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William Makepeace Thackeray. (1811–1863). Vanity Fair.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY was born at Calcutta, India, on July 18, 1811, the son and grandson of officers of the East India Company. His father died when William was six, and the following year the future novelist was sent to England to be educated. After some years at private schools, he entered the Charterhouse in 1822, and remained till 1828. Neither there nor at Cambridge, where he was a member of Trinity College for a year and a half, did he distinguish himself as a scholar; and he finally left the university because he felt he was wasting his time, and determined to finish his education by travel. During a stay of several months at Weimar he met Goethe, and years afterwards used his reminiscences of the Grand Ducal Court there in his description of Pumpernickel in “Vanity Fair.” On his return to England he took up the study of law, and though he was later called to the bar he never practised.

Thackeray’s father had left him a considerable fortune, most of which had disappeared by the time he was twenty-three, part lost in an unsuccessful newspaper, part in unfortunate investments, and part through gambling. Finding that he had to earn his bread, he resolved to study art, and in 1834 went to Paris for this purpose. Two years later he was appointed Paris correspondent of a short-lived paper, “The Constitutionalist,” and on the strength of this he married Isabella Shawe, the daughter of an Irish officer. After four years of happy married life, Mrs. Thackeray’s mind gave way, and though she lived till 1894 she never recovered. For a number of years he had to struggle to keep his head above water, writing for newspaper and periodicals and doing a good deal of illustrating. Though he never acquired great technical skill as a draughtsman, he had a gift of turning out amusing sketches, and for ten years he was on the staff of “Punch” as both artist and author. It was in that publication, with “The Snobs of England,” that he first achieved popularity, his earlier novels, “Catherine” and “Barry Lyndon,” having failed to hit the popular taste. In January, 1847, “Vanity Fair” began to appear in monthly numbers, and by the time it was concluded in the July of the following year he was generally awarded a place in the first rank of English novelists. Dickens was then at the height of his fame, and, though the two men appreciated each other’s work, their admirers were fond of debating their comparative merits—a form of criticism which, though futile enough in the case of talents so dissimilar, has not yet entirely gone out of fashion.

“Pendennis,” the most autobiographical of Thackeray’s novels, came out in 1848–50, and still farther strengthened his reputation. In 1851 he took up lecturing, beginning with the series on the English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, which he delivered first in London. These were in a sense a by-product of “Esmond,” published in 1852, in the autumn of which year he carried them across the Atlantic. He lectured at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah, was received with great hospitality, made many friends, and went home the next spring the richer by some $10,000. A second tour in America, with “The Four Georges,” followed in 1855, and was also successful. Meantime he had completed “The Newcomes,” and while in Rome with his daughters for the Christmas season of 1853, he wrote and illustrated for some children the amusing burlesque of “The Rose and the Ring.”

Thackeray was now one of the notable figures of English society and was financially at ease. In 1857 he stood for Parliament for the city of Oxford, but missed election by a narrow margin. Apparently little downcast, he returned to his literary work and issued “The Virginians,” 1857–59. It is commonly felt that with this book the quality of his work begins to fall off, and none of his subsequent novels achieved great success. In 1860 he undertook the editorship of the newly founded “Cornhill Magazine,” and to it he contributed his delightful essays, “The Roundabout Papers.” But his health, which for years had been far from good, unfitted him for the labor of editorship, and he resigned in 1862. On the morning of December 24, 1863, he was found dead.

The death of Thackeray was keenly felt through a wide circle both in England and abroad. His striking figure—he was six feet, three inches in height, with a massive head—had become familiar not only through his appearances on the platform but through the caricatures of himself that he had whimsically introduced into many of his drawings in “Punch” and elsewhere; and he was held in affectionate reverence by thousands who had never seen him. Though he first made his reputation as a satirist, he was a man without malice and of extraordinarily tender sensibilities. He had had to struggle hard to gain a footing in letters, and suffered more than his share of domestic sorrow; but he was generously helpful to others, even when he could little afford it, and found his greatest delight in brightening the lives of children. He used to be blamed for cynicism, but it has long been clear that it was the keenness of his appreciation of the loftier possibilities of human nature that lay at the root of his sadness that these possibilities are so seldom realized.

Though he achieved brilliant success in the fields of the burlesque and the essay, it is, of course, on his work as a novelist that his great reputation is chiefly based. But when the attempt is made to rank his novels among themselves, great diversity of opinion appears. Some specialists would give first place to the comparatively little read “Barry Lyndon”; more favor “The Newcomes.” His style nowhere reaches greater perfection than in the astonishing reproduction of the diction of Queen Anne’s reign in “Esmond.” Yet, all in all, it is safe to say that he never surpassed his first great success, “Vanity Fair.” Here we find at their height his distinguishing qualities: his power of conveying the spirit and atmosphere of an epoch, of delineating a throng of people and making them all living men and women, of conceiving great dramatic situations and presenting these so as to display character with the utmost vividness, of stripping away the veils that hide our motives not only from others but from ourselves. It is doubtful if any English novel possesses a heroine more completely vitalized than Becky Sharp, a creature so amazingly real that critics are occasionally to be found taking sides with her against her creator. And in his description of such figures, in his painting of their backgrounds, and in his characteristically intimate discussion with his readers of their faults and follies, he wields an English style unsurpassed for clarity, ease, and grace, capable of lofty eloquence, extreme tenderness, and fiery scorn, but always appropriate and always sincere.

W. A. N.