Wilde and Thackeray

I am interested in Wilde’s idea in The Decay of Lying that Art imitates Life, rather than Life imitating Art.  In his essay, he claims that “Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil” (Wilde 983), and provides several fictitious examples of this.  The example I found most humorous was his reference to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, which was written by “great sentimentalist” William Makepeace Thackeray and originally published in 1848 (Wilde 984).  Wilde’s character Vivian describes that well after Vanity Fair was published, the governess who was a loose inspiration for Becky’s character “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” (Wilde 984), following the exact trajectory of Becky after her disastrous marriage to Rawdon Crawley.  I find Wilde’s reference to Becky interesting because she was the ultimate liar.  A vicious social climber, she is cunning and seductive, and uses her intelligence to take advantage of wealthy men.  If art is lying, Thackeray’s biting satire is evidence of this.  It presents heavily exaggerated characters and weaves together their stories in a ridiculous manner. 

It is interesting to consider, then, how writers of Wilde’s time were turning away from Victorian literature.  Certainly, Vanity Fair is not an example of art for art’s sake, but Becky’s interest in all things beautiful and her desire to live a pleasure-filled life seems to align with the code of the Decadents.  Becky put on a show in society, masking her true background and creating a glamorous façade.  She reminds me of some of the characters in Wilde’s short stories, particularly Lord Arthur Savile and the Canterville ghost.  Lord Arthur creatively plots several murder attempts to maintain his position and relationship to his fiancée, creating a life based on deception and crime.  The Canterville ghost initially is interested in putting on masks to terrorize the Otis family and maintain his fear-based position of power in the household.  Their scheming and cunning for the sake of comfort cause them to act similarly to Thackeray’s Becky.

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