [as] a crucial element in her seduction technique. […] Attracting her clients involved displaying as many skills as she could to their best advantage.’[7] Through deliberate use of her learned accomplishments, Becky successfully entices Rawdon: ‘When she sang, every note thrilled his dull soul […]. Her words were oracles to him, her smallest actions marked by an infallible grace and wisdom’ (p. 176). Targeted with a premeditated performance of trustworthy refinement, ‘[s]ix weeks […] had victimized [Rawdon] completely’ (p. 151). By forming exploitative relationships based on personal gain, she performs the courtesan role to perfection.

Becky’s desire for luxury is satiated with gifts from her besotted husband: ‘As for shawls, kid gloves, silk stockings, gold French watches, bracelets and perfumery, he sent them in with the profusion of blind love and unbounded credit’ (p. 177). Rawdon’s ‘blind love’ (p. 177) suggests his ignorance to Becky’s calculated performance of seduction. Hewitt notes that ‘a [successful] courtesan had to know how to promote and present herself’.[8] Becky ‘never let [Rawdon] perceive the opinion she had of him’ (p. 191), instead she ‘listened with indefatigable complacency to his tales’ (p. 191). By disguising her true feelings, Becky manages and manipulates her husband as the courtesan would a troublesome client.

Fashion and the Courtesan

Fashion historian Valerie Steele summarizes: ‘The definition of “courtisane” in Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel (1867) emphasized the importance of fashion and luxury consumerism’.[9] Having depleted her husband’s reserves, Becky seeks support from another gentleman. With a preoccupation for finery, Becky always ‘dressed in the height of the fashion’ (p. 247). To maintain her appearance, she targets her husband’s superior General Tufto. Rewarded with extravagant gifts, ‘[t]he General, her slave and worshiper, had made her many very handsome presents, in the shape of cashmere shawls […], and numerous tributes from the jewellers’ shops’ (p. 339). Thackeray satirically hints at the illicit nature of these offerings: ‘if all these ornaments went to gentlemen’s lawful wives […], what a profusion of jewellery there would be exhibited in the genteelest homes of Vanity Fair!’ (p. 340). Becky’s engineered behaviour receives better rewards than her upper-class, legitimate counterparts. Like the courtesan, she commodifies her time, conduct and attentions. Paid in gifts, she manipulates men for financial gain, social infiltration, and fashionable clothing.

The Demimonde: Parisian Success

During her time in Paris, Becky thrives as ‘the gayest among the gay conquerors’ (p. 390). Throughout the nineteenth century, the term ‘gay’ was typically ‘used to describe women who were courtesans, as “the gay life” referred to the world of the demi-monde’.[10] Once again, Thackeray situates Becky in the French world of prostitution. Her Parisian success tarnishes her reputation in England. Upon her return, she focuses her deliberate attentions on her husband’s brother, Sir Pitt Crawley. Feminist philosopher Susan Griffin argues: ‘If the courtesan was, to some degree, always acting, her success depended on how well she could act’.[11] To secure Pitt’s patronship, Becky performs idealistic, submissive femininity: ‘Rebecca listened to Pitt, she talked to him, she sang to him, she coaxed him, and cuddled him’ (p. 514). The success of her efforts is measured by the gifts she receives. Rewarded with a ‘pretty diamond clasp, which confined a pearl necklace’ (p. 558), Thackeray reveals that this exchange was hidden from Rawdon and Pitt’s wife. Like the courtesan, Becky’s behaviour is compensated with jewellery unobtainable to the ‘virtuous’ woman.

Lord Steyne: Another ‘Patron’

Unwilling to align her fortunes to a single patron, Becky engages in an artificial flirtation with Lord Steyne. Her relationship with Steyne becomes her most valuable conquest as he actively contributes to the construction of her fashionable reputation: ‘After Becky’s appearance at my Lord Steyne’s private and select parties, […] some of the very greatest […] doors in the metropolis were speedily opened to her’ (p. 585). In terms of social advancement, Steyne is essential to her permeation through class boundaries. To maintain his affections, Becky meticulously prepares for his visits: ‘whenever the dear girl expected his Lordship, her toilette was prepared, her hair in perfect order, […] and she seated in some artless and agreeable posture ready to receive him’ (p. 561). Performing a premeditated recital of natural beauty and naivety, Becky’s conduct is altered per ‘customer’. 

English Morality and the Fate of the Courtesan

The extent of her performance is illustrated by the attention paid to her costume: ‘whenever she was surprised […] she had to fly to her apartment to take a rapid survey of matters in the glass’ (p. 561). Although dress and physical beauty contribute to her success, it is how those attributes are used that culminate in her triumph. John P. Frazee argues: ‘Becky’s power over Lord Steyne reflects a historical reality of the Regency courtesan’s relations with her aristocratic patrons: mere physical attractiveness was not enough to secure a position.’[12] Like these women, Becky continuously alters her behaviour and lifestyle to satiate Steyne’s desires. Consumed by his infatuation, ‘Lord Steyne was her slave; and followed her everywhere’ (p. 602). Like Rawdon and General Tufto, Steyne has been reduced to an obedient servant. Following the practices of the French courtesan, Becky emasculates her wealthy patrons for personal gain.

At the height of her performance, Becky uses her connections to infiltrate the very pinnacle of upper-class society. During her appearance at the Royal Court, her determined recital of regal respectability ‘befitted an empress’ (p. 556). By ‘[adopting] a demeanour so grand, self-satisfied, deliberate, and imposing’ (p. 556), Becky’s most significant recital is a triumph. Thackeray satirically notes, ‘many a lady whose reputation would be doubtful otherwise […], passes through the wholesome ordeal of the Royal presence, and issues from it free from all taint’ (p. 553). During this process, Becky has been expunged of her past behaviours. To an extent, Thackeray had to abide by dominant codes of bourgeois morality to ensure his work would be published. Defying conventional standards of femininity, Becky must be punished for her ‘deviant’ sexuality. Allowed to peak to the height of fashion, she follows the stereotypical courtesan trajectory. Losing her husband and home, she faces moral and social ruin.

References:

Catherine Hewitt, The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret (London: Icon, 2015)

Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England Since 1830 (London: Routledge, 2000)

John P. Frazee, ‘The Creation of Becky in “Vanity Fair”’, Dickens Studies Annual, 27 (1998), 227-244

Julie Peakman, ‘Memoirs of women of pleasure: the whore biography’, Women’s Writing, 11 (2004), 163-184

Lisa Jadwin, ‘The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 32 (1992), 663-687

Susan Griffin, The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues (New York: Broadway Books, 2001)

Trevor Fisher, Prostitution And The Victorians (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997)

Valerie Steele, ‘Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris’, Fashion Theory, 8 (2004), 315-328

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (London: Penguin Books, 2001)


[1] Trevor Fisher, Prostitution And The Victorians (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997), p. 48.

[2] Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England Since 1830 (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 89.

[3] William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 19. All further references will be given in the body of the text.

[4] Catherine Hewitt, The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret (London: Icon, 2015), p. 26.

[5] Lisa Jadwin, ‘The Seductiveness of Female Duplicity in Vanity Fair’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 32 (1992), 663-687 (p. 676)

[6] Susan Griffin, The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), p. 4. 

[7] Julie Peakman, ‘Memoirs of women of pleasure: the whore biography’, Women’s Writing, 11 (2004), 163-184 (p. 168).

[8] Hewitt, The Mistress of Paris, p. 26.

[9] Valerie Steele, ‘Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris’, Fashion Theory, 8 (2004), 315-328 (p. 318)

[10] Griffin, The Book of the Courtesans, p. 16.

[11] Griffin, The Book of the Courtesans, p. 24. 

[12] John P. Frazee, ‘The Creation of Becky in “Vanity Fair”’, Dickens Studies Annual, 27 (1998), 227-244 (p. 236)