Authors: William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist

July 18, 1811

Calcutta, India

December 24, 1863

London, England


William Makepeace Thackeray (THAK-uh-ree) was born in Calcutta, India (where his father was in the service of the East India Company), in 1811, and died in London in 1863. At least until 1859, when George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) appeared, he was Charles Dickens’s only possible rival as the leading Victorian novelist. {$I[AN]9810000035} {$I[A]Thackeray, William Makepeace} {$S[A]Solomons, Ikey, Jr.;Thackeray, William Makepeace}{$S[A]Titmarsh, M. A.;Thackeray, William Makepeace}{$S[A]Fitz-Boodle, George Savage[Fitz Boodle, George Savage];Thackeray, William Makepeace} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Thackeray, William Makepeace} {$I[tim]1811;Thackeray, William Makepeace}

William Makepeace Thackeray

(Library of Congress)

Thackeray’s father, Richmond Thackeray, died in 1815; his mother thereafter married Captain Henry Carmichael-Smyth, the original of Thackeray’s fictional Colonel Newcome. In 1822, the boy was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he experienced real cruelty. A school bully flattened his nose beyond repair, rendering him physically grotesque. For the rest of his life, Thackeray was acutely self-conscious about his appearance. He was an indifferent student at Cambridge University, leaving without taking a degree. Lacking a definite aim or goal in life, he spent time in Weimar, where he had a private audience with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For a while, he lived a bohemian life as an art student in Paris; he then read for the law at the Middle Temple, but he disliked it so heartily that he never practiced. After losing most of his considerable inheritance through a combination of folly and ill luck, Thackeray thought he would make his living as an artist. He sought to illustrate Dickens’s The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836–37), but Dickens turned him down. Fortunately for posterity, Thackeray turned to literature, but he always loved art and he later illustrated many of his own writings.

Thackeray began his career by burlesquing popular contemporary novelists whose work he considered mawkish, absurd, or morally vicious for Fraser’s Magazine; the most important outcome of these labors was his Catherine, in which he attacked the vogue of the crime story. A more important enterprise, Barry Lyndon, was an eighteenth-century rogue story, influenced by Thackeray’s admiration for Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743). The writer did not really catch the public fancy until he published Vanity Fair in 1847–48. From then on, though his sales always ran far behind those of Dickens, his reputation and fortune were secure.

In the 1850s, he made two lecture tours of the United States, where he was welcomed by the best society. On his first tour, he dined at the White House and met such literary luminaries as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and Washington Irving. His literary career concluded with his appointment as the first editor of the Cornhill Magazine in 1859. His domestic happiness was clouded by the death of his second infant daughter and the mental illness of his wife, Isabella Shaw, whom he married in 1836, and who outlived him by many years. In his relations with his daughters, he showed all the tenderness of which his kindly, but in some ways weak, nature was capable.

Thackeray was at once a cynic and a sentimentalist. The judgments he makes of his characters are often conventional, but he portrays them with a powerful realism that was no doubt shocking to many readers of his day. Many of his most successful characters are, in one way or another, rogues. “The Art of Novels,” he declared, “is to represent Nature; to convey as strongly as possible the sentiment of reality.” The heightening and idealism proper to “a tragedy or a poem or a lofty drama” he ruled out. Not by this alone was he differentiated from Dickens but also by his upper-class point of view, his lack of Dickens’s enthusiasm, vitality, and inexhaustible sympathy, and his more bookish, elegant style. Thackeray’s world, in its main aspects, comprises Mayfair and bohemia.

Though the two great writers did not fail to appreciate each other, Dickens was inclined to resent his rival’s somewhat superior and aristocratic air toward “the art that he held in trust.” He also envied the success of Vanity Fair. The strained relations of the two novelists suffered a total breach from an imbroglio involving a fellow member of the Garrick Club which was repaired only days before Thackeray’s unexpected death. The loss of his rival brought Dickens genuine grief.

Vanity Fair is generally regarded as Thackeray’s magnum opus. It is a stunning panorama of a corrupt upper-and middle-class society against the background of the Waterloo crisis. Its heroine, Becky Sharp, is, along with Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, the most celebrated woman rogue in English fiction. Another masterpiece is The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire, a novel in the form of a memoir, presenting various intrigues in an eighteenth-century London that in some ways was more congenial to Thackeray’s mind and spirit than was his own time. The novel’s cool, autumnal elegance and perfect distinction of style make it one of the world’s great novels. It has, too, in Beatrix Esmond, one of the most subtly and completely portrayed of all heroines of fiction. The History of Pendennis is an attempt to use for fiction the materials of Thackeray’s own life in the manner and spirit of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). The Newcomes, a family novel covering three generations, is a Vanity Fair with a broader scope. The Virginians depicts Henry Esmond’s grandsons in the American Revolution and in London. Denis Duval, a brilliant adventure story that marks a turning to romance, Thackeray unfortunately did not live to finish.

Thackeray’s achievement, like that of his master Fielding, is central in the development of the English novel. Though he lacked Dickens’s imaginative fecundity, he was a masterful stylist and had an unerring sense of social and psychological realism. After well more than a century, Thackeray’s reputation as one of the great English novelists is secure.

Author Works Long Fiction: Catherine: A Story, 1839–40 (as Ikey Solomons, Jr.) The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond, 1841 (later as The Great Hoggarty Diamond, 1848) The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century, 1844 (commonly known as Barry Lyndon) Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, 1847–48 The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy, 1848–50 Rebecca and Rowena: A Romance upon Romance, 1850 (as M. A. Titmarsh) The History of Henry Esmond, Esquire, a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne, 1852 (3 volumes) The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, 1853–55 The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century, 1857–59 Lovel the Widower, 1860 The Adventures of Philip on His Way Through the World, Shewing Who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him, and Who Passed Him By, 1861–62 Denis Duval, 1864 Short Fiction: The Yellowplush Papers, 1837–38 Some Passages in the Life of Major Gahagan, 1838–39 Stubb’s Calendar: Or, The Fatal Boots, 1839 Barber Cox and the Cutting of His Comb, 1840 The Bedford-Row Conspiracy, 1840 Comic Tales and Sketches, 1841 (2 volumes) “The Confessions of George Fitz-Boodle,” and “Some Passages in the Life of Major Gahagan,” 1841–42 Men’s Wives, 1843 (as George Savage Fitz-Boodle) A Legend of the Rhine, 1845 (as M. A. Titmarsh) Jeames’s Diary: Or, Sudden Wealth, 1846 The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves, 1846–47 (later as The Book of Snobs, 1848, 1852) Mrs. Perkin’s Ball, 1847 (as Titmarsh) “Our Street,” 1848 (as Titmarsh) A Little Dinner at Timmins’s, 1848 Doctor Birch and His Young Friends, 1849 (as Titmarsh) The Kickleburys on the Rhine, 1850 (as Titmarsh) A Shabby Genteel Story, and Other Tales, 1852 The Rose and the Ring: Or, The History of Prince Giglio and Prince Bulbo, 1855 (as Titmarsh) Memoirs of Mr. Charles J. Yellowplush [with] The Diary of C. Jeames De La Pluche, Esqr., 1856 Poetry: The Chronicle of the Drum, 1841 Nonfiction: The Paris Sketch Book, 1840 (2 volumes; as M. A. Titmarsh) The Irish Sketch Book, 1843 (2 volumes; as Titmarsh) Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by Way of Lisbon, Athens, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, Performed in the Steamers of the Penninsular and Oriental Company, 1846 (as Titmarsh) The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, 1853 Sketches and Travels in London, 1856 The Four Georges: Sketches of Manners, Morals, Court and Town Life, 1860 Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. William Makepeace Thackeray. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of essays on various aspects of Thackeray’s fiction, including such issues and concepts as humor, realism, characterization, point of view, and irony. Carey, John. Thackeray: Prodigal Genius. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. Carey’s appreciation of Thackeray’s “imaginative vitality,” particularly as it is expressed in his earlier, shorter, largely satirical literary and journalistic work, provides the focus for this absorbing study. Many of Thackeray’s major short works are discussed and analyzed in their chronological context. Clarke, Michael M. Thackeray and Women. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995. Examines Thackeray’s treatment of female characters. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Dodds, John Wendell. Thackeray: A Critical Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941. This scholarly, twelve-chapter study of Thackeray’s genius and the art of his fiction includes, particularly in chapter 3, “The Early Humorist and Story-Teller: 1838–1840,” an assessment of his short satirical sketches and stories. A thorough index is useful. An important book in the canon of Thackeray criticism. Fletcher, Robert P. “‘The Foolishest of Existing Mortals’: Thackeray, ‘Gurlyle,’ and the Character(s) of Fiction.” Clio 24 (Winter, 1995): 113–25. Discusses Thomas Carlyle’s and Thackeray’s different conceptions of history and fiction. Claims that a contrast between Thackeray’s and Carlyle’s opinions on novels and knowledge uncovers the buried anxiety in Carlyle’s emphatic preference for history over fiction. Harden, Edgar F. Thackeray the Writer: From Journalism to “Vanity Fair.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A thorough study of Thackeray’s literary career. Mudge, Isadore Gilbert, and M. Earl Sears. A Thackeray Dictionary: The Characters and Short Stories Alphabetically Arranged. 1910. Reprint. New York: Humanities Press, 1962. As the title indicates, this volume is an essential reference book for students of Thackeray’s works. The “Chronological List of Novels and Stories” clarifies and lists the individual and collected works titles under which many of Thackeray’s short sketches and stories were published and republished; “Synopses” provides invaluable annotations on the contents of all Thackeray’s works, short and long. The main “Dictionary” section is an alphabetical reference book for Thackeray’s characters. Peters, Catherine. Thackeray’s Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. The purpose of this thorough, fresh, intelligent, and readable twelve-chapter study is, in the author’s words, “to identify the raw materials, but to be aware that the finished work is a work of art, and not a covert autobiography.” In defining what Thackeray’s writings owed both to his life and to his particular genius, Peters provides invaluable insights. Short works such as Men’s Wives and The Yellowplush Papers are analyzed, and individual short pieces are discussed in context. A thorough index helps readers to search out discussion of individual works. Shillingsburg, Peter. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An excellent introduction to the life of the great novelist. Thorough and scholarly, but accessible. Taylor, D. J. Thackeray: The Life of a Literary Man. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. A lengthy biography that argues for Thackeray’s preeminence among nineteenth century English novelists. A more or less comprehensive study of the man that sheds much light on his work. Welsh, Alexander, ed. Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Thirteen essays by a selection of the foremost Thackeray scholars are a useful introduction to the student of Thackeray’s works, though discussion of the short works is included only in the analyses of Thackeray’s narrative techniques and style. Wheatley, James H. Patterns in Thackeray’s Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969. This volume is a lucid, readable study of the development of Thackeray’s techniques and concerns as a fiction writer. Follows his literary career from chapter 1, “Early Parody,” through chapter 6, “Later Fiction: The Sentiment of Reality.” Two works of short fiction, The Yellowplush Papers and A Shabby Genteel Story and Other Tales, are discussed at some length in chapter 2, “Developments from Parody.” The “Works Cited” guides the reader to other relevant critical sources.

Categories: Authors