Some Thoughts on the Careers of Agnes Grey and Becky Sharp as Early Nineteenth Century Governesses

 

Vanity Fair Amelia and Becky
Amelia and Becky as girls

In my last post, I wrote about the realistic – and fairly dismal – depiction of a governess’ life in the England of the first part of the nineteenth century to be found in Anne Bronte’s ‘Agnes Grey’ , and contrasted her dismal life with the wild and harrowing adventures that are Jane Eyre’s improbable lot.
Both stories end happily because the man with whom they have fallen in love wants to marry them. Well, I suppose it is only fair to point out that both are in a position of comparative independence when they receive these proposals. Agnes is a respected teacher working in her mother’s school by the time that the former curate, now rector Mr Weston proposes to her, whereas Jane Eyre has inherited a fortune by the time she returns to visit the temporarily blinded Mr Rochester.
There was, of course, another famous author who wrote about the adventures of a governess – WM Thackeray in ‘Vanity Fair’ describes the lurid adventures of the heartless and manipulative Becky Sharp. She of course, has been at boarding school with Amelia. On the death of her alcoholic painter father, the proprietor Miss Pinkerton has taken her on to teach French to her pupils.
At this time, Becky shows her ill nature, and her only friend is the good natured Amelia Sedley, a rich merchant’s daughter loved by everybody. Now Amelia is leaving to be a young lady waiting for marriage to the son of another rich merchant, George Osborne. Becky longs to escape Miss Pinkerton’s academy , even if it means she must be a governess. First, however, she is to stay for ten days with Amelia’s family at Russell Square. Here she tries to draw in Aurelia’s absurdly vain brother Jos into proposing to her, but when the snobbish George Osborne sabotages her plans, she has to go on to her post at the uncultured, mean Sir Pitt Crawley in Hampshire.
It is interesting that Mr Weston remarks to Agnes that another type of woman in her position as governess might have made sure that she received far better treatment than that which Agnes has accepted.

This puts one in mind of Becky Sharp. Through unscrupulous manipulation, through making herself useful to the insensitive old baronet (she does his accounts), by flattering the family members, pursuing her own advantage at all times and spending almost no time teaching her two girl pupils, who are left to their own devices, she soon acquires some influence in the household.

At first, Becky is treated with no consideration. On the way to Queen’s Crawley in Hampshire, she is made to travel outside, on top of the coach. But soon, through honing her skills of flattery and manipulation – she stops being outspoken and rebellious as she was at Miss Pinkerton’s – she makes herself indispensable in the household.
In this, of course, she is helped by the fact that the second Lady Crawley is in ill health and of no account in the household, and that Sir Pitt is lecherously fascinated by her, and she is obviously able to keep him at arms’ length very cleverly; then she is able to draw his stupid guardsman son Rawdon Crawley into marriage by refusing his own lecherous advances.
Perhaps Agnes Grey might have made her lot rather more comfortable by the use of some judicious flattery and the odd piece of flirtation, by taking her duties as a governess less seriously, by in fact, not adhering to moral principle.
Becky, by contrast, never allows scruples of any sort to get in the way of her pursuit of money and social advantage. She shows how entirely callous she can be in Brussels. Here she encourages the foolish and vain George Osborne to become wildly infatuated with her, so that he is eager to visit the Crawleys in ther rooms. Here Rawdon Crawley cheats George at cards out of very small fortune he has left to him after his father has disowned him. This leaves Amelia virtually destitute. Becky is completely indifferent to her fate, or how wretchedly jealous she makes Amelia.
Just as Agnes Grey would not be herself if she ever compromised on the issue of moral principle. neither would Becky Sharp be herself if she had any moral principles greater than self interest.
Yet it is not quite true that in the fictional world, nice guys finish last. They might, from the point of view of material wealth. But nevertheless, Agnes Grey marries for true love and lives modestly but comfortably with the man she loves.

By contrast, the fate of her vain and frivolous pupil Rosalie Murray, who like Becky, is manipulative and heartless, is a dismal one. She marries the debauched and unattractive Sir Thomas Ashby because she coverts a title. She soon comes to hate him when angered by her carrying on a flirtation with her old admirer Harry Meltham, he forces her to live in the country. Not only that, but unhappiness does away with her blooming complexion and female curves, and she faces a dismal future.

George and Amelia's letters
George Osborn

 

 

The Anti-Heroine

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I have often thought, on and off, what a shame it is how few anti-heroines there are in both traditionally published and self published fiction.

Anti -heroes suffer from overpopulation in the fiction world- particularly in romance – but their female equivalents seem thin on the ground.

This anyway, is my experience, but maybe I am looking in the wrong places (anxiously picks up some stones in the garden).

Maybe I haven’t come across them because I don’t read much fantasy and all its sub sections, and possibly that is the genre in which they are most often to be found, with all those katana waving, leather clad female warriors.  With all the newly published works on the internet, there must surely be many of these outrageous lead females I have missed. But if so, I keep on missing them, as with the 65 bus when I used to live in South Ealing.

There are, however, some excellent classic ones. I have to start off by saying that to my shame, I have yet to read ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ whom I believe count as anti-heroines.

However, I have read ‘Vanity Fair’ twice. The selfish, cold, manipulative  Becky Sharp is certainly an anti-heroine. I dislike her, because she has almost no warmth of feeling , and is prepared to destroy her only friend Amelia’s happiness and future security for her own gain. This also is  part of a mean spirited revenge she takes on Amelia’s fiancé George Osborn, who earlier has prevented her marriage to Amelia’s foolish half-brother Joss.

During the vain George’s honeymoon in Brighton with Amelia, she and  her now husband Rawdon Crawley turn up, and while Rawdon Crawley assiduously strives to relieve George of his small inheritance from his mother, Becky flirts with him and soon succeeds in making him infatuated with her, careless on how wretched this will make Amelia, who was the only person who championed her at school.

As, through George’s interference to prevent the Jos engagement, she is still free later to marry the baronet’s son Rawdon Crawley and aim higher up the social ladder, one might think that she would be philosophical about George’s earlier snobbish interference; but it seems that she is not.

In some ways she is carelessly drawn, I suppose as a result of WM Thackeray’s self –conscious masculine inability to see inside the heads of women. For instance, Becky at the beginning of the story is rebellious and resentful. She alarms Amelia by throwing away the dictionary given her by the school as a parting present, and shouts ‘Vive Bonoparte! Vive l’Empereur!’

I rather liked her for this frank defiance, but she soon changes into a sly flaterer. Within hours of going to stay with the Sedley family in Russell Square, she is suddenly expert at hiding her real feelings, and can draw in the fat and foolish Jos.

Vanity Fair is, of course, one of the greatest novels written about the Battle of Waterloo. That is the way in which it has lingered in my imagination, and not through any great interest in its two dimensional anti-heroine. However, Thackeray deserves all credit for creating one, however clumsily.

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I have to make another shamed confession here; I never finished reading Jane Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’. Jane Austen wrote it when she was very young, and not easily able to handle the subject matter, which is fascinating, being about a widow with a ‘dubious’ character scheming to marry one of a group of eligible young men. I think this is probably why I stopped reading.

I must read it through soon. In Jane Austen’s time, when a novel was abominated unless the author paraded its moral worth, an anti-heroine like the heartless Lady Susan was a theme only the boldest writer would attempt. Perhaps this is why she did not return to it, as she did to the early versions of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Another anti-heroine is, of course, Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’. She dies ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ fading away after she finds that she cannot have both Edgar Linton and Healthcliff. However surprisngly tame the end of life in this world for Cathy is, she is a highly effective ghost.

Her relationship with the Heathcliff is certainly bizarre. Contrary to what so many readers seem to believe, I would argue that she does not appear to have romantic feelings feelings towards him, though they do seem to have some confusion of identiy.  It is difficult to work out what sort of feelings Heathcliff has for Cathy. From some of his comments, he seems to have less divided feelings about his passion for her than she has over hers for him.

In that era, it was, I believe, illegal for a person to marry a foster sibling (there was no formal adoption) whether there was any blood relationship or not, so I am puzzled about why Cathy even mentions marrying Heathcliff in her famous speech about degradation. There’s a good discussion of that, and the incest theme in ‘Wuthering Heights’ here 

Apart from her dependency relationship with Heathliff,  we really don’t know that much about Cathy. She is wilful and selfish and when in her early teens, loves running about on the moors in all weathers and soon develops a normal amount of teenage vanity.

In these characteristics, she does make a refreshing change from most mid Victorian heroines. However, she is not, for all her wild passions and temper tantrums, a fully realised character. For all her apparent ‘large ego’ if set aside from her torn feelings for both Edgar Linton and Heathcliff,  for all her undeniable egotism, she hardly seems to exist at all. Again, I found this disappointing.

I have more I want to write about anti-heroines, including the mid-twentieth century depictions of two in the Hélène in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Blood of Others’ and Scarlett O’Hara, but for now I had better finsih this post with the request  that I hope someone reading it can recommend a modern anti-heroine to me.