This is Vanity Fair | Character Study on Becky Sharp and Johnson’s Dictionary

We’re going to look at Becky Sharp’s character traits in the first two chapters. Let’s firstly compare her to Amelia Sedley. I think half of Vanity Fair is about Becky and the other half is about Amelia, so it’s fair to compare them. Secondly, let’s see how Becky interacted with people from the school, especially with Miss Pinkerton and Miss Jemima since most of chapters 1 and 2 happened in Chiswick Mall.

Character Study: let’s compare Becky to Amelia

Becky’s name first appeared in a letter. The letter was from Miss Pinkerton, the schoolmistress of Chiswick Mall, which was a school for young ladies, to Amelia’s parents.

The letter praised Amelia’s accomplishments, her lovely character and her popularity in the school. Becky’s name appeared in the postscript. Amelia was to occupy a fitting position in a polished and refined circle; Becky was going to provide some kind of services. We learnt later on that she was to become a governess.

Amelia was a parlour boarder, someone who pays all fees; Becky was an articled pupil whose work offset fees. Amelia’s father was a rich merchant who lived in Russell Square; Becky’s father was a poor artist in debt, often drunk and by now dead.

Amelia was extremely popular, everyone loved her, Miss Pinkerton and Miss Jemima, fellow students, servants and teachers. On her day of departure, there was hugging, crying, laughing, ‘Words refuse to tell it’; Becky appeared on the scene alone, calm, unconcerned, no one cried for her or even took any notice of her. She was not sad feeling left out or envious of Amelia, she just didn’t care. Half of the school were Amelia’s best friends; Becky hated Miss Pinkerton and Miss Jemima, older students, younger students, everybody. Amelia was sad to leave, Becky couldn’t wait to leave and wished the school at the bottom of the River Thames.

Amelia was sent to school to become a gentlewoman, she fit the system, thrived in the role society gave to a young woman; Becky hated it all.

You might think she’s poor and friendless, she’s neglected and having a terrible time, poor thing! But the author gives a very different verdict:

“we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody…”

Character Study: let’s see how Becky interacted with Miss Pinkerton & Miss Jemima

When Becky wished the school at the bottom of the river, part of the image she specified was Miss Pinkerton floating in the water. Clearly, Miss Pinkerton was one of the major reasons that Becky hated the place so much.

We can tell Miss P treated Becky badly. She gave every graduate a Johnson’s dictionary but wouldn’t give one to Becky; when she embraced Amelia and said ‘heaven bless you my child’, she only frowned at Becky.

Why did Miss Pinkerton treat Becky so badly? On the surface, it was because of money. Becky was poor and didn’t pay for anything, Miss Pinkerton believed she had done enough for her. If you haven’t noticed, Miss Pinkerton was really stingy! There are plenty of examples in the story: she served seed-cake which was a cheaper type of cake to guests, the highly-honoured dictionary cost only two and ninepence, she gave out dolls as presents which she confiscated from other pupils, she tried to save the expense for a music master by asking Becky to teach for free.

But deeply, she hated Becky!

Why did she hate Becky? It’s interesting to note she didn’t always hate her. When Becky first came to the school as a child and behaved innocent and childlike, Miss Pinkerton thought her the meekest creature in the world and invited her to Chiswick to stay. She only started hating her when Becky refused to teach music for free. Was it about money again? Yes partly, but more precisely, it was because Becky challenged her authority and humiliated her publicly.

But why did Becky challenge her authority and humiliate her? Becky’s contempt for Miss Pinkerton went back a long way. When she visited the school as a child, her childlike innocence was all a pretence; she mocked and laughed at Miss Pinkerton with her father behind her back. Becky just didn’t do authority and I think she instinctively hated Miss P who embodied the rigid formality of the school and the expectation of the society.

How about Miss Jemima? Becky said for the two years at Chiswick Mall, she ‘never had a kind word’ from anyone. That was clearly not true as we’ve already seen how Miss Jemima treated her kindly repeatedly. But Becky hated her equally.

Two examples, Miss Jemima took the great risk of enraging her sister when she sneaked out a Johnson’s dictionary and gave it to Becky, because ‘poor Becky will be miserable if she don’t get one’, but Becky flung the dictionary back at her face. When Becky visited the school as a child, Miss Jemima had given her jelly and cake enough for three children and a seven-shilling piece at parting yet Becky made fun of her in front of an audience at home mercilessly.

Becky complained about no kind words from anyone, overlooking all Miss Jemima did for her. I wonder if it’s because Becky saw Miss J as a servant, and kindness from a lowly servant was not worth having.

In summary, let’s say so far, she was bitter, discontent, arrogant, lacked respect, ambitious and selfish. She didn’t merely not follow tradition, she positively fought against it. And she was very clever and set out to conquer the world.

Dr Johnson & the Dictionary

Miss Pinkerton was first introduced as ‘the friend of Doctor Johnson, the correspondent of Mrs Chapone herself’. This is the pride and joy as well as the credential of Miss Pinkerton – ‘the Lexicographer’s name was always on the lips of this majestic woman, and a visit [the late revered Doctor Samuel Johnson] had paid to her was the cause of her reputation and her fortune’. I wonder what kind of visit Johnson had paid her?

Who are Dr Johnson and Mrs Chapone? Unlike the coachman and Miss Pinkerton, these two people actually existed in history.

Doctor Johnson we have seen was a lexicographer, which in his own dictionary, was defined as ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words’. Making the dictionary was just one of the things he did, Wikipedia describes him as an ‘English writer who made lasting contributions as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer’.

But let’s just focus on his dictionary for now, since we have this iconic moment of this dictionary flying through the air. It is called A Dictionary of the English Language, or Johnson’s Dictionary, and was published in 1755. It took him eight years but he did it almost all by himself.

Johnson’s dictionary was an important milestone in the history of the English dictionary in a few ways.

  • One is that his dictionary includes common words instead of only long and difficult words in many previous dictionaries, and it’s less like an encyclopedia.
  • Another is that it gives definitions to words. You might ask what does a dictionary do if not to define words, but that was not the case before Johnson. For example, in a 1604 dictionary, definitions were short or one word like synonyms, and not always very accurate. In a 1702 dictionary, the entry for ‘ache’ says ‘as, my head aches’, ‘an apron, for a woman’. Johnson not only defined words, he started to distinguish all the different layers of meaning of each word, for example, he listed 20 distinct meanings for ‘heart’. You can try it out here.
  • A third is that he started to use quotations from literature to illustrate the meaning of each definition so readers can see the word in use.

This was THE dictionary for 170 years since its publication, until Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1928.

The first edition was very big, heavy, and expensive; only respectable families could have afforded one. That was not the one Becky threw out the window; Miss Pinkerton would have never given anyone a dictionary that valuable.

A smaller edition came out later which was a lot cheaper (10s in 1756). Miss Jemima’s ‘Well, sister, it’s only two-and-ninepence’ really caught my attention. It had become really cheap! I can’t find the RRP of Johnson’s dictionary in 1810s. Could the price have decreased so much? Or did Miss Pinkerton get a deal of some sort? Or was this a pirate edition?

During a recent trip, I found some fabulous old stuff in Barter Books. You’ll have to watch the video at the beginning for that bit.

Happy reading!

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