Before I go any further, I must express my joy at finding an author who shares my concern for the plight of “those hapless creatures who suffer under the misfortune of good looks” (86). I am pleased to observe that there are, through all the ages of mankind, men willing to–with pity in their hearts and compassion on their brows–attentively look to the needs of the unfortunate beauties of the world.
That said, I find myself wondering more about the men of Thackeray’s novel than the women. When Becky Sharp chooses to dream about a soldier, I applaud her bold and frank pursuit of marriage (56). “I don’t think, ladies, we have any right to blame her; for though the task of husband-hunting is generally…entrusted by young persons to their mammas, recollect that Miss Sharp had no kind parent to arrange these delicate matters for her” (19). For a woman like Becky Sharp to snag a man, she has to know what she wants. Indeed, this sort of aggression is necessary even for women with mammas. Amelia’s blissfully demure pursuit of Lt. George Osborne very nearly lost her the catch.
I wonder, however, how much of that blame is hers and how much Lt. Osborne’s. It is very easy to say that George is entirely unfair is his mistreatment of Amelia, but “don’t girls like a rake better than a milksop?” (96). It was these adventures that allowed George to become, “famous in field-sports, famous at a song, famous on parade….adored by the men…He could spar better than Knuckles; and was the best batter and bowler, out and out, of the regimental club. He rode his own horse…and won the Garrison cup at Quebec races” (93). He may not have been an especially attentive lover, but at least he was interesting. He was cruel, to be sure, but was this very cruelty not encouraged by Amelia who allowed George to see “a slave before him in that simple yielding faithful creature, and his soul within him thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power” (154).
Now, to be sure, I don’t want to defend the Lieutenant. He’s absolutely a scoundrel, but I’d like to know why he’s a scoundrel. His willingness to discard Amelia due to her lack of wealth is problematic, but no more than Becky Sharp’s willingness to wed Jos–a man who has no redeeming qualities aside from his wealth. And then, of course, his willingness to disobey his father in order wed Amelia surely must count in his favor.
Similarly, what makes Osborne any different from Captain Crawley? Crawley gambles (though he wins), drinks, races, and is generally a rake. His wife even refers to his characters flaws affectionately, referring to him as a “naughty good-for-nothing man” (122). Of course, once he’s married he settles down: “that veteran rake, Rawdon Crawley, found himself converted into a very happy and submissive married man” (134). What do we make of this difference? Is Crawley a scoundrel reformed through the virtues of his wife? This is problematic as a.) it buys into a dangerous willingness to place responsibility firmly on women and b.) Becky Sharp may not be the most virtuous of influences.
So I don’t know what to do with Lt. Osborne. He’s absolutely a jerk, but I don’t see why he should be any worse than the rest of the characters. I think this may be Thackery’s true genius: the sympathetic characters are sympathetic because he makes them appear so, not because they truly are and vice versa. We are only told one side of the story, and different sides often tell entirely different stories–especially when dealing with love.