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.
Further Reading on William Makepeace Thackeray
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).