chapter  36
13 Pages

NASSAU SENIOR, from ‘Thackeray’s Works’,

WithEdinburgh Review, January 1854

We must now take up Amelia’s pendant, Becky: the character, among all that Mr. Thackeray has drawn, which has received the most applause.

When we said that she was the impersonation of intellect without virtue, we used the word virtue in perhaps too narrow a sense, as indicating the qualities which we love, the qualities which arise from the sympathy of their possessor with others, and therefore occasion them to sympathise with him. Now, of these qualities Becky is devoid. She has no affection, no pity, no disinterested benevolence. She is indeed perfectly selfish. She wants all the virtues which are to be exercised for the benefit of others. She has neither justice nor veracity. She treats mankind as mankind treats the brutes, as mere sources of utility or amusement, as instruments, or playthings, or prey. But many of the self-regarding virtues she possesses in a high degree. She has great industry, prudence, decision, courage, and self-reliance. These are the qualities which, when under the direction of a powerful intellect, unbiassed by sympathies, and unrestrained by scruples, have produced many of the masters of mankind. In a higher sphere Becky might have been a Semiramis or a Catherine. As might be expected in a person of her good sense and selfcontrol, she is mistress of the smaller virtues, good temper and good nature; she always wishes to please, because it is only by pleasing that she can subjugate. She is not resentful or spiteful, because she despises those around her too much to waste anger on them, and because she knows that petty injuries are generally repaid with interest…. [Senior traces and discusses Becky’s career.]

But with her success all the charm of Becky disappears. Even Mr. Thackeray turns his back upon her. He no longer supplies her with the sagacity and presence of mind which carried her triumphantly through the storms and among the quicksands of her London life. He allows

her to sink from degradation to degradation, without an effort on his part, or even on hers, to extricate her, until she loses her identity, and the brilliant Rebecca turns into a vulgar swindler. At length, he seems to relent, and to take pity on the distresses of an old acquaintance who has afforded so much amusement. He throws Amelia and her brother across her path, and gives up to her the rich Joseph as a prey. And here we think her changes ought to have ended. As the ruler, and, as soon as the climate of Coventry Island rendered her a widow, the wife, of Joseph Sedley, she might have passed the tranquil, decorous middle age to which he at length dismisses her,—‘busied in works of piety; going to church, and never without a footman; the subscriber to every charity; the fast friend of the destitute orange girl, the neglected washerwoman, and the distressed muffin-man; a patroness and stallkeeper in every benevolent bazaar in Cheltenham and Bath.’ Instead of this, he blackens her with the vulgar commonplace crimes of making Sedley’s will in her favour, insuring his life, and poisoning him.