Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972

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.{$S[A]Solomons, Ikey, Jr.;Thackeray, William Makepeace}{$S[A]Titmarsh, M. A.;Thackeray, William Makepeace}{$S[A]Fitz-Boodle, George Savage[Fitz Boodle, George Savage];Thackeray, William Makepeace}

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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 (1836-1837), 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 1847-1848. From then on, though his sales always ran far behind those of Dickens, his reputation and fortune were secure.

In the 1850’s 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 which 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.

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