Daisy twice refused Mr. Molesly’s (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) offer of help with the book, first when he first said, “shall we work on Vanity Fair when you've finished tonight?” and then again when he asked more specifically, “shall we discuss the vices of Miss Becky Sharp?”
The two main female characters in Vanity Fair represent opposite ends of the spectrum of female morality. Amelia Sedley embodies an ideal of femininity while Rebecca Sharp portrays a quintessential gold-digger and social climber. Sharp is cited by Virginia Woolf in “A Room of One’s Own” among a list female characters who have “burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time,” but who do not represent women in the real world. Indeed, Becky Sharp is often cited in feminist critique such as “The Madwoman in the Attic,” a book about the 19th century literary imagination (by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Grubar) which quotes a passage that compares Becky to a monster that is “diabolically hideous and slimy.”
One of Becky’s most famous quotes is:
“I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.”
Perhaps the vices of Becky Sharp will be a cautionary tale that will discourage Daisy from her attempts to change her station in life, or perhaps she will overcome the oppressive notion of “The Angel in the House.”
“The Angel in the House,” was the name of an epic poem written around the same time as Vanity Fair, and in Victorian times came to refer an idealized femininity. Gilbert and Grubar, in their passage on Vanity Fair, compare the novel’s “good” girl Amelia Sedley to the heroine of the poem, Honoria. The poem, “The Angel in the House” was written by Coventry Patmore. Yes, the same name and spelling as Downton’s cook and Daisy’s ally, Mrs. Patmore. And, the family that Becky Sharp marries into in Vanity Fair is named… Crawley!
Whether she keeps studying or not, Daisy is astute when she says that the new Prime Minister, (Ramsay) MacDonald “seems to limp from crisis to crisis.” She doubts whether the first ever Labour Government will last a year. In fact, they did not last and MacDonald was ousted after nine months in office.
But Mr. Mason is prophetic when he says, “Next time, when they're elected, it'll be for longer, and soon a Labour Government might seem ordinary.” MacDonald served again from 1929 to 1935.
Another serious issue raised in this episode was the anti-Semitism in Britain, mentioned by the mother of Rose’s suitor who says at dinner, “Lord Grantham, we both know what we're up against.”
Noted historian David Cesarani writes that during the years between 1920 and 1924, there was “intense opposition to Zionism in the British press,” and that “this agitation occurred during one of the worst phases of anti-Semitism in modern British history.” Some British anti-Semites, notably Henry Hamilton Beamish, who founded an anti-Semitic organization called the Britons, equated Jewishness and bolshevism. This theme was alluded to in a previous episode, when the displaced Russian royalty express their disdain for Mr. Aldridge, perhaps because they blame the Jews for the murderous coup that killed the Tsar and his family in 1918. British Anti-Semitism is one of the themes of the movie “Chariots of Fire,” which takes place at the summer Olympics of the year in which this episode is set, 1924.
Lastly, Rose, who is so terribly in love, is encouraged by Lord Grantham not to rush things, but she counters that she wants to “rush in like Billy-o.” The term “Billy-ho” first appeared in print in 1885, and its origin seems to have been from the steam trains from Liverpool to Manchester, one of which was called “Puffing Billy.”