“‘Pen Me A Pretty Little Letter'”

Remembering Thackeray’s designation of the narrator of Vanity Fair as “the Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) and of his cast of characters as “puppets” (xxxii), I suspect there is more significance than may first meet the eye in a certain pair of letter-writing scenes.  While I originally read the first simply as comic relief, I began to think about it more seriously when I encountered the second.  The first scene, of course, is the one in which Rebecca dictates to Rawdon Crawley a letter addressed to Miss Crawley, and punctuated with moments of humor such as this: “‘You old booby,’ Rebecca said, pinching his ear…‘beseech is not spelt with an a, and earliest is’” (312-13).  This scene operates on several levels, working well both as comedy and as an illustration of the personalities of Becky and Rawdon, but perhaps more significantly as an instance where Thackeray allows one of his characters narratorial power—where he gives one of his “puppets” the marionette strings.  We see the strength of Becky’s willfulness and agency here, where she takes the power of words away from her husband and inserts herself into a text (the letter). Rawdon, who is supposed to be writing the letter, can thus only claim credit for being the mechanical means of its creation—something Miss Crawley recognizes immediately because Rebecca’s influence is too strong: “‘Don’t you see, you goose…that Rawdon never wrote a word of it. …It is that little serpent of a governess that rules him’” (313).

This scene gains a further meaning, I believe, when compared with the scene in which Sir Pitt Crawley dictates a letter to his wife, informing Rawdon and Becky of the Sir Pitt Crawley Sr.’s death.  The former Lady Jane Southdown, we must remember, has a mother who “ordered her dresses, her books, her bonnets, and her ideas for her” (416).  Consequently, this dictation becomes a battle of wills between Lady Southdown and Sir Pitt, both commanding the obedience of Lady Jane in what to write in the letter, with Sir Pitt ultimately emerging successful. Fortunate Lady Jane, it turns out, no longer has to take the ideas her mamma “ordered” for her, since she has a husband who can dictate them to her: “‘[H]ow wise and good, and what a genius my husband is!’” (518). Compare this with Rawdon’s submission to Becky’s dictation: “So he altered these words, bowing to the superior knowledge of his little Missis” (313). And in contrast with Lady Jane, who received her ideas read-made from “‘wiser heads than hers’” (424), Becky “generally succeeded in making her husband share all her opinions” (311-12).

Perhaps this comparison would not be particularly fruitful if its only observation were that Becky takes an active role, even over the men in her life, whereas the passive Lady Jane is characterized as too weak to even form her own opinions on things.  I propose that these two complementary scenes be read as part of Thackeray’s larger commentary on intelligence in women.  Becky is repeatedly called clever, brilliant, full of wit, and she admits to herself, “‘I have passed beyond it [her poor origins], because I have brains…and almost all the rest of the world are fools’” (536)—and having seen enough of Lady Jane’s passivity and secondhand opinions, I am inclined to believe her.  But even Amelia, who is called more than once our heroine, “took her opinions from those people who surrounded her, such fidelity being much too humble-minded to think for itself” (324).  The comparison of the letter-writing scenes, paired with what we know of Thackeray as a narrator of his characters, highlights a particular difficulty in defining his view of women with or without intelligence: what does he think of them?

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

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