William Makepeace Thackeray 1811–1863

The Thackerays were Yorkshire gentry, going back generations. William was born in India, where his father was a senior colonial administrator, before dying, prematurely, in 1816 – leaving, in addition to his only legitimate child, a by-blow sibling by his Indian concubine. Thackeray never acknowledged the existence of his half-sister and his depictions of Indians in his novels verges on the racist.

His mother remarried. Her second husband, Major Carmichael Smyth, was a man she had loved as a girl, but whom, she had been told, was dead – to forestall what her guardians saw as an imprudent match. Thackeray loved his stepfather, and immortalised him as Colonel Newcome, in The Newcomes. His mother – sternly evangelical – he had a much harder time with. She is depicted in the person of ‘virtuous’ characters such as Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair.

Young William was returned to England, aged seven, to receive the education of a gentleman at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge. On the way back, the ship touched at St Helena, where he caught a glimpse of the Corsican monster – sowing the seed of a lifetime fascination with the Napoleonic Wars. He went on to let his family down – an idler at school, he left the university ‘plucked’ (without a degree), having lost most of his sizeable patrimony gambling. And, it is likely, having picked up the gonorrhoea which would curtail his life. On the plus side, his early errors supplied the raw material for his fine Bildungsroman, The History of Pendennis (1850). 

After false starts in law in England, and drawing and journalism in Paris, the prodigiously gifted young Thackeray embarked on a ten-year-long stint, ‘writing for his life’ with anonymous or pseudonymous ‘magazinery’.  By 1836 he had squandered what remained of his sizeable personal fortune and had married, improvidently, an Irish girl with no dowry. Having borne him two surviving daughters, Isabella developed incurable insanity. After 1840 they lived apart and by the time of the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847, his situation was exactly that of Mr Rochester – although Thackeray did not keep his wife in the attic, but in a comfortable asylum in Camberwell. It cost him three guineas a week.

By the early 1840s, Thackeray had made a reputation for himself as a ‘cynical’ satirist, with works like the Hibernophobic Barry Lyndon (1844), the autobiography of an Irish bully and braggart (thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s fine film, now among the author’s best-known works). He had his first unequivocal success as a writer with The Snobs of England (1846–7), published in the congenial columns of the newly launched magazine Punch. At the same time he was having difficulty placing a more ambitious narrative, what he then called ‘A Novel without a Hero’. Eventually Vanity Fair, as it was brilliantly renamed, came out in Dickensian monthly parts, with Punch’s publisher, illustrated by the novelist himself.  He was thirty-five, had published millions of words, but this was the first work with his real name on it. After a slow start, the ‘Waterloo novel’ – following the intertwining careers of two young women, one wicked, one virtuous – was a huge hit.  

His worldview was markedly less cynical after Vanity Fair.  Now at the ‘top of the tree’, as he crowed to his mother, and regarded as the literary heir to Fielding, he wrote a Victorian Tom Jones with his next monthly serial, Pendennis (1848–50). During its writing he fell victim to the 1849 cholera epidemic. 

He survived – thanks to Dickens, who dispatched his personal physician – but Thackeray’s energies were never quite up to the literary tasks he set himself thereafter. None the less, he followed up with his most ‘careful’ novel, The History of Henry Esmond (1852). The narrative –loosely modelled on Scott’s Waverley – is set in Thackeray’s favourite Queen Anne period.  The mood of Esmond was darkened by the novelist’s falling in love, desperately and hopelessly, with his best friend’s wife.

Thackeray’s career, thereafter, was glorious but its products less good. None of his subsequent full-length fictions (The Newcomes, The Virginians, The Adventures of Philip) equals what went before. But as editor of the newly launched Cornhill Magazine, with the highest-ever stipend for such work, he could, in The Roundabout Papers, lay claim to being the best essayist in the language since Addison. 

In his last three years, Thackeray was wealthy enough – thanks, in large part, to remunerative lecture tours in America – to design and build himself a Queen Anne-style mansion in Palace Green (it is now the Israeli Embassy in London, something that the casually anti-Semitic novelist would have found suitably ironic). There were recurrent bust-ups with Dickens and his bohemian proxies – notably the ‘Garrick Club Affair’ in 1856. He always played the ‘gentleman’ card, which more often than not trumped his opponents.

He died, prematurely, in 1863, before being able fully to relax into his fame, or his earning power, or to become what he always wanted to be – another Macaulay, or, failing that, an MP. The post-mortem revealed that his brain was preternaturally large: something that surprises no one who reads his fiction.

© John Sutherland 2012