Summary - Chapters One, Two, Three and Four
Vanity Fair begins in the early 19th century, on a ‘sunshiny morning in June’. Miss Amelia Sedley and Miss Rebecca Sharp are leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy. Amelia’s father is wealthy, whereas Becky has been an ‘articled pupil’ (and has had to teach for her keep). They are leaving together as Becky is to stay with Amelia for a short time. Amelia is described by the narrator as ‘guileless’ but not a heroine. A great fuss is made of Amelia’s departure, by teachers and pupils, but no concern is shown for Becky. The latter wins a ‘little battle’ with Miss Pinkerton, because she speaks to her in French (knowing Miss Pinkerton will not understand) and refuses to shake her proffered fingers.
The two young women sit in Amelia’s carriage ready to depart and Miss Jemima Pinkerton - the sister of Miss Pinkerton - takes pity on Becky and gives her food and a dictionary. Becky throws the book out of the window as they drive off and almost causes Miss Jemima to ‘faint with terror’.
In Chapter Two, Becky describes how she hates the Academy and has been treated badly there for two years. She admits she knows Miss Pinkerton cannot speak French and enjoyed wrong-footing her. Amelia is shocked when Becky says ‘Vive la France’, but Becky explains that she is ‘no angel’ and revenge is natural. The narrator describes her as a ‘young misanthropist’.
Becky’s background is then outlined and the readers are told how her father was an artist who had given drawing lessons at the school. Her mother, now dead, was French and so Becky could speak it fluently. Her father asked Miss Pinkerton to take Becky on as he had debts, and she came to stay at the school at the age of 17 after his death. As an articled pupil, her duties were to speak to the younger children in French. She lived there for free and took the opportunity to learn there too.
She had been used to the company of her father, and not the society of women. She also became envious of the other pupils and their advantages. She began to plan for her future and learned music to assist her. When she refused to teach it for free, once she became accomplished, she was disliked by Miss Pinkerton.
Becky is to stay at Amelia’s home in Russell Square for a week until she begins work as a governess. Amelia shows her every room in the house and Becky says how it must be good to have a brother and rich, kind parents. Amelia has a rich unmarried brother, called Joseph, and Becky determines to marry him even though she has only a short time to bring this about.
Joseph is described as ‘a very stout, puffy man’ in Chapter Three and he blushes when Becky and Amelia enter the room. Becky makes a great play at flirting with him whilst also attempting to be shy. The narrator reminds the reader that because Becky is an orphan it is understandable that she is trying to arrange her own future. The parents of other girls, such as Amelia, do this for them.
Joseph has returned from India after eight years to be treated for a liver complaint. He is staying in lodgings and is shy of women (and, therefore, a challenge for Becky). The family have curry for dinner that night and Becky is tricked into eating a chilli, which in her ignorance she thought would be cool. She laughs the joke off, though, and continues to flatter Joseph.
In Chapter Four, we are told that Joseph stays away for two or three days. In this time, Becky attempts to insinuate herself on the Sedleys and the servants. When Joseph appears again, his father (Sedley) teases him about being fat and behaves as he does on the Stock Exchange. Joseph then agrees to take Becky and Amelia to Vauxhall and Amelia blushes when it is suggested that George Osborne accompanies them. By contrast, Becky has not blushed since she was eight years old.
They are unable to visit Vauxhall, however, because of a thunderstorm and the four have to stay in instead. Osborne is introduced, as Sedley’s godson, and it is clear he and Amelia have feelings for each other. After hearing Becky sing that night, Joseph thinks later how she would be a sensation in India. The chapter ends with him bringing flowers the next day for Becky and Amelia and he decides he will ‘pop the question at Vauxhall’.
Analysis - Chapters One, Two, Three and Four
In just the first chapter, it is possible to see the contrast between Becky and Amelia. It is also evident that this is a satirical novel that critiques the mores of society at the time the novel is set as well as the time of writing.
Becky’s decision to marry Joseph is clearly based on his wealth as he is given no other redeeming features. Although Becky’s manipulations and trickery are shown to be underhand, it is also pointed out here and elsewhere that she is not alone in her machinations. As an orphan, she must take control of her own destiny as parents would for daughters in Amelia’s class. Becky is without privilege and has only her wits and the vanity of others to assist her. This vanity of others is a dominant theme of the novel as the narrator insists on reminding the readers that although Becky may be ‘no angel’, neither are her counterparts or supposed superiors.