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William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray

The British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) created unrivaled panoramas of English upper-middle-class life, crowded with memorable characters displaying realistic mixtures of virtue, vanity, and vice.

When William Makepeace Thackeray began his literary career, English prose fiction was dominated by Charles Dickens. Thackeray formed his style in conscious reaction against Dickens's programmatic indictment of social evils and against the artificial style and sentimental falsification of life and moral values of the popular historical romances. The familiar, moralizing commentaries of Thackeray's narrators, as integral a part of his novels as the characters themselves, expressed their author's detached moral disillusionment—usually touched with sentimentality. Although critical of society, Thackeray was never a radical intellectual, remaining basically conservative. He initiated a tendency toward plainer style and greater realism in the portrayal of the commonplace, a manner carried on in the English novel by Anthony Trollope.

Thackeray was born on July 18, 1811, in Calcutta, India, into a family that had made its fortunes in the East India Company for two generations. He was sent to England at the age of 5 after the death of his father. The Anglo-Indian community in which Thackeray grew up was alienated by prejudice from the English upper-class society, of which, however, it felt itself rightfully a part by reason of its achievements and wealth, and whose values it imitated. A sympathy for similar alienation manifested itself in his later attitudes.

Educated at the prestigious Charterhouse School, Thackeray acquired there the class conception of gentlemanly conduct that he later both criticized and upheld. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he was only a mediocre student, and he left the university after little more than a year in June 1830, convinced that it was not worth his while to spend more time in pursuit of a second-rate degree under an uncongenial curriculum. A 6-month stay in Weimar, Germany, where he enjoyed the intellectual life of the former home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller, gave Thackeray some cosmopolitan polish and a more objective view of English manners.

After his return to London, Thackeray drifted idly about, making a desultory gesture toward studying law at the Middle Temple. But he seemed more devoted to the expensive habits of fashionable dissipation and gambling he had acquired at Cambridge. When he came into his inheritance, debts forced him to consume part of his capital, and most of the rest was soon lost in the collapse of the Indian trading agency in which it had been invested. Financial misfortune effected a morally beneficial change in his way of life, however, and after an abortive attempt at painting he turned to journalism as a means of support.

Magazine Writing

Between 1837 and 1844 Thackeray wrote critical articles on art and literature for numerous papers and journals, but he contributed most of his fiction of this period to Fraser's Magazine. The Memoirs of C. J. Yellowplush, which appeared serially in 1837-1838, parodied the high-flown language of "fashnabble" novels through the Cockney malapropisms of a gentleman's gentleman. In Catherine (1839-1840) Thackeray began by parodying the popular criminal novel, but he soon became interested in his characters for their own sakes. "A Shabby Genteel Story" (1840) and other short compositions explored the world of rogues and fools in a spirit of extreme and bitter disillusionment. The Irish Sketch Book (1843) and Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cario (1845), purportedly written by the confirmed Londoner Mr. M. A. Titmarsh, were in a lighter vein. His placement of the narrator as a personality firmly in the foreground of his works has led critics to accuse him of Cockney Philistinism.

In the fall of 1840, Thackeray's wife, Isabella Shawe, whom he had married in 1836, suffered a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. This experience profoundly affected his character and work, widening his sympathies, mellowing his judgments, and bringing him to value domestic affection as life's greatest good. These new attitudes emerged clearly in the best of his early stories, "The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond" (1841), a tale of an obscure clerk who rises to sudden prosperity but finds true happiness only after ruin has brought him back to hearth and home. Adopting the mask of an aristocratic London bachelor and clubman, George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Thackeray next wrote a number of papers satirizing his way of life and a series called "Men's Wives," of which "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Berry" and "Denis Haggarty's Wife" show a maturing sense of comedy and tragedy. With The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) Thackeray arrived as a novelist. He returned to an earlier subject, the gentleman scoundrel; his central theme is the ruin of a young man's character by false ideals of conduct and worldly success.

As a regular contributor to the satiric magazine Punch between 1844 and 1851, Thackeray finally achieved widespread recognition. His most famous contribution was The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves (1846-1847). Through a series of satiric character sketches, it made a critical survey of the manners of a period in which old standards of behavior and social relationships had been shaken by the redistribution of wealth and power effected by industrialism.

Thackeray's Novels

Vanity Fair (1847-1848) established Thackeray's fame permanently. Set in the time just before and after the Battle of Waterloo, this novel departed from convention in having no hero or heroine and no plot in the conventional sense. It is a portrait of society centered on three families interrelated by acquaintance and marriage, the events of whose lives are organized by the broad movement of time rather than artificial complication and resolution. This "formlessness" helps to create an illusion of reality, given substance by an infinitude of authentic details in the description of the actions of daily life and in the differentiation of character by style of speech. In the irrepressibly resourceful, though amoral, Becky Sharp, Thackeray created one of fiction's most engaging characters.

In Pendennis (1849-1850) Thackeray concentrated on one character. The story of the development of a young writer, it draws in the first part on his own life at school, at college, and as a journalist. The second half, which he wrote after a severe illness, lost the novel's focus. Its ostensible theme, Pen's struggle to choose between a practical, worldly life and domestic virtue, presents only a superficial analysis of character and a doubtful moral accommodation.

The History of Henry Esmond (1852), Thackeray's most carefully planned and executed work, is a historical novel set in the 18th century. He felt a temperamental sympathy with this age of satire and urbane wit, and he had made a significant contribution to a revival of interest in it the year before in a popular series of lectures, The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century. Esmond presents a vivid and convincing realization of the manners and historical background of the period and contains some of his most complex and firmly controlled characters.

The Newcomes (1854-1855) returns to the method of serial improvisation used for Vanity Fair. Supposedly written by the hero of Pendennis, it chronicles the moral history of four generations of an English family. The most massive and complex of Thackeray's social panoramas, it is also the darkest in its relentless portrayal of the defeat of humane feeling by false standards of respectability.

Feeling that he had written himself out, Thackeray returned to earlier works for subjects for his later novels, and his narrators became increasingly garrulous in their familiar moralism. The Virginians (1858-1859) follows the fortunes of Henry Esmond's grandsons in the United States, and The Adventures of Philip (1862) continues "A Shabby Genteel Story."

Thackeray's later career was varied by an unsuccessful campaign for Parliament as a reform candidate in 1857 and by two lecture trips to the United States in 1852 and 1855. A founding editor of the Cornhill Magazine, he served it from 1859 to 1862. A massive person, 6 feet 3 inches tall, Thackeray was a genial and modest man, fond of good food and wine. In the years of his success he candidly took great pleasure in the amenities of the society that he portrayed so critically in his novels. He died on Dec. 24, 1863, in London.

Further Reading

Gordon N. Ray edited Thackeray's Letters and Private Papers (4 vols., 1945-1946) and wrote the comprehensive, standard biography, in two volumes: Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity (1955) and The Age of Wisdom (1958). A reliable shorter biography with a more consecutive narrative is Lionel Stevenson, The Showman of Vanity Fair: The Life of William Makepeace Thackeray (1947; repr. 1968). Good critical studies are Geoffrey Tillotson, Thackeray the Novelist (1954), and John Loofbourow, Thackeray and the Form of Fiction (1964). □

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Thackeray, William Makepeace

William Makepeace Thackeray

Born: July 18, 1811
Calcutta, India
Died: December 24, 1863
London, England

English novelist

The English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray created unrivaled panoramas (thorough and complete studies of subjects) of English upper-middle-class life, crowded with memorable characters displaying the realistic mixture of virtue, vanity, and vice.

Early life

William Makepeace Thackeray was born on July 18, 1811, in Calcutta, India. He was the only child of Richmond and Anne Thackeray. His family had made its fortunes in the East India Company for two generations. In 1817, after the death of his father, five-yearold Thackeray was sent to England to live with his aunt while he received his education. He was a precocious (showed the characteristics of an older person at a young age) child and showed a talent for drawing.

Around 1818 Thackeray's mother married Major Carmichael Smyth, an engineer and author. In 1821 the two moved back to England and reunited with Thackeray, who developed a close relationship with his step-father. When Thackeray was eleven, he was sent to the prestigious Charterhouse School. Schoolmates described him as a student who was not too serious, but very sociable. Also, he did not enjoy or participate in any sports or games. However, he did learn about gentlemanly conductan ideal that later he both criticized and upheld.

Education

In 1829 Thackeray entered Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he was only an average student. He left the university the next year, convinced that it was not worth his while to spend more time in pursuit of a second-rate degree under an unsuitable educational institution. A six-month stay in Weimar, Germany, gave Thackeray a more sophisticated polish, as well as a more objective view of English manners. After Thackeray returned to London, he began studying law at the Middle Temple. He seemed more devoted to the fashionable but expensive habits of drinking and gambling that he had acquired at Cambridge, however.

At the age of twenty-one Thackeray rejected law and went to Paris, France, to study French, to draw, and to attend plays. The inheritance he acquired at that age soon disappeared into bad business ventures, bad investments, and loans to needy friends. Unfortunately, he was unable to distinguish himself as an artist. He met Isabella Shawe while in Paris, and they married in 1836. They had two daughters.

Magazine writing

Between 1837 and 1844 Thackeray wrote critical articles on art and literature for numerous papers and journals, but he contributed most of his fiction of this period to Fraser's Magazine. In The Memoirs of C. J. Yellowplush, which appeared in a series from 1837 to 1838, he parodied (humorously wrote in the style of) the high-flown language of "fashnabble" novels. In Catherine (18391840) he parodied the popular criminal novel. "A Shabby Genteel Story" (1840) and other short compositions explored the world of rogues (dishonest people) and fools in a spirit of extreme and bitter disappointment. The Irish Sketch Book (1843) and Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cario (1845), supposedly written by the confirmed Londoner Mr. M. A. Titmarsh, were in a lighter vein.

In the fall of 1840 Thackeray's wife suffered a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. This experience profoundly affected his character and work. He became more sympathetic and less harsh in his judgments, and came to value domestic affection as the greatest good thing in life. These new attitudes emerged clearly in the best of his early stories, "The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond"(1841). In this tale an obscure (not distinct) clerk rises to sudden success and wealth but finds true happiness only after ruin has brought him back to hearth and home.

Adopting the mask of an aristocratic (upper-class) London bachelor and clubman named George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Thackeray next wrote a number of papers satirizing (pointing out and devaluing sin or silliness) his way of life. The series called "Men's Wives," which was written at the same time, shows a maturing sense of comedy and tragedy. With The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) Thackeray returned to an earlier subject, the gentleman scoundrel. His central theme is the ruin of a young man's character by false ideals of conduct and worldly success.

As a regular contributor to the satiric magazine Punch between 1844 and 1851, Thackeray finally achieved widespread recognition. His most famous contribution was The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves (18461847). It was a critical survey of the manners of a period in which the redistribution of wealth and power caused by industrialism (the rise of industry) had shaken old standards of behavior and social relationships.

Thackeray's novels

Vanity Fair (18471848) established Thackeray's fame permanently. Set in the time just before and after the Battle of Waterloo (1815; a battle that ended French domination of Europe), this novel is a portrait of society and centers on three families interrelated by acquaintance and marriage. In the unrestrained and resourceful Becky Sharp, Thackeray created one of fiction's most engaging characters.

In Pendennis (18491850) Thackeray concentrated on one character. The story of the development of a young writer, the first part draws on Thackeray's own life at school, at college, and as a journalist. The second half, which he wrote after a severe illness, lost the novel's focus. It presents only a superficial (having insincere and shallow qualities) analysis of character in Pen's struggle to choose between a practical, worldly life and one of domestic virtue.

The History of Henry Esmond (1852), Thackeray's most carefully planned and executed work, is a historical novel set in the eighteenth century. He felt a temperamental sympathy with this age of satire and urbane wit. Esmond presents a vivid and convincing realization of the manners and historical background of the period. It contains some of Thackeray's most complex and firmly controlled characters.

The Newcomes (18541855) is another serial. Supposedly written by the hero of Pendennis, it chronicles the moral history of four generations of an English family. The most massive and complex of Thackeray's social panoramas, it is also the darkest in its relentless portrayal of the defeat of humane feeling by false standards of respectability.

Later career

Thackeray, feeling that he had written himself out, returned to earlier works for subjects for his later novels. The Virginians (18581859) follows the fortunes of Henry Esmond's grandsons in the United States, and The Adventures of Philip (1862) continues "A Shabby Genteel Story." His later career included an unsuccessful campaign for Parliament as a reform candidate in 1857, and two lecture trips to the United States in 1852 and 1855. A founding editor of the Cornhill Magazine, he served it from 1859 to 1862.

Thackeray was 6 feet 3 inches tall, and a pleasant and modest man, fond of good food and wine. In the years of his success he openly took great pleasure in the comforts of the society that he portrayed so critically in his novels. Thackeray died on December 24, 1863, in London, England.

When William Makepeace Thackeray began his literary career, Charles Dickens (18121870) dominated English prose (having to do with the common language) fiction. Thackeray's writing style was formed in opposition to Dickens's accusation of social evils, and against the artificial style and sentimentality (emotionalism) of life and moral (having to do with right and wrong) values of the popular historical romances. Although critical of society, Thackeray remained basically conservative (a person who prefers to preserve existing social and political situations without change). He was one of the first English writers of the time to portray the commonplace with greater realism. This approach was carried on in the English novel by Anthony Trollope (18151882).

For More Information

Peters, Catherine. Thackeray's Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Shillingsburg, Peter L. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Taylor, D. J. Thackeray. London: Chatto & Windus, 1999.

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Thackeray, William Makepeace

William Makepeace Thackeray (thăk´ərē), 1811–63, English novelist, b. Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. He is important not only as a great novelist but also as a brilliant satirist. In 1830, Thackeray left Cambridge without a degree and later entered the Middle Temple to study law. In 1833 he became editor of a periodical, the National Standard, but the following year he settled in Paris to study art. There he met Isabella Shawe, whom he married in 1836. He returned to England in 1837, supporting himself and his wife by literary hack work and by illustrating. Three years later his wife became hopelessly insane; she was cared for by a family in Essex and survived her husband by 30 years. Thackeray sent his two young daughters to live with his parents in Paris, lived himself the life of a clubman in London, and worked assiduously to support his family. Throughout the 1830s and 40s, his novels appeared serially together with miscellaneous writings in several magazines. His "Yellowplush Correspondence," in which a footman assumes the role of social and literary critic of the times, appeared (1837–38) in Fraser's. As a contributor to Punch he often parodied the false romantic sentiment pervading the fiction of his day. In 1848, Thackeray achieved widespread popularity with his humorous Book of Snobs and the same year rose to major rank among English novelists with Vanity Fair, a satirical panorama of upper-middle-class London life and manners at the beginning of the 19th cent. The novel contains many fascinating characters, particularly Becky Sharp, who, although clever and unscrupulous, is also extremely appealing. His reputation increased in 1850 with the completion of the partly autobiographical novel Pendennis. In 1851 he delivered a series of lectures, English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, which he repeated in a tour of the United States in 1852–53. In 1852 his novel of 18th-century life, Henry Esmond, appeared. The Newcomes, in which some of the characters of Pendennis reappear, came out serially in 1853–55. In 1855–56 he delivered another series of lectures in the United States entitled The Four Georges (pub. 1860). His next novel, The Virginians (1857–59), is a continuation of the Esmond story. In 1860 Thackeray became editor of the newly founded Cornhill Magazine, in which his last novels appeared—Lovel the Widower (1860), The Adventures of Philip (1861–62), and the unfinished historical romance, Denis Duval (1864). Thackeray's eldest daughter, Anne, Lady Ritchie, was also an author; his younger daughter Harriet married Sir Leslie Stephen.

See his complete works (26 vol., 1910–11); his letters (ed. by G. N. Ray, 4 vol., 1945–46); studies by R. A. Colby (1979) and E. F. Harden (1979); G. N. Ray, Thackeray (2 vol., 1955 and 1958, repr. 1972) and The Buried Life (1952, repr. 1974); D. J. Taylor, Thackeray: The Life of a Literary Man (2001).

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"Thackeray, William Makepeace." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Thackeray, William Makepeace." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thackeray-william-makepeace

Thackeray, William Makepeace (1811-1863)

Thackeray, William Makepeace (1811-1863)

This noted novelist was introduced to the phenomena of Spiritualism during a lecture tour in the United States, when he attended a séance with the famous medium D. D. Home. He also observed the rapping phenomena of Ann (Leah) Underhill, one of the Fox sisters. His sympathetic reaction was described in Underhill's book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885). This experience and subsequent observations with Home led Thackeray to endorse the sincerity of the anonymous account (written by Robert Bell) "Stranger Than Fiction." It was published in the Cornhill Magazine and edited by Thackeray. He was severely criticized for this apparent endorsement of Spiritualism.

However, it seems that, in fact, his attitude was somewhat ambiguous. In a letter to his friends Mrs. Thomas F. Elliot and Kate Perry, he states:

"Yes I have seen the Rappers, and the table moving, and heard the Spirits. The moving of tables is undoubted, the noises and knocks (continual raps following the person who has the gift of eliciting them) some natural unexplained phenomenon but the Spirits is of course dire humbug and imposture. They try to guess at something and hit or miss as may be. 1000 misses for one hitIt is a most dreary and foolish superstition. But the physical manifestations are undoubt edTables moving lifted up and men even lifted off the ground to the ceiling so some are ready to swearbut though I do not believe in this until I see it; I wouldn't have believed in a table turning 3 weeks agoand that I have seen and swear to."

Both Thackeray and his friend Charles Dickens had the highest regard for John Elliotson, a pioneer of mesmerism who was later converted to Spiritualism after initial skepticism. Thackeray based his character "Dr. Goodenough" in Pendennis and The Newcomes on Elliotson, and dedicated the former novel to him.

Sources:

Goldfarb, Russell M., and Clare R. Goldfarb. Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century Letters. New Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978.

Underhill, A. Leah. The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism. New York: Thomas R. Knox, 1885. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1976.

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Thackeray, William Makepeace

Thackeray, William Makepeace (1811–63). Novelist. Born in Calcutta, the son of a collector in the East India Company, he was educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge. This Indian background and his public school were to figure prominently in The Newcomes (1853–5). Having studied drawing in Paris and German at Weimar (where he met Goethe) he began a career as a journalist in London. He was a notable early contributor to Punch (founded 1841) and to Fraser's Magazine (founded 1830) and in 1860 became the editor of the dynamic new Cornhill Magazine. His real breakthrough came with the monthly part serialization of Vanity Fair (1847–8), a novel set at the time of Waterloo and its aftermath. Thackeray's growing interest in the culture of the 18th cent. is reflected in his novels Barry Lyndon (1844), Henry Esmond (1852), and its sequel The Virginians (1857–9) and in his two lecture series published as The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century (1851) and The Four Georges (1855–7).

Anne Curry

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"Thackeray, William Makepeace." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Thackeray, William Makepeace

Thackeray, William Makepeace (1811–63) British novelist, b. India. The Book of Snobs (1846–47) established his reputation. Thackeray's best-known novel is Vanity Fair (1847–48), a satire on early 19th-century upper-class London society. Other novels include Barry Lyndon (1844), Pendennis (1848–50), Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1853–55), and The Virginians (1857–59). Thackeray was the founding editor (1860–75) of the Cornhill Magazine.

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/wmt/wmtov.html

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