A Tale of Two Governesses

“‘Do you suppose I have no feeling of self-respect, because I am poor and friendless, and because rich people have none? Do you think, because I am a governess, I have not as much sense, and feeling, and good breeding as you gentlefolks in Hampshire?’” (162-163). When I came across these words spoken by Miss Rebecca Sharp in Vanity Fair, I heard an echo in my mind of similar words from another governess with whom we have recently become familiar; I refer, of course, to none other than Jane Eyre.  Jane’s passionate speech towards Rochester in the famous garden scene where he tells her first that she must find new employment, and mere pages later, proposes marriage to her, is strangely similar to the above words that Becky Sharp directs at Rawdon Crawley.  “‘Do you think,’” Jane says with fervor, “‘that because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’” (361). Yes, how similar their words are, these two governesses – and yet, how different the effect produced by them! When Jane addresses Rochester, I feel the depth of her cry, and cry out along with her; when I read Becky’s retort, I am far more inclined to respond, “Yes, Miss Sharp; your sense, feeling, and good breeding are precisely the qualities I doubt you to have, given my present acquaintance with your character.”  Why is there such a difference in what is behind the words of these two women?

I believe that the reason for this difference can be found by comparing the author’s preface to each of the novels in question.  Charlotte Brontë advises certain negative critics of Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion….To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns” (12).  Thackeray also establishes a certain connection between morality and his novel: “Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place, certainly…Some people consider Fairs immoral altogether” (xxxi-xxxii). However, while Brontë makes it clear that her business in Jane Eyre is the unmasking of the hypocrite who parades as the virtuous man, Thackeray emphasizes the staged, showy, mask-like quality of Vanity Fair, saying: “But persons who think otherwise…may perhaps like to step in for half an hour and look at the performances. There are scenes of all sorts…the whole accompanied by appropriate scenery and brilliantly illuminated with the Author’s own candles” (xxxii).  Indeed, “performer” and “performance” are words Thackeray uses frequently in connection with Rebecca Sharp (9, 15, 42, 74, 165), along with multiple references to her mother’s career as a stage performer and other words that suggest Becky is merely playing a part.  He also often uses the pair of contrasts “artful”/”artless” when talking about the behavior of many of the women in the novel.

The theatrical, staged quality Thackeray succeeds in giving his work and his own narrative voice is perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the story.  However, this is also why Becky Sharp fails to be accessible and relatable, as Jane Eyre without a doubt is: Vanity Fair is the height of satire.  But because of this, we cannot trust the “Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) who readily admits that his characters are “puppets” (xxxii).  We cannot sympathize with them, any more than we can be sure of the true face of someone who is masked for a performance on the stage.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: CRW Publishing, 2003.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1997.

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