Pen and Prose: The Intriguing William Makepeace Thackeray Biography


Who was William Makepeace Thackeray? Delve into the life of William Makepeace Thackeray, the Victorian novelist behind Vanity Fair. Explore his literary prowess, influences, and the enduring legacy of his storytelling.

William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray; (1811-1863), English novelist, whose narrative method, ironic insight, and analysis of motivation contributed greatly to the range and resources of late- and post-Victorian writers. His fiction is both typically Victorian and idiosyncratic. It discredits current ethical values, satirizes romantic idealisms, sometimes achieves, sometimes misses artistic equilibrium.

Thackeray’s background and his personal life were as anomalous as his works. His grandfather and his father, men of some distinction, served in the East India Company—a career of dubious reputation. His mother, whose antecedents were semirespectable, married Thackeray’s father in India in 1810, after having been forcibly separated from her lover. When her husband died in 1816, she married the man she had first loved and later returned with him to England. For Thackeray, she was both a beatific mother and a memory of maternal rejection—both a prudish, possessive woman and a heroine of romance.

Life— 1811-1845:

Thackeray was born in Calcutta on July 18, 1811, into surroundings both foreign and nationalistic. When his mother remarried, he was sent back to England. After an intensively classical training at Charterhouse in London, he entered Cambridge but left in 1830 without taking a degree. His peculiar partial alienation was expressed in conflicting tendencies to rebel and to conform. He visited Weimar and other German cities, worked at law in London, became a journalist, studied art in Paris, lost his inheritance, and in 1836 married Isabella Shawe, an Anglo-Irish girl.


Thereafter he worked more seriously as both writer and illustrator, often using pseudonyms, including Mr. M. A. Titmarsh and George Savage Fitz-Boodle. Thackeray’s drawings are often central in work that ranges from reportorial to dramatic. Although his finished scenes, like the vignettes for Vanity Fair (1847-1848), are hardly more than competent, his personal talent appears in satiric caricatures or in the intricate allegorical miniatures that decorate initial letters in his early novels.

Until 1842, Thackeray wrote mainly for Fraser’s Magazine, contributing to it such works as The Yellowplush Correspondence (1837-1838), A Shabby Genteel Story (1840), and The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841). Thereafter, he contributed increasingly to Punch, where he published The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves (1846-1847), a series of his most incisive satirical essays. His work of this period typically exposes social pretense and human exploitation, and in the longer works of fiction, like Catherine (Fraser’s, 1839-1840) and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (Fraser’s, 1844), it satirizes popular myths— Byronic pathos, romantic promiscuity, heroic opportunism. In his independent journalism, human behavior is universalized and philosophical attitudes are developed—The Paris Sketch Book (1840), The Second Funeral of Napoleon (1841), and Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846).

Thackeray’s marriage, although apparently conventional, “was essentially insecure, as his earlier familial relations had been. His wife suffered mental depression following the birth in 1840 of a third daughter, Harriet (later Mrs. Leslie Stephen), and thereafter lived in institutions. A second daughter died in infancy. The oldest, Anne (later Lady Ritchie), herself a novelist, provided notes on Thackeray for the Biographical Edition of his works.


In mid-life Thackeray once again faced an aberrant situation—married but without a wife, disestablished domestically yet with two young children. In 1846, when he acquired a house in London, his daughters came to live with him. In the following year, Vanity Fair established his reputation. The History of Pendennis (1848-1850) ensured his popularity. The History of Henry Esmond Esq. (1852) was less favorably received, but The Newcomes (1853-1855) was a further success. During its publication Thackeray’s health began to fail, and with The Virginians (1857-1859) his fiction declined in popularity. He had other resources, however. In 1851 he delivered in London a series of lectures entitled The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century (repeated in the United States in 1852-1853), polished and perceptive, though occasionally prudish, discussions of neoclassical art and wit. The Four Georges followed—sardonic portraits of England’s Hanoverian kings, first presented in the United States in 1855-1856.

In 1859, Thackeray became editor of The Cornhill Magazine, where he published Lovel the Widower (1860) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way Through the World (1861-1862), versions of earlier themes, and The Roundabout Papers -(1860—1863), perhaps his finest essays. He died in London on Dec. 24, 1863.

The Major Novels:

Parody, which predominates in Thackeray’s journalism, leads directly to Vanity Fair. Of the two earlier extended narratives, Barry Lyndon imitates Fielding’s ironic satire, but Catherine is a pastiche of mannerisms mockingly borrowed from Scott, Byron, Bulwer-Lytton, and fashionable female writers. Ln Catherine, scenes presented twice in contrasting styles suggest that Thackeray’s sense of the way conventions control perception, while perception determines the content of experience and objectivity, is equivocal if not illusory.

Vanity Fair, like Catherine, includes a scene in multiple styles and culminates in a parody of the “happy ending” of fashionable fiction. The actors, personifications of popular conventions, participate in the novel’s extended metaphor—a puppet show. In their roles as martyred mother, noble rake, blooded bully, and bohemian adventuress, they ironically betray pathetic motivations —sexual repression, defensive insecurity, inarticulate aspiration, the struggle to survive. Individual identities cannot be defined, and the narrator makes the point in a final comment: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”


Such “commentary” in Thackeray’s fiction—a modification of Fielding and Sterne—is a sympathetic or skeptical, ambivalent, self-questioning chorus. It reappears in Pendennis, where “the maternal passion,” including “a sexual jealousy on the mother’s part,” is “symbolized” in the sinister religious image of “a bosom bleeding with love.” If man’s devious idealisms are Thackeray’s recurrent theme, he nowhere more effectively explores them for the Victorian audience than in the image of the beatified mother.

Henry Esmond, set in the 18th century, recreates the nation’s cultural past. Of it, Thackeray said, “I … am willing to leave it, when I go, as my card.” The protagonist’s chivalric heritage fuses with the satiric attitudes of his Augustan maturity and mellows into the poetic insights of a 19th century sensitivity. The “roles” of earlier novels recur as traditional idealisms. If chivalry, pastoral, and epic are often masks for corruption and brutality, they have a tenuous truth as well. Thackeray’s premise of multiple “truth” (Pendennis, chap. 61) is akin to the “negative capability” of Keats and the “relative spirit” of Pater. It is central in Esmond (“turn the perspective glass, and a giant appears a pigmy”), where mythic maternal personae reveal disparate aspects of an equivocal feminine figure, with incestuous implications that offended contemporary readers.

The hero of Esmond is the narrator as well. An old man as he “writes,” he assumes the detachment of Thackeray’s earlier “commentator”; yet he is also the young man whom he describes (“Such a past is always present to man”). A Proustian fusion of past and present , thematic in Esmond, and the process of writin represents, as in Proust, the hero’s realization ‘ an “identity” through art.

The Newcomes is diffuse and erratic. The interplay of conflicting insights that constitutes the “relative spirit” of Thackeray’s best work becomes increasingly disorganized. “Commentary is now a defensive device, a “mask,” as Thackeray remarked in one of his letters. Irony fails to modify sentiment, and satire, poetic allusion naturalism, and fable are no longer effectively integrated. But the novel profoundly influenced later writers. For Henry James, The Newcomes was a “large loose baggy monster”; yet James Wings of the Dove alludes to it, and in The Ambassadors—where James’ characters, the Newsomes, recall Thackeray’s Newcomes—Mme. de Vionnet is apparently related to Thackeray’s Mme. de Florae.

The Virginians offers a Jamesian juxtaposition of old world and new, but although the novel opens brilliantly, it eventually loses vitality. Lovel the Widower and Philip recur to themes Thackeray had already explored, and Denis Duval (published in 1864) was interrupted by his death.


Victorian critics often contrast Dickens and Thackeray—aptly—since their disparate talents anticipate a full range of fictional resources. Dickens’ novels include mythic, fantastic, absurdist elements that play little part in Thackeray, but these Dickensian motifs, typical in modern narrative modes, were too idiosyncratic to create a novelistic convention. Thackeray’s fiction—with its ironic, relativistic vision, psychological insights, and dispassionate “commentary” —offered both theme and method to later novelists. Thackeray’s voice persists in the compassionate irony of George Eliot’s narration, in Meredith’s complexities and James’ subjective “point of view,” and in the thematic recurrence of feminine exploitation, of dubious masculine chivalry, of America, England, and Europe juxtaposed. Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster extend a convention that may find its culmination in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, although Proust drew directly on Eliot, Ruskin, and Pater. In the United States, Hawthorne was perhaps indebted to Thackeray, Howells certainly was, and without explicit “influence,” Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald, and even Faulkner continued variously to develop a method that may be said to have disintegrated only with the incipient rejection of the traditional novel.

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