This novel is the best known of Thackeray’s works, and it has given him a reputation as a cynic which he hardly deserves. A common criticism of the story is that the good people in it are all fools, and the clever people all knaves; and the criticism is not wholly unfounded. It is a cynical story, but Thackeray was more than a cyniche was, or thought himself to be at that time, a man with a mission to castigate society and expose its shams; and being a “society man” himself he knew all about it. The work was begun in a desultory way, with the title Pencil Sketches of English Society, in which form the earlier chapters were rejected by at least one magazine. But after an interval Thackeray resumed it, expanded it, gave it the title it now bears, and issued it in monthly parts (1847-1848). It was dramatized early in the twentieth century and produced with great success by Minnie Maddern Fiske.
MELIA SEDLEY, arriving home after being graduated, brought to her father’s house for a brief visit her dear school-friend, Rebecca Sharp. Rebecca had been educated at the admirable establishment of Miss Pinkerton in consideration of making herself useful in many ways to the learned preceptress, especially in teaching the French language, in which Becky was most proficient.
She had green eyes, a slight figure, no principles, and more than the ordinary amount of brains. Her father had been a dissolute and impecunious artist, and her mother, rumor said, a French opera-dancer. But both were dead, and Rebecca, being thrown entirely upon her own resources, determined to take the world by the throat and make it stand and deliver. The world had not used her so kindly that she should spare it, she told herself.
Amelia Sedley was a simple, clinging, little pink and white thing, all kindness of heart and sentiment. She had been over-powered and led captive by the intellectually brilliant Rebecca, who also appealed to her sympathies because of the lonely and penniless state in which it had pleased fate to place her.
Rebecca obtained a place as governess in the family of Sir Pitt Crawley, Bart., to whose country house of Queen’s Crawley she was to repair as soon as her visit to the Sedleys should be over. But Rebecca improved the time of her visit by making eyes at and singing songs to Amelia’s brother Joseph, Collector of Boggley Wollah, in the service of the Honorable East India Company, home on furlough.
Jos was very fat and very bashful in women’s society; but Rebecca’s green eyes and her plaintive little songs made a con-quest of him at once. Unfortunately for Becky’s plans, the stout civilian took his sister and Miss Sharp to Vauxhall, where he drank too much punch, and in the delirium of his affections put his arm around Rebecca’s waist while he sang in a bacchanal voice, “Hey, my tiddle, iddle darling,” to the scandal and amusement of the company. The next morning, terrified at the thought of his exploits of the night before, he fled from the house and soon afterward returned to his lucrative post in India, leaving Rebecca to the consideration of the fad that even the seemingly most securely hooked fish sometimes gets away.
However, not a whit discouraged by the failure of her first venture in the world, Rebecca proceeded to Queen’s Crawley, as resolved as ever to conquer fortune. She found the old Baronet, Sir Pitt Crawley, a most disreputable rake, with the manners and speech of a rustic clown and a taste for low life and low company that vastly scandalized both his elder son Pitt and his second son Captain Rawdon Crawley of the Guards, a tremendous “swell,” who had little to do with Queen’s Crawley or any of its occupants.
Rawdon was not mentally brilliant, but he was a typical Life-Guardsman, very much in the fashion, very fond of cards, boxing and other gentlemanly diversions, huge of stature and heir presumptive of his aunt, Miss Crawley, Sir Pitt’s sister. Though he was heavily in debt, he got along extremely well in life and was mightily looked up to by the young men of his set. His brother, Pitt Crawley, was his exact oppositea correct young gentleman with political aspirations, who had been called “Miss Crawley” at school, and was now prominent in “serious” society. He was engaged to his cousin, Lady Jane Sheepshanks, daughter of the dowager Lady Southdown, well known for her persistent dissemination of quack medicine and quack theology.
At Queen’s Crawley Rebecca found herself governess to the two young ladies, daughters of the second and present Lady Crawley, whose father had been an ironmonger of the neighboring village of Mudbury. She, poor woman, was fading gradually to her grave, crushed under the weight of Sir Pitt’s brutality and the burdens of the high station into which she had married, her pretty face having been her one attraction for the sensual old Baronet.
Rebecca, the little adventuress, had not been two weeks at Queen’s Crawley before she dominated the whole establishment. She found a way to manage even the tough old Baronet, and when Rawdon and Pitt came down for a family gathering the green eyes looked calculatingly at the real work of the campaign. Rebecca would have preferred old Sir Pitt, with the prospect of being comfortably established in life as his widow at no distant date, but Lady Crawley had still some feeble life left in her; Sir Pitt was a tough customer, and the little woman could take no chances. Mr. Pitt would have suited admirably, but his engagement to the gentle Lady Jane was an obstacle; and, after all, she did have a little personal liking for the Guards-man and more than a little for the fortune his aunt was going to leave him when that worldly old person should overeat and overdrink herself for the last time.
So the soldier, as was fitting, was the object of most of Rebecca’s grand and minor strategy. The aunt, Miss Crawley, who had joined the house party, came in for so much of it that she declared Becky to be the cleverest, slyest, most amusing little creature in the world, and insisted on taking her up to Lon-don for a while.
Once established in Miss Crawley’s household, Rebecca made herself so agreeable, so amusing and so useful that her patroness would by no means consent to her going back to the dreary life of Sir Pitt’s country-seat. Thus the little campaigner stayed on and on, soon displacing in Miss Crawley’s affection poor Miss Briggs, who had been her dear friend’s companion for an unknown number of years and who wrote poetry and was bullied continually by her “dear Matilda.”
Rebecca had been part of Miss Crawley’s household for some time when poor, wilted Lady Crawley stopped weeping and taking pills and died. Immediately, not waiting even for the funeral, wicked old Sir Pitt hastened to London, and seeking an interview with Becky alone in the front parlor, flatly pro-posed to make her Lady Crawley Number Three.
“Oh, Sir Pitt,” cried Becky, “I can’t! I amI ammarried already!” Then she fled to her room and criedperhaps because she had not had a little more patience. Now to whom was Rebecca married? To whom, indeed, but Captain Raw-don Crawley.
After the unexpected disclosure the couple fled to Brighton for a honeymoon. Old Miss Crawley took to her bed, sent for her doctor and her lawyer, and altered her will, cutting Rawdon off without a shilling. Sir Pitt raved like a madman.
At Brighton the Crawleys straightway ran into Becky’s dearest, dearest friend, Amelia Sedley, likewise on a honeymoon trip, and her marriage, like Becky’s, had precipitated a dire family disruption.
Amelia’s father, John Sedley, having become rich through stock brokerage, had arranged many years before with his friend Osborne, a wealthy merchant, that Amelia should marry George Osborne, who had entered the army. To this arrangement both young persons took kindly, George as a matter of course and Amelia with all the ardor of her simple and affectionate soul.
George Osborne was a conceited and selfish dandy, whose once good qualities had been smothered when he was a mother-less boy by the overindulgence of his father; but old Osborne was immensely proud of the fact that his son was in the army and consorting with men to whom he alluded as “swells.”
Suddenly, when everything seemed fair, business disaster overwhelmed old Sedley, and old Osborne immediately ordered George to break his engagement to Amelia.
Perhaps he might, in time, have succeeded in bending his son to his will had it not been for William Dobbin, a brother officer and loyal admirer of George. So loyal was Dobbin that he urged George to insist on marrying Amelia at once, though the advice tore his heart; for great, hulking, awkward Dobbin was silently, deeply in love with Amelia himself. It was Dob bin who served Amelia, ever near her, asking nothing in return, while George, taking her love for granted, dazzled others with his splendid presence. It was Dobbin who watched over George now, as he had fought George’s battles when they were boys in school. And, as it had been in boyhood, so in manhood George accepted his devotion and gave in return as much as it was possible for the spoiled darling to give to anyone except himself.
Dobbin felt that it would kill Amelia if George failed her. His arguments, aided by young Osborne’s own selfish impatience of control, won the day. George insisted on marrying Amelia, and his indignant father turned him out, refusing to see him again or to hear the mention of his name.
George drew from his bankers all that was then left to call hisa small amount of money inherited from his mother, and proceeded to spend it right and left during his honeymoon.
The sight of Rawdon Crawley, the brilliant leader of his set, delighted him. And Rawdon and Rebecca, now living on nothing a year, with some considerable help from Rawdon’s great skill at cards and billiards, were equally delighted at this opportune arrival of a free-handed acquaintance.
When Rawdon was not winning George’s money Rebecca was dazzling him with her wit and attacking him with shafts from her green eyes. The little woman could no more help trying her fascinations upon the first man that came near than she could help breathing. She meant nothing wrong by it, not the least in the world; but it made Amelia miserable nevertheless.
Jos, the fat civilian, who had come back from India for a short stay, was with the bridal party, but he was little company for his sister, and she felt a decided cheering of her little heart when honest old Dobbin arrived, bringing his unspoken and hopeless devotion along with him.
But the little party at Brighton was suddenly broken up. Napoleon had returned from Elba, and all Europe was arming against him. The Reign of the Hundred Days began and the three military men were ordered to join their regiments preparatory to service abroad.
In the rear of the British army that invaded the Low Countries in 1815 was a host of civilians. Officers took their wives and families along as a matter of course, and hundreds of fash ionables, looking on the invasion as a sight-seeing jaunt; went to Brussels to make merry up to the very verge of battle.
Amelia went along, and so did Jos. At Brussels they found the Crawleys installed in much splendor. Rawdon was aide to Major-General Tufto, and Becky was with him. They lived at the General’s hotel, and the General footed the bills. People talked; of course; but people will talk anyway, and our little advenuress flew in the very best military society.
The Crawleys never noticed Amelia at all, but George was a constant member of Rawdon’s card-parties. Dobbin lectured the dandy on his neglect of his wife, and his good advice was received as such advice usually is.
At last came the night of the celebrated ball given by the Duchess of Richmond. Rebecca achieved a great triumph. She was radiant, and a crowd of officers swarmed about her all night. As for Amelia, George left her sitting in a corner and neglected her for hours, fluttering around Rebecca like a moth around a candle. Amelia would not even have had anything to eat had not Dobbin looked after her. At last the poor woman could stand it no longer.
“Take the home; William,” she said. “II am not well.”
George stayed to see Rebecca to her carriage, and when he handed her her bouquet a foolish note asking her to elope with him was concealed amid the flowers. Rebecca saw it and gave her admirer ail enigmatical look out of her steady eyes. As they went into the street, over which the dawn was just breaking, the bugles began to play, there was a stir through the town, and the troops began to move. Napoleon had broken into Belgium and the great struggle was impending.
The orders to the front sobered George. He took his wife in his arms and kissed her when he reached home. He wished passionately that the foolish work of the preceding night were undone; that his whole life had been other than it had been. Amelia wept upon his shoulder; they knelt and said “Our Father” together, and then the dandy rode off toward Waterloo.
Even great, stupid Rawdon, after he had pressed Becky to his heart, rode away to battle with something very like a prayer on his lips for the woman he was leaving. As for Rebecca, after her lord had ridden away she took an account of stock and found that, should Rawdon unfortunately be killed in the coming battle, she would be able to raise a tidy sum to begin life anew by selling his horses, his watches and other personal belongings and adding the amount to the sum that he had won in play while in the Belgian capital and had left with her. If Rawdon should be shot in the conflict, the English defeated and the Emperor march into Brusselswhy, a dever woman could turn all events to her account. And so the brave little philosopher went to bed quite comfortably and dreamed of living in a French palace and being called Madame la Maréchale.
The rest of Brussels did not share Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s peace of mind. Quatre-Bras was fought, and the Belgian allies broke and fled. They poured into the city with wild tales of de-feat, which increased the confusion and fears of the town.
The Duke fell back upon Waterloo and made his final stand on Mont St. Jean. Proclamations in the name of the Emperor-King were circulated everywhere, and the town authorities pre-pared a palace for his reception.
Of the gay company that had followed the army all fled who could get horsesJos, among them, leaving poor Amelia to the care of Peggy O’Dowd, the brave Irish wife of Major O’Dowd of Osborne’s regiment.
Then, at last, within hearing of Brussels was fought the last of the Corsican’s many fields. All day long the cannon thundered, and listeners’ souls thrilled with changing fears in response. Toward nightfall they ceased. No more firing was heard at Brussels that night; no more did the air shake sullenly minute by minute; darkness came down upon the field and the city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying dead on his face with a bullet through his heart.
Colonel and Mrs. Rawdon Crawley entered Paris in triumph with the victorious allies, and Rawdon, striving to live by play, got almost as badly into debt in the French capital as he was in the British. Then old Miss Crawley died in England, un-reconciled to him. Thereupon Rebecca resolved on a coup.
She pointed out to Rawdon that while play was very well as a help it was not to be depended upon as a means of livelihood. She made him sell out of the army and with the money received for his commission and what she could obtain in other ways she went to London and effected a compromise with her husband’s creditors, thus opening to him again the door of his native land.
Rawdon followed her with the child, for by this time Becky had become a mother, and they set up housekeeping in an elegant little establishment in Curzon Street.
Becky now set out not only to live on nothing a year, but to do it on a grand scale. The house and its furnishings be-longed to Raggles, formerly butler to old Miss Crawley, who, upon leaving the service of that estimable spinster, had gone into the greengrocery business, acquired a comfortable little fortune and bought the house at a bargain as an investment. He had been brought up in the Crawley family and was, of course, de-lighted to let his property to one of that illustrious race Becky also made her peace with Miss Briggs, formerly companion to Miss Crawley, and engaged that poetic women as companion for herself, incidentally borrowing from her the little legacy that her former patroness had left her. Colonel Crawley would invest it to such great advantage for dear Miss Briggs, Rebecca said.
Old Sir Pitt died and Rebecca and Rawdon journeyed to Queen’s Crawley to the funeral, where she was speedily reconciled to the new Sir Pitt, and even the new Baronet’s wifeborn Lady Jane Sheepshanksbegan to think that the little woman had been sadly maligned.
The Crawleys began giving elegant little parties, which at first were attended only by the men; but the great Marquis of Steyne took up the adventurous couple and ordered that they be received at his town residence of Gaunt House. That settled it. Rebecca now flew in the very highest society and her name was in all the “fashionable intelligence.” She was presented at court, and the Countess of Fitz-Willis spoke quite distinctly to her three times at a dinner-party. When that happened to anybody there was no question as to her social standing.
Of course, Becky paid nobodyexcept now and then when a creditor got too pressing and Rawdon had won a little money at cards, or his wife had got hold of a little ready cash by skilful borrowing. Then she would give an importunate person a little on account to keep him quiet.
Who would think of refusing credit to such great people as the Crawleys now were? When she had a party, game from Lord Steyne’s farm at Stillbrook and wine from his cellars helped her out immensely. As for the boy, little Rawdon, Rebecca hated the child and saw as little of him as possible until finally Lord Steyne got him a place in the famous Whitefriars school and he was out of the way.
Lord Steyne also made Miss Briggs housekeeper at one of his country places, giving Becky money to pay back to the spinster the borrowed legacy. But Mrs. Crawley compromised by buying Briggs a new silk dress, and salted away the rest of his lordship’s donation in her writing-desk, where she was accumulating a little fund for herself against a rainy day. Lord Steyne continued to be exceedingly kind to the Crawley family, and finally promised Rawdon a post as Colonial Governor so soon as the thing could be brought about.
Such was the condition of affairs with the Crawleys when Lord Steyne gave his great entertainment at Gaunt House. All the world of fashion was there, and the occasion was even graced by an exalted personage, who stood near the Throne of the Three Kingdoms. Becky was brilliant, dazzling, and shone triumphant on the social heights that she had stormed.
When it was all over and the happy little woman was in her carriage, Mr. Wenham, Lord Steyne’s man of business and general factotum, proposed to Colonel Crawley that as their ways lay in the same direction, they walk in the cooling night and enjoy a cigar. They had not proceeded far, however, when two men came up to them and one, tapping the Colonel on the shoulder, arrested him for a little debt of a hundred pounds which the Colonel had probably forgotten.
“Lend me a hundred, Wenham,” said Crawley.
But Wenham declared that he had not so much money in the world and the Colonel was taken to a sponging-house.
“The amount is small,” thought the Colonel. “The deuce is in it if we can’t raise that. There is no use disturbing the little woman’s sleep.”
And so he turned in and slept soundly, and the next morning sent a note to Becky, directing her to pawn certain things and release him. It was evening when the messenger returned with Becky’s answer. She had been ill in bed; she had been distracted with callers; she had thrown herself at Lord Steyne’s feet and begged him to loan her the money. He had promised to do so the next morning, when she would fly to the rescue of her cher monstre.
There was a tone in Becky’s note that jarred on Rawdon. His suspicions were aroused. He hurriedly wrote a few lines to his brother, Sir Pitt, and despatched it by the messenger. Sir Pitt being away, this note fell into the hands of his wife and it was the gentle Lady Jane who came to the rescue of the prodigal: It was nine o’clock at night when he was released at last and walked home rapidly.
When he came opposite his own house he fell trembling against the railing and gasped for breath. The house was blazing with light and there was the sound of music and laughter in the drawing-room. Letting himself in with his night-key, Rawdon found Becky at the piano and Lord Steyne bending over her, beating time to her song. A fire was burning on the hearth, and a neat little supper for two was laid out on a table. All the servants had apparently been sent away or to bed.
Becky, in full toilet and blazing with gems, gave a faint scream when she saw Rawdon’s face. Lord Steyne, with an at-tempt at a laugh, said:
“How do, Crawley?”
There was that in Rawdon’s face which caused Becky to fling herself on her knees, crying out that she was innocentbefore God she was innocent. Lord Steyne thought a trap had been laid for him.
“You innocent?” he said. “Why, every trinket you have on your body has been paid for by me. I have given you thou-sands of pounds, which that fellow has spent. Make way, sir, and let me pass.”
Rawdon struck the peer twice and flung him bleeding to the ground. He made Becky strip off her jewels and, tearing a diamond brooch from her breast, he threw it at Lord Steyne, striking him on the forehead and making a scar which the Marquis lore to his dying day.
Then, in all her trouble and bitter anger, Becky admired her husbandstrong, brave, and victorious.
This was the end of the Crawleys’ pleasant little establishment in Curzon Street. Rawdon wanted to fight a duel with Lord Steyne; but the affair was prevented. Finally the Colonel accepted an appointment as Governor of Coventry Island. He held his tongue and departed for his place of honor, after setting aside a portion of his salary as an annuity for Becky and turning over the boy to the care of Lady Jane.
Though Rawdon held his tongue, the world did not. Poor Becky fled to the Continent, where she led a wandering life. When she had money she gambled, and she drank when she had either money or credit.
While Becky had been flying high in London society on nothing a year, poor Amelia had been living in the greatest penury. After her husband’s death she had become a mother, and now, with her little boy and her aged father and mother, she was living in squalid lodgings at Brompton on the proceeds of a little fund that Dobbin had made up for her, pretending that it had been left by George.
Old Osborne refused to be reconciled to his son’s widow, but offered to take the boy, little Georgie, and bring him up. It was a miserable life that Amelia led, but she could not part from Georgie at first. Finally she did so, however” regularly starved out,” as old Osborne elegantly put itand the boy went to the luxury of his grandfather’s home.
Dobbin departed for India. Before leaving, he offered him-self to Amelia; but she looked at the picture of the departed George, wept, and refused him.
Jos was also in India. He had settled a comfortable annuity on his father; but the elder Sedley had immediately sold it to get money for some of the many fruitless schemes by which he sought to retrieve his fallen fortunes.
It was a long, cruel time for Amelia. But after many bitter days her mother died and Jos came back. Dobbin returned soon afterward. Then old Osborne died, leaving half of his great fortune to young George, charged with an annuity of five thousand pounds to Amelia.
Jos had retired from the service of the Honorable East India Company very wealthy, and so all had as much money as they knew what to do with.
Old Mr. Sedley dying, Jos and Amelia took young George, now grown a strapping boy, abroad for a tour and, of course, in their train came honest Dobbin. The travelers were sojourning at the little German town of Pumpernickel when Jos, happening to stroll into the gambling-room of the town hall on a festal night, met there a shabby little woman wearing a mask and playing desperately for small stakes at the roulette table.
This was the persecuted, the exiled, the maligned Becky. She recognized Jos at once, took him aside, revealed to him her identity and told him a sad and effective story of her trials and tribulations. If ever there was persecuted virtue in this world, it was there, embodied in an exaggerated form in Mrs. Raw-don Crawley. And when she told how her little Rawdon had been torn shrieking from her arms by her heartless persecutors, not only Jos but Amelia was moved to compassion; and the little adventuress found a haven of rest which she sadly needed with her dear, dear friends of former days. Dobbin objected, but Dobbin was not much listened to. So Amelia and he had a little quarrel and he departed for Englandfor which Becky was not at all sorry.
Mrs. Crawley at once began to dominate Amelia’s household. For a while she was eminently respectable and rested quietly under the palm-trees of this oasis in the desert of her adventurous life. But some of the friends of her days of wandering found her out and insisted upon sharing the spoils of the captured caravan with her.
A strange lot of people began to frequent Amelia’s drawingroomsmen of dubious titles, who laughed loudly, smelled strongly of tobacco, and drank prodigiously. Amelia became frightened and thought : ” Oh, if William were only here!” Jos was completely under Becky’s influence, and Georgie was only a boy.
One day when they were stopping at Ostend, Rebecca, who had seen long ago that things could not go on forever in that manner, delivered a little lecture to her friend, telling her that she was a fool not to accept the devotion which Dobbin had kept burning for so many years and that she must go away. She needed a protector.
Amelia, as usual, dissolved in tears and declared that she never could marry while her heart retained the memory of her dead and sainted George.
“Can’t forget him?” cried Becky. “That low-bred cockney, that selfish humbug!” and then she told Amelia several truths about her late husband.
When Amelia broke out with indignant cries that her assertions were false, the adventuress, with provoking good nature, threw her a little note. Amelia recognized the handwriting and read it. If was the note that Osborne had slipped into Rebecca’s bouquet on the night of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, asking her to flee with him. Amelia, of course, opened the flood-gates of her eyes again, but through all her grief she thought that now there was nothing to prevent her from loving Dobbin with her whole heart.
“And now go and write to William to come to you at once,” commanded Rebecca.
“II wrote to him this morning,” Amelia said, blushing exceedingly.
So Dobbin came over and took Amelia and Georgie away with him, and the devotion of a lifetime was rewarded. He wanted Jas to come, too, but the civilian declared that his health required a further residence abroad.
When Dobbin and his bride-elect went away, Rebecca did not present herself before the pair, but they heard of her after-ward. Jos traveled about from place to place and wherever Jos went there also went Mrs. Rawdon Crawley. It was a great scandal, and Dobbin went over once to expostulate with his brother-in-law and bring him away, but poor Jos said:
“Oh, I daren’t, I daren’t. She would kill me, You don’t know what a terrible woman she is.”
Three months later Joseph died at Aix-la-Chapelle, and it was found that he had frittered away his fortune in unprofitable investments engineered presumably by Mrs. Crawley. He had effected a large insurance on his life in her favor, and though the insurance company said it was the blackest case they had ever seen, Rebecca went to England with her solicitor and dared them to refuse payment, whereupon they handed over the spoils.
Rawdon Crawley died at Coventry Island from yellow fever. Six weeks later Sir Pitt died and the title and estates devolved upon young Rawdon, who declined to see his mother, though he made her a generous allowance. Dobbin also refused any communication with Rebecca, and she settled down at Bath and Cheltenham, where she busied herself in works of charity and never went to church without a footman.
A very strong party of excellent people regarded her as a much injured woman and had her attend booths at charity fairs. Amelia, and Dobbin encountered her once at one of these fairs. Becky cast down her eyes demurely and smiled as they hurried away from her; but her smile was not pleasant to see,
Amelia and Dobbin began to live in the country and it was soon whispered that their daughter, Jane, probably would marry the present Sir Rawdon Crawley. They were very happy; and Rebeccawho shall say whether she was happy or not?