Study Guide

Vanity Fair Cunning and Cleverness

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Cunning and Cleverness

Rebecca Sharp looked like a child. But she had the dismal precocity of poverty. Many a dun had she talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more. She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions--often but ill-suited for a girl to hear. But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old. (2.15)

Becky is obviously naturally very intelligent – but her childhood nightmare forces her to learn to transform this intelligence (which could have been developed into intellectual achievement) into cunning in order to survive.

If Miss Rebecca can get the better of [Jos], and at her first entrance into life, she is a young person of no ordinary cleverness. The first move showed considerable skill. When she called Sedley a very handsome man, she knew that Amelia would tell her mother, who would probably tell Joseph, or who, at any rate, would be pleased by the compliment paid to her son [...] Perhaps, too, Joseph Sedley would overhear the compliment--Rebecca spoke loud enough--and he did hear, and (thinking in his heart that he was a very fine man) the praise thrilled through every fibre of his big body, and made it tingle with pleasure. (3.30-31)

Becky's ability to read people and use their weaknesses against them starts to be revealed here. She is always shown to be very strategic in the way she acts. Check out the language here: "the first move" implies some kind of board game being played.

And before he had time to ask how, Mr. Joseph Sedley, of the East India Company's service, was actually seated tete-a-tete with a young lady, looking at her with a most killing expression; his arms stretched out before her in an imploring attitude, and his hands bound in a web of green silk, which she was unwinding.(4.88)

Symbolism alert, with a flashing neon sign hanging above it! Becky is tying Jos up in a silk web here – like she's a spider and he is the fly!

If mere parsimony could have made a man rich, Sir Pitt Crawley might have become very wealthy--if he had been an attorney in a country town, with no capital but his brains, it is very possible that he would have turned them to good account, and might have achieved for himself a very considerable influence and competency. But he was unluckily endowed with a good name and a large though encumbered estate, both of which went rather to injure than to advance him. He had a taste for law, which cost him many thousands yearly; and being a great deal too clever to be robbed, as he said, by any single agent, allowed his affairs to be mismanaged by a dozen, whom he all equally mistrusted [...] He speculated in every possible way; he worked mines; bought canal-shares; horsed coaches; took government contracts, and was the busiest man and magistrate of his county. (9.15)

Just as Becky's innate intelligence is perverted into a kind of survival cunning, Sir Pitt's natural smarts are also diverted from being useful by his lifestyle. He is probably best labeled "too clever by half" since all of his various schemes tend to end badly.

But it was not only by playing at backgammon with the Baronet, that the little governess rendered herself agreeable to her employer. She found many different ways of being useful to him. She read over, with indefatigable patience, all those law papers, with which, before she came to Queen's Crawley, he had promised to entertain her. She volunteered to copy many of his letters, and adroitly altered the spelling of them so as to suit the usages of the present day. She became interested in everything appertaining to the estate, to the farm, the park, the garden, and the stables; and so delightful a companion was she, that the Baronet would seldom take his after-breakfast walk without her (and the children of course), when she would give her advice as to the trees which were to be lopped in the shrubberies, the garden-beds to be dug, the crops which were to be cut, the horses which were to go to cart or plough. Before she had been a year at Queen's Crawley she had quite won the Baronet's confidence; and the conversation at the dinner-table, which before used to be held between him and Mr. Horrocks the butler, was now almost exclusively between Sir Pitt and Miss Sharp. She was almost mistress of the house when Mr. Crawley was absent, but conducted herself in her new and exalted situation with such circumspection and modesty as not to offend the authorities of the kitchen and stable, among whom her behaviour was always exceedingly modest and affable. She was quite a different person from the haughty, shy, dissatisfied little girl whom we have known previously, and this change of temper proved great prudence, a sincere desire of amendment, or at any rate great moral courage on her part. Whether it was the heart which dictated this new system of complaisance and humility adopted by our Rebecca, is to be proved by her after-history. A system of hypocrisy, which lasts through whole years, is one seldom satisfactorily practised by a person of one-and-twenty; however, our readers will recollect, that, though young in years, our heroine was old in life and experience, and we have written to no purpose if they have not discovered that she was a very clever woman. (10.10)

Confession time – this is one of our favorite descriptions of Becky. Look at what she could have been! She's super-smart, an excellent planner and manager, and just generally on top of her game. Born at another time, free of this silly social-climbing world and all the restrictions the 19th century placed on women, she could have been a CEO!

Mrs. Bute has all of a sudden taken a great fancy to me. "My dear Miss Sharp," she says, "why not bring over your girls to the Rectory?--their cousins will be so happy to see them." I know what she means. Signor Clementi did not teach us the piano for nothing; at which price Mrs. Bute hopes to get a professor for her children. I can see through her schemes, as though she told them to me; but I shall go, as I am determined to make myself agreeable--is it not a poor governess's duty, who has not a friend or protector in the world? (11.33)

This is written in Becky's voice; it's from her letter to Amelia about Queen's Crawley. It's always fun to watch Mrs. Bute and Becky square off. Both are clever women, and neither has the edge over the other. Here, for instance, Becky thinks that Mrs. Bute wants to wring some free music lessons out of her, but Mrs. Bute is actually playing a much longer-term game. She keeps inviting Becky and Rawdon to her house in order to set them up, and thus ruin both of them. Becky doesn't catch on to this gambit until much later.

Sharp watched this graceless bedside [Miss Crawley's] with indomitable patience. Nothing escaped her; and, like a prudent steward, she found a use for everything. She told many a good story about Miss Crawley's illness in after days--stories which made the lady blush through her artificial carnations. During the illness she was never out of temper; always alert; she slept light, having a perfectly clear conscience; and could take that refreshment at almost any minute's warning. And so you saw very few traces of fatigue in her appearance. Her face might be a trifle paler, and the circles round her eyes a little blacker than usual; but whenever she came out from the sick-room she was always smiling, fresh, and neat, and looked as trim in her little dressing-gown and cap, as in her smartest evening suit. (14.35)

Again, Becky's work ethic shines through here. It's too bad it usually has to be put to such nefarious purposes! The idea that she finds "a use for everything" (here meaning the quirks of Miss Crawley's behavior that she can later use for funny anecdotes) is an excellent detail. She's like a person who lived through the Great Depression who doesn't throw anything away.

We have seen how Mrs. Firkin, the lady's maid, as soon as any event of importance to the Crawley family came to her knowledge, felt bound to communicate it to Mrs. Bute Crawley, at the Rectory; and have before mentioned how particularly kind and attentive that good-natured lady was to Miss Crawley's confidential servant. She had been a gracious friend to Miss Briggs, the companion, also; and had secured the latter's good-will by a number of those attentions and promises, which cost so little in the making, and are yet so valuable and agreeable to the recipient [...] Mrs. Bute had told Briggs and Firkin so often of the depth of her affection for them; and what she would do, if she had Miss Crawley's fortune, for friends so excellent and attached, that the ladies in question had the deepest regard for her; and felt as much gratitude and confidence as if Mrs. Bute had loaded them with the most expensive favours. Rawdon Crawley, on the other hand, like a selfish heavy dragoon as he was, never took the least trouble to conciliate his aunt's aides-de-camp, showed his contempt for the pair with entire frankness [...] Whereas, Mrs. Bute consulted her in matters of taste or difficulty, admired her poetry, and by a thousand acts of kindness and politeness, showed her appreciation of Briggs; and if she made Firkin a twopenny-halfpenny present, accompanied it with so many compliments, that the twopence-half-penny was transmuted into gold in the heart of the grateful waiting-maid, who, besides, was looking forwards quite contentedly to some prodigious benefit which must happen to her on the day when Mrs. Bute came into her fortune.

The different conduct of these two people is pointed out respectfully to the attention of persons commencing the world. Praise everybody, I say to such: never be squeamish, but speak out your compliment both point-blank in a man's face, and behind his back, when you know there is a reasonable chance of his hearing it again. Never lose a chance of saying a kind word. (19.1-3)

In the novel's world, there is no reason to do anything nice for niceness's sake because everything you do can be done for profit. So the narrator here points out that it's good policy to just go ahead and butter up every single person you meet because you never know when they'll become useful to you. How does that compare with what we normally consider moral behavior? Is this totally cynical or just clear-sighted?

Rebecca had her revenge now upon these insolent enemies [the haughty Bareacres family.] Lady Bareacres condescended to send her maid to the Captain's wife with her Ladyship's compliments, and a desire to know the price of Mrs. Crawley's horses. Mrs. Crawley returned a note with her compliments, and an intimation that it was not her custom to transact bargains with ladies' maids.
This curt reply brought the Earl in person to Becky's apartment; but he could get no more success than the first ambassador [...] What will not necessity do? The Countess herself actually came to wait upon Mrs. Crawley on the failure of her second envoy. She entreated her to name her own price; she even offered to invite Becky to Bareacres House [...] Rebecca laughed in her face [...] It was while enjoying the humiliation of her enemy that Rebecca caught sight of Jos [...] He too wanted to fly, and was on the look-out for the means of escape. "HE shall buy my horses," thought Rebecca, "and I'll ride the mare." [...] Rebecca asked him to come into her room, whither he followed her quite breathless to conclude the bargain. Jos seldom spent a half-hour in his life which cost him so much money. Rebecca, measuring the value of the goods which she had for sale by Jos's eagerness to purchase, as well as by the scarcity of the article, put upon her horses a price so prodigious as to make even the civilian draw back [...] Jos ended by agreeing, as might be supposed of him. The sum he had to give her was so large that he was obliged to ask for time; so large as to be a little fortune to Rebecca. (32.34-54)

This is pure capitalism, a neat little lesson on the laws of supply and demand. When supply runs low (there aren't enough horses for everyone to get the heck out of Dodge), and the demand is high (but everyone really wants to escape Napoleon's marauding army), then the price will keep going up and up and up. Here, the price of horses is first offered in social currency: an ever-higher-ranked assortment of people coming to bargain with Becky and then finally an invitation to the Bareacres' house. Then the price switches to actual money and ends up securing a nice little nest egg for business-headed Becky. How do capitalist ethics work in the private world here? And why does social status as currency not really work in this case?

Now Crawley, from being only a brilliant amateur, had grown to be a consummate master of billiards. Like a great General, his genius used to rise with the danger, and when the luck had been unfavourable to him for a whole game, and the bets were consequently against him, he would, with consummate skill and boldness, make some prodigious hits which would restore the battle, and come in a victor at the end, to the astonishment of everybody--of everybody, that is, who was a stranger to his play. Those who were accustomed to see it were cautious how they staked their money against a man of such sudden resources and brilliant and overpowering skill.

At games of cards he was equally skilful; for though he would constantly lose money at the commencement of an evening, playing so carelessly and making such blunders, that newcomers were often inclined to think meanly of his talent; yet when roused to action and awakened to caution by repeated small losses, it was remarked that Crawley's play became quite different, and that he was pretty sure of beating his enemy thoroughly before the night was over. Indeed, very few men could say that they ever had the better of him. His successes were so repeated that no wonder the envious and the vanquished spoke sometimes with bitterness regarding them. And as the French say of the Duke of Wellington, who never suffered a defeat, that only an astonishing series of lucky accidents enabled him to be an invariable winner; yet even they allow that he cheated at Waterloo, and was enabled to win the last great trick: so it was hinted at headquarters in England that some foul play must have taken place in order to account for the continuous successes of Colonel Crawley. (36.7-8)

We're so used to Rawdon always being called an idiot that it's sort of a shock to find that he's actually quite clever about some things. Here, of course, the moral problem is that gambling is supposed to be a matter of luck. If all the players are simply relying on the way the cards run, then it's a fair game. But when you play with Rawdon, you're dealing with a card shark who is really good and knows how to cheat really well (as well as pull a good money hustle, from the sound of it). So does this make Rawdon morally suspect? Or is gambling itself already so ethically problematic that Rawdon's cheating doesn't really matter?