Before 1847, William Makepeace Thackeray was a guy mostly known for writing short satirical articles for the funny magazine Punch. After 1848, he became the superstar author of the hilariously mean Vanity Fair, a long satirical novel that made fun of the aristocracy and the middle classes: their greed, corruption, and – ahem – vanity. Actually, he got the fame and fortune way before the novel's ending was written. How on earth? Well, the first time around, Vanity Fair was serialized in Punch – each month, a new section of the novel would come out. Readers would sit on pins and needles waiting for the next set of chapters to see what part of life Thackeray would make fun of and what would happen to the characters. Basically, it was a 19th century version of the Daily Show, with each month bringing a new episode.
Vanity Fair is so broad and sprawling that trying to summarize its plot is almost impossible. Still, let's give it a try. It's the story of two young women whose lives take them in and out of every segment of English society, each of which can be mocked and displayed for laughs in turn. But what's more important than plot is the style of the novel – its bitter and caustic humor. This genre of satire is called "picaresque" and it's part of a pretty long tradition that goes all the way back to Don Quixote in the 16th century and weaves through the awesome Gulliver's Travels in the 18th century. The idea is to start with a character (a picaro) who is young or looking for a place to settle down, then to lead this character around all the types of people and situations that the author wants to ridicule. And this novel really does have something for everyone to laugh at: snobby merchants, greedy social climbers, illiterate aristocrats, nosy servants, evil nobles, macho soldiers, bossy women, bumbling men, British people, German people, Belgian people, and every other kind of group of humans that can be crammed in.
What Thackeray does in Vanity Fair is bring this genre out of the 18th century and into his own time. This requires a little prudish cleaning up, since the 18th century guys weren't nearly so straight-laced and uptight as the Victorians about sex and the human body. But, even after all of that, the novel still has to be even further removed from Thackeray's own time to seem decent – and to avoid getting him sued! Although he is writing in the 1840s, he sets the novel 30 years earlier, during the reign of George IV and the second invasion of Napoleon. Hang on, hang on – the who now?
George IV took over the rule of Britain, acting as the Prince Regent, while his father George III was a few cards short of a full deck. George IV was a fun king who was the total opposite of sour-faced, prissy Queen Victoria. His Court was all about eating, drinking, and general wastefulness and debauchery. In fact, he was so into the good life that he ended up dying from it.
And Napoleon? After the French Revolution, when the king was dethroned and Marie Antoinette beheaded all in the name of democracy, Napoleon rose to power and eventually got himself named Emperor (so much for democracy, right?). After trying and almost succeeding to conquer all of Europe, he made the mistake of invading Russia in the middle of winter. He lost, got captured, and was imprisoned on the tiny island of Elba. After about a year, he escaped, gathered the remains of his army, and invaded Europe once again, until he was beaten at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by that English stud, the Duke of Wellington.
So, that's the basic background on when Vanity Fair is set. Now you can dig in and enjoy all of Thackeray's snarky humor.
Why Should I Care?
So what comes to mind when you look out over William Makepeace Thackeray's universe? Vanity Fair is made up of nothing but super-rigidly-defined cliques; complicated rules about who is allowed to talk to whom, when, where, and for how long; tiny gradations of popularity subdivided into types; and a bunch of people who are constantly trying to reach the top of the heap and avoid becoming social pariahs. Sound familiar? Sound a little bit like…high school?
Vanity Fair is the precursor to school satires like Heathers, Bring It On, or Mean Girls. Sure, Thackeray is making fun of corrupt politicians, dirty old men, and buffoons of every stripe. But at heart this novel is the perfect dissection of what it takes to rise in an exacting hierarchy where every tiny gesture, look, and exchange has status-altering consequences.
And Thackeray is the perfect guy for the job. After all, he single-handedly invented the meaning of the word "snob" as we know it now. The word existed back in his day, but it was just a synonym for "regular townie, rather than university student." A little while before writing Vanity Fair, Thackeray published a series of funny articles about the way people on the low end of the totem pole are jealous of those above them, resentful of those who are climbing past them, and boastful about any connection to anyone situated higher than them. These essays were collected into the totally hilarious Book of Snobs. (Seriously, check it out on Google Books. We'll wait right here for you.) Thanks to Thackeray, you have a special term you can use to describe annoying, status-seeking individuals, eager to climb the social ladder.