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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: March 2010

11 - Organizing women: New Woman writers, New Woman readers, and suffrage feminism


I once asked a lady, who knew Thackeray intimately, whether he had any model for Becky Sharp. She told me that Becky was an invention, but that the idea of the character had been partly suggested by a governess who lived in the neighborhood of Kensington Square, and was the companion of a very selfish and rich old woman. I inquired what became of the governess, and she replied that, oddly enough, some years after the appearance of Vanity Fair, she ran away with the nephew of the lady with whom she was living, and for a short time made a great splash in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley's style, and entirely by Mrs. Rawdon Crawley's methods. Ultimately she came to grief, disappeared to the Continent, and used to be occasionally seen at Monte Carlo and other gambling places.

Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” (1889)

In “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde caricatures the woman reader by noting how she cannot distinguish between fiction and reality: reading about Thackeray's Becky Sharp, she seeks to become Becky Sharp. Like the “silly boys” who read the “adventures of Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin” and “pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers,” the woman reader epitomizes “life's imitative instinct,” its unimaginative literalization of art's creativity. Published in 1889, Wilde's witticism both glosses and glances away from the issues this chapter will address.