For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday I have decided to choose a character from classic literature. Becky Sharp is the protagonist of the novel Vanity Fair, and she is often also seen as the villain of that self-same novel. She is someone who is easy to hate. However, she is also someone that is a very powerful woman looking to have her best life! I cannot fault someone for desiring to have the best life they can possibly have.
This is why I have decided that I will both discuss the novel and her character, and defend her in this post! Becky Sharp is born as the daughter of an artist and, as she claims, a French actress. Her father worked for a school where Becky was given free tuition due to her father’s employ as an art teacher. We first meet her years after his death as she has graduated from school and is ready to become a governess.
Like her father before her teaching is not something that she desires to do. Her father had tried to make a living selling artworks, and failed falling into teaching. Becky had many ambitions, and being a governess in a wealthy household was never in line with her life goals. However, she is shrewd and uses her connections to broaden her horizons!
She uses connections obtained through her work as a governess, her connection with her “school friend”, and her own charisma to forge a path toward her goals. I use the quotes around the term school friend because Becky does not ever seem to be attached, or to even respect, this old acquaintance. The fact that she can so easily manipulate and use people is why she is seen as a supreme villain in this great work of Victorian literature. I would like to look at this deeper, and from a perspective of the life she was born into.
It is easy to hate a person who so easily uses others to gain what they most desire. This makes them cold and unlikable, especially when they use people who seem only to want to help them out of tight spots. The people who attempt to help them are often repaid only with having their own lives turned asunder for their efforts. This is something we even see within Becky and her manipulations of those around her. The fact that I can even write about this without needing to mention names of other characters proves how little of importance those figures are in the scheme of the book. This novel is truly Becky’s story and all others are supporting players whose names are easily forgotten. Although I do know the names, I am not using them to prove who the driving force is!
Becky was born into a poor family, and the most she could hope for was a job like being a governess. Maybe she could hope to marry someone of lower middle stature, like a farmer, or at best a merchant. This would have been something that made her inconsolable, and incredibly unhappy. As a character she is shown to be incredibly intelligent, shrewd, and capable. Her determination to make the best life for herself that is possible is truly inspirational! At the end of the day Becky Sharp simply took the hand she was dealt and decided it was not good enough for her. So she went on to use every part of herself, her charisma, her sex appeal, her intellect, and her grit, to make her life better. She married above what anyone could have expected, and she manipulated situations to her advantage. In the end we can even assume she is happy, as she ends the book living with someone she dislikes, but in the lap of luxury! After all, what she wanted most was to be able to live a comfortable life, and she seems to have achieved that.
While I agree it is unfortunate that she had to find her happiness at the expense of others, I see her as an example of a woman far ahead of her own time. Next time you read Vanity Fair or watch a film or mini-series adaptation, I hope you see Becky in a bit of a different light. She truly is a character who lives in the grey area, instead of in a world of black and white!
I hope you have enjoyed this literary Femme Fatale Friday, and that you will join me next week for another look into powerful females. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is from the Reese Witherspoon led film. I found the image on https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/sep/01/vanity-fair-becky-sharp.
- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
- Vanity Fair (2004)
- Vanity Fair (2018)