Writer, fiction, peotry
(1811 – 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.
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 Charterhouse School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left before finishing his degree. After reading law for a short time, Thackeraymoved 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 footma
n’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.
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 upperand middle-class English society is set during the Waterloo crisis of 1815 (when Britain and a European coalition finally ended Napole´on’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.
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 eighteenthcentury 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. Honore´ 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 nineteenthcentury ideals, as well as religion and moral choices, also informed his works.
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.
Works in Critical Context
During his life Thackeray’s work was regarded as the great upper-class counterpart to Dickens’s panorama of lowerclass 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 themost 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 oftenmaintain that Thackeray’s intense emotional involvement with characters based closely upon real-life models severely limited his artistic achievement.