William Makepeace Thackeray

THACKERAY, WILLIAM MAKEPEACE (1811-1863). —Novelist, son of Richmond Thackeray, who held various important appointments in the service of the East India Company, and who belonged to an old and respectable Yorkshire family, was b. at Calcutta, and soon after the death of his f., which took place in 1816, sent home to England. After being at a school at Chiswick, he was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he remained from 1822-26, and where he does not appear to have been very happy. Meanwhile in 1818 his mother had m. Major H.W.C. Smythe, who is believed to be, in part at any rate, the original of Colonel Newcome. In 1829 he went to Trinity Coll., Camb., where he remained for a year only, and where he did not distinguish himself particularly as a student, but made many life-long friends, including Spedding (q.v.), Tennyson, Fitzgerald (q.v.), and Monckton Milnes (see Houghton), and contributed verses and caricatures to two Univ. papers, "The Snob" and "The Gownsman."

The following year, 1831, was spent chiefly in traveling on the Continent, especially Germany, when, at Weimar, he visited Goethe. Returning he entered the Middle Temple, but having no liking for legal studies, he soon abandoned them, and turning his attention to journalism, became proprietor, wholly or in part, of two papers successively, both of which failed. These enterprises, together with some unfortunate investments and also, it would seem, play, stripped him of the comfortable fortune, which he had inherited; and he now found himself dependent on his own exertions for a living. He thought at first of art as a profession, and studied for a time at Paris and Rome. In 1836, while acting as Paris correspondent for the second of his journals, he m. Isabella, dau. of Colonel Shawe, an Irish officer, and the next year he returned to England and became a contributor to Fraser's Magazine, in which appeared The Yellowplush Papers, The Great Hoggarty Diamond, Catherine, and Barry Lyndon, the history of an Irish sharper, which contains some of his best work. Other works of this period were The Paris Sketch-book (1840) and The Irish Sketch-book (1843). His work in Fraser, while it was appreciated at its true worth by a select circle, had not brought him any very wide recognition: it was his contributions to Punch—the Book of Snobs and Jeames's Diary—which first caught the ear of the wider public. The turning point in his career, however, was the publication in monthly numbers of Vanity Fair (1847-48). This extraordinary work gave him at once a place beside Fielding at the head of English novelists, and left him no living competitor except Dickens. Pendennis, largely autobiographical, followed in 1848-50, and fully maintained his reputation.

In 1851 he broke new ground, and appeared, with great success, as a lecturer, taking for his subject The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, following this up in 1855 with the Four Georges, first delivered in America. Meanwhile Esmond, perhaps his masterpiece, and probably the greatest novel of its kind in existence, had appeared in 1852, and The Newcomes (1853), The Virginians, a sequel to Esmond, which, though containing much fine work, is generally considered to show a falling off as compared with its two immediate predecessors, came out in 1857-59. In 1860 the Cornhill Magazine was started with T. for its ed., and to it he contributed Lovell the Widower (1860), The Adventures of Philip (1861-62), The Roundabout Papers, a series of charming essays, and Denis Duval, left a mere fragment by his sudden death, but which gave promise of a return to his highest level of performance. In addition to the works mentioned, T. for some years produced Christmas books and burlesques, of which the best were The Rose and the Ring and The Kickleburys on the Rhine. He also wrote graceful verses, some of which, like Bouillabaisse, are in a strain of humor shot through with pathos, while others are the purest rollicking fun. For some years Thackeray suffered from spasms of the heart, and he died suddenly during the night of December 23, 1863, in his 53rd year.

He was a man of the tenderest heart, and had an intense enjoyment of domestic happiness; and the interruption of this, caused by the permanent breakdown of his wife's health, was a heavy calamity. This, along with his own latterly broken health, and a sensitiveness which made him keenly alive to criticism, doubtless fostered the tendency to what was often superficially called his cynical view of life. He possessed an inimitable irony and a power of sarcasm which could scorch like lightning, but the latter is almost invariably directed against what is base and hateful. To human weakness he is lenient and often tender, and even when weakness passes into wickedness, he is just and compassionate. He saw human nature "steadily and saw it whole," and paints it with a light but sure hand. He was master of a style of great distinction and individuality, and ranks as one of the very greatest of English novelists.

SUMMARY.—B. 1811, ed. at Charterhouse and Camb., after trying law turned to journalism, in which he lost his fortune, studied art at Paris and Rome, wrote for Fraser's Magazine and Punch, Barry Lyndon, Book of Snobs, and Jeames's Diary, pub. Vanity Fair 1847-8, Pendennis (1848-50), lectured on Humourists 1851, and on Four Georges in America 1855, pub. Esmond 1852, Newcomes 1853, Virginians 1857-59, ed. Cornhill Magazine 1860, his last great work, Denis Duval, left unfinished, d. 1863.

Lives by Merivale and Marzials (Great Writers), A. Trollope (English Men of Letters), Whibley (Modern English Writers). Article in Dictionary of National Biography by Leslie Stephen. "Thackeray," by William Dean Howells.


Source: 1911 encyclopedia.



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