[Tameca Jones originally wrote a version of this essay for Dr. Jesse Airaudi's English 4368, Development of the English Novel in the Nineteenth Century, at Baylor University.]
"We live amid surfaces and the true art of life is to skate well on them." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
If life is one big skating rink as Emerson declares, then Rebecca Sharp is the champion skater of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Thackeray's novel chronicles Becky's path to wealth and prestige, demonstrating that though gracefully gliding over the glossy surfaces of life can earn one material possessions, it does not guarantee fulfillment or happiness.
Like champion skaters, Rebecca Sharp learns how to skate on life's surfaces relatively early. "The dismal precocity of poverty" (12) ushers her into womanhood at age eight. Her dissemblance charms tradesman "into the granting of one meal more" and keeps her father's creditors away from their door. Her caricatures of Miss Pinkerton and Jemima provide entertainment for the young artists in the Soho district. When she becomes a prisoner in Chiswick, her hobby turns into an occupation. Shackled by the school's "rigid formality," Becky decides to use her innate talents for darker purposes: "She determined at any rate to get free from her prison in which she found herself, and now began to act for herself, and for the first time to make connected plans for the future" (14). "To act for herself" has two meanings. Instead of looking out for her father's best interests, Becky now looks out for her own. Instead of role-playing for the entertainment of the artists, she now acts for her own sadistic enjoyment. The puppet becomes the puppeteer.
When Rebecca Sharp decides to advance herself, "She took advantage therefore of the means of study the place offered her: and as she was already a musician and a good linguist, she speedily went through the little course of study which was considered necessary for ladies in those days. Her music she practised [sic] incessantly" (14). Far more experienced with the ways of men and more superior in intellect and charm than the wealthy and insipid creatures at her school, Rebecca makes her first attempt at skating in the wide world of vanity by seducing Reverend Mr. Crisp. Her short program consists of a "glance of her eyes which was fired all the way across Chiswick Church from the school pew to the reading desk" (12). Though she claims she won Reverend Crisp's favor with her short program alone, the narrator reveals that she did indeed have a long program consisting of clandestine correspondences: "indeed if truth must be told with respect to the Crisp affair, the tart-woman hinted to somebody who took an affidavit of the fact to somebody else, that there was a great deal more than was made public regarding Mr. Crisp and Miss Sharp, and that his letter was in answer to another letter" (15). Rebecca is so successful in inspiring Mr. Crisp's infatuation that she receives a marriage proposal from the smitten curate. When the Reverend's mother learns of her son's proposal, she "abruptly carried off her darling boy" (12) foiling Rebecca's prison break. His departure is of no consequence to the pioneer of gold digging and Vanity Fair's budding star. Rebecca uses a mixture of haughtiness absorbed from the Chiswick girls and a dash of insolence all her own to motivate Miss Pinkerton to secure her a position as a governess for the Crawleys. Before performing for her new audience, she makes an unscheduled stop at the Sedleys.
On the way, she reveals her true nature. In the time it takes her and Amelia to get from Chiswick to Russell Square, Rebecca flings Miss Jemima's gift out of the carriage without remorse, voices her murderous desire to see Miss Pinkerton's dead carcass floating in the river, pledges allegiance to the much detested Napoleon Bonaparte, and advocates revenge. Once she learns of Joseph's bachelorhood, the suddenchange in her behavior is obvious that even Amelia, in all her dull naiveté, notices it. Amelia's reaction teaches Becky an important lesson:
"I think you must have had enough of them at Chiswick," said Amelia rather wondering at the sudden tenderness on her friend's part — indeed in later days Miss Sharp would never have committed herself so far as to advance opinions the untruth of which would have been so easily detected. But we must remember that she is but nineteen as yet — unused to the art of deceiving, poor innocent creature! and making her own experience in her own person. 
The methodical steps she takes to execute the difficult maneuver of ensnaring Joseph read like a Cosmopolitan magazine article on how to trap a husband in ten days and establish the mode of operation she employs throughout the novel:
Lesson One: Appear humble and virginal. Be quiet and much interested in a man's accomplishments and interests. Rebecca's performance with Joseph early in her career portends her future great skill at gratifying a man's vanity:
Down the stairs then they went — Joseph very red and blushing, Rebecca very modest and holding her green eyes downwards. She was dressed in white, with bare shoulders as white as snow — the picture of gentle unprotected innocence, and humble virgin simplicity. "I must be very quiet," thought Rebecca, "and very much interested about India." 
Lesson Two: Have a good sense of humor. Though Rebecca "would have liked to choke old Sedley" after the chili prank, she "swallow[s] her mortification as well as she had the abominable curry before it" (23) instead. This wins her points with Mr. Sedley and provides her with ammunition to use against Joseph later.
Lesson Three: Appear cool and uninterested. Make him call you first. Even though three days pass until Joseph makes a second visit, Rebecca never mentions his name. This maneuver shows her feigned respect for Mrs. Sedley and prevents the household from discovering her plans. When Joseph finally summons the courage to visit, the ingenious performer does not miss a beat. She uses one of Amelia's drawings as a pretext to feign tears. Her performance buys an extended stay, the sympathy and favor of Mrs. Sedley, and provides an opportunity to use the ammunition from the chili incident on Joseph.
Lesson Four: Win over his family and friends along with the household help. The first page of the fourth chapter narrates Rebecca's conquest of both "the Servant's Hall" and "the Drawing Room" (25). She conquers Joseph's mother by feigning affection and loyalty to Amelia:
One day Amelia had a headache and could not go upon some party of pleasure to which the two young people [Amelia and Rebecca] were invited:--nothing would induce her friend to go without her. "What! you have shown the poor orphan what happiness and love are for the first time in her life — quit you? never!" and the green eyes looked up to heaven and filled with tears: and Mrs. Sedley could not but own that her daughter's friend had a charming kind heart of her own. 
She wins over Mr. Sedley by laughing at his jokes "with a cordiality and perseverance which not a little pleased and softened that good-natured gentleman." Miss Sharp's show of "the deepest sympathy in the raspberry-jam preserving" endears Mrs. Blenkinsop. She makes Sambo a fan by insisting on calling him "'Sir'" or "'Mr. Sambo'" and secures the lady's maid by apologizing "for giving her trouble in venturing to ring the bell."
Rebecca executes her tactics beautifully, but "the ice is slippery." George and Amelia's presence prevents Joseph from proposing to Rebecca twice in one night. Had the future Mr. and Mrs. Osbourne not returned from the drawing room, Joseph would have finished "one of the most eloquent speeches possible" (32) and made Rebecca his wife. Had George and Amelia not followed Joseph and Rebecca into the drawing room, Joseph would have had the courage to put his "bachelorhood . . . at an end" (34) after being moved by Rebecca's vocal prowess. The night of the Vauxhall double date also sees two aborted requests for Rebecca's hand. The bell signaling the fireworks thwarts Joseph's third attempt:
"Should you?" said Joseph with the most killing tenderness; and was no doubt about to follow up this artful interrogatory by a question still more tender (for he puffed and panted a great deal and Rebecca's hand which was placed near his heart could count the feverish pulsations of that organ) — when oh provoking! — the bell rang for the fireworks and a great scuffling and running taking place, these interested lovers were obliged to follow in the stream of people. 
Joseph's overindulgence in rack punch delays a fourth effort. The devil's nectar makes an ass out of him. When it is time to leave Vauxhall, Joseph confesses "the secret of his loves" (58) to Dobbin: "He adored that girl [Rebecca] who had just gone out; he had broken her heart he knew he had by his conduct — he would marry her next morning." George hammers the final nail into the coffin sealing the fate of Rebecca's plan. He shames Joseph into abandoning a marriage with Rebecca by reenacting the potatory events of the previous evening: "'A sentimental song, and calling Rosa, Rebecca, what's her name, Amelia's little friend — your dearest diddle, diddle, darling?' And this ruthless fellow, seizing hold of Dobbin's hand, acted over the scene, to the horror of the original performer, and in spite of Dobbin's good-natured entreaties to him to have mercy" (60). Joseph chose to swallow the proposal of marriage that tickled his tongue five times as if it was a potation or sandwiches and jelly. His cowardice is of no consequence to Rebecca, just as Mr. Crisp's departure was not. The Joseph Sedley affair was a mere dalliance, a trial run. Where she seemingly captivated Mr. Crisp by using her pulchritude, attempted acquisition of Joseph Sedley required her looks, talents, and all learned at Chiswick. As Rebecca journeys to her Olympics at Queen's Crawley, the zamboni machine polishes the glacial surface for the ice princess's next golden performance.
Fresh from her defeat, Rebecca arrives at the Crawleys ready to execute her signature moves:
And now being received as a member of the amiable family . . . , it became naturally Rebecca's duty to make herself, as she said, agreeable to her benefactors, and to gain their confidence to the utmost of her power. . . So she wisely determined to render her position with the Queen's Crawley family comfortable and secure: and to this end resolved to make friends of every one around her who could at all interfere with her comfort. 
Her natural comeliness and charm, the socical and educational knowledge she absorbed at Chiswick, and the experience she received from "her little misadventure with Jos Sedley" make her a favorite. She is so dedicated to her craft, so hungry for gold that her skates never leave her feet. Once comfortable with the Crawley's slippery surface, she begins her program. As they did with the Sedley household, her performances captivate everyone in and anyone near Queen's Crawley. Se easily wins over her pupils: "With the young peohple whose applause she thoroughly gained: her method was pretty simple. She did not pester their young brains with too much learning — but on the contrary let them have their own way in regard to educating themselves" (93). To secure Mr. Crawley's favor, the ice empress strokes his ego by "consult[ing] him on passages in French which she could not understand though her mother was a Frenchwoman" and evincing admiration of his Quashimaboo speech and interest in his malt pamphlets. Rebecca earns Sir Pitt Crawley's fondness by becoming his industrious secretary. When she learns what Rawdon stands to inherit from his wealthy aunt, she tries to charm her. The husband and wife team attempt to win over Miss Crawley, but their lack of synchronization is obvious. Rebecca, far more dexterous than Rawdon, overplays her strengths, costing the couple crucial points.
Rebecca devotedly follows the philosophy that insincerity are essential "to get on, and be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair" (183). Rebecca gets on famously by efficaciously using her husband's connections to perform in the larger, more prosperous venues of General Tufto, Sir Pitt Crawley and Lady Jane, and Lord Steyne. Performing night and day, Rebecca has little time to be a wife or a mother. When her son was born, the working mother "placed him out at nurse in a village in the neighbourhood [sic] of Paris, where little Rawdon passed the first months of his life, not unhappily, with a numerous family of foster-brothers in wooden shoes" (368). Unlike her husband who frequently visited their son, "Rebecca did not care much to go see the son and heir" (368). She cannot separate the real from the feigned, or tell the difference between a prop and her son. When little Rawdon expresses sorrow at his nanny's departure, Rebecca plays the role of the concerned and loving parent and casts Rawdon as her son:
Rebecca, my Lord Steyne, and one or two more were in the drawing-room taking tea after the Opera, when this shouting was heard overhead. "It's my little cherub crying for his nurse," she said. She did not offer to move to go and see the child. "Don't agitate your feelings by going to look for him," said Lord Steyne sardonically. "Bah!" replied the other, with a sort of blush, "he'll cry himself to sleep;" and they fell to talking about the Opera. 
For a special Christmas performance, she and Rawdon revive these roles at her brother-in-law's house, but her stage son forgets his lines. Rebecca repeats the same mistake of "commit[ing] herself so far as to advance opinions the untruth of which would have been so easily detected" she made with Amelia by expressing a feigned fondness for her honest and blunt child in his presence:
For Rebecca seeing that tenderness was the fashion, called Rawdon to her one evening, and stooped down and kissed him in the presence of all the ladies. . . . "You never kiss me at home, Mamma," he said; at which there was a general silence and consternation, and a by no means pleasant look in Becky's eyes. 
Rawdon the elder is treated no better by Rebecca than his son. She considers him an "upper servant and maitre d'hotel" more than a husband, ordering him to run "her errands" (381) and shooing him off whenever her audience arrives: "In the midst of these intrigues and fine parties and wise and brilliant personages Rawdon felt himself more and more isolated every day. He was allowed to go to the club more: to dine abroad with bachelor friends: to come and go when he liked, without any questions being asked" (456). Rawdon believes the superior intelligence of his wife justifies his servility.
All of her pretence and hard work finally pay off when presented in front of his Majesty: "Becky felt as if she could bless the people out of the carriage windows, so elated was she in spirit, and so strong a sense had she of the dignified position which she had at last attained in life" (475). She finally obtains the "happiness" strived for since the beginning of her career: "The happiness — the superior advantages of the young women round her gave Rebecca inexpressible pangs of envy" (14). Happiness to a seventeen-year old girl is the envy of other young women, material possessions, and the adoration of young boys. The boredom and dissatisfaction Rebecca feels at the acme of her career show that this definition of happiness falls short for an older woman: "As Becky gains more of the externals which are the object of her conscious desires — material luxury, status, the fashionable diversions of balls and suppers, even the appearance of respectability — she becomes less and less satisfied" (843). Though she achieves her life-long goal of inspiring the envy of high society women, Rebecca "was yawning in spirit." She does not have the leisure to pity herself for long. Her hard-won social status must be defended and opulent lifestyle must be maintained. Unfortunately, Rawdon's discovery of Rebecca's secret performances for Lord Steyne behind his back prevents her from preserving her social status.
Lady Jane sums up Rebecca's career:
"To be a wicked woman — a heartless mother, a false wife? She never loved her dear little boy, who used to fly here and tell me of her cruelty to him. She never came into a family but she strove to bring her misery with her, and to weaken the most sacred affections with her wicked flattery and falsehoods. She has deceived her husband, as he has deceived everybody; her soul is black with vanity, worldliness, and all sorts of crimes." 
If the true art of life is skating well amid its surfaces, then Rebecca Sharp is one of life's best figure skaters. She was a prodigy at age eight, turned pro at seventeen, and won much acclaim throughout her career. However accomplished, Rebecca was as dissatisfied at the acme of her career as she was at its decline, as unhappy at its beginning as she is at its end. Her dissatisfaction and unhappiness may seem peculiar, given all she achieved, until one realizes that skating well on frozen surfaces is like sitting down to a dinner with gold plates absent of food. The true art of happiness is to swim well in the warm capricious currents under life's surfaces. Not many in the fictional world of Vanity Fair master this art, not many in reality do either.
Shillingsburg, Peter L., ed. Vanity Fair, a Norton Critical Edition. First Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Last modified 11 July 2004