The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IX. Thackeray

§ 1. Early life

OF all English novelists whose fiction has been founded on a perception of the comedy of life with its alternations of the ridiculous and the pathetic, none has met with more adverse criticism than Thackeray. The versatility of his work as novelist, essayist, writer of humorous trifles, rimester and draughtsman causes some difficulty in forming a coherent judgment upon his total achievement. At once satirist and sentimentalist, he combined two points of view the relation between which is invisible to many eyes; and, in both capacities, he worked with a refinement which does not make for general popularity. In the wide field of action which his novels cover, in the generous proportions of their construction and in the great variety of their personages, he bears a superficial resemblance to his contemporary Dickens; and the two novelists have become the object of a traditional contrast in which Dickens’s colossal power of fantastic creation and more direct appeal to popular sentiment, as opposed to Thackeray’s minute observation of everyday peculiarities and more elusive humour, has, perhaps, gained the vote of the majority. No such competition, however, is really possible between two writers whose views of life and artistic methods were, fundamentally, different. The true criterion of Thackeray’s, and of his great contemporary’s, work, upon their own merits, is the exactness with which they reproduced the contradictions and variations of the comedy of which they were the amused and sympathetic spectators.

The family of Thackeray was of Yorkshire origin, and one of its branches was settled at Hampsthwaite on the Nidd, seven miles above Knaresborough, until within a few years of the novelist’s birth. His father, Richmond Thackeray, was grandson of Thomas Thackeray, headmaster of Harrow and archdeacon of Surrey, whose youngest son, William Makepeace, had entered the service of the East India company, and had married Amelia, daughter of colonel Richmond Webb. Richmond, the second son of this marriage, entered the same service. He married Anne Becher, and William Makepeace Thackeray, their only child, was born at Alipur near Calcutta on 18 July, 1811. Richmond Thackeray, who, at this time, held the office of collector of the twenty-four Parganas, died in 1815: his widow not long afterwards married major Carmichael-Smyth, and outlived her famous son, dying in 1864.

Thackeray, a child of six, was sent to England in 1817. Among his earliest impressions were a distant sight, at St. Helena, where his boat touched, of Napoleon walking in the garden of Longwood, and the spectacle of the national mourning for princess Charlotte on his arrival in England in November. His home was with relations, chiefly at Hadley, near Barnet, where Peter Moore, member of parliament for Coventry, husband of one of his great-aunts, was lord of the manor. He was sent to school first at Southampton, where he was near Fareham, the home of another great-aunt, Miss Becher; then, at Walpole house, Chiswick mall; and, from 1822 to 1828, at Charterhouse. His schooldays were not altogether happy. He loved Walpole house no better than Becky Sharp loved the seminary of which it became the prototype; while his memories of Charterhouse, as it appears in his writings, were certainly softened and transfigured by the passage of years. He amused his schoolfellows with his ready gifts of caricature and parody; but the temperament which criticises its surroundings with an exceptionally acute sense of their relative values is not often congenial to the atmosphere of a public school, and Thackeray had the self-consciousness and desultroy tendency which are its dangerous entail. He left Charterhouse without distinction, and, before entering Trinity college, Cambridge, read, for a few months, with his step-father at Larkbeare in Devon. The neighbouring town of Ottery St. Mary, the native place of Coleridge, the church bells of which ring melodiously in some lines of Lamb’s John Woodvil, became the Clavering of Pendennis, and Exeter provided the original for the cathedral city Chatteris, where Arthur Pendennis lost his heart to Miss Fotheringay.

In February, 1829, Thackeray went to Cambridge, and remained at Trinity college for a year and a half. Pendennis contains chapters founded upon this part of his life with a characteristic mixture of fact and fiction. Its story of extravagance and failure is, of course, overdrawn; but he seems to have done little work and spent money freely, and he went down in June, 1830, without waiting to take a degree. His talent for riming and parody was exercised in two ephemeral university papers, The snob and The Gownsman. The Snob of 30 April, 1829, contained his burlesque upon the subject set for the chancellor’s medal for English verse, Timbuctoo. Critics who foresaw the genius of Tennyson in the poem which won the medal could hardly have prophesied eminence for the author of these facile couplets, which begin happily and are brought to an end neatly, but, otherwise, are not noticeably above the ordinary level of clever parody. Although Thackeray’s career at Cambridge was not academically successful, the friendships which he made among his contemporaries there had a lasting influence upon him. His special affection was reserved for William Henry Brookfield and Edward FitzGerald; but Tennyson and other members of one of the goodliest brotherhoods of which the world holds record remained his life-long friends, and the ideals of life and conduct to which Tennyson dedicated his verse, fostered among that “band of youthful friends,” came to a maturity hardly less noble in Esmond and The Newcomes.

After leaving Cambridge, Thackeray spent a year abroad, living at Weimar from September, 1830, to the following summer. Here, he laid in a stock of impressions of the life of a small German court upon which he afterwards drew freely. Schiller’s poetry filled him with enthusiasm, and he met Goethe, of whom he drew two sketches. Pleasant, however, as he found his residence in Weimar, Paris, where he had joined FitzGerald for a stolen holiday at Easter, 1830, was his first and most enduring love. In the autumn of 1831, he began to read law in the Middle Temple; but, on coming into £500 a year on his twenty-first birthday, he left London for Paris. His small fortune soon disappeared, partly in a bank failure. He appears to have been relieved of the rest by a gentlemanlike card-sharper, from whose society he gained some compensating advantage in material for the portraits of Deuceace and other members of the same profession. These misfortunes compelled him to live by his wits. He was divided, for a time, between his talent for easy and fluent writing and his love for drawing. In May, 1833, he became proprietor of a weekly paper, The National Standard, and wrote or drew regularly for it for a few months. The venture, however, was a failure: after a fitful existence, the paper came to an end in February, 1834. Thackeray had already returned to Paris in the previous October, with the intention of studying art. His fondness for painting was of use to him in the casual journalism on which he soon embarked, and, in The Newcomes he reverted with affection to this period of his life. But his studies had no serious outcome. His natural gift of humorous draughtsmanship, however, was illustrated, in March, 1836, by a series of eight caricatures of ballet-dancers, published under the title Flore et Zèphyr, by Thèophile Wagstaff, the first of many names under which the future Michael Angelo Titmarsh and Mr. Snob disguised himself. On 20 April of the same year, he married Isabella Shawe at the British embassy in Paris, apparently on the strength of his appointment as Paris correspondent to The Constitutional, a new radical daily, published by a company of which his stepfather was chairman. His letters to this paper, signed T. T., began in September, 1836, and continued till February, 1837. The Constitutional lived little longer, and Thackeray, deprived of his salary of 400 a year, took up his abode in London at 15 Great Coram street, and began to write miscellaneous reviews and stories for the newspapers and magazines.