Thackeray, William Makepeace
BORN: 1811, Calcutta, India
DIED: 1863, London, England
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
The Yellowplush Correspondence (1838)
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848)
The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne (1852)
Roundabout Papers (1863)
British author William Makepeace Thackeray is best known for his satiric sketches and novels of upper- and middle-class English life and is credited with bringing a simpler style and greater realism to the English novel. Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848), a panorama of early nineteenth-century English upper-middle-class society, is generally regarded as Thackeray's masterpiece. Although Vanity Fair has received more critical attention than any of his other works, many regard The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her
Majesty Q. Anne (1852), a historical novel set in early eighteenth-century England, to be his most well-planned and carefully executed work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Unhappy Childhood Spent in Boarding Schools Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, in 1811, where his father worked as a secretary for the British East India Company. At the time, India was under the colonial rule of the company, and, indirectly, Great Britain. The British East India Company was a trading company with political power that reaped high profits from such goods as salt, indigo, and coffee while modernizing India. After his father's death when Thackeray was six, however, Thackeray was sent to England, where he was cared for by relatives. His mother, who remarried and remained in India, did not return to England for four years. During these years Thackeray attended several boarding schools, where he was extremely unhappy. He later attended the prestigious Char-terhouse School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left before finishing his degree.
After reading law for a short time, Thackeray moved to Paris, where he studied art. Although he eventually abandoned the idea of making his living as a painter, Thackeray continued to sketch and paint throughout his life and illustrated many of his own works. While studying in Paris, he married a young Irishwoman named Isabella Shawe. Shortly after their marriage, they returned to London, where Thackeray began writing professionally, contributing to Fraser's Magazine, New Monthly Magazine, and later to Punch, to support himself and his new family after the fortune he inherited from his father was lost in an Indian bank failure in 1833. In 1839, the Thackerays' second daughter, Jane, died in infancy, and the next year, shortly after the birth of their third daughter, Harriet, Isabella Thackeray went mad, never regaining her sanity. Because she outlived him, Thackeray was unable to remarry and was thus deprived of the family life he so desired.
Published under Pen Names During the years before the success of Vanity Fair as he struggled to make a living, Thackeray wrote numerous reviews, essays, comic sketches, and burlesques under more than a dozen comic pseudonyms. Among the best known of his early nonfiction is The Yellowplush Correspondence (1838), a series of satiric sketches written in the guise of a cockney footman's memoirs published under the pen name Charles J. Yellowplush. The most successful of the early burlesques is the novella Catherine (1839–1840) published under the name Ikey Solomons, a parody of the crime story genre popular in Thackeray's day. This work is the strongest expression of Thackeray's contempt, discernible throughout his other works, for the prevalent literary convention of glorifying criminals.
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), his first lengthy novel published under the name Fitz-Boodle, was strongly influenced by Henry Fielding's The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) and demonstrates his keen interest in eighteenth-century literary forms. The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which first revealed Thackeray's skill at depicting the language and manners of an earlier age, was also his first serious attack on social pretension. His increasing scorn for the shallow acquisitiveness of Victorian society is obvious in The Book of Snobs (1848), a collection of satiric character sketches, which first appeared as The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves in Punch. This series denounces the snobbery and greed bred by the changes in social attitudes and relationships brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the resulting redistribution of wealth and power. During the Victorian era, British society was undergoing other major transformations such as increased urbanization, population shifts, and a greater concern for reform and social justice in the face of unprecedented commercial and industrial prosperity.
Vanity Fair For Vanity Fair, his first signed work, Thackeray adopted the publication form of monthly periodical installments already made popular by Charles Dickens. This comprehensive satire of corruption in upper-and middle-class English society is set during the Waterloo crisis of 1815 (when Britain and a European coalition finally ended Napoléon's attempt to control Europe). The themes central to Thackeray's earlier writings are clarified and fully developed in Vanity Fair, in which he delivers his most scathing attack on the heartless pretension prevalent in nineteenth-century English life and concludes that self-interest is at the heart of human motivation.
Literary Success Finally successful and well known, Thackeray began suffering from a sudden decline in his health in the late 1840s, including what was believed to be a bout of typhoid in 1849. He also suffered from the emotional effects of a long, but unphysical, love affair with Jane Brookfield, the wife of his clergyman friend, Henry Brookfield. Thackeray came to realize that she had merely played with his affections and never intended to be unfaithful. Despite such troubles, Thackeray went on to write The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy (1849–1850), the first of three related novels based on his own experiences. The History of Pendennis chronicles the early life of Arthur Pendennis, who takes the role of the narrator in the sequels, which are titled The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family (1854–1855) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World (1862). All three novels are set in contemporary London and are narrated in the manner, according to Thackeray, of “a sort of confidential talk.” Although their narrative technique is often considered diffuse and overly didactic, these novels are praised for their convincing characterization and vivid depiction of Victorian society.
Henry Esmond is Thackeray's only novel completely written before publication and issued in book form without first being serialized. Critics often cite these circumstances when praising the novel's careful organization and elegant style. Set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702–1714), Henry Esmond is written in imitation of early eighteenth-century English prose. The coarse, inconsiderate Lord Castlewood in the novel is a stab at Thackeray's former friend Brookfield. Although it offended some readers due to the incestuous overtones of Henry Esmond's marriage to Lady Castlewood, it is now regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth-century English historical novels. Its sequel, The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century (1858–1859), is generally considered to be inferior.
Focused on Journalism In 1859, Thackeray became the first editor of and chief contributor to Cornhill Magazine. During his last years, he contributed numerous essays and several novels to the journal, including Lovel the Widower (1861) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World; Shewing Who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him, and Who Passed Him By (1862). The essays collected in The Roundabout Papers (1863), however, are probably the most highly valued of these contributions. In these nostalgic, rambling pieces Thackeray wistfully recounts his childhood experiences, travels, and impressions of Victorian literature, politics, and society. He was in the midst of publishing Denis Duval (1864) in Cornhill Magazine when he died suddenly of an apoplectic stroke on Christmas Eve 1863.
Works in Literary Context
In his writings, Thackeray was greatly influenced by such writers as Miguel de Cervantes, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Fanny Burney, Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and Alexandre Dumas. Honoré de Balzac, especially his Cousine Bette (1846) specifically inspired Vanity Fair. Beyond other authors, Thackerary was also influenced by the era in which he lived—the Victorian era—with all its contradictions and social conditions as well as the externals of everyday life, including personal connections, jobs, and marriages. Thackeray's need to question nineteenth-century ideals, as well as religion and moral choices, also informed his works.
“Novel without a Hero” Like many of his fellow Victorian novelists, Thackeray is noted for his ability to create memorable characters—for example, Major Gahagan, Charles Yellowplush, Becky Sharp, Major Pendennis, Henry and Beatrix Esmond, Colonel Newcome, and the roundabout commentator who addresses the reader in virtually all of Thackeray' works. In spite of giving such prominence to character delineation, Thackeray also came to develop an important new kind of novel, the “novel without a hero.” Such a novel may have a chief figure, one who is neither a romantic hero nor a rogue hero but a flawed, recognizable human being like Arthur Pendennis or Philip Firmin. In the case of several of Thackeray's masterpieces, such as Vanity Fair (1847–1848) and The Newcomes (1853–1855), however, the center of interest is the complex network of relationships among the characters—an analog of society itself.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Thackeray's famous contemporaries include:
Anthony Trollope (1815–1882): A successful and prolific English Victorian author, Trollope was noted for his keen observations of social, cultural, and political issues of the day. His novels include The Warden (1855) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867).
Emily Brontë (1818–1848): One of a trio of literary sisters, Emily wrote only one novel—albeit one that was considered an instant classic: Wuthering Heights (1847)—before dying of tuberculosis at age thirty.
Jacob Grimm (1785–1863): As one half of the famous Brothers Grimm, Jacob was instrumental in conducting one of the first comprehensive surveys of folklore. Grimm was primarily a respected and influential figure in the study and history of the German language and wrote several authoritative works on the subject. His publications included Deutsche Mythologie (1835).
Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850): French novelist and playwright, whose La Comédie humaine (1799–1850), a one-hundred-volume collection of novels and stories, has exerted a strong influence over many famous authors, from Dickens to Proust to Kerouac.
Karl Marx (1818–1883): Called the “father of communism,” Marx was both a political philosopher and activist. Although German by birth, Marx spent most of his adult life in London, where he refined his theories of class struggle and the emergence of a classless society. His books on the subject include The Communist Manifesto (1848).
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855): This Danish philosopher is best known for his probing questions on institutionalized religion, ethics, and faith. His publications include Either/Or (1843).
Class and Narrative Technique Thackeray's master-work, Vanity Fair, includes the most comprehensive treatment of the concerns central to all of Thackeray's works—the divisive effects of greed, class, and social ambition—and epitomizes the sardonic wit and apt character sketching for which he is esteemed. This satiric novel revolves around the lives of two characters, the passive Amelia Sedley and the ambitious, conniving Becky Sharp. Thackeray's treatment of these characters has sparked endless debate, for although Becky is ostensibly the negative character, it is she who actively engages the reader's interest and sympathy, while Amelia, though good-hearted, appears in the final analysis to be dull and ineffectual. Becky Sharp is often praised, in fact, as one of the most memorable anti-heroines of the nineteenth century. The other major and minor characters are also noted for their lifelike complexity.
In addition, Thackeray first uses in Vanity Fair the narrative technique employed throughout his subsequent novels: the omniscient, didactic narrator who comments freely upon the motives and actions of the characters. Similarly, three related novels he published between 1849 and 1862 share an unusual narrative technique. The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy (1849–1850) is the first of three related novels based on Thackeray's own experiences. The History of Pendennis chronicles the early life of Arthur Pendennis, who takes the role of the narrator in the sequels, which are titled The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family (1854–1855) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World (1862). All three novels are set in contemporary London and are narrated in the manner, according to Thackeray, of “a sort of confidential talk.” Although their narrative technique is often considered diffuse and overly didactic, these novels are praised for their convincing characterization and vivid depiction of Victorian society.
Influence While Dickens ultimately left a more prominent legacy than Thackeray, the latter's influence can still be felt in other works of Victorian literature that realistically examine society. Thackeray's journalistic work also affected many readers and writers in the nineteenth century and beyond. It is also believed that Thackeray's literary techniques also influenced such sweeping novels as Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865–1869).
Works in Critical Context
During his life Thackeray's work was regarded as the great upper-class counterpart to Dickens's panorama of lower-class Victorian society. Indeed, because of his precise rendering of character types and his acuity in describing the social mores of his time, some critics have contended that he is Dickens's superior as a historical chronicler. However, Thackeray's reputation declined at the turn of the century. Early twentieth-century critics often found his vision of society limited and his characterization impeded by his deference to Victorian conventions. More recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Thackeray and numerous studies have appeared that afford his works a more sympathetic treatment. Thus, although Thackeray is no longer widely ranked as an equal of Dickens, his works continue to inspire a diverse body of critical interpretation, and he is generally recognized as one of the major writers of the mid-Victorian era.
Criticism of Thackeray's works primarily revolves around several issues, including his narrative technique and his use of satiric irony. Many early critics were particularly disturbed by Thackeray's apparent cynicism; some, including novelist Anthony Trollope, chided him for dwelling too exclusively on the negative traits of humanity. Others claimed that his satiric depiction of self-interested rogues served a useful moral purpose and was sufficiently balanced with sensitivity and compassion. In contrast, his twentieth-century detractors have been far more critical of the sentimentality that often creeps into his works.
Thackeray's omniscient narrative technique continues, however, to be the most controversial element in his fiction. While many claim that the authorial commentary is intrusive and interferes with dramatic unity, others believe that this method enhances Thackeray's work by creating a deliberate moral ambiguity that actively involves readers by forcing them to render their own judgments. Another area of interest for both critics and biographers is the possible autobiographical sources for Thackeray's works. Numerous studies have been published that examine the parallels between his private relationships and experiences and the characters and plots of his works. Critics often maintain that Thackeray's intense emotional involvement with characters based closely upon real-life models severely limited his artistic achievement.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Thackeray's works often parody the pretensions of the upper classes. Other novels that also comment on the rich include:
Carry on, Jeeves (1925), a book of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse. These comic stories feature the bumbling British aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his levelheaded valet, Jeeves, who repeatedly extricates his employer from various amorous, legal, and familial difficulties.
Vile Bodies (1930), a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Known for his black satires, Waugh takes on young British socialites in this mordant novel.
The Philadelphia Story (1940), a film directed by George Cukor. This romantic comedy about a Philadelphia socialite planning for her wedding encourages viewers to reconsider their preconceptions about social class.
Vanity Fair Critics believe that Thackeray's Vanity Fair represents a milestone in the development of fictional realism in England. The novel is widely regarded to be Thackeray's masterpiece and is considered to be as original and ambitious as any novel from the Victorian era. However, early critical reactions to the novel were mixed. A number of prominent authors expressed high praise for Vanity Fair, including Charlotte Brontë, who called the novel a “Herculean feat” and its author a “Titan” among Victorian writers. Some contemporary reviews objected to the work on moral grounds. Robert Bell took exception to the “vicious and odious” qualities of the main characters.
In spite of the furor sparked by the book's supposed amorality and ruthlessness, most critics agreed that the novel represented a landmark of realistic fiction. John Forster wrote in the Examiner, “Vanity Fair must be admitted to be one of the most original works of real genius that has late been given to the world…. The very novelty of tone in the book impeded its first success; but it will be daily more justly appreciated; and will take a lasting place in our literature.”
Beginning in the twentieth century, critical interpretation began to steer away from moral consideration of the novel and focus on Thackeray's stylistic innovations. Other critics began to recognize the possible strategies behind the work's structural imbalances, arguing that the lack of a clearly developed plot allowed the novel's themes to serve as a framework of the story. In more recent years, critics have returned to the moral considerations that preoccupied Thackeray's contemporaries.
Responses to Literature
- Using Thackeray's novels as a base, research and explain the manners and customs of his time in a paper. How does Thackeray point out the peculiarities and foibles of members of Victorian society?
- In a group, discuss the following questions: What impact do the Napoleonic Wars have on the characters in Vanity Fair? How closely are their lives touched by such monumental yet relatively far-off events?
- Select a scenario in Thackeray's works in which a character manipulates or intimidates another. In an essay, express whether the method is physical force, political power, or social or educational superiority, and show how the submissive character is harmed.
- Create a presentation that answers these questions: How are Thackeray's own life experiences reflected in the characters in Vanity Fair? Why do you think he chose to make the story “a novel without a hero”?
- How is the society in which you live similar to the one depicted in Vanity Fair, and how is it different? Present your answer in any form you choose, such as an essay, short story, or poem.
Benjamin, Lewis Saul. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Biography Including Hitherto Uncollected Letters and Speeches and a Bibliography of 1300 Items. Washington, D.C.: Scholarly Press, 1968.
Colby, R. A.Thackeray's Canvas of Humanity. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.
Goldfarb, Sheldon. William Makepeace Thackeray: An Annotated Bibliography, 1900–1975. New York: Garland, 1977.
Hardy, Barbara. The Exposure of Luxury: Radical Themes in Thackeray. London: Owen, 1972.
Peters, Catherine. Thackeray's Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.
Rawlins, Jack P. Thackeray's Novels: A Fiction That Is True. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Trollope, Anthony. Thackeray. London: Macmillan, 1879.
Wheatley, James M. Patterns in Thackeray's Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969.
Thackeray, William Makepeace
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.
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 conduct—an ideal that later he both criticized and upheld.
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.
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 (1839–1840) 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 (1846–1847). 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.
Vanity Fair (1847–1848) 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 (1849–1850) 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 (1854–1855) 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.
Thackeray, feeling that he had written himself out, returned to earlier works for subjects for his later novels. 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." 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 (1812–1870) 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 (1815–1882).
For More Information
Shillingsburg, Peter L. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Taylor, D. J. Thackeray. London: Chatto & Windus, 1999.
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.
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.
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.
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). □
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 hit—It is a most dreary and foolish superstition…. But the physical manifestations are undoubt ed—Tables moving lifted up and men even lifted off the ground to the ceiling so some are ready to swear—but though I do not believe in this until I see it; I wouldn't have believed in a table turning 3 weeks ago—and 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.
Goldfarb, Russell M., and Clare R. Goldfarb. Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century Letters. New Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978.
Thackeray, William Makepeace
Thackeray, William Makepeace