This extract is from Vanity Fair, A Novel Without a Hero, published in 1848, and written by William Makepeace Thackeray. This comic novel follows the adventures of its female anti-hero, Rebecca (Becky) Sharp, as she charms and schemes her way from the bottom of staid English society to the top and back down again with witty élan. All Becky wants is to marry a rich man. Fresh from Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, here she is in Chapter 3 – Rebecca is in Presence of the Enemy – dining with the family of her school friend, Amelia Sedley.
Amelia’s older brother, Joseph Sedley (Jos), a civil servant newly arrived from India, is an honoured guest at the table, and Beckie thinks he might be a matrimonial catch:
Now we have heard how Mrs. Sedley had prepared a fine curry for her son, just as he liked it, and in the course of dinner a portion of this dish was offered to Rebecca. “What is it?” said she, turning an appealing look to Mr. Joseph. “Capital,” said he. His mouth was full of it: his face quite red with the delightful exercise of gobbling. “Mother, it’s as good as my own curries in India.” “Oh, I must try some, if it is an Indian dish,” said Miss Rebecca. “I am sure everything must be good that comes from there.” “Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear,” said Mr. Sedley, laughing. Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. “Do you find it as good as everything else from India?” said Mr. Sedley. “Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper. “Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested. “A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.
Poor Becky. At this point in the story she is as green as the chillies; we laugh, but also feel empathy for her as the outsider who is the victim of insensitive hospitality. Jos Sedley, the “big beau” has an uncanny ability to ruin every social occasion he graces.
I love this brilliant Victorian novel. Becky’s progress through Europe, even unto the Battle of Waterloo, is dramatic and hilarious. No spoilers, but suffice it to say that Becky’s revenge is a well deserved dish.