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William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, on July 18,
1811, into a wealthy English merchant family. His father, Richmond
Thackeray, an officer in the East India Company, died in 1815, and the
following year William was sent to England to live with his aunt at
Chiswick. After his father’s death, William’s mother married an engineering
officer named Major Carmichael Symth. She had been in love with him before
she married Richmond Thackeray. Solace In Patterns William showed his
talent for drawing at a very early age. He would draw caricatures of his
relatives and send them to his mother through letters. Even at school, he
used to draw pictures of his friends and teachers and his friends preserved
those pictures all through their lives. Though his caricatures of his
teachers got him into trouble sometime, he enjoyed his popularity in
school due to his art. Otherwise, William was not much physically active as
a boy due to his shortsightedness. Furthermore, he found solace in drawing,
as he said later,' They are a great relief to my mind.'
William was given the 'education of a gentleman', at private boarding
schools. He was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he was enrolled as a
day-scholar. He led a rather lonely and miserable existence as a child. He
wrote regularly to his mother and stepfather. In one of his letters, he
wrote: "There are 370 in the school; I wish there were 369". This subtle
post-script showed how utterly out of place he felt at the institution. The
caning and other abuses he suffered at school became the basis for
recollection in his essays, such as The Roundabout Papers, as well as
episodes in his novels Vanity Fair and The Newcomes.
In 1820, William’s mother and stepfather Major Carmichael Symth joined
him at Chiswick. The reunion of mother and child was very emotional. He got
along well with Major Symth as well, he also addressed him 'father' later
on. They met many times after that as he used to spend holidays with them.
Thackeray based the character of Colonel Newcome on this respectable,
unworldly gentleman. William later recalled the dry lessons in the
classical languages that he was forced to learn and the debilitating effect
it had on what he felt about classical literature. He developed a life-long
dislike for classical literature. He relied on literary escapades on
popular fictions of the day like Scott’s Heart of Midlothian or Pierce
Egan’s Life in London. William was never an outstanding student but while
at school he developed two habits that were to stay with him lifelong:
sketching and reading novels. He also started working as an amateur theatre
When he graduated from the Charterhouse school, he needed additional
tutoring to prepare for Cambridge. He got this tutoring from Major Symth.
He made many good acquaintances at Cambridge including Edward FitzGerald.
Cambridge was full of distraction for the young man. Rowing was an official
sport which the students enjoyed a lot but drinking and occasional illicit
visits to London was also added to their list of recreation. William
started his adventure in journalism at Cambridge. He started to enjoy
writing as much as drawing.
From 1828 to 1830 he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. His tutor
then was William Whewell (a philosopher of natural science), but Thackeray
saw little of the don and spent his time at wine parties. Neither at
Charterhouse nor at Cambridge did he distinguish himself as
a scholar. In 1830, Thackeray left Cambridge without a degree. During 1831-
33 he studied law at the Middle Temple, London. He attempted to develop his
literary and artistic talents, first as the editor of a short–lived journal
and subsequently as an art student in Paris. None of these worked out since
he kept oscillating between various occupations that were temporary in
nature. The trouble with Thackeray was that he could never settle for one
thing. One day he would translate Horace; the next day he would draw funny
sketches; the day after that, he would write satirical verses.
After having left the university, he toured the continent, visited
museums, theaters and libraries. He also wrote poems, which penned his
profound observation upon the vanity and pity of life.
Stepping Into World
He moved to Weimer, Germany, then the intellectual capital of Europe.
He learned German and read Goethe. Personal life of Goethe was making waves
in the German society at that time. He had the opportunity to meet the aged
poet once. Though nothing significant occurred at the meeting, as Goethe
was almost a national monument and Thackeray an upcoming journalist. Though
he did not achieve anything great during his nine month stay in Germany,
his sketchbook gained a lot many pages of excellent portraits, landscapes
and caricatures. This stay gained for him a command of the language, a
knowledge of German romantic literature and an increasing skepticism about
religious doctrine. The time he spent at Weimar is reflected in the
Pumpernickel chapters of Vanity Fair.
On his return from Germany, Thackeray lived the life of a young
indulgent man, gambling, drinking in taverns, and enjoying the company of
women. He considered painting as a profession and his artistic gifts can be
seen in his letters and his early writings, which are energetically
illustrated. On his return, he had to pursue his law study, however
reluctantly. Pulling on his study, he took utmost advantage of London life,
moving freely between high society balls and parties, and low class taverns
and gambling houses. In fact, gambling and theatre became his full time
occupation during that time.
On coming of age in 1832, Thackeray inherited £ 20,000 from his
father. However, he soon lost his fortune through gambling, unlucky
speculations and reading investments. Most of it was lost due to the
failure of an Indian bank where he had invested a lot of money.
In 1832, Thackeray met William Maginn. Maginn was an editor and
heinfluenced Thackeray's professional life. Thackeray got the break into
the world of London journalism through him. He also invested part of his
patrimony in a weekly paper, The National Standard, which he took over as
editor and proprietor in 1833. He used to write most of the articles
himself. He was very hopeful of the success of his newspaper, but his wait
for about a year never yielded any result. The paper was unsuccessful and
went under quickly, but it gave Thackeray his first taste of the world of
London journalism. It was an event that Thackeray once again found use for
in his novel The Newcomes. He was seriously in trouble, as he had to earn
his living. Thackeray resolved to study art when he found that he could
earn a living by using his artistic talents. In 1834 he went to Paris for
this purpose. Life in Paris was neither easy. He could barely support
himself there with his limited income form occasional journalism. But Paris
brought him a dream realized - to find someone to love. He had met many a
girls and women in his life and had fallen in and out of their love quite
many times by now. Even his sketchbook was filled with imaginary characters
like Mr and Mrs Thack and their trail of many children.
He met Isabella Shawe, a timid, simple and artless girl. He
fell outrightly in love with Isabella. She was just 17 and was totally
under control of her mother. He was immediately ready for marriage, but Mrs
Shawe did not permit. Isabella herself could not make any decision.
Similarly, his parents were also much reluctant for the union. His
stepfather wanted him to establish himself first, for that Thackeray was
made the Paris correspondent for a newspaper The Constitutional and Public
Register at £400 per year. Backed by the income and through his steady
persistence, the marriage did take place finally on August 20, 1836. After
trying out briefly the bohemian life of an artist in Paris, and failure of
his newspaper, he returned to London in 1837 and started his career as a
journalist. He worked for periodicals like Fraser’s Magazine and The
Morning Chronicle, but his most successful association was with Punch.
Thackeray worked as a freelance journalist for about 10 years,
publishing literary criticism, art criticism, articles, and fiction, either
anonymously or under a number of comic pseudonyms. Often he used absurd pen
names such as George Savage Fitzboodle, Michael Angelo Tit Marsh, Theophile
Wagstaff and C J Yellowplush, Esq. William and Isabella Thackeray’s first
child, Anne Isabella, was born on June 9, 1837. Her birth was followed by
the collapse of The Constitution of which William was the Paris
correspondent. Thackeray began writing as many articles as humanly possible
and sent them to any newspaper that would print them. This was a precarious
sort of existence, which would continue for most of the rest of his life.
He was fortunate enough to get two popular series going on in two different
publications. During this time, Thackeray also produced his first books,
Collections of Essays and Observations published as travel books. This
combination of hack writing and frequent travel took Thackeray away from
home and kept him from his wife’s growing depression.
Thackeray and Isabella Shawe had a happy life during their first
years of marriage. But as financial demands forced Thackeray into more and
more work, Isabella became isolated and lonely. The happy years of marriage
was eclipsed by the tragic death of their second daughter Jane, born in
July 1838. She died of respiratory illness in March the following year.
Harriet Marian, their third daughter was born in 1840. It was at this time
that Isabella fell victim to mental illness . After a few months she
started displaying suicidal tendencies and as it was difficult to control
her, she was placed in a private institution. Doctors told Thackeray that
all she needed was a change of air. She was taken to her mother in Ireland,
where she attempted to drown herself in the ocean. Thackeray began a series
of futile searches for her cure. He took Isabella to various spas and
sanatoriums, at one point himself undergoing a 'water cure' with her, since
she wouldn’t go at it alone. He continued to hope for some time that she
would make a full recovery. He was forced to send his children to France to
his mother. For the next several years he shuttled back and forth between
London and Paris - from the journalism that supported himself and his debt-
laden family, to his parents and children in Paris, and to his wife in
French asylums. Thackeray entrusted Isabella to the care of a friendly
family, and threw himself into the maelstrom of club-life for which he had
but little taste. He said, "My social activity is but a lifelong effort at
Thackeray’s children returned to England in 1846. He gradually began
paying more and more attention to his daughters, for whom he established a
home in London. Eventually, he resigned himself to Isabella’s condition and
was seemingly indifferent to the circumstances around her and the children.
He raised his daughters with the help of his mother, who was never
satisfied with the governess’s Thackeray hired. The touching reminiscences
of Anne Thackeray’s biographical introductions to his works portray him as
a loving, if busy, father.
He started the serial publication of his novel Vanity Fair in 1847.
It brought Thackeray both fame and prosperity. From then on he was an
established author on the English literary scene. 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.
During these years of success, Thackeray lived the life of a bachelor
in London. He spent much time with his friends, attending the social
functions of a fashionable society. He became the constant attendant upon
Jane Brookfield, the wife of an old friend from Cambridge.
Thackeray and the Brookfields were involved in an increasingly tense
emotional triangle. His first trip to America in 1852 provided the time and
distance for Thackeray to try and extricate himself from the tangle. Henry
Brookfield’s coldness and desire to dominate his wife, her resistance and
the need for someone to turn to, and Thackeray’s loneliness combined to
create a complicated affair. Brookfield alternately ignored or forbade his
wife’s warm communications with the successful novelist. Jane Brookfield
returned Thackeray’s ardent expressions of friendship and lamented her
husband’s inability to understand her. Thackeray, for his part, professed
for Jane a devotion that was pure and he also remained a
companion of her husband. He nonetheless felt betrayed by Jane’s tendency
to cool down the correspondence when Brookfield complained. Thackeray
eventually caused a dramatic break in the triangle by berating Brookfield
for his neglectful treatment of Jane. After Thackeray heard of Jane’s
pregnancy, during his second trip to America, he decided never to return to
Trip To America
Thackeray tried to find consolation through travel and, lecturing in
the United States. He thus followed in Dickens’ footsteps. These lectures
were profitable for Thackeray and also provided influential insight on
novelists like Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne.
Dickens had offended the Americans and did not write a profitable account
of his journey. Thackeray, on the other hand, saw America through friendly
eyes. In one of his letters to his mother, Thackeray wrote that he did not
recognize blacks as equals (though he condemned slavery on moral grounds).
He chose to believe that the whipping of slaves in America was rare and
that families were not normally separated on the auction block. This was
because he was apprehensive about criticism from his hosts that the living
conditions for English workers were worse than those for slaves in America.
Thackeray made enduring friendships during his lecture trips to the
United States. The most significant of these was the one with the Baxter
family of New York. The eldest daughter, Sally Baxter, enchanted the
novelist and she became the model for Ethel Newcome, the protagonist of his
novel. She was vibrant, intelligent, beautiful and young. He visited her
again on his second tour of the States by which time she was married to a
South Carolina gentleman.
Through all this, he was continually ill with recurrent kidney
infections caused by a bout of syphilis in his youth. In spite of his
failing health, Thackeray still managed to have an impressive house built
and settled generous dowries on his daughters. After the second profitable
lecturing tour on The Four Georges (that is, the Hanoverian kings of the
18th and early 19th centuries), Thackeray stood for parliament elections as
an independent candidate. His sense of humor perhaps prevented him from
trying too hard for appealing his constituents. When Lord Monck, presiding
at one of his rallies, said "May the better man win", Thackeray retorted
with a smile, "I hope not !" He knew that the rival candidate, Edward
Cardwell would make a much better statesman. Thackeray believed that his
advocacy of entertainment on the Sabbath was crucial in his defeat.
Controversy With Charles Dickens
Of the several literary quarrels in which Thackeray got involved
during his life, the ‘Garrick Club affair’ is best remembered. Charles
Dickens had always been one of Thackeray’s earliest and best friends. But a
quarrel had arisen and for several years the two men were not on talking
terms. Thackeray had taken offense at some personal remarks in a column by
Edmund Yates and demanded an apology, eventually taking the affair to the
Garrick Club committee. Dickens was already upset with Thackeray for an
about his affair with Ellen Ternan and so he championed Yates. Dickens
helped Yates to draft letters both to Thackeray, and in his defense, to the
club’s committee. Despite Dickens’ intervention, Yates eventually lost the
vote of the club’s members, but the quarrel was stretched out through
journal articles and pamphlets. Thackeray told Charles Kingsley, "What
pains me most is that Dickens should have been his advisor; and next that I
should have had to lay a heavy hand on a young man who, I take it, has been
cruelly punished by the issue of the affair, and I believe is hardly aware
of the nature of his own offence, and doesn’t even now understand that a
gentleman should resent the monstrous insult which he volunteered."
This quarrel was resolved only in Thackeray’s last months when one
evening the two met on the stairs of the Athenaeum, a London club.
Thackeray impulsively held out his hand to Dickens. The latter returned the
greeting, and the old quarrel was patched up.
It was as if Thackeray had an intuition that he must make haste to
hail and farewell to his old friend. It was only a few nights later –
December 23, 1863 – that he went to sleep for the last time. He was found
dead on the morning of Christmas Eve. The master had called the roll; and
Thackeray, like the beloved Colonel Newcome in one of his novels, responded
gently, "Adsum – I am here." Towards the end of his life, Thackeray was
proud that through his writings, he had regained the patrimony lost to bank
failures and gambling. He passed on to his daughters an inheritance
sufficient for their support and also a grand house in Kensington.
He was buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery on December 30. An
estimated 2000 mourners came to pay tribute, among them was Charles
Dickens. After his death, a commemorative bust was placed in Westminster