Becky and the "Dixonary"

illustration of Becky throwing dictionary from coach


William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848), Chapters 1 & 2.


Becky Sharp, an orphan, and her friend Amelia Sedley are leaving "Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall." Becky is a poor orphan and Amelia is neither poor nor an orphan. The academy is run by hard Barbara Pinkerton and her softer sister Jemima. Samuel Johnson, "The Great Lexicographer," had once visited the academy, and Barbara Pinkerton holds him in very high regard. She presents each student with a copy of the "Dixonary" when she leaves.

"On the cover was inserted a copy of "Lines addressed to a young lady on quitting Miss Pinkerton's school, at the Mall; by the late revered Doctor Samuel Johnson." In fact, the lexicographer's name was always on the lips of this majestic woman, and a visit he had paid to her was the cause of her reputation and her fortune."

There is much sadness at Amelia's leaving, but "Miss Sharp had demurely entered the carriage some minutes before. Nobody cried for leaving her." Miss Jemima gives some sandwiches to Amelia and says, "Becky Sharp, here's a book for you that my sister - that is, I - Johnson's Dixonary, you know; you mustn't leave us without that."

As the coach drives off, "Miss Sharp put her pale face out of the window and actually flung the book back into the garden. ... WHEN Miss Sharp had performed the heroical act mentioned in the last chapter, and had seen the Dixonary, flying over the pavement of the little garden, fall at length at the feet of the astonished Miss Jemima, the young lady's countenance, which had before worn an almost livid look of hatred, assumed a smile that perhaps was scarcely more agreeable, and she sank back in the carriage in an easy frame of mind, saying -- "So much for the Dixonary; and, thank God, I'm out of Chiswick."


To Barbara Pinkerton Johnson's costly Dictionary is a item of excellence and it is an honor to receive one. To Becky it represents repression and authority (the academy is sometimes called "Johnson House"). Although we admire her spunk, we can't approve of the defenestration of dictionaries -- even symbolic ones.


Sears and Roebuck 1912 ad for 'Vanity Fair'