William Makepeace Thackerary (1811-1863). Photo by Jesse Harrison Whitehust (1819-1875), circa 1855. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

William Makepeace Thackeray
Occupation Novelist
Nationality English
Writing period 1829–1864 (published posthumously)
Genres Historical Fiction
Notable work(s) Vanity Fair
Spouse(s) Isabella Gethin Shawe

William Makepeace Thackeray (11px /ˈθækəri/; 18 July 1811 - 24 December 1863) was an English poet and novelist of the 19th century. He was famous for his satirical works, particularly Vanity Fair, a panoramic portrait of English society.

Life[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Thackeray was the son of Richmond Thackeray, who held various important appointments in the service of the East India Company, and who belonged to an old and respectable Yorkshire family. The son was born at Calcutta, and soon after the death of his father, in 1816, was sent home to England. After being at a school at Chiswick, he was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he remained 1822-26, and where he does not appear to have been very happy. Meanwhile in 1818 his mother had married Major H.W.C. Smythe, who is believed to be, in part at any rate, the original of Colonel Newcome. In 1829 he went to Cambridge, where he remained for a year only, and where he did not distinguish himself particularly as a student, but made many life-long friends, including Spedding, Tennyson, FitzGerald, and Monckton Milnes, and contributed verses and caricatures to 2 university papers, The Snob and The Gownsman. The following year, 1831, was spent chiefly in travelling on the Continent, especially Germany, when, at Weimar, he visited Goethe. Returning he entered the Middle Temple, but having no liking for legal studies, he soon abandoned them, and turning his attention to journalism, became proprietor, wholly or in part, of 2 papers successively, both of which failed. These enterprises, together with some unfortunate investments and also, it would seem, play, stripped him of the comfortable fortune, which he had inherited; and he now found himself dependent on his own exertions for a living. He thought at first of art as a page 378profession, and studied for a time at Paris and Rome. In 1836, while acting as Paris correspondent for the second of his journals, he married Isabella, daughter of Colonel Shawe, an Irish officer, and the next year he returned to England and became a contributor to Fraser's Magazine, in which appeared "The Yellowplush Papers," "The Great Hoggarty Diamond," "Catherine," and "Barry Lyndon," the history of an Irish sharper, which contains some of his best work. Other works of this period were The Paris Sketch-book (1840) and The Irish Sketch-book (1843). His work in Fraser, while it was appreciated at its true worth by a select circle, had not brought him any very wide recognition: it was his contributions to Punch – the "Book of Snobs" and "Jeames's Diary" – which first caught the ear of the wider public. The turning point in his career, however, was the publication in monthly numbers of Vanity Fair (1847-48). This extraordinary work gave him at once a place beside Fielding at the head of English novelists, and left him no living competitor except Dickens. Pendennis, largely autobiographical, followed in 1848-50, and fully maintained his reputation. In 1851 he broke new ground, and appeared, with great success, as a lecturer, taking for his subject The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, following this up in 1855 with the Four Georges, first delivered in America. Meanwhile Esmond, perhaps his masterpiece, and probably the greatest novel of its kind in existence, had appeared in 1852, and The Newcomes (1853), The Virginians, a sequel to Esmond, which, though containing much fine work, is generally considered to show a falling off as compared with its 2 immediate predecessors, came out in 1857-59. In 1860 the Cornhill Magazine was started with Thackeray for its editor, and to it he contributed Lovell the Widower (1860), The Adventures of Philip (1861-62), The Roundabout Papers, a series of charming essays, and Denis Duval, left a mere fragment by his sudden death, but which gave promise of a return to his highest level of performance. In addition to the works mentioned, Thackeray for some years produced Christmas books and burlesques, of which the best were The Rose and the Ring and The Kickleburys on the Rhine. He also wrote graceful verses, some of which, like "Bouillabaisse," are in a strain of humor shot through with pathos, while others are the purest rollicking fun. For some years Thackeray suffered from spasms of the heart, and he died suddenly during the night of December 23, 1863, in his 53rd year. He was a man of the tenderest heart, and had an intense enjoyment of domestic happiness; and the interruption of this, caused by the permanent breakdown of his wife's health, was a heavy calamity. This, along with his own latterly broken health, and a sensitiveness which made him keenly alive to criticism, doubtless fostered the tendency to what was often superficially called his cynical view of life. He possessed an inimitable irony and a power of sarcasm which could scorch like lightning, but the latter is almost invariably directed against what is base and hateful. To human weakness he is lenient and often tender, and even when weakness passes into wickedness, he is just and compassionate. He saw human nature "steadily and saw it whole," and paints it with a light but sure hand. He was master of a style of great distinction and individuality, and ranks as one of the very greatest of English novelists.[1]

Family and background[edit | edit source]

Thackeray's father, , Richmond Thackeray (1 September 1781 – 13 September 1815),, was born at South Mimms and went to India in 1798 at the age of 16 as a writer (secretary) with the East India Company. Richmond fathered a daughter, Sarah Redfield, born in 1804, by Charlotte Sophia Rudd, his native and possibly Eurasian mistress, the mother and daughter being named in his will. Such liaisons were common among gentlemen of the East India Company, and it formed no bar to his later courting and marrying William's mother.

Anne Becher, born 1792, was "one of the reigning beauties of the day," a daughter of John Harmon Becher (Collector of the South 24 Parganas district d. Calcutta, 1800), of an old Bengal civilian family "noted for the tenderness of its women." Anne Becher, her sister Harriet, and widowed mother Harriet had been sent back to India by her authoritarian guardian grandmother, widow Ann Becher, in 1809 on the Earl Howe. Anne's grandmother had told her that the man she loved, Henry Carmichael-Smyth, an ensign of the Bengal Engineers whom she met at an Assembly Ball in Bath, Somerset during 1807, had died, and Henry was told that Anne was no longer interested in him. This was not true. Though Carmichael-Smyth was from a distinguished Scottish military family, Anne's grandmother went to extreme lengths to thwart their marriage; surviving family letters state that she wanted a better match for her granddaughter.

Anne Becher and Richmond Thackeray were married in Calcutta on 13 October 1810. Their only child, William, was subsequently born on 18 July 1811.

There was a fine miniature portrait of the exuberant and youthful Anne Becher Thackeray and William Makepeace Thackeray at about age 2, done in Madras by George Chinnery c. 1813.

Her family's deception was unexpectedly revealed in 1812, when Richmond Thackeray unwittingly invited to dinner the supposedly dead Carmichael-Smyth. After Richmond's death of a fever on 13 September 1815, Anne married Henry Carmichael-Smyth on 13 March 1817, but they did not return to England until 1820, though they had sent William off to school there more than three years before. The separation from his mother had a traumatic effect on the young Thackeray which he discusses in his essay "On Letts's Diary" in The Roundabout Papers.

Youth[edit | edit source]

Thackeray, an only child, was born in Calcutta (on the grounds of what is now the Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy - on the old Freeschool Street, now called Mirza Ghalib Street), India, where his father held the high rank of secretary to the board of revenue in the British East India Company. His mother, Anne Becher (1792–1864) was the second daughter of Harriet and John Harman Becher who was also a secretary (writer) for the East India Company.

William's father died in 1815, which caused his mother to decide to return William to England in 1816 (she remained in India). The ship on which he traveled made a short stopover at St. Helena where the imprisoned Napoleon was pointed out to him. Once in England he was educated at schools in Southampton and Chiswick and then at Charterhouse School, where he was a close friend of John Leech. He disliked Charterhouse,[2] parodying it in his later fiction as "Slaughterhouse." (Nevertheless Thackeray was honored in the Charterhouse Chapel with a monument after his death.) Illness in his last year there (during which he reportedly grew to his full height of 6' 3") postponed his matriculation at Trinity College, Cambridge, until February 1829. Never too keen on academic studies, he left the University in 1830, though some of his earliest writing appeared in university publications The Snob and The Gownsman.[3]

He travelled for some time on the continent, visiting Paris and Weimar, where he met Goethe. He returned to England and began to study law at the Middle Temple, but soon gave that up. On reaching the age of 21 he came into his inheritance but he squandered much of it on gambling and by funding two unsuccessful newspapers, The National Standard and The Constitutionalfor which he had hoped to write. He also lost a good part of his fortune in the collapse of two Indian banks. Forced to consider a profession to support himself, he turned first to art, which he studied in Paris, but did not pursue it except in later years as the illustrator of some of his own novels and other writings.

File:Crowe-Thackeray 1845.jpg

Thackeray portrayed by Eyre Crowe, 1845

Thackeray's years of semi-idleness ended after he met and, on 20 August 1836, married Isabella Gethin Shawe (1816–1893), second daughter of Matthew Shawe, a colonel, who had died after extraordinary service, primarily in India, and his wife, Isabella Creagh. Their three daughters were Anne Isabella (1837–1919), Jane (died at 8 months) and Harriet Marian (1840–1875). He now began "writing for his life," as he put it, turning to journalism in an effort to support his young family.

Marriage and career[edit | edit source]

He primarily worked for Fraser's Magazine, a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued conservative publication, for which he produced art criticism, short fictional sketches, and two longer fictional works, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. From 1837 to 1840 he also reviewed books for The Times.[4] Later, through his connection to the illustrator John Leech, he began writing for the newly created Punch magazine, where he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs. This work popularized the modern meaning of the word "snob."

Tragedy struck in his personal life as his wife succumbed to depression after the birth of their third child in 1840. Finding he could get no work done at home, he spent more and more time away, until September of that year, when he noticed how grave her condition was. Struck by guilt, he took his ailing wife to Ireland. During the crossing she threw herself from a water-closet into the sea, from which she was rescued. They fled back home after a four-week domestic battle with her mother. From November 1840 to February 1842 she was in and out of professional care, her condition waxing and waning.

File:William Makepeace Thackeray - self caricature - Project Gutenberg eText 19222.jpg

Caricature of Thackeray by Thackeray

In the long run, she deteriorated into a permanent state of detachment from reality, unaware of the world around her. Thackeray desperately sought cures for her, but nothing worked, and she ended up confined in a home near Paris. She remained there until 1893, outliving her husband by thirty years. After his wife's illness, Thackeray became a de facto widower, never establishing another permanent relationship. He did pursue other women, in particular Mrs. Jane Brookfield and Sally Baxter. In 1851 Mr. Brookfield barred Thackeray from further visits to or correspondence with Jane. Baxter, an American twenty years his junior whom he met during a lecture tour in New York City in 1852, married another man in 1855.

In the early 1840s, Thackeray had some success with two travel books, The Paris Sketch Book and The Irish Sketch Book. Later in the decade, he achieved some notoriety with his Snob Papers, but the work that really established his fame was the novel Vanity Fair, which first appeared in serialized instalments beginning in January 1847. Even before Vanity Fair completed its serial run, Thackeray had become a celebrity, sought after by the very lords and ladies he satirized; they hailed him as the equal of Dickens.

He remained "at the top of the tree," as he put it, for the remaining decade and a half of his life, producing several large novels, notably Pendennis, The Newcomes, and The History of Henry Esmond, despite various illnesses, including a near fatal one that struck him in 1849 in the middle of writing Pendennis. He twice visited the United States on lecture tours during this period.

File:William Makepeace Thackeray - Project Gutenberg eText 13103.jpg


Thackeray also gave lectures in London on the English humourists of the 18th century, and on the first four Hanoverian monarchs. The latter series was published in book form as The Four Georges. In Oxford, he stood unsuccessfully as an independent for Parliament. He was narrowly beaten by Cardwell (1070 votes, against 1005 for Thackeray).

Later years[edit | edit source]

In 1860, Thackeray became editor of the newly established Cornhill Magazine, but was never comfortable as an editor, preferring to contribute to the magazine as a columnist, producing his Roundabout Papers for it.

His health worsened during the 1850s and he was plagued by the recurring stricture of the urethra that laid him up for days at a time. He also felt he had lost much of his creative impetus. He worsened matters by over-eating and drinking and avoiding exercise, though he enjoyed horseback riding and kept a horse. He could not break his addiction to spicy peppers, further ruining his digestion. On 23 December 1863, after returning from dining out and before dressing for bed, Thackeray suffered a stroke and was found dead on his bed in the morning. His death at the age of fifty-two was entirely unexpected, and shocked his family, friends, and reading public. An estimated 7000 people attended his funeral at Kensington Gardens. He was buried on 29 December at Kensal Green Cemetery.

Writing[edit | edit source]

Thackerary caricature by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), Courtesy Internet Archive.

Thackeray began as a satirist and parodist, writing papers with a sneaking fondness for roguish upstarts like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, Barry Lyndon in The Luck of Barry Lyndon and Catherine in Catherine. In his earliest works, writing under such pseudonyms as Charles James Yellowplush, Michael Angelo Titmarsh and George Savage Fitz-Boodle, he tended towards the savage in his attacks on high society, military prowess, the institution of marriage and hypocrisy.

File:William Makepeace Thackeray - Vanity Fair frontispiece - Project Gutenberg eText 19222.jpg

Title-page to Vanity Fair, drawn by Thackeray, who furnished the illustrations for many of his earlier editions.

One of his very earliest works, "Timbuctoo" (1829), contained his burlesque upon the subject set for the Cambridge Chancellor's medal for English verse, (the contest was won by Tennyson with "Timbuctoo"). His writing career really began with a series of satirical sketches now usually known as The Yellowplush Papers, which appeared in Fraser's Magazine beginning in 1837. These were adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 2009, with Adam Buxton playing Charles Yellowplush.[5]

Between May 1839 and February 1840, Fraser's published the work sometimes considered Thackeray's first novel, Catherine, originally intended as a satire of the Newgate school of crime fiction but ending up more as a rollicking picaresque tale in its own right.

In The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a novel serialized in Fraser's in 1844, Thackeray explored the situation of an outsider trying to achieve status in high society, a theme he developed much more successfully in Vanity Fair with the character of Becky Sharp, the artist's daughter who rises nearly to the heights by manipulating the other characters.

He is best known now for Vanity Fair, with its deft skewerings of human foibles and its roguishly attractive heroine. His large novels from the period after this, once described unflatteringly by Henry James as examples of "loose baggy monsters," have faded from view, perhaps because they reflect a mellowing in the author, who became so successful with his satires on society that he seemed to lose his zest for attacking it.

The later works include Pendennis, a sort of bildungsroman depicting the coming of age of Arthur Pendennis, a kind of alter ego of Thackeray's who also features as the narrator of two later novels: The Newcomes and The Adventures of Philip. The Newcomes is noteworthy for its critical portrayal of the "marriage market," while Philip is noteworthy for its semi-autobiographical look back at Thackeray's early life, in which the author partially regains some of his early satirical zest.

Also notable among the later novels is The History of Henry Esmond, in which Thackeray tried to write a novel in the style of the 18th century. Thatcentury held a great appeal for Thackeray; not only Esmond but also Barry Lyndon and Catherine are set then, as is the sequel to Esmond, The Virginians, which takes place in America (and includes George Washington as a character who nearly kills one of the protagonists in a duel).

Critical introduction[edit | edit source]

by Charles L. Graves

Thackeray's greatness rests on his novels, but his excursions in metre, though they represent a small portion of his literary baggage, run into thousands of lines and fill nearly three hundred pages of one of the miscellaneous volumes of his collected works. His connexion with Punch began in 1842 and established his fame as a humorist. Most of his contributions were in prose, but he wrote a good deal of excellent satirical and topical verse for Punch, including the Bow Street Ballads (1848) and the "Battle of Limerick" in the same year. Many of his best poems, however, are to be found scattered through his various prose writings, for he followed the example of Scott in using verse in his novels, stories, and sketches, in the form of decoration or interlude.

Humour is the prevailing note; sometimes grim, as in the "Chronicle of the Drum", the best of his ballads, but more often satirical and caustic; sometimes extravagant, as in the Lyra Hibernica. "Charlotte" might have been written by Canning. Peg of Limavaddy recalls Father Prout, and some of his pieces are frankly derivative, such as the spirited paraphrases of Béranger, Ronsard, Uhland, Chamisso, and Horace. He excelled also in vers de société and occasional poems with an undercurrent of seriousness or irony; indeed, there are few branches of light verse that he did not adorn save that of parody.

Some of his topical verse hardly rose above the level of first-class journalism, and the “Jeames” and “Pleeceman X” ballads have lost their savour from the virtual extinction of the types depicted and dialect employed. But enough remains, apart from the general fame of the writer, to ensure him a distinguished position among Victorian writers of light verse.[6]

Recognition[edit | edit source]

Thackeray commemorative plaque in Notting Hill, London, 2013. Photo by Simon Harriyott. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A marble bust of Thackeray by Carlo, Baron Marochetti was placed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, in 1865.[7]

2 Palace Green, a house built for Thackeray in the 1860s, is currently the permanent residence of the Israeli Embassy to the United Kingdom.[1]

His former home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent is now a fine dining restaurant named after the author [2]

Critical reputation[edit | edit source]

During the Victorian era, Thackeray was ranked second only to Charles Dickens, but he is now much less read and is known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair. In that novel he was able to satirize whole swaths of humanity while retaining a light touch. It also features his most memorable character, the engagingly roguish Becky Sharp. As a result, unlike Thackeray's other novels, it remains popular with the general reading public; it is a standard fixture in university courses and has been repeatedly adapted for movies and television.

In Thackeray's own day, some commentators, such as Anthony Trollope, ranked his History of Henry Esmond as his greatest work, perhaps because it expressed Victorian values of duty and earnestness, as did some of his other later novels. It is perhaps for this reason that they have not survived as well as Vanity Fair, which satirizes those values.

Thackeray saw himself as writing in the realistic tradition and distinguished himself from the exaggerations and sentimentality of Dickens. Some later commentators have accepted this self-evaluation and seen him as a realist, but others note his inclination to use 18nth-century narrative techniques, such as digressions and talking to the reader, and argue that through them he frequently disrupts the illusion of reality. The school of Henry James, with its emphasis on maintaining that illusion, marked a break with Thackeray's techniques.

Though Edward Bulwer-Lytton is credited with originating the phrase "the Great Unwashed," its earliest citation to be found in his oeuvre is in The Parisians of 1872, while Thackeray used it as early as 1850 in Pendennis, in an ironic context implying the phrase would be known to his readers.

Publications[edit | edit source]

Readingpoem00thac 0001.jpg

Poetry[edit | edit source]

Plays[edit | edit source]

  • Reading a Poem (edited by Charles Plumptre Johnson). London: Chiswick, 1891.

Novels[edit | edit source]

Short fiction[edit | edit source]

Non-fiction[edit | edit source]

Juvenile[edit | edit source]

Collected editions[edit | edit source]

  • The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray. London: Henry Frowde / Oxford University Press, 1847.
  • The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, in twenty-four volumes. London: Smith, Elder, 1878-1879.
  • The Complete Works of William Makepeace Thackeray. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889.
  • Thackeray's Lighter Hours: Being selections from the minor writings of William Makepeace Thackeray. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin, 1900.
  • Stray Papers: Being stories, reviews, verses, and sketches (1821-1847). London: Hutchinson, 1901.
  • The Prose Works of William Makepeace Thackeray (edited by Walter Jerrold). London: J.M. Dent, 1901-1903.
  • The Illustrations of William Makepeace Thackeray (edited by John Buchanan-Brown). Newton Abbot, UK & North Pomfret, VT: David & Charles, 1979.

Letters and journals[edit | edit source]

*Selected Letters of William Makepeace Thackeray (edited by Edgar F. Harden). Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 1996.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]

See also[edit | edit source]


The Mahogany Tree William Makepeace Thackeray audiobook

References[edit | edit source]

  • Aplin, John. The Inheritance of Genius, A Thackeray Family Biography 1798-1875, The Lutterworth Press (2010), ISBN 978-0-7188-9224-1
  • Catalan, Zelma. The Politics of Irony in Thackeray’s Mature Fiction: Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes. Sofia (Bulgaria), 2010, 250 pр.
  • Sheldon Goldfarb Catherine: A Story (The Thackeray Edition). University of Michigan Press, 1999.
  • Ferris, Ina. William Makepeace Thackeray. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
  • Monsarrat, Ann. An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man, 1811–1863. London: Cassell, 1980.
  • Peters, Catherine. Thackeray’s Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Prawer, Siegbert S.: Breeches and Metaphysics: Thackeray's German Discourse. Oxford : Legenda, 1997.
  • Prawer, Siegbert S.: Israel at Vanity Fair: Jews and Judaism in the Writings of W. M. Thackeray. Leiden : Brill, 1992.
  • Prawer, Siegbert S.: W. M. Thackeray's European sketch books : a study of literary and graphic portraiture. P. Lang, 2000.
  • Ray, Gordon N. Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity, 1811–1846. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
  • Ray, Gordon N. Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom, 1847–1863. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957.
  • Ritchie, H.T. Thackeray and His Daughter. Harper and Brothers, 1924.
  • Rodríguez Espinosa, Marcos (1998) Traducción y recepción como procesos de mediación cultural: 'Vanity Fair' en España. Málaga: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Málaga.
  • Shillingsburg, Peter. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Literary Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.
  • Williams, Ioan M. Thackeray. London: Evans, 1968.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. John William Cousin, "Thackeray,, William Makespeace," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 377-379. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 13, 2018.
  2. Dunton, Larkin (1896). The World and Its People. Silver, Burdett. p. 25. 
  3. Thackeray, William Makepeace in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  4. Gary Simons, 'Thackeray's Contributions to the Times, Victorian Periodicals Review, 40:4 (2007, pp. 332-354
  5. "The Yellowplush Papers". British Comedy Guide. http://www.comedy.org.uk/guide/radio/the_yellowplush_papers/. Retrieved 9 February 2009. 
  6. from Charles L. Graves, "Critical Introduction: William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 29, 2016.
  7. William Makepeace Thackeray, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 12, 2016.
  8. Search results:au:William Makepeace Thackeray, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Dec. 1, 2013.

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