"My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world – marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing – and when well used, a noble thing – but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace."
Mrs March, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The oldest of the March girls, poor, sweet Meg's affliction is a desire for the finer things. In 'Meg goes to Vanity Fair' she spends two weeks of her vacation with the wealthy but uncultured Moffat family, packing all her best clothes and accessories while lamenting her mother has brought her the wrong style of umbrella to take. Her fears at feeling inferior in the company of the Moffats is realised early as she compares her humble circumstance to those of the spoiled Moffat girls:
"The more she saw of Annie Moffat's pretty things, the more she envied her, and sighed to be rich. Home now looked bare and dismal as she thought of it, work grew harder than ever, and she felt she was a very destitute and much injured girl, in spite of the new gloves and silk stockings."
Meg is then disheartened to overhear the Moffats gossiping behind her back: "Poor thing! She'd be so nice if she was only got up in style. Do you think she'd be offended if we offered to lend her a dress for Thursday?". But worse than that, they also insinuated her mother was tactically "making plans" to ensure her girls would marry well.
After a restless night, feeling ashamed that she hadn't spoken up in her defense, Meg resolved to let Belle Moffat primp and preen her for a party: "Meg couldn't refuse the offer so kindly made, for a desire to see if she would be 'a little beauty' after touching up, caused her to accept and forget all her former uncomfortable feelings towards the Moffats."
Laurie, the boy from next door, who takes delight in the March girls' inventiveness and kindness in the face of their limited financial means, is invited to the same party that Meg attends frilled to the nines with "her long skirts trailing, her earrings tinkling, her curls waving, and her heart beating". Laurie is none to happy with the "doll" he finds in Meg's place but resolves not to report back to Mrs March what he finds. She confesses her behaviour herself:
"I told you they dressed me up, but I didn't tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate...I knew it was silly, but they flattered me, and said I was a beauty and quantities of nonsense, so I let them make a fool of me... I drank champagne and romped and tried to fliry, and was altogether abominable."
Mrs March, ever the comforter, is quick to appease Meg's guilt with her artillery of wholesome lessons, herself feeling guilty and unwise for having Meg stay with "worldly, ill-bred...vulgar" people: "Learn to know and value the praise that is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg," she says. "Some of the best and most honoured women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids."
See also: Lessons from Little Women
Girl With a Satchel